Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Seven Nights of Neverwinter


Last week Cryptic and Perfect World Entertainment took the wraps off of their take on the Dungeons and Dragons universe, releasing Neverwinter Online for everyone to play that hasn't yet ponied up some cash for the title, in what they refer to as Open Beta.  That is to say - they launched the game.  I wanted to take a bit of time with the game before writing up the prerequisite blog on it, and while level 21 is hardly anything that resembles mastery, I do feel comfortable enough now with the game's systems and mechanics to put up some impressions.  So let's get to it!

All This and a Bag of Chips
Neverwinter launches with a surprisingly robust MMO feature set.  And furthermore, it's actually pretty darn solid.  You might think that launching a game that actually does everything an MMO should, and does it relatively bug-free wouldn't be a big thing in describing a new MMO, but if you thought that you haven't been through very many MMO launches.  There were definitely some server hiccups on launch day, and once the launcher and servers did get up, there were some performance problems.  But the folks at Cryptic worked through the night, released a fairly big patch right away, and performance was vastly improved the very next day.  And since then, with only a few annoying glitches here and there, I've been able to play without problem. 
The Neverwinter Home Page
In terms of features, all the big pieces are here.  There are PvE quests, that occur both in open world and instanced environments, there are 5-man dungeons at the conclusion of each chapter of the main story arc, there are PvP scenarios, and there are a cool sort of casual form of instanced cooperative group content called Skirmishes, which can typically be completed in less than 20 minutes.  In fact, if there is anything Neverwinter excels in doing it's providing you with bite-sized chunks of content that are self-contained and can be completed in under an hour.  In fact when you first log on, you'll be presented with a Home Page of the various kinds of content available and how to get to them.   And for most of that content, a robust LFG queuing tool is available, and works really well.  So whether for skirmishes, dungeons, or PvP matches, you can queue up, and typically within less than 20 minutes or so, be whisked away to the instance of your choice. 

And User Generated Content
I'd be remiss to give an impressions blog on Neverwinter and not mention Cryptic's user generated content tool - The Foundry.  Now, I'll caveat this with saying that for me personally I've never been a huge fan of UGC in MMO's.  But because every few hours Cryptic awards extra XP for completing a Foundry mission, as well as offering daily rewards of astral diamonds for doing them, I did check a few of the most highly rated missions out.  And I will say, I was fairly impressed with the rich set of features and versatility offered in the missions. For those that would like to try their hand at crafting their own adventures, and those that enjoy experiencing those, the Foundry delivers on that promise.

Three Rogues walk into a bar..
A Question of Choice
So we're set, right?  Well yes and no.  As good as Neverwinter is at presenting you with a variety of choices in content, the choices you make in developing your characters are a bit more limited.  First, there's the class choices.  There are, currently, exactly five.  A healing choice, a tanking choice, a control choice, and two DPS choices.  And that's pretty much exactly how you'll play them.  Each class gets exactly one kind of weapon to use, and like most MMO's, exactly one kind of armor to wear.  Furthermore, though you'll find armor with different stats, the armor will look exactly like just about every other armor piece for that class.  For the first fifteen levels or so, the class you choose will play and look exactly like everyone else that chose that class.  As you get deeper into the powers tree, and start to unlock feats, you'll start to gain more customization for your character, to be sure.  But feats are mostly along the lines of a few more percentage points for this ability or that stat, and the fact that the powers are tiered by level, a good deal of your power choices are along the lines of Do I put two points in this power or two points in that one?  

Once you've equipped your weapon and made your power selection, only seven will ever be on your hotbar at any given time.  Two At-Will (instant) powers, three Encounter powers (cooldowns), and two Daily Power - limited by Action Points, ie., a Limit Break.  The ability to quickly swap out bars pre-loaded with different powers would have been a welcome addition, but if such an ability was present I couldn't find it.  So as it was, I would manually remove and re-add the powers I wanted to use for PvP, for instance, versus the powers I'd use for Dungeons.  And with rogue, some powers are more suited for single target, and some for AoE, but you'll have to choose and manually set up which configuration you'll go with at any given time.  

The Return of Classic Mechanics
A number of classic MMO mechanics are back in full force in Neverwinter.  For instance, the Holy Trinity of tank, heal, and DPS is certainly prevelant.  The skirmishes can be done with any group though, which is nice, and even the lower dungeons I think don't really require them too much.  But certainly as you get higher in content and level, all indications are that you'll need balanced groups of the prerequisite roles to succeed in that content.  Loot rolling in groups is back, using the classic Need/Greed/Pass system, along with the annoyances that are commonly associated with that system - People rolling need on things they can't use, what do you roll on consumables, etc.  Resource nodes are littered about the world in both instances and in the open world, but they are first come first serve, so you'll see people abandoning combat to make sure they can tap the node.  

A new definition to the word Domination
PvP in Neverwinter is implemented using Warhahammer Online's scenario implementation.  That means the matches are bracketed by level, with level's 10 to 19 going in one bracket, 20 to 29 in the next bracket, etc.  This comes with the both the good and bad parts of that system.  You're auto-leveled up to the top level of the bracket in terms of hit points and damage, but of course you'll have none of the powers that the natural levels in that bracket bring with them.  You'll own in these brackets when you're at the top of them, but you'll want to avoid them when you're at the bottom of them.  I became sharply aware of this when I turned 20 and attempted my daily PvP, and realized I was still on foot while my enemies were using mounts, and I was being blasted, rooted, snared, and tossed about the match like a dog's chew toy.  One tip - you get some horse rental tokens when you hit level 20.  If you're going to participate in the PvP - use them!

You want me to pay what?
Crafting
While many of the traditional MMO mechanics are here, the crafting implementation in Neverwinter is completely new.  Or at least it was new for me, inside of an MMO.  It's the first time I've seen what is pretty much entirely a social game collection of mechanics implemented inside of an MMO.  Crafting in Neverwinter is essentially Mafia Wars.  You have agents.  You start with one for free, but you'll need to acquire more as you advance.  You send those agents on quests, or tasks, to complete items.  After some amount of time the agent completes the task, and you're granted some experience, and the "reward" for the task.  This is entirely abstracted.  The agent never appears in game, it's just a UI construct.  The completion of the "task" is just a progress bar, and by spending a considerable (for me anyway, a free player), amount of astral diamonds, you can "auto-complete" the task.  They make no attempt to explain that abstraction, by the way - how you can "hurry your agent up" by spending some money.  It's a facebook game, plain and simple. That's not to pass judgement per se.  It is what it is, and if you've played those kinds of games before and are aware of the tricks they use to entice you to play more, then you can accept it, and either work with it or not.  If you've completely avoided the facebook craze while it was at its height and never played those games, well then allow me to just say caveat emptor.

Foundry Grinds and Gearscore
Each hour Neverwinter promotes a different type of content.  A chest full of astral diamonds and extra loot if you complete dungeons during this hour, extra Glory if you complete PvP matches during the next hour, etc.  As such I settled down into a routine of logging on, and seeing which activities were currently being promoted.  If it were foundry missions or professions, I'd use that time to advance my story and do quests.  If it were PvE, skirmishes, or dungeons, I'd queue for the appropriate activity and hang out in Protector's Enclave.  One thing to be aware of - much of the story mission content is instanced.  If you're in an instance, and accept an activity queue (say for a PvP match), then when the match it done, you'll be put back into the common world outside the instance you were in, and it will be reset.  So you typically don't want to queue for things while questing, unless you don't mind replaying your quest instance over and over.  So when I was queuing, I'd often be hanging out, and watching zone chat.  And there were two trends I noticed that were already prevalent, just a week into the game. 

The first, was the excessive amount of spam for foundry XP grinds.  This was a huge problem when the Mission Architect was introduced in City of Heroes.  I had assumed that through STO Cryptic had ironed out the problems with this and limited the capabilities for people to grind out levels using AOE farms, but it appears that there is a significant contingent of people doing exactly that in Nevewinter.  If this is the most efficient way to level your character, then these people will be the first ones participating in the epic level dungeons, and be the ones forming the groups for those dungeons, which leads me to the next troubling trend - gearscore.

I've never been a fan of gearscore discrimination.  It is not a measure of competence, but is only a measure of your ability to acquire gear.  In WoW, where gear is mostly bind on acquire, there is at least some indirect correlation to player accomplishment though.  You can't acquire the gear in WoW without having either completed those PvP matches, or completed those heroic level dungeons.  In Neverwinter though, all of the equipment that drops is bind on equip.  Which means it can be put up on the auction house and bought for astral diamonds.  This has two chilling effects.  First, people are more incented to roll need on boss drops, because even equipment they can't use can immediately be put up on the AH for astral diamonds.  In the very first dungeon I ran there was a cleric that rolled need on every blue drop - all of which were for rogues.  And she won every single one of them.  The second is that with enough astral diamonds, you don't have to do content at all to get that gear - you can just purchase it from the auction house.  The thing is, because gearscore is built directly into this game, it's a good bet its been built into the encounter design of the dungeons.  At the upper end of the game, certain gearscores probably actually are required in order to have a chance at succeeding in those dungeons.  So at that point, not only is the gearscore descrimination prevalent, it's justified.

Now to be perfectly honest, I think if you play the game casually, enjoying the foundry missions,  doing  the mission content, and participating in the skirmishes and occasional dungeon, you can pretty safely ignore both of these aspects - the people level grinding through foundry xp farms, and the gearscore descrimination.  But I think the more you choose to participate in group content, the more these things become an issue. And again, this isn't a condemnation, just an observation, and one I think you should be aware of going into the game.

The Final Word
Honestly, I would recommend you give Neverwinter a try, if you haven't yet.  There's a robust full fledged MMO here.  Due to its actiony combat system and heavily instanced content, I've seen some people liken it more to a multiplayer action RPG, but honestly I think that's just splitting hairs.  This is a full blown MMO, and it's style of gameplay, it's familiar content, and familiar mechanics means I think many people will find it quite comfortable for the long haul.  And the awesome thing is, it really is free to try.  It costs you nothing more than the time to download it to check it out.  

If you do decide to stay, I personally would also recommend picking up the $60.00 founder's pack.  This is for two reasons.  First - as I've said - this is a big game on launch, for free.  If you're going to stay and play, reward the people that made it so they can continue to add that additional content you know you want.  Second, the founders pack gives you a case load of astral diamonds to play with, as well as a mount, a companion, and a nice weapon (if I recall correctly).  The economy right now is being shaped by people that have purchased those packs.  You don't want to put yourself at the bottom end of the economy struggling to catch up.  Give yourself an equal footing as everyone else that's playing, and give yourself a little cushion to get the game going. 

Hope this has been some what informative, and enjoy the game!