Whenever I hear an utterance of the words, “Free To Play”, I immediately think of low quality cash grabs that were designed specifically to entice players with the magical word, “Free” and proceed to milk them for all they’re worth after they’ve been hooked. So when I journeyed into the world of Neverwinter, I was a bit wary of the kind of experience that I was in for. Luckily, I was both surprised and impressed by the overall quality of the title. Even though it has its share of shortcomings, both unintentional and by design, it’s a journey well worth making.
Before I get to the colossal elephant in the room of whether or not this F2P game does the model justice, I’d like to speak factually about what the game has to offer.
Upon creating one of two characters that the player is allowed, they are given the choice from eight different races. The races cover the gamut from generic Elves to the intimidating demon-like Tieflings. There are five classes to choose from and they all play traditional roles of healer, tank and variations of types of DPS (damage per second for those not familiar with the terminology). I personally played as the Trickster Rogue, the best single target DPS in the game that specialized in quick strikes and being sneaky assholes in general. There are also a few selections of origin location and allegiance to a deity but that’s for flavor and has no effect on the game play.
After a short tutorial section, the player is thrown into the Protector’s Enclave which serves as the major hub space for the rest of the game. It is also the only city in the game as the game does not have an over world but rather has the player teleporting from zone to zone when they are at the appropriate level to take on the quests in the area. While convenient, this certainly breaks any illusion that this is one giant world, filled with things to explore which is a major drawback for players who are interested in the exploration aspect of the game and used to worlds like Azeroth (WoW) or Tyria (GW2).
There is also a problem with over-linearity as the progression path for every player in the game will be completely identical given they use quests as their main source of experience. There is a trend of entering a new area, doing all the quests and then going back to the hub to get the quest to go to the next appropriately leveled area. This was the progression model from the moment I first arrived at the Protector’s Enclave till I hit the maximum level of 60. Sure there was a dungeon for each major area I visited and the odd PvP game from time to time which served to break up the grind but there’s no denying that I had seen the vast majority of content that the game had to offer by the time I was max level.
Also, while the quality of the content is decidedly polished in most cases and easy to follow thanks to the great in-game quest tracking system similar to the one found in the Fable games, the actual quests themselves were uninteresting and ran the usual suspects of “collect this” or “kill that”. Being a veteran of MMOs and having seen how Blizzard continued their model of quest design over the years by having the player do all sorts of weird and interesting activities to seeing dynamic quests intuitively activate when I stepped into a new area in Guild Wars 2, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by generic quests that were present in Neverwinter.
Luckily, there is a rather interesting system called the Foundry which is user made content in the form of brand new quests, many of which are unlike anything found during the main campaign. While the rewards for doing the Foundry quests are quite limited by design, they did show flashes of potential where I thought to myself, “Why isn’t anything like this in the actual game?” It was high praise for the user in question and a legitimate query to the developer of Neverwinter.
After reaching the maximum level and donning myself head to toe with epic gear, I can safely say that the end game is lacking in variety. There were epic versions of dungeons I already conquered to take on for better loot but the only real differences are the item drops and the HP/Strength of the enemies. There aren’t new bosses in the area nor do the existing bosses get new special attacks to make the encounter feel more interesting. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times more- increasing the health and damage the enemy can dish out is a lousy way to increase difficulty. There is also PVP but I personally didn’t find it all too compelling in Neverwinter due to modes presented (or lack thereof) and the odd fact that most control devices didn’t share diminishing returns made PVP quite the chore most of the time. However, Cryptic studios promises regular content updates and around the time of this review, “Gauntlgrym” was released so there is hope for more end-game content yet.
The linearity of the quests aside, the saving grace of the title comes in the form of the combat and character customization. After all, what good are amazing quests if actually playing the game is a chore and uninteresting? The combat in Neverwinter strikes an excellent balance between strategy and skill. The character customization is built on the foundation of three basic systems; stats, powers and feats. Stats are just as what anyone familiar with the D&D universe would imagine them to be. They are numbers that work in the background that enhances the overall effectiveness of abilities with each class having one main stat and two side stats. Powers are active and passive skills that are slotted into limited slots. There’s no mana, rage or energy in Neverwinter and all the skills outside of main attacks and dailys function with cool downs in mind.
Given the players will learn more powers than they have slots for, the player is forced to make rather tough choices and will often find themselves changing them in between encounters to suit their needs for a particular scenario, as it can be done at almost any time with a small 10 second cool down attached to the procedure. Lastly, there are the feats which are passive skills the player can put points into that increase the effectiveness of certain skills or sometimes even add completely new functions to abilities. There are three paragon trees to build on after enough points are put into feats, and they differ quite a bit in what they specialize in. For example, I built my Rogue to be a master of stealth, which focused on staying in stealth mode so I could focus on doing damage without being attacked by enemies. I would enter stealth mode approaching a group of enemies and by the time I was out of it, I would be standing among a half dozen corpses that never even had a chance to retaliate.
Each class is afforded their own unique “state”, and just as the Rogues have access to stealth, the powerful Control Wizards have “Spell Mastery” where all of their spells gain a new potent effect. Also, the dodge mechanic of the game shifts depending on the class as well, as a Rogue would dodge out of the way of danger while a Control Wizard would teleport and well, the Guardian Fighter would raise their shield up and take the hits at greatly reduced damage. All of this combined into a class system that makes them feel unique and give a lot of variety in how a character of the same class can be built. I had a good time fighting enemies as much as I did experimenting with new skill sets and timing the usage of said skills to maximize my damage potential.
On top of that, there is, of course, equipments which can have a number of different stats from the ordinary like damage, defense and crit to something not quite as obvious like armor penetration, life steal and mobility. Striking a balance between the side stats that fit a particular play style and to compound it with the proper enchants that slot into either offensive, defensive, and utility sockets can go a long way to complement the overall combat potential of a character. Lastly, there are companions which are tag-along NPCs that grow in rank over time and serve as a support unit of sorts. While there are traditional companions like warriors or wizards whose jobs are mainly dealing damage, there are other more unique ones like the orb which increases the overall potency of the character and nothing else.
Now to finally get to the big question, is this a case of F2P model gone terribly wrong? The short answer is, “No”. The long answer from personal experience is that I managed to reach max level without spending a dime and never really felt like I was missing out on too much. Still, I can’t help but feel that putting things like respeccing skills and bag space behind a pay wall is certainly a little more than unfortunate. Also, the constant drops of Nightmare boxes only served to yell obnoxiously, “HEY YOU SHOULD BUY KEYS WITH MONEY SO YOU CAN OPEN THESE!!!”
There is also the fact that Zen, which is the currency bought with real money can be exchanged for Astral Diamonds, which is the main currency for the auction house ever present in the game. That basically means anyone willing to dish out the money can buy basically all the best equipments and rare trinkets without ever putting in any of the work. Given that the profession system works off of real time, there are also incentives to get assets which will vastly cut down on the time required to not only level up those professions but to create the best quality items possible. While I’m perfectly ok with the idea of people with limited time wanting to experience the game in a expedited pace, flat out being able to buy almost everything cheapens the value and work that takes to get them in the first place for everyone else and I personally think the game will suffer for it in the long term even if it manages to have a positive monetary gain.
The best use of F2P models has always been on the side of cosmetics, where there is no direct influence on game play. If the game itself is fun to play with regularly updated content, I’ve seen how far some people would go to get a rare hat or a particular skin for their favorite character, and while it might not look so lucrative on paper games like Dota 2/TF2 have proven that they can end up being very successful. Any micro-transaction system that hinders the players from having the best experience possible with the game only makes it more likely that they will not like the title enough to put money into it and then proceed to play a different F2P game instead.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Neverwinter is most certainly a fun game to play, standing proudly amongst the other F2P MMOs as one of the front liners. However, the suspect use of the F2P model along with a linear, unimaginative quest progression and a lack of good end game content make me feel it still has much to grow before I can proclaim it to be the F2P that completely wiped away the stigma they hold in today’s game market.
Fun tidbit: Doing dungeons during the dungeon delves event is a quick way to get tokens and gear.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.