Neverwinter Hands-On at E3 2012
No more tab targeting and auto-attacking
A few years ago at E3, the above statement would have applied to perhaps one or two MMOs at best. Its been a slow transition, but weve finally reached a point where action combat is becoming the norm, rather than an extreme exception to the rule like it used to be. In fact, three of this years biggest releases (not even counting all the shooters) feature some variant on this approach to combat.
Earlier this spring at PAX East, I noted that Neverwinter is one of the in-development titles making the above proclamation, and how the games combat is intended to feel more like the kind of action youd find in something like Bayonetta than a traditional MMO. Having had a taste of lower level combat during that event, it gave me a great foundation to build upon heading into E3, where I was able to experience both single and small group play with a level 39 character.
Or, more accurately, I got to play the game with two distinctly different characters. At major industry events I purposefully seek out those titles that are worthy of checking out with any free time between appointments I may have. For this years E3, there were really only two clear standout titles that fit the bill, with Neverwinter being the frontrunner for my attention.
As such, I had been impressed enough following my first appointment for the game that I went back the following day for a second run at things. That let me get an even better feel for the games combat, and a good chunk of time in with two distinctly different classes; the Trickster Rogue and the Control Wizard.
An Expanded Look at Combat in Neverwinter
Rather than give a bunch of cryptic descriptions about the combat system (pun fully intended) or wacky metaphors about gobbling up health points like Pacman on crack, I wanted to take a moment to drill down into some more specifics about how combat in Neverwinter differs from the other action combat games on the rise.
There were four core types of powers I ended up using during combat on both characters: at will, medium potency powers, daily powers, and finally utility powers. Since our group was running without a healer in the dungeon, we also had a stack of health potions that generally weren't needed unless I sprung traps or during boss fights.
Instead of auto attack, or a basic attack mapped to your number 1 key, you have your At-Will attacks on your left and right mouse buttons. These have no cooldown and require no resources to active, and can literally be used at will. More often than not, youll want to simply hold down either mouse button to use these attacks rather than needing to click for each and every sword or dagger swing, or magic missile you want to fling at enemies.
Your medium potency powers are your counters, and are bound to the Q, E, and R keys. These are the most like other MMO powers in that they function on a cooldown, and some of them also have resources or charges associated with activation. For example, on my control wizard I had a pair of awesome crowd control powers. One pushed enemies away from my character which on the surface seems like more of a defensive move. However, during my dungeon run with that character I was able to combine my utility power to shadowstep directly in front of a group of goblin archers standing along the edge of a massive chasm. This skill allowed me to neatly shove them over the edge to their doom with plenty of offensive gusto.
Theres a D20 in the middle of your power tray, located directly above your counters. As you engage in combat, youll see that D20 meter start to charge up more. When it becomes full youll be able to use your daily powers which are bound to the number 1 and 2 keys. The use of the word "daily" is just a naming convention, however, meaning you can use those skills more than once per day.
For example, during the boss fight at the end of the group dungeon we played through, I was able to use my daily powers twice while playing the control wizard, and about the same on my run through on the trickster rogue. For the wizard, one of the dailies was a huge help during different parts of the fight since it caused a powerful AoE that would wipe out the adds the boss was summoning into the fight.
The idea here is that you dont have to hoard your daily powers like you would rocket launcher ammo in first-person-shooters, but you'll still want to time their usage to have the maximum impact during longer fights. While solo, they can also help save your skin if you aggro too many mobs or are running low on health but forgot to stock up on potions.
The last power category is the utility power category. This is bound to your shift key, and is a way for every class to handle or prevent incoming damage. The guardian fighter will hold up his shield and block the damage, the trickster rogue will dodge out of the way, and the control wizard will do a short range teleport in the direction of whichever movement key you use along with the shift key.
For the Trickster Rogue, youll alternatively be able to double tap any of the directional movement keys to activate this utility power. More powerful enemy attacks will regularly display some form of marking on the ground that serves as a strong visual indication that you may want to block or dodge certain attacks, or move away from a larger AoE attack.
Were seeing this type of thing used far more often, and to be honest I tend to enjoy the more obvious visual feedback like this than having to watch for a mobs left eyeball to twitch three times, magical dust to come bellowing out of its backside, or some other arbitrary tell that players are supposed to be able to pick up on in other MMOs attempting to push the action combat angle. Its also far better than the whole overplayed bullet time thing where the camera slows to a crawl to either say hey dumbass, move out of the way or alternatively you should probably shoot this thing in the head now.
If targeting rings were the hip new thing in MMOs 10 years ago, the ground markers described above that were currently seeing in more action oriented titles is quickly becoming a staple of the genre. In fact, three of this years biggest titles are using a similar system; Neverwinter of course, joined by The Secret World and Guild Wars 2.
Classes and Combat
I enjoyed my time with Neverwinter on the second day of E3 so much that I knew Id want to go back for more as time allowed. So on the following day I went back for another full run through the closed room demo which neatly allowed me to experience the game with two of the currently available classes.
The trickster rogue is very agile, with an at-will attack that will cause you to shadowstep behind your target. Double tapping the directional movement keys allows you to dodge, or you can alternatively hit the Shift key while pressing any of the movement keys to dodge in that direction. Theres a very brief cooldown for each of the classes unique dodge skills, but I found I used it fairly frequently.
Combat with the trickster rogue was very fast paced, and it showcased the action combat Cryptic is aiming for perfectly. This isn't your standard MMO rogue that stuns, moves behind the target, backstabs, stuns, rinse, repeat. While you do have the ability to use stealth for short periods, the class offers some of the most active combat I've seen in the genre. You get to spend less time worrying about positioning or running around mobs in circles, and more time being a raw damage dealer which, to be honest, is quite refreshing for the archetype.
I tend to favor casters in most RPGs for various reasons, yet still ended up enjoying the control wizard perhaps even more than I expected to. The gameplay felt like a cross between more of an archetypical elemental magic user combined with some interesting crowd control components. If youre getting a mental picture here of a WoW frost mage, you can erase that image immediately. While there may technically be some overlap in the usage of cold-based attacks to slow or stop enemies in their tracks, thats only one part of the control aspect of the class.
Instead, think of an elemental mage tossed in a blender with a classic EverQuest enchanter, add a dash of magic missiles, a pinch of SWTOR force choke, and a dab of Rock-em Sock-em Robots, and youre getting much warmer. The control wizard offers each of these things in varying doses, and allows you to weave them together for some interesting effects.
While solo, both classes had plenty of tools to take down smaller groups of weak enemies with ease, and offered a fun challenge while squared off against a solo dungeon boss at the end of the show demo quest. Perhaps my favorite aspect of combat, and something I immediately picked up on even before our group went into the dungeon, is that Neverwinter never devolves into "playing the UI".
What that means is once you have a solid grasp on your classes core abilities, you don't get bogged down by trying to make split-second decisions about which of 50+ on-screen skills you should be using. Likewise, I'm really loving the default keymapping for combat abilities for perhaps the first time since... ever? In most games I remap at least half of the hotbar skills to my mouse buttons (I use a Razer Naga) but honestly feel that the default key mapping in Neverwinter is one of Cryptic's many crowning achievements with the game so far.
The Road Ahead
The beta for Neverwinter is expected to hit sometime around early September, and Cryptic still plans to launch before the end of the year. In between now and then, new classes will be revealed. And while I couldn't get any specific confirmation about what they might be, I was given enough of a hint that I think fans will be very pleased indeed.
A recurring theme amongst just about everyone I spoke to during E3 is that Cryptic is excited to finally be working with a publishing partner that is giving them enough time to do the game justice rather than meet an arbitrary deadline that might mean the game launches before its ready. Neverwinter was the best thing at E3 this year, and I'm comforted by the fact that the game is getting the development time it needs before launching.