Neverwinter: The Jewel of PAX East
A lot has changed in the world of Neverwinter since we last had the opportunity to check out Cryptic Studios upcoming journey into the Forgotten Realms last summer at E3. I recall being intrigued at the time by what we were shown of The Foundry toolset, and how it will help facilitate a very user-friendly player-created content pipeline. Even at that earlier stage in development, Neverwinter was already looking slick and distinctive in the graphics department as well.
Much like the city of Neverwinter itself, the game has undergone some interesting changes over the past year, each of them improving upon that solid foundation we had been shown at E3. First, Neverwinter is now slated to be a full MMO rather than a multiplayer co-op title. And, just as importantly, the game is now being published by free-to-play leaders Perfect World Entertainment.
Did I mention that Neverwinter will also be taking a crack at utilizing an active combat system reminiscent of the God of War series or Bayonetta? Yep, it has that going on too.
Beyond the City Gates
Now slated to be a full MMO release, Neverwinter has grown in both size and scope. Throughout my appointment with Cryptics Andy Velasquez and Craig Zinkievich this point was driven home as we were shown large swaths of the Tower District. This particular area has been overrun by orcs, and serves as one of the many open-world areas in the game.
As Zinkievich explained, areas such as the Tower District represent some of the massive devastation seen beyond the city proper, but also help expand the game in some important ways. Not only does it allow Cryptic to dream up plenty of interesting new dungeon locations for players to explore, but the Tower District will also be one of Neverwinters many solo-friendly gameplay areas.
While there will be a sizable amount of solo friendly content, players seeking a true dungeon crawling experience will have plenty of interesting content to chew on. Via a slick in-game UI panel, players will be able to track any active missions they may have picked up from NPCs, and also browse through some of the top rated player-created dungeons. The latter will be selected by the team at Cryptic, and will represent a cross section of the best content players have managed to create via The Foundry toolset.
Even More Active Combat
Many of us here at Ten Ton Hammer have been paying a lot of attention to one of the rising trends in the MMO industry: the rise of the MMOFPS as a viable sub-genre. The writing is clearly on the wall in that department thanks to upcoming titles such as Firefall, Planetside 2, and Defiance. However, an even bigger and for my gaming dollar, more intriguing trend in MMOs of late is the adoption of active combat systems.
What started with a few pioneering titles such as DDO, Age of Conan, and the ill-fated Chronicles of Spellborn, has become a vital part of where MMO combat is heading over the next few years. The MMOFPS trending is ultimately just one piece of that larger puzzle, especially once you consider that more and more fantasy titles are beginning to adopt a very distinctly FPS flow to combat.
Neverwinter is one of the better examples of this that Ive seen so far. Much like TERA and Guild Wars 2, Neverwinter uses a more streamlined hotbar so that players spend less time staring at the cooldown timers for 100 skills on their screen at once, and can remain sharply focused on whats actually happening in combat. It also uses a distinctly FPS style targeting system that also includes having commonly used at-will abilities mapped to the right and left mouse buttons. These will be based on your chosen class, and neatly sidestep the more traditional white damage auto-attacks found in less active combat systems.
The combined effect allows the game to play a lot more like an action game than what youd come to expect from the fantasy MMO genre. To achieve this, Craig Zinkievich explained that Cryptic has done two things. First, by basing Neverwinter on the 4th edition D&D rules, it allows the developer to make combat fit the fast pace of online gaming much better. However, Cryptic has also spent a lot of time playing games like God of War and Bayonetta both for inspiration and to study what it is about those combat systems that resonates so well with gamers who crave action.
It remains to be seen if youll be able to dress your tiefling in a +10 Skintight Hair Suit of Doom, but from what weve seen and played of Neverwinter so far, you can certainly see the influence of those games, albeit in a slightly less exaggerated translation. But you can expect combat in Neverwinter to be very fast paced and fluid, with some stunning visual effects associated with even some of the more commonplace melee and magical attacks.
Building for the Business Model
Now that Cryptic has had the opportunity to test the waters of the free-to-play MMO market with its conversions of both Champions Online and Star Trek Online, the developer has learned quite a few things about what makes the business model work in the modern era. And, unlike Champions and STO, Neverwinter is being built from the ground up with a free-to-play business model in mind.
Color me crazy, but I firmly believe that Neverwinter is the perfect candidate for being a free-to-play MMO if ever there was one. Even if you ignored all of the other obvious benefits for gamers, I honestly couldnt imagine a sizable content-creation community springing up around the title any other way. Even if the game isnt intended to be a sequel to the wildly successful Neverwinter Nights series, I dont imagine the modding communities for those titles would take very well to paying a monthly fee just to play through their own creations.
Given that Neverwinter will also feature The Foundry as a built-in part of the game client rather than a separate application, Id imagine it will likely play a vital role in the games longevity. From what weve seen so far its also much more intuitive for the end user than something like the Aurora toolset by a large margin. Combine that with Cryptics background as leaders in the customization department, and Neverwinter could very well become the first truly player-driven MMO game world since the launch of EVE many, many years ago.
One to Watch
If you had asked me a year ago what the MMO market would look like heading into 2012, I honestly wouldnt have had a clearly defined answer for you. Yet somehow, here we are on the verge of one of the biggest years for major MMO releases of the past decade. TERA, The Secret World, Guild Wars 2, and Firefall are all slated for a 2012 release, and to make it even better we can expect to see Neverwinter before the end of the year as well.
In a year with so many massive titles looming just over the horizon, why should you be paying attention to Neverwinter? Thats one question I am able to give you a pretty straight forward answer for.
While my hands-on time with the game was relatively brief so far in the grand scheme of things, the combat felt both intuitive and natural even with the divergent path Cryptic is taking from traditional MMO controls. Solo combat kept me on my toes, and offered enough challenge that I anticipate many players will greatly enjoy poking around areas like the Tower District between dungeon runs with friends.
The biggest takeaway, however, is that the game was fun to play, and at the end of the day thats all that really matters. If Neverwinter hasnt been on your MMO radar up till now, it really should be.