Neverwinter has been a long time coming. It has been through the development wringer, surviving corporate trade-offs and long delays, and finally goes live today, June 20. Despite originating with the same publisher and sharing the same setting, it is not a direct successor to the Neverwinter Nights series of games. Instead, Neverwinter draws more from the stories of R.A. Salvatore and the other Forgotten Realms authors. The events of Neverwinter Nights and its sequel are a matter of history; the world has changed since then, both in-game and out of it. This is a different type of game for a different type of gamer.
With its high-fantasy setting, there's the usual blood and violence and alcohol. Since there are no strictly-enforced quality or decency standards for player-generated content, be wary when approaching Foundry adventures.
PerfectWorld and Cryptic are marketing Neverwinter as an "Action MMORPG," with a focus on the action part. Combat is the clear focus of the game, and the combat is dynamic, reactive and fast-paced.
Similar to Guild Wars 2, combat relies less on skill-spamming and more on active participation. Enemy blows must be actively dodged, blocked or evaded, and positioning is important. The character needs to be facing his enemies to land most blows, and will need plenty of room to maneuver to avoid taking damage.The small-scale skill bar adds to this effect, as well. During the leveling process, characters can develop dozens of combat skills, but they only have immediate access to 7 at any given time - two At-Will skills (tied to the mouse buttons, the "default" attacks), three Encounter skills (mapped to Q, E and R - stronger attacks or specialty moves with a short timer) and two Daily skills (mapped to 1 and 2 - big attacks that cost energy typically built up by using Encounter and At-Will skills). These skills can be switched around and swapped out for others of the same type, and the character must spend skill points to improve the skills he intends to use. This means any two characters of the same class might play completely differently, with a different set of slotted skills achieving different effects. In other words, players can play how they want.
PvE questing is more traditional - players visit quest hubs, complete objectives out in the wilderness, and return to the quest-givers to claim rewards. The story is sort of typical Dungeons & Dragons stuff - a necromancer named Valindra threatens to overrun the city of Neverwinter with hordes of undead, yada yada yada. There are some neat cinematics at the beginning, showing Valindra's transformation into a lich and her initial assault on the city, but the actual questing and storytelling is rather tepid. This is an action game, after all, and the focus is on the fighting rather than on the talking.
This is kind of a shame, though, because all of the main quests are fully voice-acted. The standard "wall of text" is paired with a NPC reading the text to you, and the voice-over continues after you accept the quest and start heading towards your goal. Fans of the R.A. Salvatore stories and such may wish to pay more attention to the quest dialogue, but I found myself just clicking through and mostly ignoring the story.
This is only for the main story, though - the stuff designed by the developers. It's an entirely different matter when you start getting into the user-generated content made in the Foundry.
Foundry missions can be anything from hardcore roleplaying, dialogue-only novellas to hack-n-slash dungeon crawls. They are as different from one another as the players who make them, and if you want something more story-heavy than what you're getting from the official progression, you can find it by browsing through the Foundry missions. The Foundry comes with its own drawbacks - there are no quality control standards or spell-checkers, and the toolset is somewhat limited in its scope - but the ability for players to create the kind of adventures they want to play far outweighs these limitations.
Additionally, some aspects of the game can be accessed "offline" through the Neverwinter Gateway, giving access to in-game mail, the auction house, guild management and the Professions window. This website can be accessed through any web browser, meaning you can manage your characters' finances and such via your smartphone.
Neverwinter is a pretty city, and the designers at Cryptic have done much to bring that beauty to life. The floating island housing the Moonstone Mask, the bustling market area at Protector's Enclave, the battered, sludge-filled remnants of the once-glorious Blacklake District, the orc-besieged Tower District - these areas have never looked better.
Character models are somewhat primitive. The hairstyles look like they belong in a much older game. Faces don't really gain much definition from the customizer, and the characters you end up with often look like cartoons striving super-hard towards realism, with googly eyes and bizarre body and face proportions, but wrapped in somewhat realistic skin. Barrel-chested half-orcs and stumpy dwarves look okay, but elf, human and halfling characters can look pretty silly when stripped down to their gitch.
I rather like the aesthetic of the characters' armor, though. Even at low levels, metal armor is ornate and gleaming, and fits the cartoonish character models well enough. There are glitches with cloaks and long, flowing parts of robes that get caught up on one another during character movement, but overall the designs look pretty nice, and endgame gear looks outstanding.
Character and monster animations and attack effects are quite flashy and fun. One of my favorite little details in the game is the way the Trickster Rogue gives his dagger a little spin around his fingers as he brings it around his back. Some of the kung fu moves performed by the characters seem over-the-top - in particular, the Control Wizard seems almost excessively acrobatic with his casting gestures, hurling magic missiles like a ninja whipping a storm of shuriken. But it fits fine with the over-the-top 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset.
Neverwinter doesn't do much to push the limits of gaming hardware, but it does make good use of what it has. It can be run on older hardware just fine, but newer hardware shows off more of the visual flair, as one might suspect. I started out running it on a 5-year-old GeForce card during the beta weekends, and that card handled it well enough. Not as good as the new, faster card I'm running now, of course, but it was able to run at middling settings with a decent frame rate. This is one of the things that PerfectWorld seems to do really well - making stuff look good within a tight resources budget.
The musical score by Kevin Manthei is on par with other Cryptic titles. Manthei is their go-to composer, and has previously scored Star Trek Online and Champions Online. The soundtrack is low-key but evocative - it doesn't distract from the action or dialogue by being too bombastic or overpowering, but it definitely sets the mood for an area. The stabbing strings and braying horns in the Tower District have an urgent, war-like quality perfectly suited for a neighborhood besieged by bloodthirsty orcs. The rolling, anthemic brass and lilting flutes heard in Protectors Enclave reflect the nobility of its powerful rulers and the clay feet of the adventurers who call the place home.
NPC questgivers in the main storyline are all fully voiced. Some of the voice acting is pretty hammy - For instance, the narrator who voices the gameplay tips during the introduction sounds like a member of the cast of the first season of Spartacus - but in general it's not bad. It's nothing like the cutscenes in Star Wars: The Old Republic, with actors emoting and moving around and doing things - for the most part, the NPC will just stand there with a more or less static emote, going "bah bah bah" with his mouth while the voice actor reads his lines. But some of the voice actors are at least entertaining.