by Zee Salahuddin
previewed on PC
The eternal dilemma
Cryptic and Perfect World's Neverwinter is shaping up to be a traditional MMORPG, but true to the title's legacy, one that focuses heavily on custom content. A lofty promise, that focus, given the history of custom content attempts by Cryptic in the past, both with Champions Online and Star Trek Online. However, if successful, Neverwinter could be the one MMO that solves the eternal dilemma faced by all MMO developers: how to provide content that matches the pace at which players consume it, without devolving into repetitious content or the much-dreaded grind.
Neverwinter uses the Forgotten Realms setting, a highly popular variant of Dungeons & Dragons, and the titular location is the magnificent city of Neverwinter itself. The city, devastated by a recent volcanic eruption, is in the process of rehabilitation and rebuilding under the watchful gaze of Lord Neverember of Waterdeep. It has been nearly a century since the devastation caused by the spellplague, and remnants of this catastrophe still linger as vestiges from darker times. Yet, darker forces rise within the bowels of Helm's Hold, threatening to plunge the world into chaos. You get the idea.
You can play as the adaptable and largely boring humans, the adventurous and wanderlust-obsessed half-elves, the athletic and tree-hugging elves, the outcast matriarchal members of the Drow, the strong and stout dwarves, the tiny and cunning Tieflings and the humongous half-breeds of Half-Orcs. Each of these races provide their own benefits to stats and racial abilities. You can play as a tank, a damage dealer (rogue/spellcaster) or a healer, so the Holy Trinity of MMOs exists across four classes. Beta weekend spoke of a fifth, as yet unrevealed class, which we will hopefully get a glimpse of during the third beta weekend, expected on March 22.
Combating stagnant combat
Combat has stagnated in MMOs to the point of perpetually watching ability meters countdown to zero for reuse, and highly coordinated dance moves to ensure group survival. Neverwinter is not much different in the former, but excels in the latter. The dance still exists, and you have to watch your positioning to ensure an optimal winning strategy, but failure - at least in the early stages - does not result in a cruel and unforgiving fate. The user interface is designed in the same vein as that of a MOBA or even an isometric RPG. The left and right mouse buttons control your two basic abilities while the keyboard controls everything else that the various races have in common. The shift key does different things for different classes though. The tank will hold his shield up, while the rogue will attempt a dodge move. It's neat, well-designed, efficient, and conveys a sense of immediacy that is equally matched by the combat mechanics themselves.
Combat itself is refreshing. You don't have to target any one enemy. You just have to point your cursor at someone, and click to attack when in appropriate proximity. Certain attacks have an area of effect, so they can damage multiple enemies if you are facing the right way. Consumables can be used on the fly to ensure survival. True to D&D format, you have Daily Powers, extremely potent abilities that can be trigged by depleting a meter that fills up as you fight and do damage. Once it is filled, you can unleash the Daily Power, which quite literally decimates everything in your path. Combat is fluid, though your character will more often wait to complete an attack animation before moving out of harm's way as you intended. Sure there are some bugs (it is a beta after all), but it all seems like a Half-Orc step in the right direction.