So this summer, with COVID lockdown season raging, an acquaintance of mine made it into the upcoming Magic beta. As information from that is currently bound by NDA, I didn’t get much from him, but what I did get could be characterized as “lukewarm.” So, with all my gaming in a bit of a slump at the time, I decided I’d familiarize myself with the other Cryptic Studios offerings while I waited. That brought me to Neverwinter.
You may wonder why this has taken so long to write. Well, unlike the common reviewer, who tries a game for 2 hours and then pens out a puff-piece screed of little informative value (and probably doesn’t actually know how to really play games anyway) that’s not what I do. When I dig into a game, I dig into a game.
So let’s begin. Neverwinter: A game where you take up the role of a psychopathic homeless man out to correct the world’s injustices, as determined by people with golden exclamation marks over their heads. That is, to say, the typical vidya game adventurer.
The game begins as one might expect of games of this genre: You’re presented with a wall of choices, none of which you are probably qualified to make an informed decision about, with numbers large and small attached. Do you know if these numbers are large, small, good, or bad? Well, maybe a little, but at this point? Total guesswork.
This is not how I roll. It was off to the Wikkas for some research. Side Note: Pre-Game researchitis is the number one cause of my failure to even start playing many games. I might even characterize this kind of thing as a design antipattern that has persisted throughout the ages, asking players to immediately make weighty permanent decisions that they are manifestly unqualified to do at the very beginning of the game. In this case, however, it seems to tie into the game’s financial model: Encourage players to screw up, charge them money to fix it.
Fortunately, the initial decisions, aside from your class, is relatively cosmetic, the differences being relatively small, and picking with a modicum of thought at all will probably not horribly cripple you. Besides, the option is premium anyway, and if you actually purchase that it would come with a free race change, so…no biggie.
I am a Dwarf and I’m digging a hole.
Class, then. Here’s a weighty decision you can’t easily avoid. Not all classes are created equal. According to the readings, class balance leaves something to be desired, with some classes having an easier or worse start than others (cough Wizard cough). One class stood out to me: Cleric. A combination of widely regarded overpowered nerfbait in one path (classes have two paths, allowing them to switch between two different roles, or at least two different ways of doing the same role, at will, outside of combat), and really boring in the other.
Now, while being overpowered has a definite appeal, a dwarf always has his eye on the future. The real meat and potatoes of this class was the other path. The boring path. The one that was commonly referred to as not being any fun at all. This immediately spoke to me. Because I want to play, but I hate fun. Between a putatively overpowered path and a boring and but ultimately well-paying path to choose from, clearly, this was the class for me. I could get while the going was good, and then settle in a life of funless tedium, and get paid for it just how I like it.
The journey began. After a lengthy wrangling with the controls characterized by multiple deaths in the tutorial, I finally managed to sort out a control scheme that wasn’t entirely unbearable. This isn’t on the game. This is just on me. I’m old and set in my ways, and I do not like newfangled unfamiliar controls.
Finally escaping from the tutorial and moving into the level grinding world, it became apparent that perhaps it was dangerous to go alone. Not to mention rather slow and tedious, trying to get anywhere as a solo healer. As other players were, understandably, not particularly interested or communicative, I fell back on the old standby of recruiting family to assist, and as the wife was receptive to giving this a spin in the meantime, joined the party.
Now we were two, someone who could cause damage (her), and someone who could keep us alive (me). I discovered that, while healing wasn’t a very interesting or engaging job, it did give me plenty of opportunities to observe the surroundings and thus put me in the party manager role of our little duo.
As every MMO player knows, the game before the level cap is generally just a glorified tutorial. There’s absolutely nothing of meaningful substance you will ultimately accomplish, your skillset and itemization is so heavily restricted that you’re not going to be putting together much of a coherent build, and, of course, you’re offered plenty of opportunities to permanently screw up your character (and then be charged money to fix it). Naturally, I left all of the buttons alone and just equipped whatever I could scavenge, aided by the random referral code I grabbed off the Reddit.
If you actually want to play this game, be sure to do this. Failure to do so is one of those mistakes they’re going to charge you for. Not to mention bog you in the tedium of having to replace things with new things merely to then throw them out again 5 minutes later to do it again. Maybe you like that sort of thing, but I’m more about finality of action.
I hooked up with a random guild of someone I met. In these games, it never hurts, almost certainly helps (just being a member grants character perks), and you can always leave later. We didn’t exactly hit it off that well. Like many kids these days, many of them tend to think questioning is argument and argument is hostility, and my constant desire to know more and probe by interrogation and hypothetical questions was not a style that resonated well with this particular bunch.
Levelling up proceeded mostly smoothly. In Neverwinter, most of your extended tutorial will be characterized by roaming across a public map of endlessly respawning monsters attempting to fulfill arbitrary errands assigned to you by the Gold Excalamation Mark Men. Occasionally, this can get really annoying when they endlessly respawn on top of you while you’re trying to fulfill one of the occasional non-murder-related goals. Other times mission goals can become contested with the other players roaming the instance trying to do the same things, although kill-stealing was mostly a non-factor, as Neverwinter grants credit to accessories to the act of murder. Every so often you are sent into an instanced private dungeon where you are alone, for better or worse. No one to steal your clickies, but also no helpful random accomplices. Well, except the one I brought along. The family that slays together stays together.
This proceeded uneventfully for a few days, as we mostly spent a lot of time taking in the scenery, tabbed out reading documents on how to play the game, etc. This would later turn out to be a Bad Thing.
As we passed the first level cap (according to the historical documents, the original NW level cap was 60), we noticed that there was somewhat of an elevated difficulty spike, as is typical for these games: When you cross an old level cap boundary where people had been stuck for some time, you pass from monsters that followed a smooth curve to ones meant to challenge people who had been at that old plateau, with none of the history backing you up. Things started to get a bit harder, but we soldiered onward together.
Reaching the next former level cap at 70 (according to the historical documents, a major game revamp which basically completely obsoleted everything that came before occurred here), however, would quickly become a different story. It was this point which introduced us to Undermountain. Despite being handed out a lump of free gear, which amounted to a total replacement of everything we had before on the spot (See note of Great Reset above), the experience quickly became utterly painful.
With the aid of some of the more cooperative members of the guild, we finally made it to level 80, thus beginning the game proper. If the difficulty spikes before were harsh, the difficulty spike here is basically like slamming into a wall. Fortunately, someone showed us how to acquire some appropriate level 80 gear.
Let’s take a quick break to discuss Neverwinter‘s design. Neverwinter, like multiple games in this genre, seems to favor the “design by landfill” strategy. New content is dumped on top of old content without any real thought for integration or purpose, rendering most of that content utterly irrelevant and worthless, until maybe 90% of the game basically consists of irrelevant buried garbage. As a new player, you are probably very ill-equipped to understand which parts are this garbage and which parts aren’t.
Fortunately, it’s not entirely awful. While Neverwinter employs this kind of landfill garbage dump strategy, at least exploring the old content carries SOME amount of value, in the form of permanent character perks (boons). All this is made much more bearable when you’re equipped with heavy weaponry, the likes of which that content was never prepared to face. So at least there is value in experiencing that story.
Unfortunately, the story is presented as somewhat jumbled mess. Over time, episodes have been cut, spindled, and mutilated, then shuffled and sorted in out of order. The correct chronological order is not actually mentioned anywhere in the game. The experience is thus much akin to catching television show airing as reruns with all the episodes completely out of order, something kids these days probably aren’t familiar with, but mentally resorting everything back into a semblance of order is, at least, not something an old man like myself is totally unfamiliar with.
These areas, being formerly endgame content, also introduce us to one of the staples of the MMO genre: Chores. Rather than the one-and-done quests of the levelling area, the new areas are characterized by daily chores, repeatable quests that that you’re expected to come back to every day to gain progression, which, as I mentioned, pays out in the form of character boons. You will sort of need these, because Neverwinter‘s item progression system is a bit peculiar.
You see, much of Neverwinter‘s content is gated behind a concept of “item level.” The theory goes that the better your stuff, the higher your item level. Item level is very much a misnomer, as the bulk of it appears to consist of things which can only technically be defined as an item and is largely hidden from the player. You’ll inspect a guy who appears to be equipped with stuff only slightly better than yours, and yet he has 30K and you have 15K, and no amount of mathematical torture performed on the available numbers can account for this, because a good half or more of a character’s power is hidden away on things which a new player will never have seen or have any ability to obtain. We won’t discuss that at this point because I still don’t entirely understand it months later, and because the entire thing is about to be completely gutted in a month or so as of this writing.
Most of these items are gated ultimately behind the pay-to-win store, originating either as direct transactions or lootbox items. Don’t take this the wrong way: I don’t mind pay-to-win, I consider it entirely superior to a pay-to-lose “subscription” model in which you have to cough up money just for the dubious privilege of being dabbed on (is that how kids these days say it?) by those who had the fortune of discovering the game first and putting in more hours (not that I see anything wrong with the hours, no-lifing is alright by me). While many players in the guild advised me to obtain these items simply by purchasing them from the in-game auction house, I was NOT about to enrich some already-richer-than-me shyster with MY hard-earned monies. If I wanted my money to belong to someone else, I wouldn’t have bothered taking it from them in the first place. It is not the place of the poor to give more money to the rich, that’s how you get poorer and they get richer. Don’t buy things from people richer than you, especially when they certainly won’t be returning the favor, and will simply eat your lunch. As is not entirely atypical of these games, a new player contributes little or nothing of any worth to the economy. You have no saleable goods or services, and only the miniscule baseline income the game permits… and Neverwinter aggressively caps that income to a measly 100K a day, which is practically nothing when items are costing millions.
If superior technology was not to be our path forward, we had another card to play: Superior numbers. There are perks to being married to another gamer, and that is the ability to spawn little midgets to do your bidding. Short, brutish, and nasty, they nonetheless respond favorably to offers of “or else Daddy won’t pretend to love you anymore”. Also, kids love vidya games. Thus to fill out or ranks, we recruited our kids. It is, after all, traditional for them to help out on the farm.
Nonetheless, the chores piled up. Every new campaign unlocked added its own set of daily chores, and not doing your chores sets a terrible example for the kids. Plus, failure to do them results in your progression through the system being violently disrupted. One of the more common chore mechanics employed by Neverwinter is that you’re allotted a weekly quota of points to earn, and the next advancement milestone will require so many of those points, figures which tend to be conveniently correlated to each other. Fail to earn those points? You fail to make the next progress milestone, and an entire week is wasted because you can’t simply make up the difference next time. We might be a little OCD about these things in this household. I’m pretty sure it’s genetic. I’m not sure who they get it from, but I don’t suppose it matters. The hours mounted. Pretty soon we were pulling 18 hour shifts, aided by the ongoing COVID lockdowns, with occasional overtime on top when chores ended up taking longer than expected due to difficulty spikes, or incooperative random distributions, or people killstealing those dragons. Yeah, you know how kill-stealing isn’t NORMALLY a thing? This does not apply to monsters that die so quickly that you can’t even get a shot off. Which means you could be stuck there another 20 minutes. Or more.
The mounting hours would quickly become a problem. Not for us, on a personal level. I mean, we were stuck inside anyway. There’s none of that “outside” business in our new Socially Distanced world. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that kids seem to need their precious beauty sleep, my raging insomnia would have allowed me to push forward.
That story will be told in the next chapter. For now, this has gone on long enough, and we will progress into the review.
+ Developers clearly have at least some level of passion for the world. While I’m not the most well-versed in D&D lore, as my DM passed away many years ago (one of those things that happens when you’re my age: Everyone you knew is gone. There is only ice cream), I’ve played most of the vidya game adaptations and recognized a massive number of references…and even tabletop jokes, like the Head of Vecna. Still haven’t seen a Dread Gazebo yet, though.
+ Game can easily become a major time-sink if you’re the kind of person who likes a good time-sink. I, for one, have nothing greater to look forward to than my impending death by terminal oldness, and spending it together with with the family beats regular single-player.
+ Family friendly? I’m a bit hesitant on this point. Mechanically, it certainly encourages it. You definitely want to have a party, and the only party you can rely on is one that lives in your house and can thus have their availability managed. Why am I hesitant on this point? Well, that’s our next story.
– Design by landfill tends to render much of the game’s content irrelevant or desolate. If you’re not chasing the leading wave of the hottest stuff, events intended for large groups in open zones like “heroic encounters” can become nearly impossible as players move on.
– Monetization model is strongly tied to progression. You are going to hit a very painful wall at some point, at which progress becomes difficult to impossible without either opening your wallet and/or fattening the wallet of some auction house shyster. And you ABSOLUTELY DO NOT WANT TO PAY ANY REAL MONEY INTO THIS GAME.
– Game can easily become a major time-sink. If sinking many hours per day into near-mandatory chores isn’t your thing, MMOs are not for you and this one is no different. Time-sinking will also run you into…
– AWFUL CUSTOMER SUPPORT. We’ll cover this next time. Boy, will we cover this. Some of these practices may very well just be plain downright illegal, and I’m not exaggerating.
Special thanks to DDMsrealm.com for some of the gameplay images.