Perfect World Entertainment is giving some closed-door presentations of Neverwinter at this weekend's PAX East event, and that's prompted a trio of websites to publish new hands-on previews of the not-quite-massively multiplayer action RPG.
Lead Producer Andy Velasquez kicks off the demo by showing me how the game works. He quickly creates a Tiefling Control Wizard, briefly noting that most of the races players expect from a D&D game will be there at launch. The release of classes will be a bit more spread out: a solid core that make up the D&D roles of Strikers (DPS), Controllers (CC), Defenders (tank), and Leaders (support) will be available at launch, and many more added regularly afterwards. Neverwinter will be free-to-play, and Velasquez mentions League of Legends as an inspiration for this style of class release, but he refuses to specify if the classes will be monetized similarly.
The Control Wizard he’s using to run around the Tower District, one of the many open world zones that make up the majority of the game world, looks really fun. Based loosely on 4th-edition D&D rules, the character has two At-Will powers: Arcane Missiles and Ray of Frost. These are activated with left and right mouse clicks and fly wherever the aiming reticule in the center of the screen is pointing, similar to the combat in TERA and Guild Wars 2. Arcane Missiles is a classic DPS ability, although having the little bolts fire from the orb floating alongside you is a cool touch. The spell effects are very detailed and the ruffians scavenging the ruined buildings all around us react to being hit in pretty realistic ways.
Additional powers come in the form of Encounter, Utility and Daily abilities. Like in D&D, Encounter abilities are stronger, but also have cooldowns – think typical abilities in other MMOs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. You can only ever have three Encounter abilities slotted at a time, forcing you to be very selective and pick those that fit in with your playstyle and the needs of a current encounter. Utility abilities are unique skills for each class that make them more nimble in combat, such as the rogue's roll or the wizard's ability to do a short teleport. And then there are Daily abilities, which operate like your class' ultimate power. Unlike D&D, these powers don't actually operate on a daily timer, but instead are earned by taking class-specific actions. For instance the rogue would earn points towards their Daily by hitting people from behind, or by opening up a fight with a stealth attack.
All the powers come together to make combat that plays out more akin to an action-RPG like Kingdoms of Amalur or ArenaNet's upcoming Guild Wars 2. The rogue might start a fight against multiple enemies with by coming out of stealth with an Encounter ability, then switch up to their At-Will powers to get in some extra damage. Just as the enemy brings their sword down the rogue then uses their Utility power to roll away, perhaps finishing off the fight with their Daily, which quickly teleports them from target to target, dealing massive damage to each. Fights in Neverwinter are far more exciting than, say, World of Warcraft, and pay enough homage to D&D to (hopefully) hook its fans. Additionally you only ever have to worry about seven abilities at a time, making Neverwinter much more approachable than other MMOs.
Things are shaping up nicely for the incoming F2P MMO action-RPG (which really just means ‘skill-based MMO’), but there’s still a long way to go. Neverwinter Online’s movement away from the mechanical auto-attack foundation of Neverwinter Nights is a frightening-yet-exciting trend and has the potential to scoop up new fans, or, as always, alienate the hardcore base. The game is truly a full MMO and Cryptic is setting out to prove that "free" doesn't have to be synonymous with "garbage" -- the foundation and art of a "triple-A" title are all present. Gamers of the series will recognize its story elements and Forgotten Realms inclusion, but shouldn’t be expecting a sequel to NWN2 (although, that may be a good thing).
As a whole, the game’s skill-based combat flows exceptionally well; on-screen indicators truly do force movement, risking engagements with other nearby mobs, and the action-point system keeps play addictive and mellifluous. In our spellcaster demo, spells felt powerful and visceral – there’s no word for it other than “satisfying.” The spells popped perfectly.
I find it a little strange that nobody is comparing and contrasting the game to Dungeons & Dragons Online, but are instead referencing Guild Wars 2 and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.