"...it's tough for me to do anything but recommend players check it out when it goes live to the public."
As someone incredibly jaded when it comes to MMOs, constantly disappointed whenever "the next big thing" ends up being "World of Warcraft plus X," I was quite skeptical of Cryptic's Neverwinter. While I didn't love the boxed campaign, I spent countless hours playing custom modules with friends in Bioware's classic Neverwinter Nights, and the idea of another developer taking that setting and turning it into an free-to-play MMO grind-fest didn't exactly grab me. But as bits and pieces from the game came out, I was interested in spite of myself — especially in light of the game's custom adventure-building toolset. Having now spent a few hours with the beta, I can say that my impressions are fairly positive.
The game starts as any good D&D-styled adventure should: character building. There's the usual selection of standard D&D races: human, tiefling, dwarf, wood-elf, half-elf, and half-orc as of now, with another "hidden" race locked away until a later date. After picking a race, you'll choose a class, comprised wholly of specialized kits, such as Control Wizard (no options for vanilla "wizard" are to be found). After that, there's the standard suite of buttons and knobs for making your avatar look as not-ridiculous as possible. Finally, you roll the dice to determine your stats, pick special racial/class bonuses, and write up (if you choose) a little background story for your adventurer, and then it's off to the races.
A most modern MMOs do, Neverwinter dumps you into an instanced tutorial full of excitement and learning. The game doesn't push technical boundaries by any means, but everything has a clean and relatively detailed look that I found to be charming. Floating islands and a massive castle hung in the distance, and fires, boxes, barrels, and other bits of debris were strewn all about, and in some cases, were subject to actual physics when I bumped into them. Character models are pretty solid as well, though again, you won't be writing home raving about them. The music, on the other hand, was fairly memorable, if somewhat familiar epic fantasy. It was a lot easier to get involved in the drama of some of the instanced moments thanks to the solid music, so I have to give the developers credit for paying attention to that oft-overlooked detail.
The combat, which there's a lot of, was surprisingly enjoyable. Much like in some other recent "action" MMOs, my wizard could do a quick dodge teleport in any direction. This was useful for avoiding incoming blunt force trauma or frozen death, and I was surprised at how effective it was. Elite foes and boss fights were all but impossible without proper dodging, and this made me feel that some actual skill and battlefield awareness was necessary.
Combat abilities are divided up into three categories. At-Will powers, which are unlimited use left-and-right-click powers such as magic missile and ray of frost (which slowed and eventually froze enemies in place), make up the brunt of your assault, much as was the case in Diablo III with its signature skills. Encounter powers are unlimited use as well, but tied to individual cooldowns, and are a bit more powerful as a result — my ice shard power was often a one-hit kill for foes, and it had a satisfying wind-up and punch when it smashed into them. Finally there are Daily powers, which are tied to a power meter that builds up as you deal damage, and are hugely powerful bursts than can take out several enemies in one fell swoop. Managing the three different kinds of powers along with the dodge move's stamina meter gave combat a nice cadence and flow, and I found myself quickly learning to assess different kinds of threats and act accordingly. Cone, radial, and other powerful attacks show up as red marks on the screen, and I found myself dodging around and freezing stronger foes in place while I took out smaller, weaker ones that rapidly approached.
The base quests I participated in had the typical MMO instanced feel to them: scripted fights, AI-controlled allies, and "run here, kill this guy, go to that place, bring this thing, collect this item"-type quests were the order of the day. However, special nodes were strewn throughout many instances where various classes could make use of their abilities — thieves could disarm traps or unlock special chests, wizards could use their aptitude for the magical on special arcane objects, etc. I didn't have the chance to try out any player quests yet, but as soon as I can, I'll absolutely be delving into those.
When I wasn't plumbing the depths of dungeons or fighting through hostile battlefields, I spent some time exploring the city of Neverwinter. I found it surprisingly lively, with NPCs milling about and lots of little nooks and crannies to explore for entries in your lore journal, which is every bit as detailed as you'd expect from a setting with this much history. While most quests are doled out via your standard "talk to this guy" mechanic, the addition of the lore journal and relatively well-written quest dialogue managed to hold my interest, although for how long this would be the case over an extended play experience, I can't say. I did notice that when accepting a quest, the dialogue would continue playing (unless the player opts to silence it) even as I wandered away, which was a nice touch that helped with pacing. Unfortunately, the voice acting is pretty hammy — the actors seem to enunciate and emphasize words in odd places and characters come off a bit overacted as a result.
While I only explored the first five levels over the course of a few hours, I was surprised by how consistently new things were being thrown my way during quests. I can't say how things will play out in the long run, but if players become involved enough to create memorable adventures (as they did with Neverwinter Nights), with the right crowd, there could be a lot of enjoyment to glean from Neverwinter. Despite having some of the usual jank typical of beta/launch MMORPGs, the game certainly felt solid, and I came away surprisingly impressed with the experience. Only time will tell, as always, but with there being no price of entry, it's tough for me to do anything but recommend players check it out when it goes live to the public.