For many reasons free-to-play games have vehemently negative connotations within the gaming industry. Looking closely at this skeptical perception of free-to-play games could be a lengthy article all by itself, however, the crux of the matter, if it was to be boiled down to its most basic principles, would be twofold. Firstly, free-to-play games are often (and rightly so in many cases) perceived as money-grabbing, exploitative experiences that are solely, and meticulously designed to extract money from customer’s pockets. EA’s controversial and depressingly disgraceful mobile re-release of Dungeon Keeper is a good example of this — shame on you, EA. Secondly, customers often perceive that free-to-play games are shallow, throwaway experiences that only give them access to a sliver of the package as a whole and, after the introductory pre-amble, are blocked by dastardly paywalls to progress through the game. Thankfully, Neverwinter is one of the few free-to-play games that bucks this trend and is a thoroughly deep, enjoyable free-to-play game that doesn’t block you with mandatory paywalls when the fun starts flowing.
Neverwinter is pretty unique, in that it’s one of the first MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) to hit consoles. Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls: Online is the only other MMORPG I can think of that has been released on consoles. Now, I want to be upfront here: I am no MMORPG savant and I would never claim to be. I’m a huge RPG fan, but in regards to MMORPGs, there just hasn’t been any that have really clicked with me. I’ve spent a dozen or so hours playing Guild Wars 2 and a dozen hours playing Star Wars: The Old Republic on PC back in the day, and honestly, I did have a lot of fun. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a genre that particularly grabbed me and I think that maybe due to my preference of playing games laid-back on the sofa and on a console — please don’t judge me, I’m just a creature of habit, what can I say? The good news about all of this is that Neverwinter is one of the first MMORPGs that has clicked with me. The Elder Scrolls: Online was a decent effort at bringing the PC-centric genre to consoles, but I do believe that Neverwinter has topped what Bethesda tried to do, and it’s done so with an effective and unobtrusive free-to-play, subscription-free model. Other developers take note: this is how to do a good free-to-play game.
The large continent of Faerun is where the majority of Neverwinter’s adventures take place and is home to the city of Neverwinter. The opening cutscene provides some ample narrative exposition and depicts the titular city under attack from the evil elven wizard Lich Queen Valindra, who possesses the power to re-animate the dead. Though she is incredibly powerful, Valindra’s attack on the city takes a turn for the worst and she swiftly makes her escape thanks to a creepy-looking elder blue, undead dragon that is under her control. After your ship has been sunk by that very same blue dragon, players take control of their character, who has been ship-wrecked on the shores near the town of a local militia who are busy battling the evil that is trying to take hold of the world of Faerun. Honestly, much of the opening exposition is merely a backdrop for the adventures that await you and oh, what a long, satisfying adventure this is.
Like many RPGs and MMORPGs you are given free reign over what character, race and class you would like to be. There are a multitude of races, ranging from the standard humans, half-orcs, wood elves, dwarves to the more exotic tieflings, drows and sun elves and all of these have their own racial abilities. You get to choose your gender, select a class, choose a deity affiliation and your character’s origin story (the latter doesn’t have any impact on the gameplay).
The gameplay within Neverwinter focuses on fast-paced, real-time combat with unlockable special abilities and buffs that cooldown over time. Mechanically, it feels like a more action-oriented Dragon Age: Origins with smooth animations and some flashy special attacks. There is no automatic healing regeneration during combat, except for the usual healing potions (if you have them in your inventory that is). Instead, you are required to heal at bonfires a ’la Dark Souls. As a whole, the combat is very more-ish stuff. The early game poses no real threat to the player, which somewhat irked me, especially after playing the sublime Dark Souls 3. However, once you hit around level 10-ish, the challenge does begin to creep in, which was very welcome.
Quests are quite varied, but more often than not take the form of the straightforward fetch this, destroy that and return variety, which is, to be completely frank, an MMO staple. Quests are generally short and sweet affairs and are often punctuated with satisfying boss fights. The controls are smooth and easy-to-pick-up. Though this is a 3 year old PC game, it really doesn’t feel that way controls-wise: I’m happy to report that Neverwinter’s controls have translated well to console.
Graphically, Neverwinter is a respectable looking MMORPG, but nothing completely revolutionary. Vistas and backdrops look lovely, character models and animations are detailed and fluid and the enemy designs range from splendid to a touch unimaginative. Environmentally, Neverwinter’s attention to detail is worth a mention — birds soar through the skies above, glow-flies flit and sparkle nonchalantly, and flags ripple in the wind. These little touches do add some pleasing variety to what is a very immersive living and breathing world. The orchestral score is also competently produced and provides a pleasant backdrop to your dungeoneering.
Though the art-style and overall presentation is solid, one of my only gripes with Neverwinter is its occasionally unsatisfactory performance. There are some occasional frame-rate drops and laggy glitching can occur when the servers are under duress. I hope these issues will be ironed out through future updates, as it does dampen the experience as a whole — nobody wants to see their player character glitching around the world like a bouncing rag-doll! Thankfully, this type of laggy glitching only happened once in my dozen or so hours of gameplay.
At times Neverwinter feels like a “My First MMORPG” entry-point game, but to be honest I’m totally okay with that. Its streamlined, accessible approach is just as important as the deep, mighty behemoth MMORPGs out there, and function as a gateway into the genre, especially on consoles where the MMO genre is much less represented. From my own perspective, I really appreciate Neverwinter for what it is: a fun, easy-to-pick-up MMO that takes your hand and shows you the incredible and vast landscape of a genre I’ve been afraid to take my first proper steps into. If you can gather a few friends to create your own guild with, this could well be an action-MMORPG to really get lost in.
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