It can be argued that of the numerous Dungeons and Dragons settings that exist, Forgotten Realms is perhaps ironically the best known. Though tabletop fans would no doubt remind us all that the module has been around since the late eighties, it was thanks to titles like Baldur's Gate that the setting was jettisoned into the PC gaming spotlight, creating an RPG legacy that would set the bar for immersive storytelling and memorable character design. Outside of the gaming world, characters like Drizzt Do'Urden and Elminster have captured the imaginations of avid readers for decades, famous adventurers in a world setting filled with grand danger and excitement enough to warrant all manner of spinoff and side story. So when it comes to spinning a story that will fit in such a well defined legacy Cryptic's Neverwinter certainly has its work cut out for it.
And what better way to dive into the rich lore of Forgotten Realms than by digging deep into the storytelling tradition that's been the essence of over thirty years of gaming. Questing and combat in Neverwinter are incredibly fluid action-based affairs, built off the foundation laid by 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Players are given core abilities assigned to left and right mouse, followed by skills that are usable with Q, E and R. Most of these skills have fairly short cool downs and just about every class has abilities that provide quick movement into (and occasionally out of) combat; heavily mimicking the tabletop design of overall simplicity.
On one hand this means that mastering a particular class is incredibly easy as you receive all of the really vital abilities early on. It also means that as each class and specialization has a fairly limited amount of moves at their disposal, finding a play style you'll be able to enjoy and adapt to is easy to do. Where the challenge kicks in is how Neverwinter forces players to use their cool downs carefully, as many enemies in game have attacks that are easy to read, but can do most if not all of your HP in a single blow.
To assist in these endeavours players are given an NPC companion which levels up, can be equipped and trained in tasks. This assistant will accompany players through any of the solo content and dungeons, providing some additional DPS or healing depending on the circumstances. Player groups are organized around the traditional 5-man tank-healer-DPS setup, but considering that most mechanics allow for players to escape from damage and that healing potions can be used with mild frequency, there's very little content in-game that requires a perfect group composition.
This fast paced and strategic combat is made better by a questing system designed to ferry players directly to their destination with absolutely no confusion. Players simply pick up a quest, select tracking, and an impossible-to-miss flow of sparkles will lead precisely to the next objective. It sounds counter-intuitive to open world design but hidden items and crafting goods lay off the beaten path, which means that as the game will constantly track which direction the goal is in players are free to explore as much as they would like without ever getting lost. Perhaps it loses its luster for those of us who are able to immediately memorize any map we encounter, but for anyone new to the game it's a simple feature that saves a lot of time and brain power.
So how exactly does all of this fit into storytelling? It cuts away all of the nonsense that normally gets in the way of players' enjoyment of the tale. Grabbing the quest, dashing to your next objective and slaying rats, bandits or general monsters will always be a part of the RPG experience, but Neverwinter adds in a means to quickly connect each objective and some decent voice acting to mix up the constant sprawl of text. Getting to the core story of the world is almost impossible to miss, and the mixture of action-oriented combat and easy exploration does Neverwinter wonders in world building.
Furthering this commitment to narrative is the Foundry, a means for players to create their own quests and tell their own stories in a fashion that other players can participate in. Though it seems somewhat daunting a task those players who are willing to commit the time and effort into learning The Foundry are able to create quest lines of their own, isolated stories which can be played through for fun and experience. Spending so much time in the campaign generator isn't entirely thankless, as players are able to rate and tip Foundry quests they found to be the most fun.
The result of Neverwinter's simplistic combat and straightforward quests is success where storytelling games like SWTOR failed. Navigating the cities, adapting to the various types of currency, and learning all of the fine points of the lore may be daunting but leveling easy and fun; in the end that's all that really matters. Neverwinter provides players the option to blast through their levels with incredible efficiency, or spend their time roaming about in whatever manner they please.
Moreover it provides a world that is enjoyable to play in without the constant presence of franchise heroes, leaving the player as the center star of gameplay.
Stay tuned next week as we take a look at crafting, bugs, and the Free-To-Play setup Neverwinter is hoping you'll participate in.