Never A Terrible Night For A Curse
Neverwinter. The name brings to mind the classic Dungeons & Dragons fantasy setting—The Forgotten Realms. Made famous most recently by smash BioWare hit Neverwinter Nights, older gamers might actually remember it from the premier AOL graphical RPG of the same name. It was quite literally the first of its kind: an online role-playing game with actual visuals! It came out in 1991 and had a six year run before it shut down. This was a pre-MMO title, limited initially to fifty players per server at launch before growing each to 500 by 1995.
Why the history lesson, you ask? Wouldn’t it serve us better, in this preview, to speak of the recent entries in the Neverwinter Nights series from BioWare and Obsidian, with their 3D graphics and expansive, powerful toolsets? Perhaps we should be focused on D&D Online, which comes from Turbine and shifts things from the Forgotten Realms to the low-power fantasy-noir of the Eberron setting. After all, that’s an MMO, and Cryptic—the company behind the upcoming Neverwinter game—is known for making MMOs.
Specifically, Cryptic Studios is the group that originally built City of Heroes/City of Villains—one of the first non-fantasy MMOs and the first to focus on superheroes. After splitting from their publisher, NCSoft, and linking up with Atari, they launched another superhero MMO—Champions Online, which is now free-to-play—and Star Trek Online. MMOs, all of them.
Cryptic is no longer with Atari, now owned by Chinese MMO publisher Perfect World Entertainment, but they are still the developers for Neverwinter and work continues on what they have promised, ardently, is not an MMO. And that is the reason for the history lesson: this is a title that has more in common, on a social level, with its earliest forebear than modern MMO philosophy. Cryptic has called it a “co-operative, online RPG.” It eschews the full, persistent world philosophy of most MMORPGs and provides an adventure that, while only playable online, can be experienced either solo or with one’s friends. Expect to adventure in smaller parties through more cinematic situations than one would experience in an MMORPG, with a greater focus on the plot than on collecting the best loot and gearing up for high level raids or PvP combat.
Speaking of the plot, Cryptic is aiming to take a page from BioWare’s book and play hard and loose with the game’s world. Along with the game itself, as created by the development team, players will have access to a powerful suite of content creation tools called “The Foundry,” which Cryptic promises will allow players to alter the game’s world in drastic ways by creating their own adventures and campaigns from the ground up. “It wouldn’t be a true Neverwinter game without a content-creation tool!” they say.
This isn’t the first time an online RPG has had user-made content. Cryptic’s own City of Heroes, after it was purchased from them by NCSoft and handed off to the newly-born Paragon Studios, released a “mission architect” that allows players to create their own mission sets, though the tools work on a more general basis than the old NWN toolset or The Foundry. Like the mission architect, however, The Foundry is intended to include a user-rating system, by which individuals who play another’s adventure can offer feedback to both that individual and the overall community.
Amazingly, we’ve gotten this far on just history and Neverwinter’s place in the current market, a market that is blending single-player and multi-player gaming in new and interesting ways, rather than keeping them discrete and cordoned off from one another. But what about the game itself? How does it play? How does it tie into the Dungeons & Dragons RPG system?
According to Jack Emmert, CEO of Cryptic Studios, Neverwinter will draw its inspiration from the 4th edition rules of Dungeons & Dragons. A drastic departure from 3rd edition and 3.5, 4th edition D&D breaks powers down into “at-will,” “encounter” and “daily” abilities, unifying the rules by which abilities, be they spells or martial techniques, function across all classes. Emmert, however, promises that even a daily ability will not be useable only once per day, intending for each to be put on a timer. While at-will abilities will be useable almost non-stop, encounter abilities will have a brief cooldown that should limit them to once-per-encounter use and dailies will require an hour or more before they can once again be performed. Gameplay itself has yet to be shown, but the E3 trailer demonstrated fast-paced action in what looks to be real-time.
The trailer also introduced us to the graphics, which do justice to the world of The Forgotten Realms with an ornate, Western fantasy aesthetic of warriors in shining, clinking armor and mages wrapped in colorful robes, the evil ones bearing tall headgear and massive shoulders for their cloaks. It’s stylized, but more in the vein of a Guild Wars game than a World of Warcraft. This is not a game of browns and greys, a blue dragon that sets down near the end of the trailer making this abundantly clear.
Neverwinter looks to be a massive time-sink, and I mean that in the best way possible. It should be out by the end of the year.