For the uninitiated; Neverwinter is a free to play, massively multiplayer online roleplaying game based on the Dungeons and Dragons universe which truly tests the limits of how high an in-game item can be priced while still qualifying as a micro transaction. We explored Neverwinter's world for a few weeks using the two character slots available for free when you download the game. We did not spend any real money on this title and this review reflects our experience of it as truly free-to-play, without any of the boosts or perks available via in-game purchases.
The implementation of D&D mechanics in video games is not new, but it is overtly present in Neverwinter, which uses a character sheet for levelling, introduces encounters, "at-will" and daily powers and has a great big dice in the middle of the screen at all times. As most MMO players have been using these mechanics for years, the fact that the classic D&D terminology is now in use shouldn't prove too off-putting. Unsurprisingly then, character creation is suitably in depth. with players choosing not just race and class, but also the origin and history of the character for flavour. The customisation options for the look of each avatar also allow you to choose from a handful of presets before refining these in minute detail if you wish, so you may find yourself taking longer in the creation screen than you normally would in an MMO. It's worth investing this time as changing your look (like everything in Neverwinter) is likely to cost you a pretty penny later on. Most of the classic D&D races are available and additional races like the Drow Renegade or 4th edition's Dragonborn can also be unlocked by buying an add-on pack. Each race has a unique set of abilities and each class needs to be played very differently to allow it to reach its full potential.
One of the most obvious problems with taking MMOs away from the desk is the move from keyboard to controller, as there is no denying that there are clear limitations when you reduce the number of possible inputs. Neverwinter attempts this with mixed results. Combat is fluid and relatively intuitive, but other tasks can seem like a major chore. Early on in the game, simple actions like jumping can be a complete mystery to the player and the chat and emote interface is clunky at best - though once you figure out the overly complicated series of button pushes to access them, there are a wide variety of animated emotes available including several dances and our favourite, the Brodown Taunt. Since emotes are preferable to typing in the chat window and not many people seem to be using headsets, you'll mostly find yourself communicating through a series of gestures or simply by jumping near the object of your desire. Though PC veterans may enjoy the peace and quiet afforded by the barrier to entry that is the chat input, new players will find Neverwinter a daunting and lonely place if they are unlucky.
To start, it's pretty standard stuff - players create a character and go through a short series of quests which introduce a number of game mechanics they'll most likely forget immediately. Once the mandatory starting quests have been completed, the world opens up little by little as the many tales and struggles of the world gradually become your responsibility. As is usual in these types of titles...there you were, a happy little dwarf cleric, just hanging out on the beach and now some guy wants you to slay a dragon? You were only going out for some milk! There's an awful lot to keep you busy in Neverwinter, but it feels strangely small until around level 25 when the scale of the world changes dramatically. Prior to this, it's a series of artificial (or actual) corridors that must be navigated en route to slaying some rats/kobolds/skeletons for a guy you met in the street two minutes earlier.
Stick with it though, and you'll find that those 25 levels can be completed in no time and the vast array of gear, skills and interesting dungeons or skirmishes available from this point on are worth a little investment in the learning curve section of the game. Particularly of note are the challenges that can be completed while questing to earn favour from the gods or to simply compete on local leaderboards for prizes. These vary from finding relics and capturing spies, to fighting using only certain types of spells or keeping your health under a certain level for a period of time. These little distractions add variety and a little boost just when things are starting to look a bit too much like level grinding. Combat from this point on requires real skill and elegance, players will have to plan their attacks and move and dodge more than in other MMOs making the whole experience fluid and satisfying.
There are also daily dungeons, skirmishes and PvP battles to be completed to earn extra rewards - PvP is serviceable Domination-style play, with players capturing and holding flags for points until one of them is declared the winner. Lower level characters are artificially boosted to match a PvP or dungeon instance which makes areas more accessible but can also be somewhat frustrating as gear and abilities will remain at the current level. It's also these group play scenarios that expose Neverwinter's more annoying bugs and design flaws.
Every area is instanced (we assume in an attempt to reduce the ever noticeable lag which got us killed on more than one occasion) and parties are not always pulled into the same instance together. Changing instances is then clunky and awkward - all players must be in the same area, then there are multiple ways to join each other but only one that works most of the time (attempting to join each other from the Social tab is unlikely to get you anywhere) and it is not uncommon for players to be kicked back to the home screen for having the audacity to try to play a dungeon with their friends. Also, for those who want to use the group chat in game, they must be questing together as players cannot enter some areas without all group members being present. That may not sound like a big deal, but for those who just want to chat to their friends while they sort their gear out in town, it's pretty inconvenient.
When not wanting to communicate with others, Neverwinter's multiple button combinations and menu system, although somewhat convoluted, are actually quite adequate. Almost everything can be found from a main menu which can be brought up at any time. This includes all character stats, multiple skill trees, bags, the auction house, in game store and all training and professions. Those who have trekked for miles in other MMOs to see what new spell they might have unlocked upon gaining a level will find this to be a breath of fresh air. Speaking of professions - you aren't forced to pick just one, with time and currency being the only things stopping you from learning every job in the game. Professions are levelled by sending a minion to run off to fetch things or make items for you so there's no standing around waiting for your character to finish crafting. If all this wasn't convenient enough, there's also an artifact that becomes available early in the game that allows the player to summon their own shopkeeper to sell things to - this is essential given the sparsity of storage space as bags are another item that can be purchased via microtransaction.
Although we didn't spend any money on Neverwinter; it's important that we cover currency. There is so much currency in this game! To name a few - there is the standard gold, then also various marks and seals which can be exchanged for goods and services, trade bars, rough Astral Diamonds (which can be refined into Astral Diamonds) and Zen. There are frequently messages on screen to tell you about the fabulous item someone just got from their tyrannical lockbox, which can only be opened with a special key which costs 125 Zen. This currency can be purchased with real money and exchanged for items in game. $9.99 will buy you 1000 Zen which is enough for a handful of tyrannical lockbox keys or a small bag. To provide some perspective - the pack which unlocks the Dragonborn race (and an extra character slot and a couple of extra items) is 7500 Zen or around $75 - that's a lot of money for an expansion, let alone for a 'micro' transaction. All is not lost though - Zen can be earned in game if the player is willing to invest some time and jump through a few hoops. Earn rough astral diamonds through daily dungeons, quests or professions - then refine these into Astral Diamonds and offer an exchange rate in the Astral Diamond Exchange hoping that someone wants to sell their Zen. It's a bit like playing the stock market and (if you're that way inclined) it can be fun to buy Zen when it is cheap and sell it for a profit.
Neverwinter's transition to console isn't perfect but it's one of the better implementations we've seen. The gameplay is interesting and varied while combat has been tuned really well for the Xbox One controller. The mechanics are well thought out and it's possible to experience the entire game without spending a dime, despite all the temptations the game tries to throw your way. The technical issues make group play a bit of a chore at times, but the quests are varied and interesting enough to keep you coming back for more.