I came to the show with no real expectations about the game beyond the fact that I knew the companies involved and was distantly aware of the game's development. I walked away more than a little impressed by what I had seen. However odd the collection of elements might seem, the game itself certainly piqued my interest. Lore-wise, Neverwinter takes place about a century after the previous installments in the franchise, after several convenient cataclysms have altered huge chunks of the world outside the city of Neverwinter -- and even inside the city limits. Players, as a result, will start at the center of the city, which serves as a common gathering area, and then move out from the core slowly while trying to help rebuild the city to its former glory. The artwork and design aesthetic is meant to be evocative of previous parts of the franchise as well as be unique to a given region. One of the areas we saw, for instance, was filled with orcs that had similar attack patterns; the next region out was full of fire elementals, which moved and behaved differently and inhabited a visually distinct zone. However, the orc-filled Tower District was still visibly part of the overall city, just on the outskirts.
Of course, you can't have a Neverwinter game without user-generated content. Cryptic is putting just as much effort into character customization as you find in other titles from the studio, and user-generated content is similarly being integrated from the ground up. The UGC system promises to be deeply integrated with the game as a whole. We were shown a preliminary version of the game's "landing page," which allows players to view trending player-made content, queue for dungeons, schedule events, and so forth. There was also talk of allowing players to follow favorite authors, subscribe to certain content feeds, and so on. Cryptic wants to build the community as a whole by spotlighting certain pieces of content worthy of play.
All of this custom generation is contradicted by the character development system, however. While the final class list has yet to be released, the classes are more finely divided from the usual Dungeons & Dragons setup. You don't just play a Wizard or a Rogue; you play a Control Wizard or a Stealth Rogue or an Archery Ranger or something similar. They're builds evocative of certain common playstyles with classes; your Control Wizard doesn't share the abilities of other types of Wizard.
More to the point, there's no pile of abilities to use at any given time. Players have access to a primary and secondary attack, two "special" attacks with short cooldowns, and an ability that has to be charged via Action Points before being unleashed. You also get one last Utility ability such as a quick dodge, a shield block, and so forth... and that's it.
It sounds anemic, and it is, but it also balances nicely with the game's design. This game plays fast, to the point that you really don't want to have more than a quintet of abilities to pick from. As you level, you gain new abilities to toss into the various slots, but you never wind up with more overall active abilities. In other words, you get options, but not more raw power.
All of this works, in the end. It creates a setup in which you pick and choose between relevant abilities in a limited setting. If you want to emphasize doing damage as a Control Wizard, you have more offensive abilities available, but you can also swap in more defensive and snaring options when you need to keep things locked down. You can customize based on patterns without penalty, which is definitely advantageous.
But that's all speculative. The real question is how the game actually plays.
When I played through the demo area -- a short run through a dungeon filled with the undead -- I played as a Control Wizard, complete with a crushing grasp ability and a snaring ray of frost. My utility ability allowed me to blink about with a short-range teleport, which worked quite intuitively as I double-tapped a direction. (I was later informed that it would also work with a keypress.)
The short and simple version is that it was just plain fun. Darting about with my mage and tossing magical orbs of frost at targets felt very intuitive, and despite having jumped in without a thorough introduction to gameplay, I very quickly figured out what I was doing. Dodges, jumps, and positioning all felt relevant and intuitive, and the environments looked spectacular.
And there was a definite strategic element. I could lock down enemies handily with my Ray of Frost, but it rooted me in place and prevented me from hitting other targets. My crowd-control and bigger attacks did major damage, but I couldn't button-mash them as needed, so I had to pick my targets with some care. Having four abilities in a regular rotation sounds like nothing, but in play, it meant that I had a few decisions to make that were all useful and interesting.
The encounter design helped as well. At first I was just dealing with lone skeletons and zombies milling about in the field, with the occasional archer thrown in for good measure. As I moved into the crypt, though, battles began to confine themselves to smaller areas, and larger enemies came into play, forcing me to change my tactics. The final boss of the encounter was tuned at just the right level. He wasn't an insurmountable challenge, but if I ignored him or his minions with impunity, I would get ripped to shreds.
Cryptic says that the game should be into beta sometime this year. Before I came to PAX, I really wouldn't have cared one way or the other, but now that I've actually played it, I'm looking forward to the release. This is one of those games that wound up coming more or less out of nowhere to impress me, and it's shaping up thus far to be a really fun game to jump in and play.
Massively's on the ground in Boston during the weekend of April 6-8, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2012. Whether you're dying to know more about TERA or PlanetSide 2 or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!