At least he died with dignity.
I've been stoked for Neverwinter ever since I first got my hands on a short demo of the game at PAX East a year or two back. The game's stylish, fast-paced combat hooked me, and I've always been particularly fond of the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, having spent a considerable amount of my teenage years in the original Neverwinter Nights and its many persistent worlds.

So of course when I got my hands on a Neverwinter beta key, I was thrilled and waited on pins and needles for the duration of the excruciatingly long download, courtesy of my lovely ISP. Once the game was finally installed on Friday, however, my weekend was consumed by my adventures in the Jewel of the North and its surrounding environs. Over the course of the weekend, I managed to take my Trickster Rogue to the level cap of 30 and experienced a fairly large amount of the available content. Spoiler alert: I liked it. But if you wanna know the details, listen up and I'll recount my tales for you.

So let's start off with character creation. I already had high hopes for the game's visuals because on previous occasions I had been taken with Neverwinter's style, but it wasn't until I got to the beta's character creation screen that I realized that Neverwinter's characters are... kind of hideous. I had never really paid much attention to my character before, but after perusing the customization options for the male Halflings and Elves, I couldn't really make a character I particularly liked.

Neverwinter character creation screenshot
That's not to say that the models themselves are bad, but I found the options a bit limited. The skin complexion option starts from "haggard" and works its way up to "ancient," so if you're the kind of person who likes making attractive characters (like I am, so sue me), it's a bit difficult to do so. But if you're more the type to make your characters a little rough around the edges, you'll be satisfied with Neverwinter's options.

Other than that, though, the game's graphics are rather dashing. The splendorous city of Neverwinter is well-rendered and populated with huge numbers of NPCs going about their daily lives. Animations, likewise, are fluid and largely well-done, but I have a bone to pick with the Trickster Rogue's Quasimodo-esque run animation. Nothing screams inconspicuous like skulking around as if you've just kicked a puppy, right?

Screenshot -- NeverwinterAs far as quest structure goes, Neverwinter is decidedly a themepark. You will be guided through quest after quest to hub after hub, seeing the sights, meeting the locals, and killing them. I actually rather enjoyed the story, though, which focuses on the city of Neverwinter after the catastrophic event known as the Spellplague, which caused massive damage to the lands of the Forgotten Realms. It may just be because of my aforementioned fondness for the setting, but I found myself engrossed in the story enough that the typical hub-to-hub slog didn't bother me.

Of course, that's also assisted by the game's shining feature: combat. The devs clearly understand how important the "badass factor" is in games like Neverwinter, which largely consist of slaughtering baddies en masse. Take, for example, World of Warcraft. Somehow, I don't feel particularly badass when my high-level Rogue struggles to hold his own with a single, mangy wolf, which somehow made it to the same level as people who have killed gods.

Neverwinter understands this, and instead of throwing you against an endless conga-line of single mobs, it has you regularly going toe-to-toe with groups of four or more mobs. Of course, in the end, nothing has changed; fighting that group of mobs is just as challenging as fighting that single wolf in WoW, but to me it makes all the difference in the way the combat feels. Taking down a wolf with a pair of daggers is awesome, but killing a mob of six dudes in a flurry of steel as you teleport all over the place is exponentially more badass.

And we can't neglect the faciliatators of this badassery: your abilities. I'll go back to the ubiquitous World of Warcraft as an example. My level 90 Rogue has something like 20+ abilities, the majority of which I hardly use on a regular basis. Meanwhile, in Neverwinter, at any given time I have access to a total of only eight abilities, divided as such: two at-will abilities (basic attacks, bound to left and right mouse), three encounter abilities (bound to Q, E, and R; these are your bread-and-butter special abilities), two daily abilities (though you begin with only one; these are bound to your 1 and 2 keys), and one utility ability (for my Trickster Rogue, this was stealth; it's bound to the tab key).

Now that the technical stuff is out of the way, I'll tell you why this works so well: It removes all the filler. Remember those abilities in WoW that you never use? Well, Neverwinter cuts the fat and provides players with only the most badass abilities instead of forcing them to slog through bland filler skills to get to the good stuff. You still have everything you'd expect, such as damage, crowd-control, DoTs, and so forth, but they've all been rolled up into fewer, but more interesting, abilities. This system encourages players to more strategically utilize their skills. For instance, I had a high-damage attack rolled into a shadowstep-style teleport. While more damage is always useful, there was no telling when I'd need that teleport to make a quick escape or cover ground to a ranged mob that's harassing me.

And as I said before, combat just feels heroic. The ability animations are smooth and flashy, but tastefully so. A personal favorite ability of mine drew a stylish, ethereal purple dagger across my target as my character swung his weapon, and I found myself using it more often for its animation than for its utility.

However, stylish though it is, challenging is one thing that Screenshot -- Neverwintercombat is not. It's entirely possible that it gets more difficult at higher levels, but in the 30 levels that I played, I died maybe three times, tops, usually due to careless mistakes, and anyone who decided to group through the questing content would absolutely steamroll it. While there were some situations when I'd need to save certain abilities for situational use, more often than not I was perfectly fine just blowing all of my abilities and auto-attacking while they cooled down.

The potential is there to really have players scrutinizing their ability bars to ensure that their skills fit the situation, but as they are now, the fights simply aren't challenging enough to really make it worth paying that much attention, and I generally just used whatever abilities I felt looked the coolest, which frankly is fine; I'm all about a game that lets me just be a complete badass for a while. But I also appreciate a good challenge at least every once in a while.

The things that really drew me to Neverwinter, however, are the smaller details -- for instance, the ability to pray to your deity-of-choice once per hour, which provides delicious buffs, money, and valuable astral diamonds, which can be spent on a variety of things such as feat respecs or powerful gear. I would like to see the player's deity choice have more effect on this invocation, as I didn't see any difference between my rewards no matter which deity the character worshipped. Regardless, the feature is nifty and adds a bit of flavor to the game. Plus, the buffs are pretty useful.

Then there's the Foundry. Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to fiddle with the Foundry itself (if it was even fully available during the weekend), but I did get a chance to see how Foundry missions will be implemented into the game world, and the prospect excites me. See, when making a Foundry mission, the creator can choose any point in the open world to serve as an entry point for the mission. There are NPCs (often members of the Harpers, of whom I'm a fan) scattered throughout the various quest hubs; they'll give you a heads-up on any Foundry missions that start in the vicinity, and you can pick them up just like regular quests. The prospect is interesting, but I do wonder how those NPCs will work when the game goes live and there are dozens of Foundry missions in any given area.

Screenshot -- Neverwinter
Another thing I appreciate is the fact that Neverwinter embraces whole-heartedly the fact that it is a game and not a virtual world. With that in mind, it does everything it can to make content easily accessible to players. There's an entire panel dedicated to telling you which dungeons and events you can queue for, notifying you of any upcoming events (and offering to remind you when they begin), and showing you some of the top-rated Foundry content you might enjoy. I always felt as if everything was just a click away.

Material gathering is also handled in a somewhat novel way, as each class is granted a single knowledge skill, out of the possibilities of Arcana, Religion, Nature, Thievery, and Dungeoneering. Any given gathering node (which can also have special effects; for instance, Religion nodes sometime grant blessings, and Dungeoneering nodes sometimes open hidden areas) in a zone will be tied to one of these skills, but if you come across a node for a skill you don't have, you can buy a consumable that will grant you that skill for long enough to harvest a node or two. One thing I noticed, though, is that these consumables are incredibly cheap, and instead of finding them a nice perk to allow me to gather from another knowledge ability's node, I found myself ensuring that I always had a stack of each skill's consumables on me at any given time.

Obviously crafting materials and such don't matter as much during a beta weekend when everything's going to get wiped anyway, but once the game launches and crafting mats are in demand, I wouldn't be surprised if carrying around stacks of these consumables became considered a necessity, which kind of defeats the purpose of making the knowledge abilities class-specific in the first place. In my opinion, the devs should make these consumables more expensive to buy from vendors and rarer to come across in the field. That should hopefully encourage people to group together not only for combat advantages but for the advantage of having multiple knowledge skills available as well.

Screenshot -- Neverwinter
I could probably go on for a few more paragraphs about all the little details that tickled me about Neverwinter (like the fact that I'm pretty sure I saw a Head of Vecna joke somewhere), but despite all of these little things that made me warm up to the game, I'm not without my reservations. As I mentioned, the game isn't particularly challenging, and I question how well it will be able to hold the modern MMO gamer's attention, though it's completely possible that Foundry creations will make up for this deficiency. It also seemed to be a bit on the shallow end, with a huge breadth of content but not much depth to it. But of course, I played only the first 30 levels and didn't have the chance to see things like crafting, PvP, and of course, endgame content, so I'll reserve judgment on that until I've played more.

Ultimately though, that's the crux of it: I would like to play more. That's more than can be said for many games that just weren't able to hook me and make me want to come back for more, and Neverwinter has succeeded in that regard. It's piqued my interest, and I'll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of it in the future beta weekends, but whether it will have any long-term appeal remains to be seen.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.
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