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Heroes of Neverwinter preview: Facebook fantasy

I didn't see a Facebook game on the E3 show floor that I would consider passing along to you, honored readers, whose time I value more than my own -- with one noteworthy exception. Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter represents a project which fans of its tabletop predecessor have been pulling for for a good, long time: An actual adaptation of the game's 4th Edition, complete with dungeon tiles, character progression and the move/minor/standard turn layout.

It is, of course, a simplified version of the robust RPG -- most of the series' constituent features are represented in some form or another, but in a limited capacity. Still, even with this one conceit, Heroes of Neverwinter looks like one of the beefiest titles on the platform; not to mention a dungeoneer's dream come true.

Gallery: Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter (E3 2011) | 3 Photos

Players start out by creating a hero of their own design, blending one of four races (Dragonborn, Human, Eladrin and Halfling) with one of four classes (Rogue, Fighter, Cleric and Wizard). Each character has a number of aesthetic options you can change from the outset, but you'll want to make sure not to make them look too ridiculous -- much like in Dragon Age: Legends, your friends can borrow your characters and bring them into battle with them.

Players can enlist their friends heroes (as well as mercenaries-for-hire) at the town hub, an area which also allows them to purchase new items or customize their own personal estate. The game uses two forms of currency for these transactions: Gold, which you'll find scattered across the 50-or-so dungeons of Neverwinter, and Astral Diamonds, which are purchased using Facebook Coins.

From there, players can hop into an instanced dungeon (each of which have three difficulty levels, with fittingly scaled rewards) and begin crawling their way through in D&D 4E fashion. All of the die rolling sadly still takes place behind the scenes, but the mechanics are the same: Players go in order of their initiative, choose one of the many, many skills they pick up each level to use against a monster, then pray their attack finds its mark.

It's not the most sophisticated-looking title, but it mocks-up the tabletop game's formula in a way no other D&D title has before. There's also neat little touches that clever DMs might bring back to their real-life games: For instance, when looting a corpse or chest, players must choose between 10 face-down cards, each of which hides a certain treasure. Players can spend "Potions of Luck," an item that can be bought with gold or Astral Diamonds, to randomly reveal one card. All cards are revealed after the player makes his or her choice -- meaning obsessive players can keep coming through the same dungeons in a hunt for that one legendary item that got away.

And then there's the game's interesting take on "Energy," the currency of social games which determines how long you're allowed to play before waiting to recharge. Heroes of Neverwinter does not feature synchronous multiplayer -- instead, if you borrow a friend's character, they can sit as a spectator on your adventure. While doing so, they'll be able to provide minor buffs to your party, and recharge their own Energy at a much faster rate.

Players can also create their own dungeons once they reach level 10, which they can then charge their friends a modest entry fee to gain access to. Ambitious DMs could ostensibly use their creative juices as a second in-game income -- though I didn't get a chance to see the depth of this dungeon editor during my demo.

It's refreshing to see Atari and Liquid Entertainment smartly delivering a product which so closely resembles Wizard's already-super-popular franchise. There's certainly some room for growth -- but ultimately, Facebook might just be the perfect platform for a socially-centered game like Dungeons and Dragons.

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