Neverwinter just launched it's open beta and - like most popular launches - server issues and long queues abound. So is it worth actually making the effort to get in right now? For me, the answer is an orgasmic "OH GAWD, YES!" but being a Dungeons and Dragons nerd skews my perspective slightly. So let's take a look at Neverwinter's core components so that you can decide whether to jump in now, wait for some stability or simply skip it altogether.
What better place to start than right at the beginning? There are a lot of character creation options available, including facial feature and body sliders, so finding a look for your own character won't be hard.
It's similar to Cryptic's previous MMO Champions Online, minus the costume customisation, which has it's downsides. Despite being able to customise every aspect of your face, you're never really able to escape the default look; meaning every time you pass someone with the same race and gender as you you'll be wondering if you're related. Be especially mindful of the complexion feature: it looks great in the creator, but it's difficult to make out in the game proper.
Aside from the looks, you can also choose where your character came from and what he/she did there. Everything from a Defender of the Dalelands, hunter of monsters, worldwise adventurer, escaped prisoner, religious fanatic... the list goes on, and you can create your own as well.
+Many more customisation options than most other MMO's
+Can create your own backstory (gives a title to display in game too)
-Almost every face will look similar without hiding it behind tattoos and facial hair
-Expect a lot of people to have parents who were brutally murdered by a "mysterious" evil wizard
In my book, the way a game handles is often it's most important aspect. No point having a fancy looking car if you can't drive it in a straight line, right?
Anyway, the game handles significantly better than most other MMO's: The movement is responsive and lag is almost always a non-issue. Rather than point-and-click target mechanics, Neverwinter plays like a third-person adventure game, with the mouse primarily used to look around rather than clicking on things. Your target is whatever you're aiming at, which adds to the immersion most of the time, but outright smashes it when you're trying to grab some loot after a battle and keep opening the player interaction menu because someone got in the way. It also makes precise targeting much harder once a battle gets heated - this is especially notable for healers, as landing the clutch heal that saves the day will often be impossible amidst the chaos.
Like other games that use this style (Tera comes to mind) the overall flow is broken whenever you need to use the mouse on the interface, such as going through your inventory because there's no way to turn your character while the mouse is being used to select items.
Despite the UI shortcomings, Neverwinter makes up for it by having the most engaging combat system I've seen for a long while. Combat is fun, responsive and there's no mana/resource management to worry about - almost everything is centred on cooldowns. There's a heavy emphasis on "Don't-stand-in-the-fire" combat as well, with every enemy ability telegraphed by big red circles. All classes have a unique dodge/block ability to deal with them, however server problems can cause you to rubberband back into a hotspot you dodged out of moments before, which can be really frustrating during boss encounters. The servers have been relatively stable in my experience so far, but it's hard to predict when/if problems will arise during the first few weeks of a popular launch.
Oh, and ragdolling an enemy across the map is REALLY fun.
+Very fun combat
+No point-and-click targeting
+Third person camera control
-UI can be difficult to use
-No point-and-click targeting
-Rubberbanding when the server has issues
Currently, PvP is Neverwinter's weakest aspect, with just a 5v5 domination arena available at the time of writing. While 20v20 PvP and competive PvE are just on the horizon, that doesn't help so much right now. There's no world PvP (aside from competitive PvE events, but you can't beat down other players during these) and the queue's for a domination match can take a while too, so PvP enthusiasts would be better off holding out for a little while.
+There's more stuff coming soon!
-There's not much right now
-Enemy players take a LOT of punishment 1v1
Speaking of queues, Neverwinter has a queueing system for every scenario that requires a group. Aside from PvP, Dungeons and Skirmishes also have automatic group finding systems.
Skirmishes are small, usually frantic PvE events that throw a truck load of enemies at you in a short amount of time. These can vary from defense-style arenas to small dungeon romps and are loads of fun.
Dungeons are exactly what you'd expect in a MMORPG these days - large 5-man content with loot, bosses, tokens, etc - with a lot of attention given to hiding treasures everywhere. Loads of fun for treasure hunters!
+Easy to find groups
+Skirmishes are great
+Hidden treasures to find
-Groups can be a little impersonal and/or hasty
-Aside from treasure hunting, 5-man dungeons are quite ordinary
There aren't as many options for those who prefer to go it alone; luckily, Neverwinter's primary chain of quests for each area are designed to be done solo and vary between overworld and instanced tasks. While the pacing and design over the quests and instances are quite good, Some of the npc's have the most rigid voiceovers I've ever heard. The text is well written, but hearing the voices often makes me want to skip the story in favor of shutting them up quicker.
The instances are usually well designed too, however they often repeat the same assets, which makes you feel like you're visiting the same places over and over and the open world areas feel small and riddled with invisible walls. If you can see past those flaws there's still a lot of fun to be had, it just doesn't feel as "massive" as some would like.
Solo instances can only ever be entered when you have the corresponding quest, which means you can't explore a lunatic dungeon or a wizard's tower before getting your "special permission" from the quest giver, nor can you revisit it afterwards, which contributes heavily to the small feel of the game.
The size of the area can be offset somewhat by user generated content: quests and areas created by other players, which theoretically increases the possible depth of the game, but the created dungeons will often use map assets you've seen many times before, and at this early stage of the game most of the UGC quests aren't so great either.
The crafting system in Neverwinter is one of my favourites to date. Instead of crafting items yourself, you essentially "hire" workers to do everything for you, and all crafting is done by managing tasks over time rather than by farming materials. Tasks and auctions can be managed while not online as well, via the Gateway on the Neverwinter homepage. Of course, not everyone is a fan of the time based profession system, so you're either going to love it or hate it with a passion.
+Great single player quest chains
+Well paced progression
+Innovative professions system
+User generated content
-Instances feel repetitive, despite only getting one visit in most of them
-Invisible walls, everywhere...
-Professions can be a bother to manage
-Having to filter through "lesser" user generated content
This is where Neverwinter really stumbles - in fact, most western free to play games seem to struggle with finding a good business model, and Neverwinter is no exception.
Currently, Neverwinter sports FOUR primary types of currency:
Gold: Basic money from monsters/vendors using the now standard copper-silver-gold system
Astral Diamonds: A confusing type of "better money" that's used for numerous things, including the auction house.
Zen: Microtransaction currency purchased with real money.
Glory: Standard PvP currency
And on top of those there are numerous token systems as well, such as Ardent and Celestial coins for logging in a praying each day, Seals of the Lion/Pegasus/Manticore/Drake for doing dungeons or collecting enough bounty tokens, Trade Bars from microtransactions and so on.
Zen and Astral Diamonds can be exchanged with other players, so you theoretically never have to buy Zen with real money, except that most people will be able to gain about 10,000 Astral Diamonds per day if they complete all of their daily quests, which can be exchanged for roughly 20 Zen at the moment. The cheapest item available right now are Enchanted Keys, which open Nightmare Lockboxes which are found in abundance around the world (Similar to Team Fortress 2, only the boxes are much more common than crates) and those are 125 Zen each. You're in for a rough ride if you've got your eye on the shiny mount that costs 4,000 zen (equivalent to about $40 USD).
It all adds up to a very confusing experience. I might be wrong about this (feel free to correct me) but to me it seems like Gold is almost worthless, Astral Diamonds are the real primary currency, despite being relatively hard to come by, and Zen is your only recourse to getting around some of the game's more limiting mechanics.
It doesn't take long to realise that Neverwinter is not-so-subtly encouraging you to buy Zen, which is fine seeing as Cryptic and Perfect World have to make money somehow, but once you've bought and spent your Zen the game goes right back to treating you like a second class citizen until you buy more again.
Overall, it's a mess of a business model and is probably going to drive players away from the game once they get sick of jumping through microtransaction hoops, and believe me, they'll get sick of it fast.
+Microtransaction currency can be obtained in game for free, sorta...
+Lockboxes are fun to open
+Some items are reasonably priced
-Very confusing currencies
-Buying Zen with Diamonds will take you a long time
-Borderline Pay to Win
-Lockboxes can be frustrating (Such as when you get an item worth roughly two thirds the value of the key you used to open the box)
-More tokens than actual loot
Despite the horrendous business model there's still loads of fun to be had in Neverwinter. You can have your own personal companions to train fight for you, the dungeons provide a great challenge later in the game and the combat is really satisfying. Overall, it's a lot of fun and since it's free there's no better option than to see for yourself. Hopefully I've managed to help in that regard.
For now, I have to go - I've got a big, green dragon that needs slaying.