What's all the fuss about...Neverwinter: The best free-to-play MMO on consoles?

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Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly is the big deal? In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?

This time it’s the turn of long-running MMO experience Neverwinter. The game has a reputation for being one of the better examples of a free-to-play MMO, especially on consoles. So with it’s latest update adding new areas and quests, is now the perfect time to jump into this perennially popular world?

What is it, exactly?

Originally released on PC in 2013, Neverwinter is a free-to-play MMORPG set on the continent of Faerûn, in the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Worlds universe. The game has maintained a loyal following over the years, receiving an Xbox One port in 2015, and a version for Playstation 4 in 2016. At the beginning of April, Neverwinter received its latest in its long line of updates, The Cloaked Ascendancy, which is the game’s eleventh expansion.

How does it play?

Neverwinter’s goal seems to be to recreate the archetypal fantasy MMO world in a free-to-play game. Everything you’d expect to find is here, from powerful mages to muscular warriors and arcane dragons. That familiarity extends to the opening, which has your character wash up on the shore near the city of Neverwinter after your ship is destroyed. An NPC tells you the city is being laid to siege by the evil elven lich Valindra Shadowmantle (because that’s the sort of thing people are called in Faerûn), and its down to you to stop her.

Thus begins a suitably epic tale of heroism and sacrifice that is largely irrelevant, because this is an action-MMORPG, so every scrap of a story is in service of taking down swathes of enemies and leveling up in the process. Combat is very firmly in the vein of action RPGs like the Darksiders or God Of War series, and its here where developers Cryptic Studios have managed to tailor their game to a console audience. Using a controller with console version I tested was a joy compared to practically every other console MMO out there (with perhaps the exception of The Elder Scrolls Online, which makes use of a similar system). There are nowhere near the sheer quantity of active powers you’d find in World of Warcraft or another similarly complex MMO, but Neverwinter is all the better for it, as every power is neatly mapped onto the controller. The left and right triggers instantly fire out your ‘anytime’ powers, while those which require a cooldown reside on the face buttons, and another set are easily toggled using the bumpers. Non-combat functions like healing can be easily reached on the d-pad. It’s a simple but effective arrangement that I got the hang of quickly. The game does a pretty good job of making each power feel weighty and fun to use, too. My Trickster Rogue’s Cloud of Steel power, in particular, was always fun to fire off once enemies came bumbling into range. The only slightly puzzling thing is that the jump command is a toggle-only alternate function. I understand that jumping doesn’t perform a particularly useful function in the game’s combat, but it still feels counterintuitive for it to be hidden away in the alternate-commands menu.

Overall, it’s great that the combat system successfully turns what could have been one of the game’s key weaknesses on console to a major strength, so much so that PC players could certainly justify playing it this way to enjoy the action-orientated combat better.

Is the fuss justified?

Aside from its combat, Neverwinter’s other headline feature is its generous free-to-play model. Although almost everything you could think of to boost your character and speed up your leveling-up progress is available to buy with real-world currency at the in-game store, you can play the game in its entirety without spending a single dime. It’s only as you reach its later levels do Neverwinter’s XP farming and currency generation systems slow down considerably, tempting players into its (expensive) leveling boosts.

Whether you do stick with Neverwinter until its late stages largely depend on how you much you feel invested in the game world. And while there are some dashes of originality, like strikingly-designed locations such as the enormous Winged Wyvern Bridge and the eerie corners of the early Blacklake District, in general, this is as generic as fantasy gets, and the tired aesthetic isn’t helped by an engine which is showing its age. And, as happily intuitive as the controls are, the combat can’t help but get repetitive after a few hours of hacking away at enemies which have broadly identical attack patterns. The situation isn’t helped by the instanced dungeon design, which is linear in the extreme, without even a cursory effort to make each delve feel anything other than a single winding corridor from entrance to final boss. The NPCs, too, are an odd combination of instantly forgettable, and a constant source of irritation, acted as they are in such an off-putting way, with silly accents seemingly thrown in just to differentiate between one blank, soulless quest-giver and the next.

Worth a look?

The free-to-play MMO space isn’t the sparsely populated space it one was. There are a number of games which were previously attached to the pay monthly model that made the transition once their subscribership began to drop. The number of purpose-made free-to-play games has increased, too, making Neverwinter, not the unique proposition it once was. That said, the game is well supported, and has a notably generous free-to-play model that lets you get on with the adventuring without delving too deeply into your pockets.

Even with that in mind, though, Neverwinter is hard to recommend. All the free content in the world won’t help if you don’t actually enjoy to spending time in game’s world. The combat is fun, but its effect is temporary: it wasn’t long before the entertaining fights had stopped glossing over the game’s many shortcomings. It was the linearity that stung me most of all, with the repetitive walks from one end of a dungeon to the other doing nothing to make me want to sink more time into Neverwinter.

Ultimately, if what you want from an MMO is hours upon hours of smashing enemies in the face for a constant drip-feed of loot, and you’re not too picky about the surroundings you do it in, this is the game for you. If you value storytelling, originality, complexity, freedom, or indeed, sensible accents, you’d probably do well to look elsewhere.