We don't often do stories about beta releases of games, particularly not massively multiplayer online games. Why? Because the game can change from the betas to the release version. Neverwinter, a pending game from Perfect Worlds is a game based on the Forgotten Realms, which in turn is a license property of Wizards of the Coast. It is a Dungeons & Dragons title, but like Dungeons & Dragons Online (from Turbine).
What that means is that all of the rolling of the die is behind the scenes and players never really see what happens. It all plays out in real time, just like MMOs usually do, and all that happens within combat is being calculated based off probabilities, armor, weapons and so on.
The next thing to be aware of is that Neverwinter will be a free-to-play game. That's partially good news. The bad news is that as of beta, there were only seven races available (there will be eight at launch, adding in the Drow)—human, half-elf, elf, half-orc, dwarf, halfling and tiefling. The other bad news is that there will only be five classes available at launch—guardian fighter, trickster rogue, devoted cleric and control wizard (the fifth has yet to be revealed).
Of course, the classes will develop further as players level, but this might feel rather limited when given the scope of classes available in D&D games. Chances are that other classes may be introduced but, like content, might be a purchased item.
Sometimes free-to-play is not totally free, but rather a way to lure players into the game and then to charge them real-world money for content to keep them active. Players only have to play for the content they want and not get pulled into a monthly subscription.
The beta begins with the player (after character creation) washed up on the shore near the city of Neverwinter where a lot of not-so-nice things are happening. There is turmoil above ground with undead rising up, turmoil underground and ... well, just a lot of turmoil. Of course, players are given quests that yield coin, armor and weapons. They also gain experience, level up and can begin to define their characters by choosing the powers they want to have.
While the world looks pretty good, and the animation is well done (the special effects are quite good), the combat is what really shines in this game. Imagine being a fighter and using shield bash to lift an enemy up into the air, drive him backwards where he hits a wall and then slides, lifeless, to the ground. Or take on the role of a rogue where you teleport behind your foe and nail him with a series of quick slashes to the kidneys and other vital organs, rendering them lifeless and watching them slide—rag doll style—down a stairway.
The game uses dungeons for many of its initial missions and the ambience is excellent.
The user interface takes a bit of getting used to simply because the keys are not typical in configuration. The game does have an interface editor but it won't magically create the type of interface that most MMOs have.
The game also has a feature called The Foundry where players can create their own adventures and then share them with others. As of the beta, there were already a lot of adventures posted by other players that were quite intriguing and deepened the game play.
Combat, special effects and the environments are very nicely done. This game looks good and at this stage in its development it plays well. The Foundry is a great idea and should really up the ante in terms of creating game play beyond what the devo team is working on.
One has to wonder what is lurking behind the F2P business model and what the purchased content will include. As of the beta, players were limited to only two character slots but could purchase more. That means pick your characters wisely because unless you want to buy more character slots you may be with them for a while.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
This game is shaping up to be a first-rate F2P MMO in look and design. The game is currently in beta and is expected to release in the spring, though a specific date has yet to be announced. This is one to keep an eye on moving forward.