I sat down in Perfect World's E3 demo room on Tuesday unsure what I should expect from Neverwinter. I remember trying Dungeons and Dragons Online back in 2006 when it was new, and I've poked ineffectually at Neverwinter Nights a few times in my life, but neither ever captivated me. I respected those games' goals, but the type of gameplay both demanded simply required a kind of patient approach that I'm not always great at taking.
Patience and planning are not at the top of Neverwinter's agenda.
Longtime Dungeons and Dragons fans may be surprised to see the newest incarnation of the storied franchise. Neverwinter is a free-to-play action-oriented MMO, meaning it's much more hair-trigger and less concerned with the detailed architecture of a character and its actions than more traditional, pen-and-paper inspired games.
The game, bluntly, is streamlined. And in a day where I saw more than one action MMO, Neverwinter was still the most pared down. Gone are the wide-ranging hotbars and overwhelming skill sets of traditional MMO types. In the demo, the producer speaking with us explained that ultimately, most players tended to rely on the same six or seven skills in general anyway, and so the extras more or less wilted away in favor of a quicker experience.
This is not to imply that Neverwinter forces all players into a single mold. Perfect World promises a full range of character classes and races before launch, with a wide array of character customizations. As a free-to-play MMO, cosmetic gear in particular, of a wide array, will no doubt be available for a nominal fee.
For now, they were showing off the guardian fighter, trickster rogue, and control wizard. Together, the three make a powerful trio. Even if the mage and fighter in my demo group did wipe on an instance's boss, leaving me, the rogue, to finish it off. The leap-to-backstab ability with the barely-there cooldown came in handy.
We heard emphasized, repeatedly, that this game is truly set in the canonical Dungeons and Dragons world, with settings, races, and other elements that would be familiar to the most ardent fans. Wizards of the Coast, who own D&D, have apparently even chosen a few looks from Neverwinter as the new main models for their fantastic bestiary.
I don't know that the world was crying out for either another D&D game or for another free-to-play MMO, but the demo was surprisingly entertaining. As with any multiplayer game, the key is to play with a good group, and I lucked into one with the strangers by my side. When the character classes work in concert, cooperating on a common cause, the quick, dodge-and-roll flow of combat is deeply satisfying.
"Agile and quick" is never how I've thought of D&D games, but Neverwinter seems poised to change that. With the mechanics pulled back to their essentials, the fun of taking out a dungeon full of monsters takes shape in a way that feels fresh and new to the storied, genre-defining franchise.
Neverwinter is aiming for a late 2012 launch, with a beta program kicking off near the end of the summer.