Most epic fantasy has a lot of thanks to give not only to Tolkien, but to his inspirations: mythos and lore. In this same way, much of modern fantasy that occupies tabletops and gaming consoles can tip a hat to Forgotten Realms for the depth of their universes. It's hard to escape the influence in most games set in medieval or high fantasy. Expecting Perfect World and Cryptic to bring something new to the table when presenting their free-to-play MMO, Neverwinter, is a bit much considering this framework defined the genre. Yet they still brought innovation to the table, just with focus on MMORPG functionality.
This isn't to say Perfect World changed how they monetize FTPMMOs. They have a solid structure that has worked with their many other titles, and they know better than to mess with that. For those new to the program, however, things can be a little daunting. I get that the urge to rush into the gameplay is strong, and you probably feel you have a pretty good grasp on MMOs in general, (at least I did), but it's important to pay attention in the beginning of the game. Not everything you need to know is spelled out for you, but the game offers access in game to wikis and provides tips in load screens. You can also do a quick search and find plenty of fanmade wikis to aid you, as well. Learning as much as you can as early as you can will benefit you, because there are a lot of things going on here.
First, there is normal gameplay. The controls here are decent once you get used to a targeting system that is a little unorthodox for third-person RPGs. (I did, however, much prefer the controls here to the ones found in D&D Online, but maybe I just didn't give those enough time.) My biggest gripe with a targeting system where you aim instead of click on targets is how often line of sight is easily broken. (This is especially a headache if you try to heal an individual in a full on battle.) When targeting enemies, however, there is a bit of an auto-aim that adjusts your character's focus while you are in attack mode. The controls are fluid and responsive. I have always been a double-click the mouse runner, but learning to use WASD full time was not difficult, especially since it's pretty standard. The rest of the key-mapping is intuitive and easy to remember, and also entirely customizable.
Speaking of customization, the character selection screen is pretty darn good. Players can choose between some of the most prominent races in Forgotten Realms, such as halflings, half-orcs, dwarfs, and even the drow eventually, with more races to come. Tieflings are also an option, creating some of the most impressive looking wizards you'll see running around in game. Individual tweaking of character appearance is detailed (though not quite as much as in PWI or other Cryptic titles) and impacts both facial structure and body structure. A wide range of tones are available for skin, hair, and other features. There are also three body types available, including a “heavy” preset, which can be altered using individual sliders for each body area.
Class is not limited to race, though different races have abilities consistent with specific class types. There are also more classes that will be added to the game over time. Attributes are chosen by rolling, which is a nice touch. One of the best parts of creating a character is choosing their background and deity alignment. You can also add a character history while creating a character, or at any point during gameplay. Just be sure to save this text in another application, because I encountered a glitch that repeatedly erased the character history I wrote for all of my characters. Only two character slots are available per account, with additional slots available for purchase. Some gamers choose to create multiple accounts to get past paying, but keep in mind that purchases made on one account with real money will not transfer to other accounts.
Speaking of the many forms of currency, how do they work? Well, the Zen currency is used in all of Perfect World's game incarnations. It allows you access to exclusive items, but there is also a variety of game currencies that can be achieved through different means as you progress in the game. Each currency relates to a specific market, granting access to things such as augmentations, profession items, and potions. Astral diamonds are the in game currency that can be acquired and traded for Zen to be spent on exclusive items. The amount of astral diamonds needed for these items is very high, and it takes a lot of work, but there are ways to avoid spending real money to get some of the real money items.
Astral diamonds/Zen also help to unlock Nightmare Lockboxes that are found in the game. While most of the drops in the game at lower to mid level are good, they all lack a certain legendary quality. The character will have many chances to collect these dropped lockboxes. They contain very rare items at random, but require a large about of astral diamonds or the purchase of Zen to open. At this point, there are aspects of the game that resemble a pay-to-win structure. I personally prefer when games stick to purely aesthetic purchases for real currency. On the other hand, you are required to pay nothing for a game that will likely provide you weeks upon weeks of enjoyment.
I had no real issue with the currency system because I've always been more of a PvE player, but there is a PvP arena that allows party vs party combat. It can be really invigorating provided you're in a solid team. If you prefer solo or small group play, the game is set up for that, too. I found the rogue and cleric to be very fun in solo play. You can also unlock the ability to use a computer controlled companion that you train and summon to help you. Keeping up with the timing of their training, on top of timed profession building, means your character has a lot to focus on while they strive for the current level cap of 60. Professions work like time-based quests found in social gaming apps, so they can be performed in the background at all times. There are dungeons and skirmishes available, each performed with a full party of five players. Queue up for these events while you work on other parts of the game.
All of the things I'm describing are achieved at level ten and higher, but you can only realize how fun these things are if you make it past the beginning of the game. Granted leveling is quick, and the beginning is relatively short, but the story here is drab, dry, and a sorry follow-up to the awe-inspiring opening cinematic. The story and fighting abilities vastly improve as the player levels, and my personal favorite feature of the entire game is introduced at level 15- The Foundry. The Foundry allows players to create their own quests and campaigns within the game. Some of the stories you can play, created by individuals from all over the world, are varied, creative, and an excellent way to level outside of the main quests. You can create your own campaigns, but this varies from the tabletop version. Even with a vastly adaptable tool kit and a cornucopia of base content to configure, there are limits simply by using the visual representation required in game. That's not to say the limits prevent any worth- the Foundry is an amazing addition to this gameplay format, and does a fantastic job at resembling the creative nature of tabletop itself.
The truth is, as a lifelong fan of the Forgotten Realms and nearly every game released from this universe, I had high expectations. In some ways, I was disappointed. I maybe expected too much from the story given my nostalgia for other games set within Neverwinter or Baldur's Gate. Neverwinter is a game that takes a little time to ease into, but it's worth the investment. I'd even say that in-game purchases with real money are warranted, provided you like the game enough to keep playing as it grows better and better. Beware of glitches that can cause things like character histories to be erased, or even prevent you from using an ability or potion here or there during battle. (I encountered the latter infrequently, and I'm sure the game is constantly patching and fixing these things.) One of the most compelling features of Neverwinter is the constant attention to improving the game and adding more features, including endgame PvE and PvP opportunities. This, along with character created Foundry campaigns and a seeming desire to incorporate the essence of tabletop magic, lead me to highly recommend at the very least trying this game if you are a fan of Forgotten Realms and MMOs.