The first 30 levels
There sure are a lot of free-to-play MMORPGs out there vying for everyone's attention these days. Even MMOs that begin with a subscription-based model tend to eventually offer some free-to-play version down the line. It's definitely proven to be effective and lucrative at times, however it's also proven to be downright scummy and sleazy at others.
Neverwinter is hard to classify as belonging to either of the two camps. Early on, you'll likely hardly notice that it's a free-to-play title at all. It plays well, doesn't overtly beg anyone for money, and it even has decent quests and voice acting! However, the stories I've read about the late-game free-to-play shenanigans have put me off a bit from experiencing any sort of end-game content.
I'd be lying, however, if I said I wasn't enjoying myself so far.
I've been playing Neverwinter since it officially released in June at a rather casual pace. I've leveled a Control Wizard into the mid-30s, so I don't have any hands-on experience with the end game. I am by no means a Neverwinter expert, but I feel as if I can answer some questions you probably don't have:
What are the classes?
There are a disappointingly small amount of classes in Neverwinter, but they do at least play very differently from each other. The issue is that none of the classes are anything interesting; they all have a bad case of "been there, done that." There are currently a total of five classes: Control Wizard, who is best at disables; Great Weapon Fighter, who can dish out the damage but dies from a mere sneeze; Guardian Fighter, equipped with a block button and a lack of mobility; Devoted Cleric, who can hit a lot of people for a little bit of damage while also healing; and the Trickster Rogue, who can sneak around and backstab people. I've spent most of my time with the Control Wizard, but have also dabbled in the Great Weapon Fighter and Guardian Fighter a bit.
My biggest disappointment is how little variation there is between players of the same class. The first 30 levels of Control Wizard will look almost exactly the same on me as it does on anyone else. There may be a very slight deviation on which skills I've leveled up more, but chances are we have and use the same spells. At level 30, "Paragon Paths" unlock with the promise of greater character diversity, however there is only one Paragon Path available for Control Wizards right now, meaning that everyone will have the same powers as me the entire way through. To say I was bummed when I saw that would be a huge understatement.
How does it play?
Neverwinter is not a typical tab-select MMO. It is, however, a typical action game. There is a reticule in the center of the screen, but most skills still require a target to be used. In other words, if you're not looking at something, you can't use skills. Area of Effect (AoE) spells in particular have a large target on the ground where they will be used while the player manipulates its position with the mouse before activating.
It's a decent change of pace from the normal MMO battle system, but as I hit the incorrect target more and more often, I found myself wishing I could just select targets automatically with tab (the old fashioned way). Sometimes a target will move a sliver to the right and the reticule will choose another enemy to attack, which can be very frustrating when using big-damage spells. I suppose that's the "point" of the battle system, but it's still annoying.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Neverwinter is how great the spells feel to use. While the description and actual effects of many of the spells seem simple, the animations make them feel like they could take out the title character in a "Dragon Ball Z" saga. Giant sword swings connect with a swift "shink!" and magic spells alter the camera to give them a very strong sense of power and impact, pretty much forcing me to shout "booya!" when landing a big blow on an even bigger enemy.
What are quests like?
Yes, there are going to be plenty of "kill X of Y" quests, but not to the point of insanity. Plus, doing those quests isn't all that terrible when you actually like the game's core battle mechanics, which I do. Many of the quests do take place in instanced areas, though they all follow the same pattern. Enter the area, clear the dudes, watch the intro of the boss man, kill the boss man, collect the treasure, and get out.
In fact, each new area follows the same patterns as well, with very little deviation. It's incredibly easy to predict what's going to happen when arriving at a new area because you've done it before. Again though, it's a bit less irritating because the core gameplay is rock solid.
What about leveling up?
Leveling up occurs at a nice and steady pace. It isn't necessary to play for long hours to feel a sense of progress; a casual rate of play will still get you places. It can feel a bit underwhelming to level up and have only one skill get slightly better, but that is the case in pretty much any MMO ever. The "milestone levels" do feel great, though: getting a mount or unlocking a new set of skills is pretty exciting.
Can you solo or is it necessary to team?
This is, as usual, largely dependent on what class you pick. A Cleric will take a much longer time to solo than say, a Rogue, but it is definitely possible. I had a lot of trouble soloing with a Great Weapons Fighter without potions, which completely turned me away from the class. I was digging the massive swings and big blows, but chugging a healing potion 10 times in a boss fight was way too much maintenance for me. Soloing with my Control Wizard was much easier, as the damage output was just fine and the damage mitigation was huge thanks to the disabling powers at my disposal.
I did spend a lot of time partying with a buddy and had a great time doing so. It was sort of painfully easy, but that might have been because the Wizard and Cleric combination is borderline untouchable. Between my disables and his heals and AoE, we breezed through everything we encountered.
Bigger missions like Dungeons or Skirmishes have an auto-party search function that works as intended. It may take a while to pair you up with a team, but it'll get you there eventually.
What is The Foundry?
The Foundry is Neverwinter's way of making the game feel more Dungeons & Dragons-esque. Players can create and publish their very own missions with dialogue and boss fights for other players to enjoy. The tools are a bit limited though, which results in a lot of bland missions, even though they were made with love.
In fact, most people seem to use The Foundry by searching "exp" in the search bar and then choosing one of the very quick missions meant to give a good amount of experience for the time committed. So it is at least good for that, I suppose. It's a neat idea, but its execution has fallen a bit flat.
How is PvP?
I played one match of 5v5 PvP. It was terrible.
I'm not really into MMO PvP in general, but I thought Neverwinter's might be better since it was a more action-y game. All it consisted of were three capture points and 10 people. For way too long. The match went on for what felt like forever of doing the same things over and over again. Back and forth between capture points on a very lackluster "battle ground" for pretty much no reward isn't exactly my idea of a riveting good time.
What's the free-to-play model?
Neverwinter uses the Zen currency that all of the Perfect World free-to-play games use. The conversion rate is a simple 100 Zen = $1.00.
Each account starts with two character slots, and additional slots can be purchased in pairs for $5. There is no option to purchase one additional character slot. Each character will start with one free skill "respec" in order to re-assign skills, but any respecs after the first will cost $3. There's a cash shop that has things like mounts, AI companions, fashionable attire (no stats), and crafting supply packs, but nothing that you absolutely need to have.
Also, there's the classic copper/silver/gold currency in-game that can be used to buy potions, crafting supplies, armor, and all that good stuff. Finally, in addition to this currency and the previously explained Zen, there's Astral Diamonds.
Astral Diamonds can be directly exchanged for Zen, which can then be used to purchase things from the in-game cash shop. Many people also sell items on the Auction House for Astral Diamonds; it's the currency-of-choice in Neverwinter. It is not easy to get Astral Diamonds through normal play, however. Each character can worship their deity every hour and gain Astral Diamonds for doing so the first three times per day. Astral Diamonds are also awarded for doing Daily missions like PvP matches and Dungeons, each of which can be completed once per day. If you were to really work hard at gathering Astral Diamonds, you could probably get around 10,000 per day.
Which equates to about 33 cents.
The problem is that there is no set conversion rate for Astral Diamonds to Zen, and the economy is currently fucking broken. The market has already been flooded with Astral Diamonds, thanks to one of the Founders Pack packages that awarded players two million Astral Diamonds for contributing $200. So the conversion rate is pretty borked right now, and it will take some time before it comes close to normalizing.
Does it feel like a scummy model?
Despite the crappy Zen to Astral Diamonds conversion rate, the game does a decent job of not imploring the player for money. At least, not until the endgame, and even then it depends on your play style. If you're not one to care about min/maxing and getting the best gear with the best enchantments, then chances are you'll never feel the need to buy anything with real money. However, getting the best enchantments in your items will either take forever or require some burned cash.
Weapon and armor enchantments are very rare drops from high-level dungeons that have some pretty great effects when imbued into weapons, and can even be fused together up to three stages. However, fusing these enchantments together has a success rate of ~1%. One percent! How do you get around this? By buying a Coalescent Ward for $10 or around 120,000 Astral Diamonds (currently), which turns the success rate into 100%. It is also possible to invoke your deity for 7 days, which awards one Celestial Coin each day, and purchase a Ward with those.
So yes, it is totally possible to not spend money and get Coalescent Wards through other means, but it will take a long time and become one huge pain in the butt, essentially encouraging you to pay money to guarantee your chance of success. Or, you could be like me and give literally no hoots as to whether or not your weapons and armor have the best enchantments in them.
I will probably keep playing Neverwinter for a while, even if it is at a super-casual pace. The action-oriented combat isn't necessarily better than the traditional tab-selecting that most MMOs use, but it is different enough to make the predictable and standard quests go by relatively unnoticed. It doesn't feel like a slog to play through, which is still better than most free-to-play MMOs out there these days.
The free-to-play model will certainly be offensive to some, namely those who want to min/max their character for the end game, but if you're not hardcore about being super amazing, it won't be much of a bother since you can slowly get the required currency through simply playing the game. Neverwinter is a solid experience and can easily hold you over until something newer and shinier comes along, whatever that may be.
And hey, it's free-to-play, so why not just give it a shot? It's not so bad.