It's like 4e, but it's not...

June 17th, 2013

I'm a huge fan of D&D 4th edition. I especially like the character design rules and power structure, along with the thorough embrace of square-based combat. I've always thought it would be great as a video game, or at least an automated virtual tabletop, something like the D&D Insider tools and Roll 20 merged into one. But that wasn't to be.

Instead, Cryptic, the team behind Champions Online and Star Trek Online, bring us D&D Neverwinter, a 4e inspired F2P MMORPG. It features real-time third-person combat, not entirely dissimilar from Tera, with active targeting and dodging and stuff like that.

I was initially rather reluctant to try the game out, because I had horrible experiences with other Perfect World games. Perfect World, a Chinese company, employs very aggressive and oppressive monetization in its games, propagating all the worst of the Asian "pay to win" stigma.

Maybe "pay to win" isn't the right term. Maybe "pay to make tolerable" is more fitting. Not unlike the cruel disfiguration that befell Star Wars Online at the hands of its vicious F2P overlords, PWE games never stop reminding you how inferior you are for not having spend hundreds of dollars to silence them. But I was a D&D fan, and a fan of Cryptic's earlier work, so I had to at least try out Neverwinter.

It's good. It's surprisingly fun, given the fundamental concept of turn-based was yanked out from under the D&D mechanics. Their real-time implementation was perky and enjoyable, much like the aforementioned Tera. The game proceeds along quests, like most "themepark" style MMORPGs, but with a heavier reliance on solo-friendly dungeons.

Instead of simply waiting around town for a rat to spawn 10 times so you can kill it over and over, you actually go into dungeons and complete quests. It's a sign of the sorry state of affairs in MMORPGs that I have to declare this like an entirely novel and exciting feature, much like Sony had to declare they would - gasp - let you trade games.

It wasn't long before I was reminded that I wasn't supposed to be enjoying the game, however. I quickly started picking up lock-boxes, something Western MMORPG players might refer to as the "Asian Plauge" in hushed tones whilst making gestures to ward off evil spirits. These sparkly purple (purple means epic, and epic means The Best) boxes can only be unlocked with keys, which, in turn, can only be bought from the Zen store for 175 zen.

Zen is Perfect World's real money currency. I can't actually tell you what Zen costs, because Perfect World craftily hides its prices until AFTER you've put in your credit card information (uh, no thanks). But from what I gather, they're worth about 1 penny each, so 175 Zen is $1.75.

A buck seventy-five to open a box which could contain all manner of goodies. Not so bad. Except I've stumbled across about 20 of those boxes so far on my way to level 30... if I wanted to actually open them, I'd be forking out $35. To basically gamble, and to probably end up with nothing of value. And left over Zen, of course, because you can only buy them in odd bundles.

There is an alternative to buying Zen, and that's trading Astral Diamonds for Zen. You can earn Astral Diamonds in-game. So far, I've gotten about 30,000 of them. Sounds like a lot, until you see that the conversion rate fluctuates between 250 and 500 AD per Zen. My 30,000 is worth between 60 and 120 Zen, not even enough to unlock one box.

Granted, I don't need to unlock boxes. I can just throw them away (as I have started to do). It's like walking along picking up expired lottery tickets: quiet reminders of how poor and unlucky and not a winner you are. The problem is much more psychological than practical. Instead of telling me I'm having fun playing a game, it keeps asking me why I'm not converting into a high ARPU (average revenue per user) statistic to boost company profits. It's like being invited to a friend's BBQ, and every time you take a bite your host asks you how much you're pitching in for the grub.

Rude, dude. Back off.

There are more sinister ways the game reminds you that you haven't paid your dues yet. You start off with seemingly plenty of backpack space to store your meager belongings, until you start collecting an increasing variety of enchantments and runes, which rapidly gobble up any and all available storage space. You get a common companion who will accompany you on your adventures, but the whole interface is carefully designed to remind you that only purchased companions can actually level up to rank 25 and use all their abilities. That freebie companion you got? It's just a demo model, capped at 15.

Neverwinter also has a fun little professions mini-game, where you can log in with your mobile phone and assign tasks to your crafters, progressing through various trades. More on that next time though... For now, I have to apply a pack of paid goodies and see how much that changes my mind about the game!

Posted by: Soulrift

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