Thursday, April 23, 2015

Neverwinter Nights

I know I know.. but when a title works, you don't throw it out just because it's cheesy! And for the last three weeks, that's pretty much where I've been spending my nights.  So I thought I might spend a little time talking about what's great and what's not so great with Cryptic's free to play MMO on the console.

Well mapped action bar and fast paced combat makes
for excellent console gameplay!
The damn thing works! 
I know that MMO's on the console aren't exactly new. FFXI was available on the PS2, and eventually on the XBox. But that game was a disaster, imho, on the console. At least it was for me. And DC Universe Online was available for the PS3, and is now for the PS4, but that game always felt like a console game, retrofitted for the PC, not the other way around. At the time DCUO didn't grab me much at all, though it's probably time for another look. And I hear FFXIV actually works really well on the PS4, but I don't own that device, so can't really comment there.  Though I'd love to check it out. What I'm getting around to though is that for me, though I know there are a few others around, this is the first of what I thought of as a pretty full featured PC MMO making the jump to the console. And I'll also add that I was a little more amenable to the idea currently than I may have been in the past, as I've been looking for what I consider good games to play on my XBox One.

And in short, the game really does just work, and works well, on the console. Neverwinter brings the right combination of combat mechanics, solo and instanced content in digestible chunks, and control mappings to create a game that is playable, fun, and pretty much has all the juicy bits you like in your typical MMO - or at least most of them. But we'll get to that.

Limited Action Bar Means Console Friendly
So what's the secret? Why does it work and does this mean we can see more MMO's on consoles? Well while I do think there will be more MMO's that make the jump to consoles (ESO is working on their console version even as I type this) I think some are more suited than others, and I think a huge factor to this is the limited ability bar.  In Neverwinter, you're allowed two at-will powers, three encounter powers, and two daily powers. Additonally, you get an artifact power. You can choose from a huge palette of powers to map to those controls, but having a limited set of controls in any given combat means your combat is going to map quite nicely to a game controller. Or at least that it can. Incidentally, for the exact same reason, I think GW2 would be an excellent port to console as well. Personally, it seems like MMO's where all the abilities go on the action bars, and when you get more abilities you just put up more action bars, would be poor choices. But FFXIV is this sort of MMO, so it makes me curious how they manage the control scheme.

Quest chat is very legible and clear from across the room  -
even if somewhat forgettable.
Tailor made UI
And it's not just the natural way their combat abilities map to a game controller that makes the game work. They've clear spent quite a bit of time scaling up their UI and thinking about key mappings and menus to make navigating the game pretty intuitive. Some of their shift-numpad choices seem a bit klunky at first, but honestly after you've played the game a bit you realize they really work pretty well. The one thing that everyone seems to jump on is that they dropped the minimap.  But honestly, as heavily instanced and linear as most of Neverwinter's world spaces are, ultimately I think it was the right choice. The game map is available at any time, even while mounted, and combined with the fact that you can get a sparkly follow trail to pretty much every objective in the game means you really don't need the minimap much.

If they fell down anywhere in their UI though, I would have to say loot distribution would be it. People picking up loot at anytime during combat throws up giant view-blocking distribution dialogs that must be dealt with through multiple keypresses before they can be dismissed. To add insult, the same keypress combination for "roll greed on this item" when the dialog is up, is used for "exit this group" when the dialog is dismissed. This makes it stupidly easy in the middle of a large fight to inadvertently kick yourself out of a group, and therefore the dungeon or skirmish instance as well. With no way to get back in. There's no reason those message couldn't go into a queue, that you could then view and sift through after the combat was over.

Why don't people talk?
In a bit of a side topic, but the game uses the XBox One headsets and mics, and allows for group chat anytime you're in a group. It seems to me that it would be a perfect means to coordinate during PUG instances, yet so far, in all the instances I've been in, (and I've done two to three skirmishes a day and a dungeon every several days during my play time), I've only rarely heard anyone with a mic on at all, and never has anyone used it to try to coordinate the group. I usually say a few things just to see anyone else is mic'ed up, am greeted with silence, and then stop talking. It's just.. strange. Thus far I attribute it to the fact that almost all of the instanced combat can be handled pretty readily by five people and their healing compansions just spamming their abilities with little coordination actually necessary. But I'm only level 43 so far, so I suspect the dungeons will increase in difficulty, and as the need for coordination rises, perhaps the people that do so will as well.  Or not.

Zone chat works - but you wouldn't know it.. 
At first,  I thought this was a bug - but I'm beginning to wonder if it's actually by design. I haven't seen anything from Cryptic commenting on it one way or another, but essentially no zone chat works in any of the zones that are sub level 30. And then suddenly - bam, there it is and it works great, and people are spamming all the things you expect them to spam in an MMO, including looking for groups, etc.  There are a number of reasons I can think of why you might want to limit chatting until people are higher levels, but if this is intentional, Cryptic should do a better job imho, of actually saying it is.  And I would still find someway to turn on chat in the game's primary city hub zone.

This would have been a fantastic screenshot -
if I could have hidden the UI.. and my character.
Why the long face?
So why is it, after three weeks of playing of playing most every night and weekends too, is my eye already beginning to wonder to the next thing on the list?  Honestly, and you'll laugh, but the main reason has nothing to do with gameplay, and everything to do with aesthetics and vanity.  I never thought a virtual world game that I play on my 48" TV would feel claustrophobic, but that's exactly what I feel. I always feel like I'm standing back, looking at the world from afar, and I can never get into the world, and actually immerse myself in it.  And for me, over time, that feeling grows until it dominates everything I view about the game.  I think there a couple of contributing factors.  First, while you can rotate your camera around your character, this is no ability to zoom your camera in or out in any way. There are dyes and costume pieces and all sorts of ways to customize your character's appearance, but no way to put your camera in a position to actually appreciate it. Compound that with the fact that there is no way (I have found at least) to hide the UI, means you can never turn off the game for a few seconds to just enjoy the scenery or the world you're passing through, or to take pause and take a screenshot of your character next to a waterfall.

And quite honestly, those moments are a huge factor in my enjoyment of playing in a virtual world. If you built this wonderful world for me to play in - then let me play in it. Not just pass through it. In my opinion, too many MMO's sluff on the feature set around enjoying the world, and Neverwinter for the console as eschewed it altogether.  

Still a great value
Overall though, I still give the game a resounding thumbs up as an MMO on the console. I've certainly gotten my money's worth out of the game (I payed $20.00 for a mount and some bag space), and would recommend it to anyone that's looking  for an MMO they can play comfortably from the couch. I most likely won't stay, but I can easily see it making it into the rotation of MMO's I return to from time to time, and free to play means you can always come back!