I suppose there's still going to be at least a tangential SWTOR connection here as I'm not a very experienced MMO tourist, and thus my impressions are heavily coloured by my main MMO. But where to begin?
While I've been playing exclusively in a galaxy far, far away for more than a year now, my first MMO was World of Warcraft, so playing in a fantasy setting immediately felt familiar. In fact, there's something oddly reassuring about the many similarities between different fantasy MMOs. Elves, dwarves, magic... you might not know all the details about the lore, but it's easy enough to jump in and get the gist of it. In this particular case, having some familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons helps as well of course.
The game looks "pretty enough" I would say, though I feel that it lacks a distinctive art style. You know how with some MMOs, you can immediately recognise the game in question as soon as you see a screenshot from it somewhere? Yeah, Neverwinter is not that game.
Still, some things look very good (... then again, some don't). I do absolutely love some of the combat animations. Just seeing those get executed over and over again makes my character fun to play. On the "not so impressive" side however, my tiefling has some awful clipping issues while riding a horse. I'm usually pretty indifferent towards clipping of weapons and the like, but no character of mine should ever have body parts disappear inside a horse's butt!
There is this one theme that reminds me of the original MechCommander every time it starts playing, which is a rather bizarre connection to make, but I suppose stranger things have happened.
The main quest lines are voice-acted and show close-ups of the NPCs when you talk to them. Who says that SWTOR hasn't had an effect on quest delivery standards going forward? Too bad it's also set said standard really high... because Neverwinter's voice actors speaking in hilariously bad accents just make me laugh, and the fact that the talking NPCs aren't in any way animated other than that they move their jaws a little makes them look like creepy dolls in my opinion. To be fair though, I find that amusing more than off-putting.
Neverwinter is one of those newfangled "action combat" MMOs, which means that you have to constantly move around and dodge stuff. Having never played one of these before and knowing myself to be bad at twitch gameplay I was very sceptical about this at first but I've actually been coping alright. Still, I have to say I'm coming to appreciate how positively sedate SWTOR's combat feels in comparison. I like being able to slack a bit while questing and fighting trash in group content, thank you very much! In Neverwinter you have to keep your hands on both keyboard and mouse at all times to get anything done at all, and it gets tiring after a while to be honest.
I was also kind of surprised that the game has a companion system! Another win for SWTOR I guess if that's something that other games copy now. Neverwinter's companions are just generic pets from a vendor though and don't seem to have very good AI from what I've seen so far. I accidentally chose a wizard as my first companion due to lazy clicking, and he spends a lot of time just standing around and staring at me in combat. To add insult to injury, one of his idle animations is a "point and laugh" emote which he's really fond of for some reason! So basically I have a lazy sod following me around who enjoys mocking me at every opportunity. Hmm...
While I'm a healer at heart, someone else in the group of people I was going to play with said that he wanted to be the healer this time around, so I rolled up a rogue. Stealth and stabbing things, right? Right. Still, being deprived of my usual ability to heal, I thought it was an interesting twist when I found out that there is no standard out of combat health regeneration in Neverwinter, unless you're in a dedicated safe spot (next to a campfire) or drink a potion. This added a real sense of danger to the world for me and has made exploring hostile territory very exciting. I find myself being extra careful at all times and have yet to die outside of a PvP match at level 28, even though there have been some close calls.
Who is that masked tiefling?
I do wonder what sort of attitude towards healers this will produce in the long run. Will they be extra valued due to providing a rare service? Or will people not care because they are used to surviving without one anyway? I ran a pretty tough skirmish (short five-man group content) tonight where the automated grouping tool hadn't provided us with a healer, but everyone in the party just paid attention to their own health and chugged potions as needed and without further comment. What a strange world, where people actually feel responsible for their own survival...
Unfortunately the game seems very unfriendly towards grouping when compared to SWTOR. It's got an automated group finder for dungeons and skirmishes, but that just keeps throwing you into "rush rush" type groups where nobody talks and which are already starting to wear me down a bit to be honest, even if they get things done. (As a rogue I'm perpetually saddened by all the people who run over traps and skewer themselves before I've even had a chance to disarm anything.) While the open world areas are quite densely packed with mobs and make grouping up an advantage, I have yet to run into any dev-created content there that intentionally seems to be tuned with groups in mind.
The UI is also very punishing towards parties. As far as I can tell there is no way of seeing what quests your group mates are on, and conversations along the lines of "What are you doing?" - "Wait, didn't you pick that quest up as well?" are not uncommon. While transferring between maps it's easy to get yourself stuck in a situation where the game won't let you move on without "gathering your party" first, even when said party is on another map, meaning that you have to break group and reform in the new area just to be able to continue.
For some reason that I can't fathom they also didn't consider it necessary to make sure that when zoning, all members of a party land in the same instance of the new zone. This is bad because there is a lot of transferring between zones in this game, meaning that you will constantly find yourself separated from other members of your group whenever you get placed in different phases. While it's easy to switch between map instances in theory, the game locks you out of it for a few minutes if you do it too often for its taste, which means that my questing partner and I already had to spend a fair amount of time just sitting around and twiddling our thumbs while waiting for the instance switch to come off cooldown just so that we could actually get back onto the same map and play together.
At the moment it feels like there's loads to do in the game, but I suspect that's because there's a lot that I haven't seen yet. The amount of developer-created quest content is actually somewhat limited and you'll fall behind the experience curve quite quickly if you try to level through the main story quest line alone. However there are quite a few additional sources of experience, not to mention the much talked about "Foundry" where players create their own content. And it's all free to access, so that's good.
On Free To Play
Back when SWTOR announced its introduction of a "free to play option" I scoffed at the idea, both because I don't like the idea of free to play models for a variety of reasons, and because I found it odd to call it an "option" - either a game is free to play or not. Looking at it now however, I think it was the right choice of words, because at its heart SWTOR still feels like a subscription game to me, with the free part of the game constantly trying to nudge you towards subscribing. I've heard a lot of people comment negatively on that.
By comparison Neverwinter truly is a free to play game that just hopes to make some money out of you by making you buy things that save you time and/or are shiny. Funny thing: after nearly a week of playing it I found myself getting frustrated with my lack of bag space and decided that I should probably spend some real money on a bigger bag. After all I was having fun; might as well throw the devs a bone, right? But I really struggled to make myself do it!
It made me realise that for some reason I'm perfectly happy to pay for what I feel is a service (such as access to a game, aka a subscription), which is usually measured in time, but I don't like buying virtual items. Even if the total cost is the same, the latter just feels like so much worse value for money to me somehow. I mean, a tenner for a virtual bag? Compare that to the price of a subscription for a whole month of entertainment and there's just no contest. The huge part of the game that I already got for free doesn't even factor into it.
I did give them some money in the end though.
Neverwinter offers a nice little romp through a pretty fantasy world that feels quite true to the setting and has a fair amount of things to do. I think that the strenuous action combat and UI fails that make grouping a pain will be off-putting to me in the long run though.