Until I got invited to see the beta for Neverwinter, I didn't really know much about this free-to-play MMO other than that it was being curated by publisher Perfect World, a company that specializes in free-to-play MMORPGs. I was apathetic about the whole deal, but my interest was piqued when I found out that Cryptic Studios, creators of City of Heroes, was making the game. It turns out that many of the things that made Neverwinter Nights popular over the years, like user-created content, is being embraced by Cryptic in this game as well.
My time spent with the beta began as it does with so many MMOs: install, patching, character creation, and a simple combat-heavy tutorial. There are three character classes in the beta that pretty much equate to Rogue, Warrior, and Priest, although all classes are capable of fighting enemies right from the start. (The developers have already talked about a Control Wizard class that's on the way, but that's all they've announced so far.) You get real-time combat with an on-screen crosshair used for denoting who you're attacking or healing, instead of a classical World of Warcraft-like targeting system where you click on an enemy or cycle through targets with a key.
I want to point out a couple of things about this crosshair system before we go on. First, this can be a rather chaotic way to play when you're in a dungeon with four other players, each with a henchman, and up to a dozen enemies mixed in with everyone at once, so it will take some practice to get used to it. Second, it should be stressed that the crosshair is there mostly for picking targets for heals and attacks, not to turn the game into an aim-based third person action-RPG. Your basic attacks will automatically hit enemies and can't be dodged with regular movement, although any targeted AOE-type spells can still miss or be avoided by enemies (and that also means players in PvP). And on top of that, there's also a dodge system where you've got a small stamina bar and can use it to get out of the way of a big melee attack from a boss or just to quickly dive out of the targeted area of an AOE, cone, or other splash attack - all of which are denoted by red areas that appear on the ground as you fight. You can just normally walk out of these areas as well, but the dodge does seem to give you a short period of invincibility, making it good for getting away from even regular attacks, and since there's currently no collision with enemies it can get you out of trouble even if you're completely surrounded.
Beyond this, there's a henchman interface that allows you to tweak and rename one of several henchmen, then summon or dismiss them whenever you're out of combat, a whole talent system to play with, and several spell-type skills that you load up. Neverwinter isn't one of those MMOs that throws forty spells at you and expects you to have them all on your bars at once; instead, you pick from several basic spells, your two auto-attack-type abilities on your mouse buttons, two charge-up attacks, and finally a separate mode that can only be deployed for a short while, and it adds new powers to all of the rest of your abilities. (Or, at least that's how it worked on the Cleric I played.)
Now, onto Neverwinter (the city, I mean) itself. It's a fairly big place and it's currently where all players start at this stage of the beta, and you can do quite a bit of adventuring here in various dungeons and sections of the city without ever walking out of the front gate. Beyond that, however, adventures will take you out into the surrounding areas, but I'm a little unsure of how large the world is outside of that. Players do get mounts at level 20, but it seems like there isn't a large, free-roaming world out there to explore. Instead, content comes via a world map, much like you'd get out of an old-school Dungeons & Dragons game (or Bioware's Dragon Age, for that matter) and that leads to relatively small areas like dungeons and isolated places out in the wilderness to dig into lore and do plenty of fighting.
That certainly may seem like a step backwards compared to veterans of the Everquest and World of Warcraft lines of MMORPGs - which admittedly is the dominant type out there - but it's actually pretty well aligned for the Dungeons & Dragons style of computer RPGs. The ability for players to custom-create their own content, however, is what puts this over the top - I tried one such adventure and while I had a couple of issues with it (falling through one staircase and traversing some very dark areas where I couldn't see where I was going), I was surprised at just how high quality it was in its look. I'm sure that there are some pretty decent tools included to help users create content that at least looks like it's on par with the base game, and the rating system will help the best content bubble up to the top. Throw in multi-stage quests and adventures that can span hours, and this feature turns into something that a traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy MMO hasn't really seen before. Will it have a real impact later? I remain skeptical, but I'm hopeful.
The short time I got to play Neverwinter in the press-only before the servers were closed down wasn't enough to properly dive into things like PvP, how the real-money transactions work, or any of the higher-end content, but if this game gets the attention I think it deserves, it's probably worth us going back and exploring more in a second preview. In the meantime, I certainly dealt with my fair share of issues, even in just a few hours of play, like memory leaks, voice chat issues, and server disconnections, but this is something like Day Minus Two of official beta, so I'm sure all of that will be cleared up soon. For now, I can say that if you're even remotely interested in this game, it's at least worth signing up for the beta at the official site to see if you can get in.