While gingerly picking my way through the alchemical laboratory at the centre of a ransacked mansion, carefully hunting for clues, I found myself facing a large, glowing stone the size of man. I stepped closer, carefully examined the surface of this gigantic oddity and read the description that this quest's creator had left for me.
"It's just a typical magical crystal," it said.
Ah, it's just a typical magical crystal. Move along. And so I did, because the rest of the quest was to be found elsewhere, in overturning other, very clearly signposted clues and shanking a few more elves.
This was user-created content, a custom-made adventure of which Neverwinter already has hundreds, maybe thousands, and it's not fair to judge all of the game by this one external contribution. But that one moment was Neverwinter in a nutshell.
Neverwinter is a free-to-play MMORPG that, in addition to being very gentle with its suggestions that you might want to spend your money on it, also gives its players a level editor called the Foundry, allowing them to share their creations as instanced adventures for parties or solo travellers.
This is all executed quite deftly, with new adventures appearing all the time, sorted according to their rating and sporting descriptions that include estimated completion times. It means that, alongside a substantial campaign, player-versus-environment skirmishes and player-versus-player battles, Neverwinter has an ever-growing body of other quests to try.
That's good. Neverwinter has lots of stuff for you to do, lots of stuff for you to return to and, with its constantly changing calendar of events, lots of variety. Who doesn't like variety? It gets me whooping like a monkey in a cage, or opening my window in the dead of night and shouting "VARIETY!" out across town.
The problem is that pretty much all of it is boring.
The combat gets off on the best foot. Neverwinter plays like a cross between a traditional MMORPG and an action-RPG. It has all the structure and organisation of the former, with its peaceful hub areas, crafting, guilds and players dashing about town yelling things like, "LF CW and DC for SP preclear." The combat, however, has the feel of the latter, giving you control of slashing and sidestepping. Scaling your way up the level ladder, you'll gain purchase on half a dozen class-specific skills that can be activated with the tap of a hotkey. It's all very easy and gets you stabbing away with no fuss.
At its best, it's fast and it's powerful. It took me all of three minutes to discover a skill that smashed the limp bodies of my enemies ten feet backward, which gave me many more minutes of pleasure launching zombies off bridges and ledges. Things like this can make combat a lot of fun.
But not that long, because there's an awful lot of it waiting for you and it quickly starts to feel samey. Enemies spawn everywhere in hostile areas, constantly, sometimes right next to you, and never with any variation. If there were three orcs there a moment ago, those three orcs will soon be back.
Most of these fellows are passive, ignoring you until you get close, and for all the many monsters that loiter throughout Neverwinter, there's less difference among them than you'd expect or hope for. An orcish axe-thrower behaves pretty similar to a bandit archer or a were-rat archer and, when it comes to taking things down, either solo or in a party, raw damage wins out over tactical nuance.
A great deal of an adventurer's questing time is spent bashing and smashing and slashing and thrashing, but when you're not doing that, you're invariably following a sparkling path that leads you to your next objective, whatever that might be. Off to kill something? That'll be over here. Collecting an item? Right this way. This faultless twinkletrail leads you like Ariadne's thread to almost everything you'll ever need, except for a few open areas that you'll have to search around or, very often, kill a certain number of enemies in.
Herein lies my problem with Neverwinter. It has distilled the experience of adventuring down to going to a place and either hitting things, picking things up or sometimes both. A lot of games do this, but Neverwinter doesn't hide it well and can't make it interesting. It doesn't give you choices to make or decisions to mull over; it gives you a series of tasks. It turns what should be an adventure into a shopping list; the process is too transparent and poorly dressed.
In order to get access to the Foundry and look into quest creation, I had to raise one of my characters to level 15, adventuring away for hours on end, and this was a horrible experience. It's not so much that this took me a long time as it quickly became repetitive, as I forced myself through hour after hour of traipsing to A to kill so many lots of B and collect so many lots of C, before delivering everything to D.
I didn't make any decisions, I didn't think about anything, I didn't know or care or need to care about who gave me which quest to do what, because it was all irrelevant and nothing more than a device for introducing the next fetch or kill task. The Forgotten Realms is a beautiful setting for high fantasy and it's utterly wasted on Neverwinter, where nothing ever needs context or elaboration. Sure, there's lots of narrative to read, but there's none to participate in.
Neverwinter does have some large and often very pretty areas for players to run free through and it is occasionally worth going off the beaten track where the odd secret may lie in wait, but this isn't a game that rewards investigation, because it's not about that. It's about smacking ever-larger numbers off the top of monsters' heads until coins burst out of them, collecting slightly better equipment than what you currently use and then selling your old gear in town, where rows of motionless vendors stare glassy-eyed into the middle distance, their souls long crushed by the monotony of their existence.
Sometimes I had to identify some of the items that monsters dropped before I could use them. This was easy because the monsters always dropped enough identify scrolls for me as well, meaning this was nothing more than another task, a chore where I periodically stopped to sift through my inventory and use some items on some other items. What's more, all of these items were disposable, devoid of significance or attachment, as they'd soon be replaced by marginally better ones.
Action-RPGs are about character advancement, about constantly improving - of course they are. But they should also be about interesting equipment, diverse opponents and thrilling combat, and Neverwinter really only makes a stab at the last of these, and its edge is quickly blunted by repetition.
It's still quite enjoyable in small bursts: a quick dungeon foray, a frantic PvP fight, another segment of the main plot, even a quest that sends you to (nnngh) go and look at three different barricades. Short plays minimise the repetition. At times it also looks great, even though the animation can be clunky and the voice acting is awful.
It also has a bunch of clever technical touches, like crafting in a web browser, patching on the fly, and the simple and straightforward interface that makes it easy to find events, parties, adventures and players. It scales encounters well. It allows you to hop instance as you explore. It really doesn't push you to buy in-game currency, which is really only useful for accessing the occasional loot drop to gain items you'd very likely earn sooner or later anyway.
And, of course, it even allows you to make your own adventures. Thus we return to that giant glowing crystal, the crystal that was never the point of my quest in the same way that none of the incidental details are the point of Neverwinter. The Foundry is a fairly straightforward level editor but, until either the game or the tool evolves, it's not going to allow you to make adventures that are very different to anything the main game offers.
Perhaps Neverwinter has more potential, perhaps it will grow beyond this, but games can only be reviewed on what they are, not what they might become, and for now the many user-forged forays into fantasy are, just like the rest of Neverwinter, mostly about going to a place, bashing heads in and grabbing swag.
Then again, if that's all the freedom you need, then Neverwinter is a free, easy and very, very simple game that you can put as much time into as you like.