Neverwinter makes the Dungeons and Dragons brand proud

Neverwinter might end up being the most faithful digital Dungeons & Dragons game ever made.

Neverwinter might end up being the most faithful digital Dungeons & Dragons game ever made.

I'm not talking about the lore, or the art, or even the die-casting mechanics of the latest rendition of the tabletop game. (That latter honor, funnily enough, would probably go to Heroes of Neverwinter, the similarly-named Facebook title.) No, I'm talking about the spirit of teamwork that defines D&D's most dangerous encounters - the "Don't Split the Party," fellow-man-helping, oftentimes self-sacrificing, dirty job-fulfilling heart of the franchise.

Neverwinter certainly isn't the first D&D video game to feature classes and other elements from the pen-and-paper original. It's not even the first D&D MMO ever made. When it comes out, odds are that it won't be the only free-to-play D&D MMORPG on the market. None of these things are exactly working in Neverwinter's favor.

Unlike the previous installments in the license, Neverwinter enforces the clever use of party tactics with a fast-paced, action-oriented combat system which rewards the fulfillment of straightforward roles. It's almost recklessly unafraid to box players into their jobs. It's striking to see an MMO which demands single-faceted specialization like that; many of the genre's new releases allow for jack-of-all-trades characters and fluid, frequent strategy shifts.

That's not to say stone-set classes are antiquated. It was actually kind of refreshing, figuring out how to best support my Trickster Rogue and Control Wizard teammates as I steered my burly Guardian Fighter. My role was clear: Attract aggro with my special abilities and, with the judicious use of my trusty shield, mitigate damage while my compatriots chipped away at our foes.

It looks like Neverwinter is firing on all cylinders.

That sounds like ... a lot of MMOs, I concede. The golden triangle of damage mitigation, damage-per-second and healing has been done to death. But the Neverwinter demo I played blended that concept with pitch-perfect, reflex-based combat, which few games can boast.

In Neverwinter, there's no mana to manage when using your limited assortment of assigned powers. Your At-Will abilities - that's D&D 4th Edition vernacular for basic, infinitely useable skills - are bound to left and right click. Your three Encounter powers are a bit stronger, but have cooldowns. To wield your tide-turning Daily powers, though, you'll have to save Ability Points, which you only do by filling your class' obligations. For instance, by "Tide of Iron"-ing foes and timing my blocks perfectly, I stored up enough Ability Points to cleave a shockwave into the earth, taking out a whole line of enemies. When I mindlessly wailed on my adversaries, I didn't accrue Action Points nearly as quickly.

Once my two other party members learned their roles, our teamwork was something to behold. Our Control Wizard teleported around the battlefield, freezing enemies in place and beaning them with elemental magic. Our Trickster Rogue dodged blows and crippled foes from advantageous positions. I frantically kept everyone's attention - but the twitchy attacking and manual blocking kept me from feeling like I was just making the way for everyone else to have fun.

There were other neat invocations of the D&D property, like the time I ran into a treasure-filled room right behind our Rogue, who managed to automatically see the buzzsaw traps embedded in the floor that I could not. That's a Passive Perception Check, holmes.

I only played through a single area and dungeon out of many - out of infinite, actually, as the game will be supported by the Foundry, a set of user-generated content tools which will allow players to build their own dungeons and quests and link them to the overarching game world. That was the only component of the game Cryptic showed last E3, which I took to mean the actual game would be ... well, bad. But based on what I played today, it looks like Neverwinter is firing on all cylinders.

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