The city-state of Neverwinter is pretty familiar territory to Dungeons & Dragons fans. It was the setting of the first Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game ever, Neverwinter Nights, way back on — seriously — America Online. Later, game developer BioWare picked up the rights and cranked out a series of ultra-popular RPGs under the same name.
Now, Wizards of the Coast is pushing the Neverwinter brand like crazy. It’s this year’s new D&D campaign setting, there’s an upcoming MMORPG, and Atari has just released a surprisingly deep and, dare I say, playable Facebook game called Heroes of Neverwinter.
You and your Facebook buddies can now venture into dank dungeons and frightful forests, seeking out treasure, glory and experience points. The typical RPG haul. You pick your party before heading out; while your friends aren’t actually playing with you, you recruit their characters and use them to fight your battles.
Like pretty much every other Facebook game out there, this one limits your play with action points. Run out of action points and you’re headed back to town to wait for them to recharge. Or, of course, you could always drop some real world ducats on an action point refill and get right back to the monster bashing.
I got a chance to play the game extensively during its beta, as did fellow GeekDad Dave Banks. We met up to discuss our thoughts on the game: what made us like it, where it foundered and whether you’ll see us playing it a month or two down the road.
Dave Banks: So… Heroes of Neverwinter. What are your impressions?
Michael Harrison: Well. It’s a Facebook game.
DB: In many ways.
MH: It’s the most entertaining Facebook game I’ve ever played. Which may not be saying very much.
DB: I’d agree. Before Heroes of Neverwinter, I never played many Facebook games. A little poker, maybe, but nothing else really appealed to me.
MH: I played Dragon Age Legends and it was fun for a few days. I’m not sure if it’s the lack of an engaging story or just repetitive gameplay, but I’ve never been able to consistently enjoy any games on Facebook. They just wear out their welcome.
DB: Heroes of Neverwinter has some good things going for it. I think it does a good job of capturing the fourth edition D&D combat system. And it tells a narrative about as well as most tabletop modules.
MH: Yeah, I agree with that. But there’s one element of the tabletop experience that it doesn’t really capture very well, and that’s the multiplayer aspect. Aside from the ability to spy on your friend raiding a dungeon — which is kind of creepy and sad, really — there’s no way to actually play with your friends.
DB: Right. And since Facebook is about friends, why can’t I play with my friends? Since it’s turn-based, it certainly lends itself to that. Other Facebook games are multiplayer, so I’m not sure why you can’t do it in this one.
MH: That would be something I haven’t really seen in any other Facebook games. Turn-based play, combined with the dungeon-creation feature, and this could be a pretty nifty way for friends to play D&D remotely.
DB: Well, that, and maybe expand the races and classes. They’re pretty limited now, but I’m sure that will be changing very soon.
MH: I used to play a lot of text-based, heavy role-play games back in the day (shoutout to Elendor!), and I think it’d be awesome for something like Heroes of Neverwinter to serve as a framework for remote D&D games, with role-play and everything. But they’d have to find a way to nickel and dime… err, monetize the player base.
DB: And that’s one of the other frustrating things about the game. Granted, it costs nothing to play (other than Facebook robbing you of your soul), but it seems like they’ve come up with a half dozen ways to get into your wallet if you want to play more than an encounter or two a day. It’s certainly a problem that goes beyond Facebook games, of course. Microtransactions are fundamentally changing the way we play video games.
MH: Even in big name games like Gears of War. I feel like many hardcore games are resistant to bringing in microtransactions that affect gameplay, but it’s only a matter of time.
DB: Indeed. I was playing Tiger Woods 12 and as I worked through the single player campaign, I arrived at a course I could not play without spending extra to buy the course.
MH: As a fairly obsessive completionist, that’s terrifying.
DB: Steering back toward Neverwinter, what do you like about the game?
MH: I like how it captures the turn-based fun of 4E combat. I like the attempts at developing plotlines and stories throughout the various encounters. The idea of building your own dungeon is very cool, although it’s only available after level 10.
DB: I like the base interface: the town and the various establishments you can visit. It’s easy to get in and play. And once you’re in the game, they’ve done a good job of illustrating range of powers and weapons.
MH: Yeah, I never felt confused about what to do or how to do it. The game tutorial does a great job of teaching you the basics, and then letting you explore on your own afterward. I liked the environments, too. Even though the various dungeons are basically the same — room after room, with a few branches to explore — the sprites are different enough to make it interesting.
DB: I like the advantage of seeing monsters’ HPs and being able to decide which weaklings to go after first. There’s also some pretty decent animations for powers and weapons. Dragon’s Breath FTW!
MH: I know, seriously. Why pick any other race besides Dragonborn? So … that’s what we like. What do you dislike?
DB: One of the most frustrating things for me, besides not being able to immediately jump into another encounter, was the game camera. Sometimes I had no idea where I was or an enemy because of the map’s walls or foliage.
MH: I had a hard time selecting enemies because of that issue. Because the game has an isometric perspective, there would be monsters in front of monsters. It was annoying. And zooming in rarely helped.
DB: Other than that, I can’t find a lot to complain about. It’s a fun game, it costs nothing to play and it helps tide me over ’til my weekly game rolls around. I just wish I could play with others. Heroes of Neverwinter has really helped me realize how social D&D is and, without arguing over rules and friendly ribbing, how clinical it can be.
MH: It’s no replacement for playing with live human beings. And that seems like something they could add to this to make it a lot more engaging.
DB: What do you think? If I hop on Facebook next week or next month, will I see an update that you’ve been playing?
MH: Honestly, it probably depends on how often you and other friends bug me via in-game messages to join in. For a social network, Facebook games don’t seem very social to me, and I always start to see them more as obligations and less as something I do for fun.
DB: Yes. And the “Michael Harrison sent you a request” messages start to feel a lot like a To-Do list.
MH: Those requests are the most social aspect of the game, and that’s pretty weak. Without any social element, D&D is just a leveling treadmill. Of course, many, many other games are too, but they have something that hooks you in. World of Warcraft has guildmates and epic storylines. Bethesda’s games have immersive, lifelike worlds full of realistic characters. This has … nagging.
DB: It’s unfortunate. I really enjoy D&D. But there’s never been a really good D&D video game. I think Heroes of Neverwinter does an admirable job and gets close, but, without the social aspect, it’s not quite close enough.
Log into Facebook and give Heroes of Neverwinter a try. It’s free! What do you have to lose?