Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment have officially initiated the Open Beta phase of the free-to-play MMO Neverwinter. Founders began flocking into the game on April 25th with more joining on April 27th and finally the floodgates opened to the rest of the world on April 30th. While technically the game is not in full retail release, there will be no more character wipes and few major changes will occur between now and the technicality of reaching final phase. Many see this as it\'s launch day, but officially it isn\'t. This, is my First Impression.

The Good

Let me begin by talking about the things Cryptic have done right, of which there are many. The first thing, character creation. While it may not be in the same range as that of Champions Online (another Cryptic MMO), it is certainly better than most. Not only are there plenty of races to choose from, but there are many ways to tweak and customise almost every aspect of your characters, giving them the exact look you want.

Players begin character customisation by choosing a race. Available options include Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Half-Orcs, Half-Elves, Wood Elf and Tiefling. Interestingly there is still a spot open for a \"coming soon\" race. Which while there is no indication on that page what it will be, anyone who has been following the game will know the next race to be released is the Drow in at least sixty days.
From there, players choose their class from among Guardian Fighter, Great Weapon Fighter, Trickster Rogue, Control Wizard or Devoted Cleric.

All of the above is pretty standard stuff for MMOs these days but where Neverwinter really shines is in the vast number of options for customising a character\'s look. While the faces and hairstyle combinations shown initially sort of fall into your standard array. Simply clicking the customise button opens up a much wider range of options to edit, allowing you to decide which face goes with which hair, facial hair, scars, skin tone, eye type and colour, facial tattoos and over all body type. But, now should you select the face or body scaling tab, a whole other world of adjustment sliders become available to you. Ranging from your more standard arm size, head size, waist size, to finger length, hand bulk, nail length, feet length and much, much more. Finding just the right look can take players a good long while, something that D&D players are well familiar with and will appreciate. Or, if you choose, you can quickly pick one of the standard arrays and jump right in.

Character customisation doesn\'t simply end with the look however. It continues with players giving their characters a basic background, allowing them to choose a city or zone of origin, with each one offering a few different choices of the characters history there and a god to follow. As an example my Guardian Fighter is a follower of Tempus that was once a Flaming Fist Mercenary in Baldurs Gate. But those are just the basics, players are also given the option to write a custom background and history for their characters with more detail. This can also be edited one in game, so things can be added to it depending on the characters experiences after creation.

Once all this has been done, players get to enter the game where they will find a lot of other nice little features, and the single greatest thing about this game, the combat.
Some players will really appreciate the sparkly quest guidance system, much like the golden \"breadcrumb\" trail from the Fable series. Players that don\'t however can simply turn it off by pressing the \"Z\" key. Personally I find it very useful to turn on while at a \"crossroads\" in a dungeon with multiple paths to take, this way I can find the correct path, and happily go about exploring the other options for hidden goodies.

Another very nice feature is the ability to completely rearrange the HUD to feature the windows players actually want to see and the flexibility to move those windows anywhere on the screen players would like. It\'s very much worth taking a few extra minuets after you first enter the game world to do this, having your UI perfectly fit the look you want for it makes for a much more enjoyable playing experience.
The sounds of Neverwinter are done very well. Whether it\'s the music for the city of Neverwinter itself or the ambient sounds of thousands of the city\'s inhabitants going about their daily business, it really conveys the sounds of an actual living, breathing city. The musical loop may be a little small for some people, but if like many you\'re playing this game socially with some form of voice communication the music itself is usually low enough that the looping sort of blends into one long continual track.
Additionally, the battle sounds are also fantastic, the clashing of steel, the whirling of conjured spells before impact all add a great deal to the overall combat experience.

Grouping with friends is made incredibly easy in Neverwinter. Should you find yourself on a different instance of a map to your friends, you are able to simply right click their portrait, or their name in your friends list and teleport into the same one. Also, keeping track of friends is rather pleasant. Since every player creates an @handle upon account creation, you simply add that to your friends list and you will be able to see and speak with one another no matter the character, server, or indeed Cryptic game either of you are playing.

This also fits in well with how naming works in Neverwinter. Because each player has an @handle, all character names are followed by it. Meaning players no longer need worry about their preferred name being taken, as each character is \"[email protected]\". Though only the character name shows in the game world unless changed in the options menu. Quite an elegant solution to an all to common issue.

Now, the combat. This is a key feature that sets this game apart from other MMO\'s on the market today. Those of you who have played T.E.R.A may, at a glance see it as very similar. But once you actually get your hands on it, you\'ll notice a completely different feel. This feels a much more visceral experience, each blow seems to have real impact and power behind it, whether it be a Great Weapon Fighter\'s sword slamming into the ground, sending a shock wave of dirt and stone crashing into his enemy\'s, or a gravity vortex conjured forth by a Control Wizard, slowly dragging their enemy\'s into it\'s centre before throwing them through it air in a brilliant explosion. Never before have I felt so connected to the combat experience in an MMO, it is just so fun and satisfying, easily my favourite part of the game right here.

The Foundry

While the Foundry definitely comes under \"The Good\" section of this First Impression, it is such an expansive aspect I feel it deserves it\'s own subsection.

Neverwinter\'s Foundry tool-set has all the makings of a revolution in the way we play MMORPGs. For the unfamiliar, the Foundry is a streamlined version of the tool-set which the games developers themselves use to create the various dungeons, instances, encounters and quests in the actual game. With it you can design either self-contained quests or full \'campaigns\' with multiple quest chains if you want to tell a bigger story. Once your adventure is designed you can publish it for the player-base to use, rate, review, and even tip you in-game currency for if they really enjoyed it.

Starting a new quest is fairly straightforward; entering the tool-set you\'re prompted step-by-step for each necessary titbit of initial information such as quest name, description and objective- it\'s when you get into map editing and customisation that the Foundry really expands into possibilities.

Anyone who\'s tried out the tool-set that came with Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 will find the interface reassuringly familiar, but for first-timers it\'s pretty intuitive- you select rooms or maps from pre-made tile sets sorted into categories (such as households, crypts, dungeons, sewers, etc) and from there go about populating the rooms from a top-down view with quest objectives, décor, and encounters. Rooms can also be \'auto-populated\' with a single button, filling a room with furniture and clutter suitable to its tile-set.

NPCs and enemies can also be tweaked to an eye-watering level of detail, not only in cosmetics such as costume and appearance, but in behaviour. You could, for instance, create a difficult encounter with an elf with the powers of a necromancer- or give him the power-set of a spider, or dragon.

Once happy with the overall layout you can enter the instance to play test encounters or tweak the positioning of every character, enemy and object in the full 3D game environment, as well as checking that quest objectives work as they should anybody\'s going to fall through the floors.

Using the Foundry tools, the only frustration I found myself running into was a relative lack of architectural bits and pieces- if you\'re building a room with a specific layout in mind you may find yourself limited by the set collection of rooms and corridors that you\'re supplied with.

With that in mind however, what the community has created in a matter of days is still remarkable- a wide range of quests and campaigns are already available, and whilst some aren\'t very good, others are astonishing in the quality of level-design, attention to detail and plotting on display. The possibilities it can offer both the role-playing community as well as the average player are unique.

The Bad

After seeming so enthused about the level of customization available during character creation, you would be forgiven for assuming there couldn\'t possibly be a downside to it. Sadly that is not the case.
Neverwinter\'s customization is great but the way that character models turn out is still pretty generic, even with all that work and effort put into making them just right. Walking around the city of Neverwinter, players will run into more than a few characters that look pretty much exactly like theirs. This is, in part, due to the fact that the base models for each race are all virtually the same. There\'s little real difference between a dark-skinned Drow and a pale-skinned Human, at least initially. Even should you customize down to the \"nth\" degree, it doesn\'t yield a huge difference once in the game world. The majority of the tweaks and alterations that actually make your character look different are in the facial details, eye colour, hair style, tattoo\'s, the subtle changes in a broader jaw, smaller eyes. None of this is noticeable unless you stop and really pull your camera in to look, which given how little players are going to be standing around still for enough time to do it, makes it almost impossible.

Considering how much choice we have during character creation, it\'s rather depressing once in the game world. You\'ll quickly notice the drastic lack of armour variation. As a standard rule your armour will only really change appearance every ten levels, and even then it will only be a minor change, such as an added shoulder guard, or a slightly larger collar. This only increases the \"every character looks the same\" feel you get, which is only made worse by the level of detail you are able to alter during creation. I can think of some much older MMO\'s that had much more variety even in it\'s initial days, so there really is no excuse. Bosses from certain quests will drop more unique looking items though, several in the Tower District of the city drop Orcish themed armour and weaponry. But, sadly you are unable to renter the particular section of the game to fight them unless you are on that particular quest. So while they do allow you to alter the look of one item to that of another for a fee, acquiring an item with the look you want is more a matter of luck than ability.

The lack of a \"Preview-Gear\" option is a really big niggle for me personally. I\'m one of the players that cares just as much about the look of an item as I do the stats. The numbers can be great, but if it looks like crap, I\'ll go buy a piece of armour or a weapon with slightly lowers stats that looks better. This is sort of worsened by the fact Neverwinter allows you to alter the look of an item, to that of another If I am able to make my rather plain looking chest piece look like any other in the game, I can to see what my options are before I hand over the cash to the vendor.

Now the dungeons in themselves aren\'t bad, most are very fun with some interesting sections. But, and this is a very, very big but, the bosses you face are all exactly the same. No matter the dungeon you enter every single boss will do the same thing, put down a couple of red splats then summon a bunch of adds, then summon a bunch more adds, then summon a load more adds. It\'s at the point where the bosses themselves pose no threat, instead it\'s all placed on the summoned in adds that you have been killing hundreds off throughout the entire dungeon. Not only that, but the bosses at the end of small quest tree\'s do the exact same tactic. Cryptic really need to pull their finger out with this one, it needs improving immediately. A dungeon boss should be an interesting challenge that keeps you on your toes. Not something that\'s the same as every other boss in the entire game, it does scream of a cheap short-cut to me.

The Ugly

I couldn\'t about this section post Open Beta launch without bringing up the launch itself. Constant lag to the point where the game was unplayable, rubber-banding characters all over the place, queue\'s hours long, queue positioning shoot up by a couple of thousand as well as going down, my friends and I actually made a game out of whether we\'d move up or down upon the next position update. While launch issues like these are not uncommon with online games these days, that simply can\'t excuse it. In fact it condemns it, given all the issues almost every online launch has experienced over the past few years, this should have been expected, anticipated and indeed planned for.

Now we bring it down to the real ugliness of the game. Neverwinter is, as you all know, a 100% free to play game. As such it has a real world cash shop, that\'s fine, a lot of money has been spent to create this wonderful game, they have to see a return some how. The real issue is with the item pricing and indeed what some of the things are they charge for. Let\'s say you reach level 60 (current max level) with a Divine Cleric and find out that in order for you to play the classes role effectively in end game content you required a spell you didn\'t pick up while levelling. Why in most games (including F2P) on the market you\'d simply spend some of your in game money to redistribute you spend points. Sadly in Neverwinter you are required to purchase a $5 token from the ZEN Store.
How about, much like in most MMO\'s on the market today, you quickly run out of bag space, why one would simply craft a new bag, or purchase one from a craftsman capable. Not in Neverwinter, here you\'re required to spend between $6 and $10 for a single bag with no way to acquire one through in game means. I would also like to point out that you will be paying $30 for a mount, $30 for a companion and even $30 for a set of cosmetic clothing.

Now again, I understand that a company needs to make money, they have to see a return on the money spent to create the game. But they really need to sit down and take a long hard look at their payment model, because at the moment it\'s ridiculous. Hell take a look at Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World and see how they have done a cash shop. I have and continue to happily spend money there because I feel appreciated and that I do obtain value for the money I spend. Looking in Neverwinter\'s cash shop, I can\'t help but feel unappreciated and undervalued. As such I refuse to spend any money on anything other that a few extra character slots, their one reasonably priced item.

Final Word

So far, the game play of Neverwinter has not really disappointed me. There are little niggles and gripes such as the samey bosses, but over all it remains a fun and entertaining experience. So long as I avoid the horrid cash shop and Cryptic fix up some the the obvious issues, I feel this game will keep me entertained for a good while yet.

In the end Neverwinter is a incredibly fun and entertaining game that is free to download and free to play. I wholeheartedly suggest you go out there and give it a try for yourself!