Neverwinter does one thing particularly well: combat. This Dungeons & Dragons-themed online game wants you to feel the clash of steel on steel, and the impact of magic missiles on Orcish flesh. Forget the tab-targeting so common (but increasingly less common) to games of this type: hover your targeting reticle over your foe and then swing that sword or fire that arcane spell. Like Tera and other action-focused MMOGs before it, Neverwinter wants to feel like an action game, and while you need to consider role-playing tropes like skill cooldowns, it succeeds at making your key presses and mouse clicks translate immediately into sword swings and healing magic. In Neverwinter, it's fun to go to battle.
If only Neverwinter had applied a similar amount of cleverness to its other features. From a structural standpoint, this is as shallow as MMOGs come, leading you from one waypoint to the next with as little fanfare as possible, and showering you with so much experience that you could blow through the main quests and hit maximum level in a matter of days. There is a bare minimum of developer-provided content, layered into a network of overworld areas and winding dungeons that never coalesce into an enticing world. If you have played Cryptic's previous games, such as Star Trek Online or Champions Online, then you will recognize Neverwinter's segmented design.
It's not that a highly directed theme park-style MMOG is inherently bad--it's that Neverwinter's quests don't benefit from diversity of action, great writing, or any element of surprise. You do all or many of the quests in a zone, get your rewards, and then move on to the next area to do the same basic things all over again. This is a familiar trope, of course, but most similar games make valiant efforts to overcome it, mixing up the rhythm with interactive weaponry, puzzle elements, explorable landscapes, and so forth. In Neverwinter, there is no disguising the monotony: you are just killing wolves, collecting objects, and flipping switches, with no greater sense of purpose, and with too little diversity to goose the proceedings.
Neverwinter has some tales to tell, and most quest-givers are fully voiced. But few of those tales are compelling on their own, and most of the voice acting is mediocre at best, so you'll probably find yourself taking the quest and trotting off without reading the lore-heavy text or hearing the NPC finish his or her verbose tale of misery. The good news is that other players are there to take up the slack, thanks to Neverwinter's foundry, which allows amateur designers to create their own quests and send you towards adventures unknown.
The game makes it easy to discover the best of these adventures, or to find ones with local entrances, and while there are some clunkers, many of them are a cut above Neverwinter's official quests. One user-created gem has you investigating the theft of some foul-smelling cheese, and dealing with the unhealthy repercussions of finding it. Another features a role-playing game within a role-playing game within a role-playing game. Still another has you traveling through time to participate in sepia-toned memories. It isn't impossibly difficult to create a quest yourself, and finding great ones is a delight. It's too bad that the game's own creators couldn't infuse the main quests with similar amounts of wit.
User-made quests scale extremely well to your level, so you never need worry that you're leaving any interesting player-created content behind. Much (if not most) of this content is tailored to solo players, and the main quests are perfectly soloable as well, though you'll typically have a single AI companion with you. You can accumulate a number of companions. They come in a number of forms (animal, human) and can assist you in a number of ways (magic, melee), but don't expect an impressive display of artificial intelligence from them. You cannot assign them passive or aggressive behaviors as you often can with pets in other MMOGs, though you can periodically send them off to training so that they might learn new skills. Companions never seem like much of a boon in combat, however, and as a result, the most popular and effective companions are those like cats and floating gems that don't participate in combat at all and instead offer passive bonuses.
Once you're far enough along, training your pets takes a matter of hours. You can summon one of your other hirelings during this time, or if you're in a hurry to get your beloved panther back into the fray, you can always complete the process immediately by spending astral diamonds. Those diamonds are a currency in limited supply, and typically, you must refine them before you can use them. Furthermore, the amount of diamonds you can refine in a day is fixed, thus limiting the activities you can use the diamonds for. And they are used for all sorts of mundane tasks: removing armor enchantments, making auction house purchases, or hurrying along the gathering of materials for crafting, which is performed by unseen hirelings you send off into the wilderness with the click of a button. (If you like, you can use your web browser to manage these profession tasks without running the game client, which is a nice touch.)
And so astral diamonds are valuable, given how important they are to everyday tasks. Furthermore, it's hard to look at the 17-hour timer on hiring a new mercenary and not want to click that "Finish Now" button and spend 71,000 diamonds on completing the process immediately. It should be no surprise, then, that you can buy publisher Perfect World's currency, called Zen, with real money--and then exchange some Zen for previously refined diamonds. Buying Zen is a great lure considering how scant and repetitive the content is that you must grind to earn astral diamonds without dropping the cash. Other items, like companion slots, bags, and mounts, can be just straight-up bought with Zen. Even others require you to make sense of a ridiculous number of different currencies: gold, celestial coins, trade bars, seals, and more.
You can, of course, play Neverwinter without spending money on such conveniences, though you might not feel as effective as you'd like without the best gear possible, whether that be from the auction house, or from vendors that accept seals or ardent coins. Fortunately, even if you don't feel like you're the most powerful mage or fighter in the Forgotten Realms, it's entertaining to fling spells around or carve up Ashmadai cultists with a razor-sharp blade. The combat is loosely (very loosely) based on D&D's fourth edition rules, and gives you a set number of slots for various types of skills. As you level, you earn points to spend on new skills, possibly choosing to replace one skill with another when it becomes available.
And Neverwinter is all about that combat. Your alignment, your chosen deity--these Dungeons & Dragons staples mean nothing. It's all about which of the five classes you choose, because that choice is what determines how you annihilate spiders and pit fiends. Combat is at its most robust in dungeons and action-focused scenarios called skirmishes, if only because the pace of group content has momentum that overworld content lacks. Hearing the metallic swipes of your daggers and watching them carve noticeable slashes through the air makes monster encounters enjoyable; a mage simultaneously flinging shards of ice enhances the pleasure. While the large majority of Neverwinter's content is on the easy side, some of the later dungeons can get tricky. A giant boss called Ethraniev Marrowslake summons shadow wolves to her side, for instance, which leap about the battlefield and harass the team, forcing you to devise a team tactic--something you probably hadn't needed to do up to that point.
Until around level 40 (out of 60), you find that just hammering on enemies and healing your teammates from time to time is a perfectly reasonable way to triumph in these five-person instances. Sadly, there are no large-scale raid dungeons, or rather little of anything that you could call large-scale in Neverwinter, aside from the eerie Dwarven city of Gauntlgrym, which brings max-level, guild-affiliated players together for a 20-on-20 player-versus-player bloodbath. To get to the PvP fun in Gauntlgrym, however, you must slog through a bit of nondescript monster battling first--and if you want to show off your PvP prowess before you reach level 60, limited five-versus-five battles are the only way to do it.
Those 10-player battles are plenty colorful, and the battle system is entertaining enough to make PvP fun for a time, but one competitive mode on two maps--one of which is in the rotation far more frequently--isn't a lot of content to keep you invested. You could say the same about Neverwinter in general, actually: there just isn't much substance here. After 40 hours or so, you've traveled the howling corridors of The Chasm, battled across Rothe Valley's autumnal meadows, and fought winter wolves atop Icespire Peak. It's a shame that the journey doesn't leave you more epic tales to tell.