|Release: October 3, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Robert VerBruggen
I may be sacrificing a bit of nerd credibility by admitting this, but up until this week, I had never tried Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn't a Dungeon Master in middle school, I've never been to a tournament, and honestly I'm not even sure how the dice system works. So, it was interesting for me to check out Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of Neverwinter, the new free-to-play Facebook game from Atari.
Heroes of Neverwinter is a scaled-down experience compared to the board game it's based on (4th Edition rules), but it's huge for a Facebook game. The developers boast upwards of 50 dungeons with multiple difficulty levels, 40 monster types, and 30 skills. You can even design your own dungeons and have other users pay to play them once you hit the current level cap of 10.
To start your game, you'll log on via Facebook. From there, you name your character and choose from among four races, four classes, and a variety of color schemes. You'll begin your life at a hub, where you can buy items and start "adventures," or dungeon raids. But before you start an adventure, you'll have to recruit a team of three other characters, and that's where the game's social nature comes into play.
As you probably already know, the purpose of a "free to play" Facebook game is to hook you, and then hit you up for microtransactions whenever you want something that's out of reach. And as you might also know, Facebook games place an emphasis on the social network's ability to share information between you and your official "friends."
You can recruit computer-generated characters to help you if you want—but after Level 1, each will cost you an "Astral Diamond," the game's real-money-based currency. With a four-person party, that means you lose three diamonds for every adventure (the fee covers only a single dungeon raid), and you're given a measly ten diamonds to start with.
The alternative is to use your friends' characters. Your friends themselves won't control them, though they can "spectate" on your game and provide buffs, and you'll have to give your friends a share of the loot. But using a friend's character for a raid doesn't cost diamonds, and that's a big help—so long as you always have enough friends at roughly the same level as you.
And that brings us to an important fact: Heroes of Neverwinter is run from a social network not merely for convenience, but because its gameplay truly depends on social networking. If you're like me—a gamer in his mid-20s whose friends are mostly non-gamers—it's basically a single-player game that constantly hits you up for cash.
Not only do you need to buy Astral Diamonds to keep hiring your party members, but your "energy" drains constantly, and you have to pay if you don't want to wait for it to regenerate. You can also pay to revive your character if you die near the end of a dungeon, to get better gear, to create an extra character, and to unlock more adventures. It's not a budget-buster unless you play obsessively—Astral Diamonds aren't too expensive ($5 for 50), and sometimes you get one as your free item for the day—but the notion of "free to play" won't last long if you work through Heroes of Neverwinter as a lone wolf.
Anyway, once you've put together your band of merry warriors, you tackle a series of dungeons that unlock in progression and take maybe ten or twenty minutes apiece. The best phrase I can think of to describe the gameplay is "turn-based combat on a grid." Each of your characters has a unique set of abilities, and during each turn a character can complete several actions (such as moving, attacking, and healing allies). The idea is to inflict as much damage as possible on your enemies while remaining well-healed—and, where possible, staying out of the range of enemy projectiles. Some of your attacks can be used only once in each room. There's a ton of strategy involved, as well as a little dumb luck introduced by the fact that you never know exactly how much damage a given attack will do. (You don't literally roll the dice, but the game does calculations that presumably mirror the official D&D dice system.) Each dungeon progresses in a pretty standard "clear one room, now clear the next room" fashion, but every now and then you'll hit a fork in the road.