I've been playing Neverwinter pretty heavily for the past month or so, long enough to have formed an opinion, at least on the game basics. For those who don't know Neverwinter is the new free to play fantasy MMO produced by Cryptic Studios and published by Perfect World. It is currently in open beta and scheduled to leave beta on the 20th of this month (June 2013 in case someone digs this up a century from now and gets all excited). It is, supposedly, set in the D&D universe of The Forgotten Realms - more on that later. First off let's deal with the twin issues of "free to play" and "open beta". First the good news. When they say "free to play", they really do mean "free to play". There are no restricted access areas in the game, and absolutely everything in the game can be acquired through game play. That by itself is unusual, and deserves a thumbs up, and if you do choose to fork out some real money, the currency they use, Zen, can be used in any of the free to play MMO titles Perfect World publishes. Next the good news, or was this supposed to be the bad news? The "open beta"... Well, it isn't much of a beta. They are already accepting your hard earned cash, and there will be no reset on launch day, they'll just use the official launch day as an opportunity to roll out some more end game content. The game was developed using the same game engine as Star Wars Online and Champions. The original concept was that the game would be a co-op style MMO, and you can still see that in the world design. The world is a network of maps which are each designed in a linear fashion very much like what you would see in a game using Valve's Source engine, albeit on a slightly larger scale. The only exception to this is the central hub map which is designed in a more open fashion. But there clearly has been no attempt made to make an open, contiguous world. Each map is an instance, with only one way in or out, with the exception of the central hub map. Let's just hope there isn't a fire on any of them. It would be a disaster. And while we're on the topic of the world, let's get into graphics. The world is very pretty, the characters and the items they wear are pretty, with a few exceptions the artwork is detailed, and the animations are decent, although one odd thing is that the player characters only look straight ahead, which strikes me as odd in a title debuting in 2013. It also is very playable on a low end gaming rig, with plenty of configuration options which should help it run with acceptable frame rates on any reasonable gaming rig purchased in the past two or three years. Now for the real bad news, especially if you were expecting another Neverwinter Nights style D&D game. The "Neverwinter" and "D&D" names are really just a sales gimmick, Neverwinter in no way plays or feels like D&D. The Forgotten Realms world lore, and the D&D 4th Edition rules set are just a rough framework to hang what is really just another World of Warcraft clone on. The first person shooter style aimed combat, read "carpal tunnel inducing clicking and button mashing" is dumbed down to a point where very little skill is involved. You have to be well out of range and wildly off target, to miss with an attack. You also don't really have to worry much about timing with the exception of attacks with long cool downs, just click as fast as you can and you'll do just fine. As for the quests and the story line, well, you don't really have to bother yourself too much with that, if you don't want to. All you need to do is talk to every non player character with a diamond shining over his, her or it's head, click on all the dialogue options, and follow all the shining trails, which for the most part will take you directly where you want to go without much thought involved. When I played World of Warcraft I really thought that it wasn't possible to make the quests any easier, or to have your hand held any more as you do them. I was wrong. But at the heart of Neverwinter there is something that is truly unique, and that is the Foundry. The Foundry is a set of tools that allows players to create their own adventures and quests, and have other people run through them, and best of all, it seems to work. Now the quality of those quests and adventures can be pretty spotty, but you can rank them, and see how others have ranked them, how popular they are, etc. But just the fact that the designers have found a way to allow players to play Dungeon Master in an MMO is pretty remarkable. But now for the most important question, is the game actually fun? Surprisingly, for someone who loves the open world, sandbox MMO design concept, the answer is yes. It's just about the perfect "down time" game. You get home from work, you're exhausted, stressed out, and you need a few minutes to yourself to unwind, with no frustration, and without having to think too much. Neverwinter is just about the perfect game for that. It's also great for taking a break from more intense and challenging gaming experiences, like online Scrabble - but I digress... Overall I'll give Neverwinter 3 stars out of 5, with a note that it might become a much more interesting game if the player "Dungeon Masters" find a way with the Foundry tools set to make the game more challenging, varied, and overall interesting. Time will tell.