It's been a dry few years for fans of Dungeons & Dragons video games.
Unless you turn to older releases, your only options are the horrendous action RPG Daggerdale, or Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is still using the 3.5 Edition rules and is set in the stinky Eberron campaign world. And when Atari delayed the upcoming PC game Neverwinter (which was tied to the already published Neverwinter pen-and-paper and the upcoming RA Salvatore novel release) the situation looked even bleaker.
After a short beta, enter the Facebook RPG Heroes of Neverwinter. It shows the increasing sophistication of social games, including elements that should do well with both hardcore gamers (actual combat, levelling, use of items and abilities, etc.) and social gamers (gifting items to your friends, using your own characters in combat and even fighting alongside your friends). But while it uses the 4th Edition rules, the game feels stripped down because of limits on classes, races and, so far, the structure of the quests.
One of the most fun aspects of D&D is making your character. Like previous editions, the 4E rules come with numerous classes and races to choose from. This variety, however, is missing from Heroes of Neverwinter. It only offers four classes, fighter, cleric, rogue, and wizard, and races, Dragonborn, Halfling, Human and Eladrin, the latter of which is essentially 4E speak for Elves, which is less than even the basic Player's Handbook contains. No Dwarves or Gnomes. No Rangers or Warlocks (even though these appear as foes). I can understand limiting these, either because of the limits of programming for Facebook or saving other classes and races for future expansions (or microtransactions). But since D&D is about player choice, it's sad that the most basic of choices, who you're playing, is this limited.
Heroes of Neverwinter nails turn-based combat. It may be stripped down, giving you fewer options than you might've had on the tabletop, but the combat is still fun. An initiative bar shows when each combatant is taking turns, so you can plan on which threats to eliminate first. An easy-to-use radial menu brings up which abilities, attacks, items and spells each of your warriors can use each turn, though the game could do a better job of explaining how to use area-of-effect spells. You don't have to focus them on a bad guy, something not all players may realise immediately. My one complaint is that enemy crossbow attacks seem way overpowered, but that might just be my poor luck.
When it's time to gather your loot, you select a prize from a grid of hidden tiles. You can use a special potion to reveal a title to see your prize (and you can purchase these with in-game gold or real money). And at the end of an adventure, you're scored on your performance (and this appears on a leaderboard, so you can see how your friends and others are doing).
As a Facebook game, Heroes of Neverwinter has a social component. You can recruit your friends' characters into the party, and they receive a bonus of gold and XP for successful adventures. Or you can recruit from a pool of characters from other Facebook users (these also get a cut of the recruitment fee).
The coolest part of this is that if your friends are online they can watch in Spectator Mode, giving you buffs and healing when you need it. You can send a message to whoever is a "spectator" to ask for a buff. But it was difficult to tell if anyone used my cleric, my gold coffers didn't appear to get much fuller. I guess this means my friends don't care for my Dragonborn Cleric.
You can also send gifts to your friends. Each player has a house, and a chest inside holds gifts you receive from friends. The gifts are minor items, but sometimes you get something cool, such as a Potion of Recovery which restores 50 HP. But be sure to send out gifts! You also get a small item or amount of gold for logging in each day.
I'm excited to check out the adventure construction tools, but I wasn't able to get to the required level 10 to use them. If I were making this game, I'd want players to be able to access those tools as soon as possible, in order to get them sharing adventures and engaging more with the game. The level requirement seems bizarre to me, especially since it takes a long time to level up.
Like other free-to-play games on Facebook, Heroes of Neverwinter has microtransactions. You can purchase Astral Diamonds and use this "currency" to hire adventurers, upgrade gear and buy healing items (when you die during an adventure, a window appears asking if you want to pay for a resurrection potion).
I found that the game's a little easier if you purchase some Astral Diamonds. For me, it was for a resurrection when I died against the final boss in an adventure. I was without a resurrection potion and didn't want to lose the XP gained. You can certainly play without purchasing Astral Diamonds, but it makes the game more difficult.
Heroes of Neverwinter is among the most "gamey" of games I've played on Facebook. The turn-based combat is fun, and it's a good adaptation of the 4E D&D rules. I think some players are going to enjoy it for a long time, but Liquid Entertainment has to make sure they're adding options and more adventures to keep things fresh. Otherwise, it's going to be another Facebook game that gets a lot of attention for a few weeks but then disappears as gamers find a new distraction.