Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: October 31, 2006
There's a lot to be said for a good, old-school role-playing game. Maybe it's just me, but tromping about the countryside, wrapped up in the persona of some adventurous type while fighting all manners of beast and man while in search of some lofty goal ... that's not a bad way to spend an evening or 20. Years ago, Neverwinter Nights and its three expansions came forth to provide less a single-player quest for glory, but more a taste of the possible and a truckload of scaffolding with which to make sure there were adventures enough for a lifetime. Now it's back again, this time from the hands of a new development team, recovered from their own fight with LucasArts in 2004 and ready to make sure dragons are slain and dungeons are crawled through.
Given Neverwinter Nights 2's dual-nature — it comes out of the box not just equipped with a sprawling adventure across the hills and swamps of old Faerun, ready and primed for action, but also sports a monstrous toolkit for the Dungeon Master in all of us, intended as fodder for future adventures, both of the single- and multiplayer variety — it calls for two separate reviews, much in the way the original title did, since both really stand alone but also provide strong complement. However, a deep review of the toolkit is really outside the scope of this review.
Out of the gates in the "stock" module, those players who haven't kept up with Dungeons & Dragons will be in for a treat. Developing one of the first games to use 2004's 3rd Edition Revised Ruleset (3.5e from here on in), Obsidian appears to have gone out of their way to make sure everything is covered. Character generation is now a far more expansive beast than she ever used to be. You, as the player, can pick from nearly a dozen races — from your perfectly ordinary Humans to more elaborate species, like the dark and sinister Drow Elves, to half-angel Aasimar — and a veritable litany of classes, ranging from your traditional Fighter and Rogue to the various grades of magic users, Monks, and Druids.
These normally simple picks have far more impact this time around, as your race and class not only influence the way people look and react to you, but with the introduction of high-level Prestige Classes, it now pays to consider how your character can change in the future. Do you want to always be that lowly Fighter, or would it be more your speed to be a Knight Champion or a Weapons Lord? Is an alley-crawling Rogue your destiny, or will you prowl the darkness as a Shadowthief? Or maybe you're enamored of your Paladin, but not the whole "full of grace" requirement, so you'll ... let that slip a little, becoming the anti-Paladin, The Blackguard. It's rather wide open, much like the pen-and-paper system.
You're still not through the character generation, though; every Feat and Skill you could possibly think of comes along for the ride as well, a massive list of possibly over 100 things your characters can do or learn. This is the bread and butter of your character, really. Stats will get you some distance, but those little specialized things, like being better with a sword or having a knack for making locks and traps not work, are what make the character more special and, most importantly, give you a knuckle up in the gameplay.
Once you're through that, the tutorial — referred to as Act 0 — begins. As the adopted only child of an elf in the far-flung swamp village of West Harbor, you've quietly passed the years in solitude, relatively ignorant of the world north of the Merdelin Swamps. Your father can't keep quiet about how you were the lone survivor of an apocalyptic fight between the inhabitants of the area and The Lord of Shadows, but beyond that, he hides everything.
The Harbor Fair opening segment acts an introduction to the system and interface, giving you a bit of practice in spell-slinging, brawling, and using skills. In many ways, it works better than NWN's "trial-by-fire" introduction, and it also shows off some of the upgrades that the sequel brings, the first of which will make many veteran players smile: Henchmen are gone with the wind. In their stead, you'll now form a proper party of up to three additional teammates, all completely manageable at any time. No more will you screech and holler because you can't find a Henchman who adequately covers all your needs or isn't dumber than a bag of rocks. With full inventory, spell, and skill control, it's really much more like a traditional D&D session than the original.
The interface has received some degree of facelift as well, with many obvious markings from Obsidian's previous project, the oft-lamented Knights of The Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Features are handled by a set of keyboard commands or on-screen icons, streamlined to just about the bare minimum of what's necessary. Once you're in a fight, you'll find the familiar KOTOR "combat queue," which lets you set up to three commands, in addition to the one currently in service.
Skills can be set up through a "quickbar" at the bottom of the screen, and just about everything that isn't handled through icons is a single left-click. It's very simple, and in almost all applications works just fine, but it's not without a few quibbles. For instance, getting the details on a piece of equipment requires right-clicking and selecting Examine, and only one of these detail windows can be open at a time. I also have trouble with some clicking being very imprecise, causing smaller targets to be very difficult to select. Additionally, what I wouldn't give for the ability to see more than one HP bar for things I'm fighting ….
The near entirety of your time will be spent between talking and fighting. Conversation is very straightforward and is presented in one of two methods – the NWN "conversation tree in a window" variety, which works exceedingly well for simple conversations with minor NPCs, or KOTOR's "cut scene"-style dialogues. These are often much more important conversations, with plot points galore and speech enabled. Voice acting is a mixed bag in these segments; certain characters are fun to listen to, particularly your party members, but some of the intermittent speech-enabled NPCs are amateurish at best. No one makes my ears want to climb off my head and run screaming for the hills, though, which is always welcome in a game where people can often talk for several minutes and need to be heard.
Combat is, again, a hybrid of the original and Knights. What you'll get from the original are huge gangs of troops, lots of dice-rolling statistics, and a largely overhead view. In NWN2, you have the option of changing to a KOTOR-style camera, but you don't want to — more on that later. The other portion of this motley amalgamate brings the ability to "jump" between characters in your party to manage their skills, position, and action "queues," even while the game is paused, which is something you'll do a lot. Everything else is stock RPG-style combat that hearkens back to Baldur's Gate almost a decade ago: click a lot, watch mobs go at it, pause and adjust as necessary.
On the default difficulty level (Normal), things are rather direct, but some people may prefer the more involved and true-to-the-source "D&D Hardcore" mode, like me. (The hardest difficulty will make the most hardened combatants wince a bit.) This mode introduces elements more familiar to those fans of the tabletop game, such as friendly-fire on Area Effect spells and the ever-controversial Attack of Opportunity, where certain situations allow for "free" attacks, sometimes even with penalties. Combat is really about clicking the right place at the right time, which makes it a sometimes frantic and confusing brawl, where it's not always apparent what is going on, and why. That may stem from other problems in a completely different area, though, like the graphics.
Much has been made of NWN2's ambitious new graphic engine, with beautiful foliage, multi-layered sky, and "height-generated" buildings in the outside environments, whatever exactly that means. It also pointed out that system requirements would be rather lofty, with only the upper echelons of the gaming community even able to get near it. I do hate to be the bearer of bad news here, but I've logged hours here, and I simply don't see it. There is nothing here that's above and beyond places we've been before, even in games like KOTOR from two years ago, and if this is supposed to compete with Oblivion, then there will be much sadness in Mudville, for the mighty engine has scored at best a double on an wild throw to first. While it's certainly not ugly, there is very little within this engine that comes off as spectacular or eye-catching. Special effects are things we've come to know in years past, and character models are closer to utilitarian than elaborate. There's a degree of sameness, and model animation is very spartan outside of the most important NPCs and your party members.
Your own character suffers from "hero stiffness syndrome," along with a bad infection of "Freemanitis" — he never moves or speaks (except in subtitles), even when the camera is directly on him. At that, dialogue pops and skips, and periodically things which are happening in the real world may have unexpected effects, such as a roving NPC pushing the speaker out of the camera view, or the camera pointing at nothing because the speaker is a badger at the moment (your Druid, if you're wondering). All this seems to kick up the system requirements for no benefit whatsoever. My PC will happily run Oblivion at nearly maximum settings, but 10FPS is the best I can eke out here, though I can't begin to see why. The camera is happily fully malleable, spinning about and angling all over, with a small number of presets, such as a completely useless "Driving Cam," which moves the camera behind your chosen character's shoulder but leaves you blind and makes mouse movement just about impossible.
Beyond that, there are a few quibbles that wore on me. The canned dialogue when you select a character is limited, and at least one character seems to randomly scream things for no good reason. Your party's AI is workable, but they don't seem to understand the concept of "running away" very well. There is a decided lack of feedback in combat, which is problematic when you're really in the thick of things, and resting seems to become a cheap cure-all, given how useful it is (five seconds, full heal, Merry Christmas!). I had a few script errors, one of which ruined the tutorial pop-up windows and obscured much of the screen. The keyboard can only be configured before the game starts, which is very minor, but it keeps you from even seeing the layout once you've started playing. I also have issues with spellcasters starting at the top of their spellbooks and moving down, especially when one has Fireball there seven times.
As far as the single-player module goes, NWN2 is a right fun quest that gets started very quickly and does some of the things I came to love in KOTOR, such as a large cache of support characters and abstract stats like Character Influence (how much a character likes or hates you) and flexible character alignments, which do bear some pretty heavy significance on the plot and conversations. There's a substantial amount of play here, and enough challenge to keep folks interested. I have more qualms about the engine that powers it than the actual module; this engine seems to be puffed up a touch, without enough gunpowder for the sort of cannon it requires to work properly. (Now if that isn't a strained analogy....)
As for multiplayer elements, NWN2 provides pretty much what you would expect and not a lot more. The online games are handled generally by GameSpy, which does a pretty functional job of things but leaves some interfacing to be desired, smacking strongly of battleNet from Diablo II or StarCraft. Games are, however, easy enough to find, and getting into one is a straightforward experience. There aren't a lot of games to write home about right now; there aren't a lot of modules out yet, and very few games running using the two in-pack modules (the stock single-player campaign and the insanely short "Unwelcome Visitors," which feels more like a demo than a module).
I had a strong problem with the matches themselves, rather than with getting into one. There are at least a dozen multiplayer game types listed – Arena, Melee, Role-Playing, Story Lite, and then some – but every single one seems exactly the same. If there are differences, I was at a loss to figure them out, and the manual is absolutely no help; its section on multiplayer modes is surprisingly light. There is also a strong predilection toward enabling that great divisor of players everywhere, PvP Mode. In these sessions, everyone is fair game, story be damned, which seems deeply incongruous to the normal flow of a round of D&D – I should not be able to kill everyone in a session.
However, much like the single-player portion, the multiplayer elements are ones which may evolve over time, as players stick their fingers into the toolkit and see what they can mold. For the moment, it's nothing to write home about; I can see the charm in getting your friends together and questing for glory, but that'll take some collaboration and fresher modules. On the other hand, some may prefer to simply jump in there and adventure with a handful of random yokels. To each their own.
There's something inherent about Neverwinter Nights 2 that makes it more difficult to review. At the basic level, this is not a game you get in the box. Sure, it comes with an excellent module, but you are purchasing the engine, assets, and toolkit, thereby granting you, the player and more importantly the adventurer, access to what may well be an nearly infinite buffet of sessions, both online and off. It's hard to deny the value of a kit of that nature, particular given its wide range of future possibilities. That's also a hard product to sell at the concept level: You're paying for a framework and tools and a sample of what this thing can do in the hands of a professional team of designers.
Based simply on the pack-in module, I can't recommend Neverwinter Nights 2 enough to RPG fans and those who follow the table-top gaming systems. Many other players will want to wait patiently for the mod scene to develop, but unless you're a complete no-RPG kind of guy or still enamored of your MMORPG of the week, you'll want to snag NWN2 eventually.
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