Genre: Role-Playing Game
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Release Date: October 9, 2007
Going into this review, I'd like to make a few things very clear to everyone at home, most of all people like Johnny Talks to Web Sites and Billy Rants about Biased Reviews: I always have trouble approaching expansion packs, of which Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is one. Expansions don't tend to bring much more to the table than strictly more content, and they're often confusing or difficult to those people who haven't experienced the original entirely. There may also be minor spoilers, so beware and all that. That being established, we shall now return to the world of Dungeons & Dragons, more specifically the northern throes of Rasheman, where our hero is picking up the pieces and starting anew ....
Mask of the Betrayer is, as you've probably gathered by now, the first expansion to 2006's exceptionally popular Neverwinter Nights 2. Picking up almost exactly where the original left off (or so the player is firmly led to believe), your character was nearly destroyed during the fight with The Shadow King, but has somehow been sent to a long-forgotten spirit barrow in the Northlands. You awaken, weakened, unarmed, with vague fleeting memories of someone doing something ... very evil to you while you were unconscious. It isn't a moment more before the Red Wizard Safiya appears to aid you, and with a few cursory lines of dialogue to set the scenario, you're off on another adventure. Before it's over, you'll have seen the dark side of the world, fought with spirits and demons, possibly have saved the world from a tyrannical wizard or two, and dealt with an inner power inside you so hideously evil that it comes with its own status bar and the running risk that it'll consume you wholly.
Mask primarily brings the new, high-level campaign with it, a three-chapter affair intended to continue the story that started in the original. There are no substantial engine upgrades, and all of the game mechanics remain identical to the original's, complete with the fits and foibles that turned off a number of players. This isn't to say that nothing new is added; the level cap has been increased from level 20 to level 30, which introduces the potential for Epic Characters, with completely new rules, abilities and possibilities for these exceptionally powerful characters, though getting to level 30 takes some serious grinding.
Additionally, three new races make their debut (the manual says six, but four are practically identical): Genasi, members of the Planetouched group with strong elemental affiliations; Half-Drow, those outcasts of the underground dark elves with partial human parentage; and Wild Elves, who are much like their brethren but have spent less time studying and as a result are not as magically inclined as others. Also along for the ride are a pair of new classes, both of which stand as the "sorcerer and" versions of another class (Favored Souls are Cleric/Sorcerers, while Spirit Shamans are Druid/Sorcerers) with specialized bonuses and skills.
Lastly, with the higher level cap and expansion of stats come five new prestige classes, special character classes with high requirements and often amazing abilities beyond any of the normal classes, such as controlling the very forces of nature (Stormlord) or using the power of the gods in physical combat (Sacred Fist). The game goes through a very elaborate description of all of these during character generation; any player who's going to shoot one of these specialized classes has to bear in mind the requirements — some are exceptionally high and won't be available until near level 20. It's also possible to take more than one prestige class, but the game strictly enforces limit caps on each one. In Mask, this immediately becomes something to consider, as your characters are at least level 18 already.
The introduction segment is quite unlike the one in NWN2; the game automatically assumes that you've finished the original campaign, so it gives you very little time to get your bearings before tossing you face-first into near-epic level combat within the barrow. Mask is intended as a level 18 or higher campaign, and characters under that level aren't allowed in, though if you've no one capable of meeting that requirement, the game will give you all the XP required to get up to level 18 so you can jump right in. This may seem gracious, but I found that if you're not used to high-level combat and characters, the learning curve is dramatic. Walking out of the "lobby" with a character just short of epic, full of feats and skills you may not even know existed, and then teaming up with a wizard who slings around 9th level spells as if they're candy at Halloween.
The fights also don't spend much time letting you get on your own feet: When a particular plot point cancels out your weakened state, things immediately ramp up and keep on going. It wasn't far from the end of the first chapter that I became completely overwhelmed: Enemies had gained the ability to slay my level 19 Barbarian/Weapons Master in one hit, and dumping every spell Safiya had in her inventory didn't seem to be helping matters any. Even with other characters doing support duty during the epic fight at the end of Act I, things often came to a bloody and brutal end. I ascribe a lot of this to my inexperience with high-level characters and monsters. Based on this, I really have to suggest that players interested in Mask finish NWN2 first, simply so they have a smooth grasp on the intricacies of the game.
The manual takes great pains to point out the interface changes, optimizations and overall improvements to the engine, but to be very honest, I didn't see much of it, aside from a few new color and lighting effects. Mask still has one of the most severe problems I noted with the original package: In many ways, the graphics are just a notch above average, but even with a relatively powerful machine (more substantial than when I reviewed NWN2 last year), frame rates are rather low, the characters look strictly okay, and there is a lot of stuttering and slowdown when things get hectic. Again, I have to question an engine that has this many issues running adequately on a dual-core system with a strong video card. I also found myself constantly struggling with the camera; by default, it moves way too quickly and is far too sensitive to mouse motion. While I understand that it's a "free camera," there should at least be some effort made to verify the camera controls and to reduce the number of awkward positions. This camera often moves of its own will or is placed at a useless angle that requires I repeatedly wrestle it back in place.
The module itself, as with the original campaign, helps to move focus past the technical foibles and back to the game itself. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer is every bit as tightly written as the original, though it moves much faster and is a fair sight shorter. I do, however, like the characters, and it's pretty awesome that your lead character can, in theory, be something completely horrific that you can embrace, if you feel the need. I've always been fond of wide-open forks in the plot, where a decision really does seem to have some impact on how the story unfolds. Mask of the Betrayer, as an extension of the original Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign, is a strong RPG and something any D&D fan should check out.
More articles about Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer