Neverwinter Nights Review
Bioware's long awaited role playing game, Neverwinter Nights, has finally been released. It has been in development for many years now, and fans have been eagerly awaiting it since day one. Some of the big features that NWN boasts are a fully 3D world, tried and true Bioware-style D&D gameplay, the new D&D 3rd Edition rules, and most importantly, an extensive multiplayer game where players can make their own campaigns and then run them as the Dungeon Master.
Neverwinter Nights runs on an OpenGL game engine custom-made by Bioware. It's powerful, and while the graphic quality doesn't match Morrowind's NetImmerse engine, the system requirements are more forgiving as well. There are quite a few detail options you can play with, which allow the game to run somewhat alright on the minimum specs. On the high end, the game can certainly be made to strain the fastest of computers, although I found that on my mid-range machine, improving the visuals to the top end wasn't worth the high frame rate cost.
The most noticeable and unique thing, visually, about the NWN engine is its lighting effects. Characters can have multiple shadows based on the different light sources in the room, which can make for a moody, if not a little too exaggerated, atmosphere. The extra shadows also take their hit on the game's frame rate - I decided they'd be the first to go when I was trying to play the game in higher resolutions. Even without the shadows, though, the game still has excellent lighting and color.
The Aurora editor that ships with the game allows you to make your own "modules" to play on - these can be played online, and when you combine it with the ability to serve up your own game as a Dungeon Master, controlling how the game goes as the players progress, it's a pretty powerful system. It remains to be seen if this will create a new style of online play, as the game ships with no additional modules - the main campaign is the only one available.
NWN has plenty of control options and ways to manage the many things D&D players can do. Just about all major actions can be hotkeyed, including switching weapons, casting spells, and unlocking doors. It looks like Bioware has tried to really spiff up the interface, with their right-click circular menus on top of everything else. Windows for your automap, journal, inventory, stats, and damage/chat log can all be moved or resized to your liking.
The game's camera can be zoomed in or rotated around, and is adjustable in three different ways depending on your tastes. There's a free camera, an auto-rotating version, and finally, a "driving" mode that allows you to use keys to move around like a third-person shooter. You can additionally move your character in a fashion similar to Diablo, where you can hold the button down and move in the direction you're pointing, or do it the old Bioware way: just click on a spot and your character will path his or her way over there.
The chat interface is functional, and combat is a simple case of clicking on the enemy you want to attack. Any special attacks or even chat emotes you'd like to perform can be put onto the hotkey bar as well.
Neverwinter Nights has some impressive graphics, although it seems that Bioware didn't spend as much effort on art here as they did on the Baldur's Gate series. While the move to 3D is well done, some of the world & player models aren't made up of as many polygons as recent games. It seems that this was done to keep the frame rate up in the game's big fights, although these aren't that common - even near the end of the game.
The world is well-detailed, with decent-looking caverns, towns, forests, and cities. It all fits in pretty nicely with the monster designs to create a wholly unique experience. Despite this, though, I sometimes miss the old 2D Bioware Infinity engine, since it allowed more freedom with the art drawn for the game worlds. NWN doesn't have anything that's really visually spectacular from an art standpoint, like the Baldur's Gate series had. Even Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, last year's action game on the Playstation 2 (made by Black Isle and Snowblind), has more visually impressive environments and monsters.
Speaking of monsters, there isn't much of a wide variety of them in NWN. Many of the tougher fights are disappointing; many bosses are only somewhat tougher versions of the ones you've already seen so many times. Some of the monsters that are a staple of D&D games are also missing, disappointing, or just way too rare. Kobolds, mind flayers and beholders are all missing, the Drow only make a tiny appearance, and the larger monsters that are there aren't anywhere near as overwhelming as they should be. Overall, the scale and diversity of the monsters leaves something to be desired.
One aspect of the visuals that does look great, though, is the spell system. Each spell effect looks very unique, and many of them can cover half the screen or more. Other special effects are particularly well done, and are just lavish enough to impress without overdoing it. The first time you see Time Stop in action, and you'll know what I mean.
Neverwinter Nights' single player game is in the style of their previous Baldur's Gate RPG titles. When compared, there are some very fundamental gameplay differences when playing a single-player game, though - and these differences are generally for the worse, not the better.
The first major difference from Bioware's previous games is that you only get one character to play. There are several very unique henchmen to bring along with you, but you can only have one at a time and you can only give them a few very basic commands. You have no control over the henchman's actual movements, inventory, or skills. This is a very major change from being able to manually control six unique characters in the Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games.
This change effectively simplifies the gameplay to a large extent; no longer do you have a cleric, thief, fighter, and mage. And while the developers allow you to get by without having all of these abilities, it seems way too simple now. The action is as uncomplicated as Diablo II now, but without the long-term gameplay aspects that Blizzard put into its best-seller.
Much of the game's rule system is pulled right from the Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition ruleset. It's neither fully complete nor totally accurate compared to the full rules, but it's close enough for most real-life D&D players to accept it. Stats and skills increase as you level up, and the game supplies plenty of help on them as you go. There's also a "Recommended" button which you can use to pick stats and skills which are generally good for your character class and race, and they've made it pretty easy for someone who's a D&D newbie.
NWN's combat plays out pretty similar to what most computer RPG players can expect. Click on an enemy, and your character will run over and start attacking. Combine this with hotkeyed spells or special abilities, and it's a painless affair. Combat is in real time, not turn-based, which is probably the game's biggest departure from the 3rd Edition rules. It works nicely, and the player can pause the game at any time to change orders or set up something tricky.
Those that are expecting a story as good as the ones in previous Bioware games may be a bit disappointed. The villain(s) aren't hardly villainized well enough, which left me with an apathetic sort of attitude and a lack of motivation to actually finish the game. Compare this with Jon Irenicus and the Bhaal storyline from Baldur's Gate 2, and it's a world of difference.
Of course, RPG's aren't just driven by the main storyline. Both the required and optional quests are a large contributing factor, and NWN's quests are mediocre. There are plenty of mysteries to unravel as you go, although none of them are very exciting. The main character is mostly sent out to either kill some bad guy or retrieve some item of power - usually requiring you to deal with, you guessed it, some bad guy in the process. You can sometimes worm your way out of a fight, but it winds up having little effect on the storyline, and you miss out on a few items (and sometimes some experience as well).
There are quite a few side quests in Neverwinter Nights, and also some interesting gear that can be created or assembled from lesser items. The problem is that it's all very simple; most side quests can be beaten in a few minutes, and any items created by the player don't really affect the core gameplay too much. Combine this with the inability to visit the areas from previous chapters, and the whole thing seems like a step backwards for Bioware.
Players who choose an Evil alignment do get to finish some quests in their own little evil way, and cause a little havoc at the same time. It starts off rather simple, where you can demand extra gold for completed quests. But by the end of the game, some of the quests are a little more complex and can involve your character's alignment far more. Still, when it comes to the game's main plot, the story won't be much different no matter what alignment you are. The end is the same, despite the means.
All in all, the single player experience in NWN is somewhat engaging, is long enough to satisfy most RPG players (I'd put it at about 30-35 hours total), and is a pretty decent game. It's not quite to the level of the brilliant gameplay found in Bioware's last major title, Baldur's Gate 2, and while that's certainly disappointing, but that doesn't make it a bad game.
The most hyped portion of NWN is its online component. To start, players can go through the game's single player campaign together in a cooperative online mode, but most players will tire of it after a short while. The campaign just doesn't have anywhere near enough online replayability to stay fresh for long, which will bore players by the time they've beaten it once. They'll be itching to play custom modules before long, which leads to the game's greatest potential: module authors and online play.
Combining the Aurora editing tools with the ability to become a dungeon master, Bioware has made a game that could start a new sub-genre of online gameplay. Picture it: hundreds of game servers, each with uniquely-created content. The dungeon master who'll be overseeing your game, adjusting the difficulty, spawning monsters, and making it unique, is the person who wrote the module you're playing. The idea sounds great, but is this actually going to happen on more than a few game servers? It's uncertain.
One of the problems a lot of would-be module makers are currently finding with the Aurora editor is that it's tough to make custom modules easy for any DM to use. Most of the good modules will require extensive level editing as well as lots of plot and dialogue scripting, increasing the chance for bugs and other problems with the modules.
What may wind up happening is that the only people who can actually correctly DM their custom modules are themselves - documenting what to do in a bunch of "what-if" scenarios (which may be necessary for keeping the players of a module interested) is going to be a daunting task. What happens if this player tells an NPC he doesn't want to do a quest? What if he kills that NPC instead? What if he decides to kill a guard in town? The above examples can be solved without too much trouble, but there will almost always be something the module maker didn't plan out accordingly. In short, the possiblities for random internet players to generate trouble for the DM are endless, and the modules will have to be very detailed, and known inside and out by the DM, to keep the game flowing.
It remains to be seen just how far people will take NWN's mod capabilities. At the very least, I can see circles of friends all playing online instead of in the same room, taking part in a DM's private, custom adventure. Here, there are no random players, and in-game situations can be controlled more easily. But this scenario sure doesn't sound very common to me; the public portion of NWN's online gameplay will likely be the deciding factor whether players really enjoy it or not.
Neverwinter Nights includes lots of speech, sound effects, and music on its 3 CD's. Most of the speech is done very well, and the player has plenty of different voices, male and female, to pick from for the main character. The game's other major characters are all well acted, although some players may find themselves skipping past a good portion of speech because they can read it faster than it is delivered.
The game's sound effects are functional, although nothing really stands out as being great. Swords ring, fireballs explode, and doors clunk shut - everything sounds unique, but nothing is all that impressive. NWN's music was done by Jeremy Soule, who has done the score for so many of these D&D games. If you've heard his work before, it's more of the same from him. There are a few highlights where the plot combines with the music to a great effect, but most of the exploration and battle music is mainly just decent.
It seems like Bioware has spent a lot of time working on their online system, what with the Aurora tools, DM client, and gameplay that's quite obviously built around the multiplayer mode they envisioned. These efforts have made the single player game too simple and linear, though, especially compared to the company's last few games - the story is not as engaging, the quests aren't as fulfilling, and the characters aren't as memorable. The only real hope for greatness in NWN's gameplay resides in the content-creating module authors.
Is Neverwinter Nights worth your gaming dollar? It really depends on whether you've played previous D&D RPG titles, and how much you're itching for a multiplayer RPG. If you've never played the Baldur's Gate series, Planescape: Torment, or Icewind Dale, it's a fine single player game with the possibility of some very engaging multiplayer action. If you've already had enough of the type of game listed above, though, and don't really care that much for the online aspect, you may want to skip it.