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Neverwinter Nights

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Infogrames / Atari
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-64
Similar To: Baldur's Gate 2
Rating: Teen
Published: 08 :01 : 02
Reviewed By: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Screenshots

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Minimum Req.: 450, 96MB RAM, 1.2 GB HD, 16MB TNT2-class video card
Reviewed On: P3 667, 384MB, 3D Prophet FDX 8500 LE, Soundblaster Audigy, Win98SE

Intro

Since the release of Baldur's Gate, Bioware and Black Isle have become renown for making timeless, classic RPGs, presenting a long series of single-player adventures in an efficient, likeable 2D format. However, as time pressed on, the gaming community became increasingly antsy that certain advances in the industry make their way into the RPG genre: namely, multiplayer, and a 3D environment. Although numerous other genre titles have already made the leap, Bioware's worlds have long resisted this change, despite having made minor concessions in the form of enabling users to co-operate in the single-player missions. Enter Neverwinter Nights, the developer's firm, proud response to its critics, and an exciting, earth-shattering revelation for its fans.


Gameplay: 9.5/10
Neverwinter Nights is a special occasion for the RPG fan, for numerous reasons. For starters, it represents Bioware's first usage of the relatively new 3rd Edition D&D ruleset, and it's a heartily welcome change. Where 2nd Edition stood as unnecessarily complex and convoluted, 3rd Edition is clear and straightforward. Gone are perennial puzzlers such as THAC0, replaced by an Armor Class rating that actually increases - rather than decrease, as was the case previously -- as you gain better and better protection. Even aspects that were a bit muddled, such as multi-classing, are now much more accessible and easy to use and understand: as was the case within the heavily flawed Pool of Radiance: The Ruins of Myth Drannor, it's extremely simple to mix and match class progression, enabling you to enhance your barbarian's offensive powers with a level or two of magery, or to boost your thief with a level of cleric for healing purposes. All in all, it's a beautiful system that improves upon the previous rules in virtually every way, and even introduces new elements, like feats, that help to make the experience more exciting. It's all integrated quite beautifully into the game, and helps to make a great game that much more enjoyable.

The second item for which fans should be glad is that Neverwinter Nights possesses a terrific, extensive single-player adventure; those who were concerned that Bioware would skimp on this aspect for the sake of the multiplayer component need not worry, as it will easily take upwards of 50 to 80 hours to complete, with much danger, treasure, and excitement to be had along the way. As the story opens, a deadly plague is spreading like wildfire through the now-quarantined city of Neverwinter, setting its citizenry into a panic; naturally, as a stalwart adventurer, you take it upon yourself to enter the city to help find a cure. Mysterious forces are at work against this, however, and soon the city's training quarters are attacked, undead are suddenly awakened, the local prison erupts into chaos and spills into the streets, not to mention that all manner of thugs have taken over entire quarters of the city. As you work your way through the storyline, you'll discover a labyrinthine tale woven in the tradition of Bioware's finest work, taking you through the darkest corners of Neverwinter, and beyond. To unravel the mystery and get to the heart of the problem, you'll embark upon countless quests, as well as any number of optional ones that are scattered liberally throughout the colorful and atmospheric gameworld. It's all rather free-form, and although it's only somewhat non-linear, it's all excellently threaded together, and presents a classic and addictive opportunity to immerse yourself in yet another well-crafted tale.

Among other things, Neverwinter Nights stands apart from its predecessors in that its campaign no longer allows you to piece together a group of like-minded individuals to aid you in your quest. No, instead you're allowed but a single companion, who is actually little more than a hired henchman - albeit one of many -- that you can pick up along the way. And as a henchman, you're not allowed direct control over them; instead, you're restricted to issuing various orders that encompass attacking, healing, following, guarding and so on. Thankfully, you're also able to further "customize" their behavior by ordering them to keep a certain distance from you, or to follow up on class-specific actions such as aiding with locks or traps, or healing when necessary. Still, this two-man-party system (slightly more if you include summoned creatures or familiars) can be a tad jarring to those who are used to the larger groups presented in earlier digital D&D offerings, at least initially. Once you've maneuvered your way around the gameworld a bit, however, you'll soon be glad that it's been trimmed to a smaller number, as the 3D approach would make the management of a larger party quite burdensome.

Despite many of the game's changes, role-playing is still an obvious priority for Neverwinter Nights. There are reams of in-game text in the form of lengthy books and drawn-out conversations, and there are plenty of NPCs with which to chat, compete or fight. Alignment once again stands as a factor in your behavior as you can take actions that correspond to your character's personality and beliefs. For instance, a righteous player might wish to help a noble by retrieving a potentially embarrassing document from his malicious opponent's home, whereas a less ethical individual could choose to use the retrieved document for blackmail. True to form, the game enforces your choices, shifting your alignment based on your actions, which, in certain cases, could change the very core of your character. A paladin who finds himself taking advantage of the misfortune of others or a druid that abandons his policies of neutrality might discover that he's no longer able to gain levels until he once again sets himself on the path of righteousness.

Complementing the hearty dose of role-playing is an increased sense of pacing that was not nearly as prominent in previous titles. Combat is much more frequent, and is often quite fast and furious, with the new emphasis on the point-and-click style drawing many undeserved comparisons to Diablo 2; thankfully, the depth involved in the D&D system is, as always, considerable enough to distance itself from the latter. Of course, if you'd like to be able to slow things down in order to plan out your next move, you can always hit the spacebar in order to pause the action. As always, it all comes together excellently and in such a way that you're rarely swamped or left twiddling your thumbs, and such comes off as extremely and admirably well-balanced.

Although the single-player campaign is truly excellent, it's hardly the focus of the product; in fact, many have referred to the campaign as little more than a mod that highlights the capabilities of the included Aurora Toolset, and although this description hardly does justice to the single-player adventure, it's not a terribly far cry from the truth. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in reality, it's a soaring testament to the stupendous capabilities of the toolset, which easily fulfill virtually every promise that Bioware set forth in its name. Via a separate, easy-to-use program, entire worlds can be crafted, with various menus and drag-and-drop objects, NPCs and monsters standing as the bulk of your tools. In this way, you can create houses, dungeons, and even cities, complete with customized items, people, creatures and so on. Of course, for full-fledged campaigns, you'll want to set up a fair amount of scripting for NPC behavior and conversations, quest triggers and so on, which is likely what most users will find to be the greatest stumbling block. After all, programming is not a skill possessed by all, and can be a frustrating requirement for something that has been touted loudly as something that can be done "right out of the box." Thankfully, the language used in the Aurora Toolset is actually quite simple by programming standards, and, if you're extremely uninclined to learn it, the community and developer support is simply superb. Want to know how to create a NPC conversation or how to trigger a specific event? Simply take a look at the Builders section of the Neverwinter Nights website, and you'll receive detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to implement what you're looking for. If it's something specific you're interested in, like, say, how to get an NPC to sit on a stool or chair, a quick search through the official forums will almost always net you an answer from one of the friendliest and cooperative gaming communities I've seen in a long while.

So powerful and accessible is the toolset that the number of available modules was recently announced to be a whopping 500, which is impressive by any standard. Additionally, it's not unusual to see persistent worlds being created with this toolset; I made a point of frequenting one particularly organized one over the course of a couple weeks, if for no other reason than to witness the potential inherent in Aurora. This dedicated, role-playing server featured spawning creatures, entire cities, distinct and interesting NPCs, quests, guilds, events, storylines and much more. This also goes for the campaigns to be found through GameSpy: though many are amateurish and poorly ran, a fairly decent number are absolutely terrific. With the right DM, it's possible to find yourself whiling away the morning hours in an organized group assault on an orc encampment that's been harassing the city, a chilling exploration of a seemingly abandoned crypt just discovered outside of town, or even interacting with the world in ways that spin the storyline off in an entirely unplanned direction.

Which brings us to the final aspect of Neverwinter Nights: the Dungeon Master Client. With this, would-be DMs may load up a module (including the single-player campaign) and oversee it with virtually limitless power. Whether it's the rapid creation and placement of a monster, item, NPC or visual effect, or instantaneously jumping from one area to the next, the DM has free reign over the world and anything within it. That includes the players themselves, who can be given experience and money, not to mention that you can interact with them directly either with your own "Avatar" or by possessing any NPC you wish. This means that, should your players choose to go off in a completely different than you had intended, it's a fairly basic task to whip up some alternative material on the spot; in other words, improvising - a good 50% of what makes for a good pen-and-paper DM - is quite simple, although you'll have to master the use of the hotkey toolbar. As in tabletop gaming, a larger group of player means a much more difficult time in terms of management, although a group of four to six players should be reasonable for most people. With enough practice and judicious use of the quickbar, this truly entertaining tool can be accessible to just about anyone.

Graphics: 8.5/10
While it doesn't look half as sharp as Morrowind or even Dungeon Siege, Neverwinter Nights nevertheless manages to hold its own in the graphical department, thanks in no small part to its bag of assorted visual tricks. With full options on, the game can actually be quite breathtaking: torchlights flicker in the darkness, reflecting off your plate armor and casting shadows that dance about the wall. Further enhancing the effect are the countless details that make up the graphical experience: arrows remain in your torso for a few moments after you've been tagged by an archer, while an acidic weapon will often leave behind corrosive drops as it's being swung. It's also great to see that hits and misses are accurately represented here, in that missing your opponent will often see him dodging, or perhaps having his sword meeting yours in a parry that results in a shower of sparks. It also certainly doesn't hurt that the animation is fluid and believable, with a considerable number of visual emotes available for use in multiplayer excursions. Combined with the nicely detailed textures, these elements all come together to create a wonderful series of atmospheric environments that all feel just right: whether you're trudging through a rowdy tavern or the dank corners of a dungeon, it almost always feel as though the tone is perfectly set.

There are only two problems with this visual ensemble: one, it looks somewhat dated in comparison to most modern releases; and two, a mid-range system is needed to enjoy all the graphical flair without facing a great deal of choppiness in heavily populated areas. Also, considering the announcement that Icewind Dale 2 will represent the last gasp of the beloved top-down, 2D Infinity Engine, one can't help but wonder what kind of direction this 3D approach is going to take Bioware's future pursuits. After all, the engine used here is all well and good for a series of extended dungeon romps and short-term type of exploration, but it arguably wouldn't be enough to portray the sheer grandiosity achieved in such titles as Planescape: Torment or Baldur's Gate 2. While it is often used to terrific effect, the engine still has a long way to go before it can truly tackle epic storylines; one can only hope that Bioware sees it the same way.

Sound: 10/10
Bioware's efforts consistently feature some of the best audio in the business, and Neverwinter Nights is certainly no exception. With the resounding clash of steel on steel and the guttural battle cries echoing across the battlefield, there's no shortage of top-notch sound effects; in fact, they're just about everywhere you turn, following in the echo of your footsteps and in the crackle of your spellcasting. The voice-acting is unquestionably excellent, as always, with each character sounding every bit as authentic as you could hope for. Finally, it should be noted that Jeremy Soule, who has done the score for a number of Bioware titles (his best work was done for Icewind Dale) as well as the equally excellent Morrowind, has worked his magic once again for Neverwinter Nights. Suitably epic and sweeping, the musical score only serves to further enhance the atmosphere, and in Soule's trademark way, elevates in-game music to a level of art.


Control: 9/10
With the sheer amount of controls needed to maneuver through the new perspective, it would have been extremely easy for Neverwinter Nights to fall into an unnecessarily convoluted and complicated control scheme; thankfully, it deftly avoids this trap by allowing you a strict control over a fairly intelligent camera. More important, however, is the prominent use of radial menus that pop out of the cursor when right-clicking. Not only are they functional and easy to use, but they also free up a great deal of screen real-estate. Additionally, the customizable quickbar is a godsend, enabling you to use potions, items, spells, or even equip particular armor or weapons at the touch of a hotkey. What's even better is that, by pressing CTRL and SHIFT, you have access to two additional quickbars, giving you a colossal amount of slots. This particularly comes in handy as a DM, since the default menus, though comprehensive, can be a pain to pick through when you're in a hurry and have a band of impatient adventurers making quick work of your carefully-laid plans. By plugging console commands or various DM abilities into the quickbars, you can easily circumvent the bulkiness of the DM panel, which was one of the main problems that sunk Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption's potential hopes at rewriting the book on multiplayer role-playing, something that Neverwinter Nights arguably accomplishes.

Overall: 9/10
Where Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption failed in its attempt to re-write the book on pen-and-paper style of multiplayer role-playing, Neverwinter Nights succeeds admirably. The Aurora toolset is an incredibly powerful thing, enabling even non-programmers to whip together a primitive environment in very little time, although those who seek to piece together their own long, extensive adventures will be forced to pick up some of the C-ish language. More than anything else, it is this last issue which is most likely to turn off prospective fans, which is a shame: the support from the company itself as well as the infinitely resourceful community can walk programming newbies step-by-step through even the most complex scripting. And it is truly something worth understanding, as the tremendous experiences to be had online or in the 500 downloadable modules will attest. As if all this wasn't enough, a rock-solid and highly entertaining single-player campaign is included, offering a little something for everyone, and showing off exactly what the toolset is capable of with the right amount of time. When all is said and done, Neverwinter Nights stands as a landmark achievement for the RPG community, coming full circle with its tabletop roots by giving fans full control over a true digital version of pen-and-paper functionality. Exciting, empowering, and, more importantly, fun, it's the ultimate tool for the true RPG fan, who shouldn't hesitate in the least to pick up this amazing gem.

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Related Links: Infogrames
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