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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.