E3 2006: The RPGs

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Neverwinter Nights 2

The title (Neverwinter Nights) has been used for two of the most ambitious RPGs ever created for the PC SSI's original (Gold Box) version that launched on America Online in 1991 and BioWare's massive five-year endeavor that finally debuted in 2002. BioWare's version continues to sell very well even after four years, and something tells me that if SSI's version hadn't been taken offline in 1997, many of us would still be playing that as well. Given the success of the Neverwinter Nights brand name, it comes as no surprise that Obsidian Entertainment (the company started by a handful of ex-Black Isle developers) is currently developing a sequel designed to improve upon BioWare's version in nearly every aspect.

If you attended E3 this year, you couldn't help but notice Neverwinter Nights 2. A massive banner advertising the game was draped across the front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and the game was on display at both Atari's and Microsoft's (Games For Windows) booths. It was from a PC-controlled arcade cabinet in Atari's booth that we actually received our demo from an Obsidian staffer.

Character creation looks somewhat similar to the original Neverwinter Nights, with a few extra additions. Three different tints can be assigned to your character's hair, allowing for more customization and the ability to give them some funky highlights if you wish. The prestige classes haven't been finalized yet, but the demo showed the following selections: Arcane Archer, Arcane Trickster, Assassin, Blackguard, Divine Champion, Duelist, Dwarven Defender, Frenzied Berserker, Harper Agent, Neverwinter Nine: Agent, Neverwinter Nine: Magus, Neverwinter Nine: Warder, Pale Master, Red Dragon Disciple, Shadow Dancer, and Weapon Master. Many of these will be familiar to those of you who played the original Neverwinter Nights, though all three Neverwinter Nine prestige classes are totally new. Apparently these are buffing classes that are available if/when you become Lord Nasher's bodyguard in the game. The team originally tossed around the idea of making everyone start with an alignment of True Neutral (just as the Nameless One does in Planescape: Torment), but they've since opted to allow a choice between all nine standard D&D alignments. Your alignment will shift during the game based on your actions and dialogue choices, though, so this choice won't necessarily last your character's lifetime. Toward the end of character creation, you can also choose a pre-designated background that adds a little extra depth to your character and may affect his or her statistics, skills, or feats. If your character is a magic-user, then you must also choose a familiar. Instead of providing a selection of exotic familiars like the original NWN did, Obsidian has limited the choices to common farm animals (pig, rabbit, spider, cat, etc.) to reflect your character's simple history before beginning the game.

After breezing through the game's tutorial, the demo jumped to the Temple of Seasons, which is about mid-way through the game. While the graphics obviously look better all around, it was this area that really showed how much more advanced they are from the original game. The Electron Engine is capable of all sorts of cool visual effects, which we saw firsthand while moving around to the temple's different trials. Rain, snow, and ice all looked very realistic, but the heat displacement effect coming off of the floor in the Trial of Summer was by far the most impressive.

We also were able to see a bit of how the control scheme has been refined while visiting the temple. What's surprising is that the team actually went all the way back to Ultima VII to come up with a few ideas for how to set up the mouse. Right now, right-clicking moves your character, and double left-clicking attacks a creature or activates an object. On top of that, the radial selection menu in Neverwinter Nights is gone, replaced by an interface that looks somewhat like the one you'd find in World of Warcraft. A mode bar now allows you to select between options like (taunt mode) or to take advantage of feats like Combat Expertise at the click of the mouse. There are also ten (hotbar) rows that can be switched to using the number keys. The W, A, S, and D keys for movement have been improved upon and more-or-less mimic what you'd use to control a character in a modern MMORPG. Even the minimap is getting overhauled so that it works much like WoW's does, including the ability to use feats like Track and have your prey show up on the minimap itself.

The demo then moved on to the toolset. While it was loading up, we were told that the toolset supports dual core processors, but the NWN2 client does not. This essentially means that if you're using a dual core AMD or Intel processor, you can expect a performance increase while creating a custom module, but the game itself won't run any better than a single core processor running at the same clock speed. After loading up the Highcliff module, the Obsidian staffer showed us how the toolset now makes use of a tabbed design, as well as dockable windows. He then went on to show a few of the advancements they've made to the toolset, including the ability to adjust the height for all placeables, set waypoints for NPC patrol areas, and change the tint of creatures. Additionally, module creators can now place static (cameras) on a module and assign dialogue to them in order to create their own full-fledged cutscenes. Since the in-game camera now allows for more freedom, Obsidian has also added ceilings to interior tilesets so that players won't be looking up into a void when they rotate the camera to the base of their character. I'm not very familiar with how the scripting worked in the original Neverwinter Nights toolset, but Obsidian tells us that they've added a few enhancements to how scripting works this time around as well. You never actually have to look at the scripting code if you don't want to, as there are now hundreds of global scripts that can be set up through a wizard.

Before the demo was complete, I also had the chance to sneak in a few questions. The main campaign will feature ten different companions that you can add to your party, but only three can adventure at any one time (including the protagonist). There is technically no limit to the amount of companions one can have in a custom module, though, so module creators will most likely only have to worry about hardware constraints when expanding this limit. Most of the spells from BioWare's Neverwinter Nights have been brought over to the sequel, though the team did have to cut Time Stop for various reasons and several of the spells have made exclusive to the new Warlock class. Much of the equipment is being brought over and plenty of new items have been added to the list, such as matched armor sets for each core class. And for those of you concerned about the number of gameplay hours available in the campaign, I was told that players can expect a minimum of 20-40 hours of gameplay, but as many as 40-60 hours could be spent playing if all side quests, etc. are taken advantage of.

Overall, I'd have to say that Obsidian's Neverwinter sequel looks to be just as ambitious as its two predecessors. The team has made numerous enhancements to both the toolset and campaign, and the technology running the game has been revamped and modernized. I wasn't a huge fan of the single-player campaign in BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, but the campaign Obsidian is creating looks top-notch and even includes an influence system for your companions similar to what we saw in Star Wars: KotOR II. Mark your calendars for September, because this is one visit to the Forgotten Realms you won't want to miss.