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So what does (premium) mean? It means at least four things: that BioWare thinks enough of the module to associate their name with it, that BioWare has tested the module to remove bugs and other sloppiness, that BioWare has added high quality production values to the module (such as new music and voice acting), and that BioWare plans to support the module and offer patches should they be necessary. In other words, premium modules should have the same quality as the campaigns BioWare has already released.
On the downside, you're going to have to pay money for the premium modules, the modules are likely to be short so that they can be downloaded, and, at least currently, you're going to have to maintain an Internet connection when you play them so the game can authenticate your ownership every time you start the module or load a saved game. That last one is sort of nasty. Not only will the modules tie up your phone line if you're unfortunate enough to be stuck with a dial-up connection, but the authentications also add noticeable delays when you're playing the game (they take about 20 seconds for me).
So these premium modules are no sure bet to be successful, and the three modules BioWare released on November 10 are basically trial balloons. If they work well (or at least make BioWare some money), then we'll probably see some more of them. Otherwise we'll have to find some other way to spend our free time.
The premium module I'm going to review here is called Kingmaker. It requires version 1.64 of Neverwinter Nights, and it also requires the Hordes of the Underdark expansion pack. There are two versions of Kingmaker, a regular version and a (lite) version. The (lite) version doesn't include voice acting and some other bells and whistles, and so it is only a 10 MB download while the regular version is a 72 MB download. This review uses the regular version.
The story behind Kingmaker involves you and a mysterious Masked Man. You and your four companions track him down to the Keep of Cyan, which he has put under siege. However, when you finally fight your way close enough to confront him, a wizard from the keep casts a spell that kills everybody on the battlefield, including you. Now, the premium modules are short, but they're not that short, and so soon enough you're resurrected. But your savior is a shaft of light, it seems to have plans for you, and it infuses itself into your weapon. Is the shaft of light good or evil, and what are its motivations? These are some of the things you'll discover in the module.
One of the first things you'll do in the module is decide which of your four companions you'll use as henchmen. Since your companions died when you did, there is a cost to resurrecting them, and so you'll only be allowed to take two of them. So will you select Trip, a cowardly wererat rogue, or Kaidala, a scarred nymph druid, or Jaboli, an elitist rakshasa wizard, or Calibast, a fun-loving azer fighter? The races of your companions appear to be mostly cosmetic, and so your choices come down to who seems the most interesting or who compliments your character the best.
All of the above is basically a prelude. The module itself starts when you finally reach the inside of the Keep of Cyan. There you'll learn that the lord of the keep disappeared some time ago, and that the people of the keep are finally ready to elect a new one. However, the nine guildmasters who decide the election are conflicted. Three want the evil and oily Sir Becket, three want the good but unyielding Enivid Divine, and three are undecided. Then, quicker than you can say (Why isn't the module named Lordmaker?) you're nominated for the election as well, and the bulk of the module involves you trying to convince the guildmasters to vote for you.
Collecting votes is a varied process. Some guildmasters will send you on quests to kill things, some will be susceptible to bribery or blackmail, and one will even offer to vote for you the first time you speak with her. What's nice (mostly) about the module is that you don't get to choose the time of the election. Every so often somebody will tell you that the election is about to start, and while you can do a quest that allows you to delay the proceedings a couple times, eventually you'll have to go through with it, whether you want to or not. That means you won't be able to complete all of the guildmaster quests with one character; you'll have to play at least a couple times to see them all. The bad aspect of this system is that you might feel hurried when you play the module, and you might be thrust into doing something before you've collected your bearings -- or even any equipment.
But, largely, the module is fun to play. You can succeed through combat and diplomacy, and there are good and evil ways to meet your objectives. The characters are well drawn and well acted, and there's a certain amount of replayability to the module (I can see playing it twice; more than that is probably a stretch). It's just that nothing here is overly complex. There's a bouncing energy ball near the end of the module that is cool, but everything else seems like a fairly standard use of the toolkit. For small modules such as Kingmaker, I'd like to see more in the way of clever scripting and effects. As it is, Kingmaker reminds me more of Shadows of Undrentide than Hordes of the Underdark, which is a bad thing.
That being said, Kingmaker is entertaining enough to be worth $8. The module is well written and well acted, and while I might characterize it with a left-handed complement such as (solid but unspectacular,) and while there are a certain amount of bug that should be fixed in the near future, it gets the job done. I played through the module twice, once with a good paladin and once with an evil wizard, and the experience was different enough to make the second trip worthwhile, and in all I played the module for about 15 hours. I'm sure I got a better deal with my $8 investment than the poor schmucks who paid to see Surviving Christmas.