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BioWare Corp. released Neverwinter Nights in 2002. It was their first role-playing game not to use the Infinity Engine (which had powered titles like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment), and it received mostly rave reviews from the critics. I wasn't a huge fan of Neverwinter Nights. I thought it was a better toolkit than a game, and, despite sporting fancy 3D graphics, I thought it was a significant downgrade visually from the 2D Baldur's Gate II.
Now Obsidian Entertainment has released Neverwinter Nights 2. Obsidian Entertainment is probably best known as the developer behind Knights of the Old Republic 2, but some might recognize them as the re-grouping of bankrupt Black Isle Studios. Either way, Obsidian has a long history with role-playing games (not to mention a long history of working closely with BioWare), and so I don't think I was alone in anticipating good things from Neverwinter Nights 2. But did Obsidian deliver? Keep reading to find out.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is the same sort of game as Neverwinter Nights. It's another party-oriented role-playing game based on the Dungeon and Dragons 3.5 edition rules, and once again it's just as much a toolkit as it is a game. So what's the improvement? Well, Neverwinter Nights 2 contains everything that was in Neverwinter Nights, and it adds more. For example, Neverwinter Nights combined with its two expansion packs allowed players to choose between seven races, 11 regular classes, and 11 prestige classes. Neverwinter Nights 2 contains 16 races (including fun sub-races like drow and tiefling), 12 regular classes (including the warlock class, which doesn't have to rest to cast spells), and 15 prestige classes (including the frenzied berserker, which does about what the name implies). There are also more feats, skills and spells -- to the point that I'm not sure where Obsidian can go with the expansion packs that are sure to follow. But as a result, there are a ton of ways to develop characters now, and that's a great thing.
Better yet, Neverwinter Nights 2 looks much better than Neverwinter Nights. Of course, you'd expect a game released in 2006 to have better visuals than a game released in 2002, but the improvements go deeper than that. If you played Neverwinter Nights, then you might remember that the game was overly tile-centric, making the terrain look more like stair steps than anything you'd encounter in the real world, and that the tiles were so large that all of the locations started to look alike. Well, Obsidian completely dumped the tiles in Neverwinter Nights 2, and as a result the locations are much more realistic and distinct. There are now rolling hills and winding paths, and not everything happens in 90-degree angles.
The graphical improvements extend to the characters as well. Characters now have moving eyes and mouths, and Obsidian did a nice job of lip-synching the dialogue and of giving the characters expressions to match their moods. Sometimes the animations don't always fit together perfectly (I'm thinking of Ambassador Torio here; her eyelids always seemed wrong), but overall the characters in Neverwinter Nights 2 look far superior to the characters in Neverwinter Nights, who didn't get any animations at all. In fact, characters look good enough now that most of the time when you enter into a conversation, the game will switch to a zoomed-in cinematic view so that you can watch the animations in detail. You can even place the camera in an over-the-shoulder view and move your character around using the WASD keys, and the game looks good from this angle as well.
There are some other changes as well -- for example, the radial menus are gone, replaced by more typical tops-down menus, and the cursor is now more context sensitive, meaning that you won't have to use any menus to disable traps or unlock doors -- but these changes are relatively minor. I don't think Obsidian wanted to try and (fix) something that wasn't really broken, and they wanted people who played Neverwinter Nights to feel at home playing Neverwinter Nights 2. As a result, the things that worked remain about the same, and the things that didn't work got a lot of improvement, and so the engine is much nicer than it was before.
Neverwinter Nights 2 takes place a few years after the events of Neverwinter Nights, but the campaigns of the two games are completely unrelated. Every so often somebody might mention (that business between Neverwinter and Luskan,) and there are a few references to people and equipment from the earlier campaign (and at least one notable character who spans the campaigns), but otherwise no knowledge of the Neverwinter Nights campaign is required, and you can play and enjoy Neverwinter Nights 2 without having any idea of what happened in the previous game.
As the Neverwinter Nights 2 campaign opens up, you find yourself in the marsh town of West Harbor. One night a group of gray dwarves attacks your village, but the attack is odd, as if the dwarves are looking for something rather than trying to plunder the town's relatively meager riches. Soon you discover the reason for the attack -- a mysterious silver shard that was hidden in a nearby crypt. You agree to take the shard far away from your village in order to draw the attackers away, but the shard seems to have some sort of connection to you, and so you decide to investigate what it is and why so many people (not just the dwarves) seem to want it. Along the way you explore dark caves and haunted tombs, complete quests both minor and major, and eventually arrive in the fabled districts of Neverwinter, which barely look anything like they did before.
The campaign is technically well made. You're given lots of options for role-playing. You can be rude or polite, violent or diplomatic, lawful or chaotic. Many quests give you multiple options for how to solve them, and there is even one fairly significant branch in the campaign where you're forced to choose sides between the Neverwinter city guards and a bandit gang. The dialogue is well-written, and it is mostly well-acted (although none of the actors can agree on how to pronounce words like (Faer?n) and (hosttower)), and there is a nice balance between conversations, scripted events, and combat.
Unlike in Neverwinter Nights, your companions in Neverwinter Nights 2 form an integral part of the campaign. You can have up to four companions with you at any one time, and you can control them as much as you'd like (including turning on (puppet mode) and controlling them completely). The companions in the game are like the companions from the Baldur's Gate or Knights of the Old Republic games. You don't just find them all waiting for you in a tavern. Instead, you meet them during your travels, but they often have their own agendas, and so you're never sure if they're just helping you out or using you or maybe even spying on you. But their quests and goals are related to the plot, and so having them with you adds more depth to your adventures.
Also, like in Knights of the Old Republic 2, you need to gain influence with your companions so that you can complete their side quests and open up new dialogue options with them. Mostly, you gain influence when you say something supportive to a companion, or do something that they would agree with, but you have to be careful, too, because what makes one companion happy might not be agreeable to another one. For example, two of the first companions you meet are a lawful dwarf fighter and a chaotic tiefling rogue, and they have wildly different views on things like whether it's okay to enter locked houses or whether you should perform noble deeds without the promise of a reward, and so it can be difficult to keep them both happy. But Neverwinter Nights 2 comes with about a dozen possible companions, and so you should be able to find a few who agree with the personality of your character.
On the down side, for the majority of the campaign, the combat is very easy, and it doesn't require any sort of thought or planning. You can just rush the bad guys, even if a boss is involved, and be fine. Later, as you start to resolve some of the plot threads, you encounter one tough boss fight after another, and these fights are pretty brutal. Some of these, like a fight against a dragon, I must have loaded my game a couple dozen times before I figured out how to get through them, and I think it would have been nice if Obsidian had balanced out the combat a little, making it more difficult in the early goings and less difficult at the end. (Well, either that or figuring out a way to reduce the loading times for the game. The tough boss fights got more than a little frustrating as I spent more time watching the loading screen than I did participating in the fight itself.)
Also a little disturbing about the campaign is that it barely has any puzzles, or secret doors, or really anything to break up the conversations and combat. This was a surprise to me, because the trend in the Neverwinter Nights expansion packs and premium modules was to add more and more of these sorts of activities, but Neverwinter Nights 2 only has about half a dozen puzzles, and some of them I'm not even sure should count, like when you have to prove your loyalty to Neverwinter. I think the only thing I proved in that quest was that I didn't know a lot about the city, but yet I was able to complete it without loading my game. A couple of the puzzles are clever, like one where you have to guide some ghosts to a tree, and there is even an interesting sequence where you have to run a keep, including handing out quests to newbie adventuring parties, but mostly the campaign seemed dumbed down to me, as if Obsidian had spent too much time playing action role-playing games rather than tactical role-playing games.
If you're not sure what to take away from my review of Neverwinter Nights 2, then take away this: the engine is fantastic. I've heard people complain about bugs and performance issues (you should definitely check your computer against the minimum system requirements and the supported video cards), but the game ran perfectly on my six-month-old computer, and I didn't have any problems with it. Plus, Neverwinter Nights 2 looks great, and with all of the options for character development, I could see re-playing the campaign multiple times just to try out a few. And if the toolkit is as easy to use as it was before, then no doubt we'll see a ton of user created modules eventually, and so Neverwinter Nights 2 should have an extremely long shelf life.
That being said, I wasn't overly enthusiastic about the included campaign. For me it felt a little basic, and I didn't care much about who lived or died, or if I'd be able to defeat the bad guy at the end. I think there are supposed to be some potential romances with your companions, but I didn't detect any in my game, and while the dialogue was well-written, I think the writers only excelled at humor and barbs, and had trouble adding in themes with any sort of emotional weight. This is subjective, but for me, if I'm going to spend 60 hours playing a campaign, I need characters and situations I can care about, rather than just a couple of people I can laugh with.
But overall, I'd easily recommend the game -- for what will come if not for what's there now. Neverwinter Nights received all sorts of support, both from BioWare and its community of fans, and I'd only expect the same for Neverwinter Nights 2. Obsidian has already released one patch for the game, and I'd be surprised if they're not able to stamp out most of the problems people have reported so far. So if you're a fan of classic, party-based role-playing games, then Neverwinter Nights 2 is definitely a game to buy.