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.
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