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The respected developers at Obsidian Entertainment, previously involved in the making of critically acclaimed games such as Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic II, give the sequel treatment to yet another massive BioWare RPG. The bar was further raised, as Neverwinter Nights 2 was released a stone’s throw away from the hottest gaming period, ever and as much as I would have bet money the next sentence would read “Obsidian duly delivers”… Neverwinter Nights 2 disappoints in so many ways it’s nigh impossible to look beyond them and appreciate the few shining moments.
The Neverwinter Nights franchise authentically depicts the experience of the hugely popular Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. The definition of Pen & Paper RPGs, D&D has transformed many a fantasy fan into fearless warriors and devious thieves in the comfort of their parents’ basement, using complex rules, multisided dice and, above all, the unlimited power of imagination.
Most RPG video games, like Knights of the Old Republic, have their “dice rolls” calculated behind the scenes, but they are an essential portion of any D&D campaign. Another large part is the magical adventures the player-created characters find themselves in and both Neverwinter Nights games cover these two bases quite adequately.
The inside joke is that every fantasy storyline comes down to “Humble farmboy saves the world” and Neverwinter Nights II fits that mold perfectly. It is the execution, however, that matters the most and the game offers more than a few twists and turns, intriguing plot points and interesting clashes.
Character Creation offers a myriad of race, ability and feat combinations and multi-classing is also thrown into the mix, allowing for very unique avatars to be created. Yet, the variety of looks is rather limited and, most importantly, the diversity of your character has little effect to the actual story.
The game begins in West Harbor, a little village known for raising headstrong lads and lasses. The yearly festivities are cut short when the first in a series of extra-planar beings interested in you, attack. You are apparently the Kalach-Cha and although the importance of your title is slowly unveiled throughout the game, it is pretty obvious that at least one evil army wants to eliminate you because of it.
The quest of uncovering and fulfilling your destiny will take you to a number of intriguing locals, from small port towns to bustling Neverwinter itself, enchanted forests, gigantic mountains and, of course, countless dungeons. You will meet treacherous villains, weary kings, eloquent wizards, misguided children and at least one colossal dragon.
The allies that can tag along in your adventures also are a colourful bunch. They mostly stick
to their racial/class stereotypes so we have the absent-minded bard, the roguish tiefling, the recluse human ranger and so on and so forth. They do have a few surprises that break away from the standard and Khelgar, the hot-headed dwarf that somehow wishes to become a monk, is the one that stole the show for me.
All cutscenes are fully voiced, expertly done and heavily enhancing the experience. More than half of the dialogue, however, happens outside of cutscenes and thus is for your eyes only- just text, but at least it is the less vital parts of information, mostly background lore.
Neverwinter Nights II tries to create the illusion that there are different consequences depending on your actions, but there is no hiding that the game is incredibly linear. Obviously the story must get to a certain point, but there is little “wiggle room” in the path to the finale. You are given multiple choices every time your character is to speak and it is often blatantly obvious that the response fits more than one course of action. The conclusion of a conversation feels even more of a set-up and violence ensues more often than not. Neverwinter Nights II promises multiple solutions to various problems and Diplomacy being a valid way to avoid conflict, but that is simply not true. A few of the more insignificant battles can be dodged, but it’s a tiny fraction compared to the number of those that are inevitable.
The most infuriating example of this is when you are framed for the slaughter of a whole town. After carefully collecting evidence, prepping/manipulating witnesses and verbally trouncing the opposing lawyer come the trial, my character was proven innocent beyond a shroud of doubt. Nevertheless, the opposition cited some holy law that commanded the matter to be settled in the arena.
The absurdity of this is probably too much to digest at once, so I’ll rephrase: Neverwinter has a law which overrules the decision of any trial and the defendant is instead declared innocent if he kills the accuser. Guilty if he dies. I would recite the exact decree here, but “Law as a Deus Ex Machina” was unavailable at the library. I’ll never know for sure, but I have a feeling my advocate would have called upon that same law had I lost the case.
On the other hand, your interaction with your companions seems to have an actual effect on the experience. Even though inevitability also makes an appearance here, your actions in front of your allies might alter their character, or at least keep them from stabbing you in the back. Different people have different personalities and your leadership is unlikely to be approved by everyone, which makes for some fun juggling of workforce.
So it is linear and a path predefined, but is the story good? Yes, reading it in a book would have been quite captivating but, unfortunately, the delivery and general pace of the game hamper the story as well. Most damaging are the cut-scenes, which use random, often blocked, camera shots and the few limited animations the characters already have, which basically leaves it to the voice actors to convey the story as we look at the stiff on stage performers. The short cinematic intro is awesome, especially when you connect it to the storyline, and some sequences just screamed for the same treatment.
I can understand why a few more cinematic sequences were not rendered, but when in place of a glorious large-scale battle all I got was four still pictures and a couple of voice-overs, something I could have easily done myself in PowerPoint, I knew that I’ve been had.
Justifiable or not, the keyword to Neverwinter Nights 2’s gameplay is *slow*.
Moving around, even with settings on low detail and no dramatic visual or path-finding improvements from the original NN, is *slow*.
Dialogue, due to the murky conversation paths or the non-responsive keystrokes, is *slow*.
Saving and Loading is, as you might have expected, very *slow*.
Combat is inevitably and especially *slow*. The nature of D&D doesn’t allow for fast rounds, but the situation is considerably worsened due to the incapable Artificial Intelligence. Your allies erratically use their special abilities and spells, don’t attack hostiles according to their threat levels and never ever heal injured team-mates, forcing you to pause the battle and manually micro-manage their actions if you ever want them to do something useful.
My druid’s approach to combat would be the most indicative. By the time she had cast all of her buffs and changed into a wild animal, the typical battle would already be long over. As an added bonus, her dire bear form is so big, she couldn’t navigate inside small corridors and through doors, forcing her to stay behind.
Even better, the creators decided to place all of the related flaws in one late encounter, where you face 3 powerful enemies over a very narrow bridge. They cannot be harmed unless a certain character casts a specific single-target spell and of course he isn’t smart enough to do it on his own. Doing it manually is also difficult and often cancelled due to the crowdedness of the area and the heat of the battle. It goes without saying that the rest of the party can’t be expected to wait till their enemies are vulnerable to attack, so they naturally waste their actions pounding the invulnerable opponents.
Like many times before, patience, nerdiness and determination got me through that part of the game and I at least eventually managed achieved closure and got a passable ending. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a good trade for the amount of the overall frustration alone, never mind
Pictures of Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC)
Cutscenes do convey a cinematic feeling
the £25 tag.
As a person who loves the minor details, the little touches that show a game was polished and treated with respect, maybe it is the lack of any such care that bothers me the most. From duplicate “unique” items, characters appearing in two places at once and broken castle mechanics to typos, having to retype a name for savegames and blank descriptions, Obsidian seems to have put little thought in anything save the fundamentals.
As it appears, Neverwinter Nights II is a game so rushed, it probably broke the window it was thrown out of.
***The Silver Lining***
Even though it is only mentioned twice in the game manual, the saving grace of the Neverwinter Nights 2 package is actually the Toolset, the editing tool that allows you to create your own adventures and play them out using the game’s engine. In fact, the main Campaign was created using solely this very Toolset. Even though that isn’t an excuse for its sloppiness, Neverwinter Nights 2 value goes up when you think of it as a game creation tool with an included tech demo.
The editor is easy to use only when you consider the amount of editing it covers; ergo it’s very complicated to the uninitiated. The help file contains all the instructions you would need, but creating a large, enjoyable adventure is going to take lots of work. You shouldn’t go in thinking you’ll project your thoughts and magically create a fantastic game. It is possible, however, if you put your mind into it, as the original Neverwinter Night’s modding community has already shown.
Even though it might take some searching to find them, great modules will certainly be created and your characters might embark on new adventures for no extra fees. There are, however, a few things to consider:
The technical issues, like poor AI and large loading times, are going to be present there as well.
The Toolset is an update of the one found in the original Neverwinter. Lots of other games also have similar editors for your artistic needs.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is billed as a great RPG, not RPG maker.
Finally, although the groundwork had been laid in the original, the adaptation of the Dungeons & Dragons rules is excellent. Nice additions and corrections have been made and my geek radar still flies off the charts when I am reading the feat descriptions.
Encountered individually, each of the issues described here might not have been too worrying. Coming in packs as they do, they are all but insurmountable, especially considering the stellar basis the original Neverwinter Nights provided. Neverwinter Nights 2 targeted a niche audience by definition and it narrows the field down even further by seeking people impervious to frustration. Still, great patience and online dwelling might give the dedicated RPGer his money’s worth. Even to that rare individual, however, I couldn’t possibly recommend this game over an actual, free, session of good old D&D.