|This is a review that I've been looking forward to writing, about a game that I've been looking forward to playing for a good, long time. Neverwinter Nights has been in development for something close to five years, adding promises and new features as it grew, heightening hype among the loyal BioWare fans and casual gamers alike. I was actually nervous while I was installing the game, thinking back to the last AD&D title I played (the lamentable Pools of Radiance II), and hoping that my own anticipation wasn't outdistancing the final product. |
Happily, I had nothing to fear. Neverwinter Nights delivers everything that it promised, and a little more beyond that.
Specifically, Neverwinter Nights comes across with three different components to the gamer: the single-player campaign, the world-and-campaign building toolset and the Dungeon Master module. Of these, the single-player campaign is the most immediately accessible, and should feel extremely similar to previous titles like Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale, though the old Infinity back-end has been retired in favor of the new Aurora Engine. Not only does this mean that long-time fans can finally dig into some fully 3D D&D, but also that many elements of the game has been streamlined, allowing those new to the occasionally baffling D&D rule-set to join in more easily.
In fact, much of the interface should seem immediately familiar to anyone who's played Diablo, or particularly Dungeon Siege. Movement and combat are largely driven by point-and-click actions, while right-clicking will bring up menus that allow players to access more complex abilities, such as picking locks, spotting and disarming traps, or even performing music. The most common of these tasks can also be added to a quick-access bar at the bottom of the screen, activated by a left-click or the pressing of an assigned function key. For the truly keyboard-intensive, pressing the CTRL or ALT keys will bring up two additional quickbars, allowing players to assign up to twenty-four different actions for easy access.
In addition to this, the top-left part of the screen is dominated by the player character's portrait, under which a selection of buttons grants access to information about stats, inventory, available spells or skills and an extremely helpful quest journal. Each or all of these can be overlaid semi-transparently over live action on the screen, which can be beneficial when you're scrambling through your backpack looking for a healing potion, but can be a drawback when your companions are being slaughtered while you're rifling through your things. Fortunately, Neverwinter Nights offers the ability to pause and resume the game at any time with the press of the space bar, allowing players to keep things under control when they get too hectic.
Players won't have nearly as much to keep track of, though, as they might have in previous D&D titles. Rather than offering a party of adventurers, Neverwinter Nights instead opts to make the game a single-player affair. Henchman, conjured animals and familiars are available to bring along, but the player's influence over their actions is limited to simple instructions, like attacking the nearest foe or standing their ground. This does drive home more of the true pen-and-paper experience, in which henchmen and non-player characters are controlled by the Dungeon Master, and other party members are controlled by other players. However, those used to having five or six people tromping through a dungeon together might find it a bit lonely.
Fortunately, Neverwinter Nights provides a robust multi-player component, letting players match up on an already-huge number of game servers or start one of their own. The original campaign is extremely playable in this format, and those who are enterprising enough can even ramp up the difficulty level to make things even more challenging. It's also encouraging to see that BioWare is very heartily supporting the multi-player component, and has already issued two patches through the game's auto-updater to remedy lag and server issues.
However it's played, the packaged campaign is an entertaining experience, full of side-quests and opportunities for the player to gain extra experience. The story is designed to carry the player from the earliest stages of adventuring through to the highest levels of power and ability, and while advancement does feel fairly quick, there's a palpable sense of reward when new skills and powers become available. For pen-and-paper players, there's also the strange satisfaction of actually seeing your character perform feats like Uncanny Dodge or Great Cleave (which allows a free attack on an adjacent foe for each that you kill -- essentially unlocking the promise of seeing your character strike down a long chain of enemies in a single action).
For the truly ambitious, Neverwinter Nights also offers up the Aurora Toolset and the DM client, finally giving players the opportunity to build their own campaign modules and run them for a group. Since Aurora is the same engine that was used to build the single-player campaign, theoretically anything that was possible for developers is equally so for gamers, opening up some enormous potential for community development of additional adventures. This kind of potential comes at a price, though: The Toolset's interface provides plenty of wizards to help would-be designers bring their fantasies to life, but more sophisticated scripting requires a more-than-basic knowledge of C. Still, the Toolset and accompanying documentation provides plenty of support for those willing to put in the time.
There are some downsides to all of this, of course. Because the game was so long in development, it looks cutting edge for a title that might have come out two years ago. The characters look a bit sharp and edgy, and some of the environments are a bit bland, particularly in contrast to titles like Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Despite that, the game is also pretty hard on the PC -- the recommended minimum is an 800 MHz processor, but you'd do well to consider 1 GHz as a more appropriate entry level.
The interface, too, has some irritating gaps in intuition. The player inventory, for example, can be up to five pages long, but there's no ability to sort or arrange what's being stuffed in there. Lots of time can be lost surfing through your backpack looking for a single item, particularly when many plot-important objects look identical. Non-player characters will also alternate between surprisingly clever, as a cleric pulls back from battle to cast healing spells on more capable fighters, and amazingly stupid, as the same cleric will fail to figure out how to walk around a desk. Finally, there are an awful lot of randomly placed chests and crates to be found in the single player campaign, most of them holding little more than a single gold piece or a rusty dagger, and almost all of them locked. If this didn't require a lengthy smashing exercise for each container (or the presence of a thief character as your henchman at all times, if you don't feel like investing points in a lockpicking skill), it would be fine. As it was, it brought back too many bitter memories of fruitless box-smashing in Pools of Radiance II.
Still, all of these are relatively minor quibbles in what's turned out to be an excellent title. After countless delays and years of waiting, computer role-players can finally choose their own adventures and band together on the Internet to fight them. As for me, I'm already carefully scripting my way through a campaign that's absolutely certain to throw my friends for a loop.
All I need to do now is get them to buy the game.