Neverwinter nights, days, occasionally at dawn...
I spent the better part of my childhood meandering through the vast social emptiness of Dungeons and Dragons. Pewter figurines wouldn't last an hour in my room without being slathered in cheap paint. Graph paper littered my floor with half-finished sketches of dungeon layouts. To this day, I can tell you how many hit points a dragon should have based on its age and color.
Yeah, I was a geek. A big one. And if you don't believe me, check out this relic I dug out of mom's basement. That's a REAL book report I cranked out as a 7 year-old. I got an A, but I also got a wedgie that would last me until well into puberty.
Considering this (literally) monstrous waste of time, I find it nothing short of miraculous that I actually learned to engage with reality. Now I have my own living space, I have friends, I take care of things like laundry and grocery shopping. Despite my supreme geek roots, I blossomed into a surprisingly functional person.
It's like a bottle of bourbon to a recovering alcoholic, this Neverwinter Nights. Right when you think you've gotten a hold of yourself, Bioware decides that it's time for you to get rid of that tan and lock yourself in your room for a few weeks. Not that there's anything wrong with that, because despite a few small problems, Neverwinter Nights delivers on its promise to completely ruin your social life.
The game is essentially a vastly updated version of Bioware's award-winning Baldur's Gate games, featuring a similar game flow and single-player structure. However, a brand new engine, new 3rd edition D&D rules and an outrageously ambitious multi-player scheme take the art of PC D&D role-playing to brave new heights.
Though the multi-player has garnered much of the attention during NWN's development, the single-player is robust and vital to the gameplay experience. Set in the Forgotten Realms, you play a hero out to discover the secrets behind a mysterious plague that has all but demolished the once proud city of Neverwinter. Like the BG games, however, nothing is as simple as it seems, and soon enough you'll be embroiled in a plot filled with do-gooders, ne'er do wells and the occasional zombie.
And although you sort of have to play the hero to progress the single-player game, you don't really have to act like one. There are countless side-quests and choices to make, all of which can impact your character's alignment, which in turn can affect your game. Kill some innocents and you'll shift your Chaotic Good Ranger to Chaotic Neutral. Keep it up and you'll go hardcore evil. On the other hand, save enough kittens and you can swing right back. Schizophrenics, rejoice!
Unlike the recent doozie Morrowind, the game doesn't really have an open-ended feel, as it's usually pretty obvious where to go and what to do next. But also unlike Morrowind, there's a plot happening here that's actually fun to follow and rife with questions you'll want answered.
The single-player campaign in Neverwinter Nights is not party-based - you just control one character. I suppose it's nice to concentrate more on one character than dealing with five, but many purists will miss the party format. This also gives the gameplay a more Diablo feel, which again has its good and bad points.
You can sort of create a party on your own thanks to some henchmen for hire and summoned creatures/familiars. None of them can be directly controlled, but they'll all follow basic commands like 'Guard Me' or 'Hold Your Ground'. The AI isn't spectacular and they'll sometimes get a wee randy, gallivanting off to whack at a bugbear when all you want them to do is sit in the corner, but it's sufficient.
One new change can be found in the 3rd edition D&D rules, which Neverwinter Nights implements very smoothly, so that even those new to the D&D experience will be able to jump in and use the 'Feats' without too much concern. The new rules allow for much easier multi-classing, as characters don't lose abilities from one class while upgrading another (though they will suffer penalties, such as increased chance of spell failure for a wizard/fighter wearing heavy armor). The only real limitation is alignment - you can't multi-class to a Paladin if you're not Lawful Good, for instance.
The gameplay is very, very familiar. You can pause the real-time action with the space bar to cue up some pre-planned moves. You talk to everyone you meet, taking on as many side-quests as you feel comfortable with, all while trying to burl out your character and complete the main story. If you've played the other Bioware RPGs, thing will be instantly familiar.
For some, it might even feel too familiar, and for others it might feel too repetitive. Single-player Neverwinter Nights can admittedly get a little monotonous, thanks in part to the town/dungeon/town nature of the game. You can use a 'Recall Stone' to teleport back and forth from the safety of town to the violence of the dungeons at will, which is nice as it cuts down the travel time, but you can still feel caught in the loop. Perhaps more variety in the side-quests - more mini-games or something - would have helped a bit.
While the customization and general gameplay follow the mold of other recent games, the graphics do not. Say goodbye to those little sprites - Neverwinter Nights is built on the brand new Aurora engine and allows for a full 3D world, complete with fantastic real-time lighting and sweet particle effects. The camera is scaleable, allowing you to play from zoomed out or watch the carnage from up close.
And in this case, watching up close is half the fun. The fighting sequences look terrific thanks to well-orchestrated attack, dodge, and parry animations. Get a big fight going and it actually looks like fight, not just two guys standing there smacking each other. It's really cool and heightens the experience tremendously.
The interface is also brand new, featuring a 'radial menu' system that takes some getting used, but will eventually seem like second nature. You can hotkey up to 24 weapons, potions, spells, etc. (including combinations, like one hotkey for a sword and a shield), which allows you to quickly get the item you need without sifting through pages of menus.
I should also note the impressive sound, particularly the great voice-acting and awesome environmental audio. The production values are very high, and though some of the musical themes repeat too often, you will want good speakers for this game.
If Neverwinter Nights was just a single-player experience, it would still receive high marks thanks to its strong delivery, great storytelling and genuinely fun gameplay. But the single-player is only the first floor of this massive social dungeon.
Neverwinter Nights' multiplayer converts classic pen and paper, small group gaming into a PC game. This is not a massively multiplayer game like Everquest. Rather, you hook up with a couple friends (or strangers) and play NWN in traditional module formats, complete with a real-life Dungeon Master.
Getting into a game is easy enough, as you just need to connect to the NWN multiplayer matching from within the game and you're treated to lists of different kinds of servers and tons of rooms. Obviously, hooking up with friends and either co-opping the single-player or running a user-created module will yield better results than trying to find random people that you get along with, but who knows, you could get lucky.
The other key thing about playing with people you don't know is the quality of the dungeon master, which is ofetn a case of good cop or bad cop. Some DM's are great and fair and fun and really make the experience worthwhile, while others will just throw some dragons at you and delight in watching you die. Finding a DM you like greatly improves the multiplayer.
Characters can be saved independently from the actual single-player game as well as from multi-player games, so you can use your fancy Ranger everywhere. However, some servers will only allow 'local' characters, meaning ones stored on the server itself and cannot be touched by the players; a very classic D&D setup, and one that cuts down the chance of cheating and sort of levels the playing field. This is a great idea, though it works better if you're doing this with friends since starting up a new character on a random server only to find that server go down one day could be insanely frustrating.
Neverwinter Nights comes packed with a robust yet fairly intuitive dungeon building editor called the Auroroa Toolset. It's really impressive in its depth, as you can essentially build an entire adventure from the ground-up, creating and placing monsters, treasure and insanely complex layouts with a point and click interface. There are scads upon scads of objects to help flesh out the world, and with the right amount of dedication, you could actually transfer those old graph-paper dungeons into beautiful modules.
Unfortunately, getting it all scripted and functional takes the kind of dedication usually only found in serial killers. Though Bioware gets points for including the toolset and supporting the game with great matchmaking, they failed to include templates. You want a dungeon, you have to build it room by painstaking room. How about some templates to tweak or random layouts? I spent about five hours trying to build a module and only got through about 3 areas - and that doesn't include the supremely difficult task of scripting the characters to say the right things or go the right places. It can be daunting.
Still, there are enough nuts out there who will put in the time and energy, so the rest of us can just leech off 'em and download their version of Tomb of Horrors to run with some friends.
That is, if you find you still have any friends left after getting into Neverwinter Nights. This is a terrific game, one of the best computer translations of D&D ever created. Though its gameplay is a bit ubiquitous, it offers more dork depth than anything else in town and simply shouldn't be missed by any self-respecting geek.