The Dungeons & Dragons franchise is a name that carries a lot of weight in the gaming community. Since long before Wizards of the Coast ever purchased the rights, D&D has been on the computer screen. Developer SSI was the first to bring a true graphical rendition to our glowing monitors with Pool of Radiance back in 1988 - and role-playing on the computer would never be the same again.
The Neverwinter Nights sub-franchise has followed a long legacy of D&D computer games (over 30, in fact), and is one of the most popular ever. The original was released in 2002 by Bioware to massive acclaim, particularly for its multiplayer options and construction set. However, it was also riddled with problems that bugged both newcomers and true fans of the genre alike - limited party management and god-like character development distorted the true ethos of a D&D game.
Four years and four months later, Bioware is at it again - but this time from more of a publishing angle. Neverwinter Nights 2 development has been done by Obsidian, makers of the famed Baldur's Gate 2 and Icewind Dale series of games, with Bioware and Atari both overseeing.
How does it rate? And more importantly, why are we looking at it two months after its release? Read on, adventurer - there are many stories unfolding.
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We're late, we're late...
So why wait two months to review a game that's such a genre-leader?
Easy - Bioware has a history of releasing games right around what should be a beta stage. However, unlike other game makers, I can't knock them as much for it. The updater supplied with NWN2 (accessible from the first menu) will go online for you and pull down all the patches and install them properly. Updating your game is really no big issue, and as such I wanted to wait to review it until many of the release bugs were fixed. A person buying the game doesn't have to fear whether Bioware will pull an EA - the original NWN is still getting new updates and feature enhancements, over four years later.
That being said, it took until a patch in the first week of December for the game to even be at a truly enjoyable state. There were many engine issues and bugs that caused the game to slow down well beyond what it should have ever demanded from graphics hardware (at least judging by the look of it). In fact, it's still not running smoothly on my 7950 GX2 - and a look at the screenshots will leave you as baffled as I am as to why.
So, with the latest patches loaded up, let's take a look at the game itself...
The Plot Thickens...
It is difficult to review a title that has so many facets. The original NWN, for instance, had a serviceable official campaign, but it didn't truly come into its own until the community at large accepted it as more of a framework for their own stories. With that in mind, there's little we can go on for the time being but the official campaign in NWN2.
First things first - NWN2 has very little to do with its predecessor. Though it takes place in some of the same locations, much of the world is very different. A considerable amount of time has passed since the events of the first game - so many, in fact, that the entire world seems seperate. Since the original plague happened, a long and bloody war has been fought between Neverwinter and it's neighbouring city Luskan, which has taken a tremendous toll on the city.
However, you have a ways to go before you ever reach Neverwinter itself (and the many places you go to beyond the city). After you've chosen your character and class, you begin in the small village of West Harbor. The town has a tournament each year where the youth of the village compete for the Harvest Cup - of course, you and your friends are entered. This area serves as a tutorial of sorts, providing small challenges to help you get the grips of combat, spell-casting, thievery, and other critical elements of the game.
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Each of these tasks provides you experience points, which are the basis for progress through the game. For those unfamiliar with D&D leveling, your character gains XP for each completed quest or monster killed. When you have a party, that XP is divided amongst each member equally (regardless of how each participated in the quest or battle). As you reach certain XP levels, you gain a level which bestows your character with various things from health to spells to entirely new skills.
The key point of the tutorial area, however, is learning to interact with your party. In NWN2, you can have a party of 4 at almost all times throughout the game, which fixes the first game's primary weakness. The original required that all circumstances be set up so someone of adequate level and skill of any class could get through anything - this led to a lot of 'dumbed down' situations. In NWN2, the larger party allows you to take a more balanced (or unbalanced) group along. The ability to have more than one other class than your own provides a new dynamic and a different way to approach certain situations. For instance, if you are in a trap-heavy dungeon area, a thief is a necessity. On the other hand, in the wilderness, druids and rangers provide special benefits to your party.
The story itself, particularly once you get outside of West Harbor, is actually pretty well written for an official campaign. As I mentioned above, the first NWN is seen as a framework that just happens to come with a halfway decent starting campaign... NWN2 raises that bar a bit. To further develop the role-playing value, your companions for the journey have their own individual quests and goals, much like in both BG2 and NWN. In a nod to BG2, these companions also interact with each other - sometimes with disastrous (but often humorous and almost always interesting) results. People who don't get along will bicker, fight, or out and out leave your party if you cannot keep a good balance.