Neverwinter Nights

Year Released in US: 2002
System: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP

This is some kind of record. I'm discussing a game the year it actually came out. I originally didn't plan on playing this game right away. I bought it later than the D&D die-hards because the $60 price tag deterred me and I've always got a backlog of games anyway. In addition to that, I'm not much of a PC gamer anyway. I was already in the middle of Breath of Fire II (I started to write a Flame Bait for it but didn't have time to finish it while my thoughts were fresh) and my brother was bugging me to start Final Fantasy X, which I still want to get to. But I installed the game on my computer just to make sure it was working, and I planned to leave it alone until after Breath of Fire II and Final Fantasy X. Then something happened.

My brother borrowed a copy of Neverwinter Nights from his friend and the two of us decided to take a stab at playing cooperatively together online. Unfortunately that's a weak point in the main game. While the story is the same online or off, NPCs can only talk to one player at a time, and if a particular one-time dialogue has already been triggered, then it will not play again. Thus I can only recommend playing the main story online if you do not need to hear any plot-related material (either because you already finished that part of the game or because you're only interested in hack and slash). That only goes for the main game though, because Neverwinter Nights wasn't designed to be purely a game.

It's really a D&D-style RPG builder, with a pack-in game created with the very tools the player has access to, and while that does make it inspiring, the tools are not very intuitive for me. Making items and NPCs is easy enough, but scripting events just baffles me. I don't know where to start. I thought the old D&D Unlimited Adventures toolkit was convoluted, but the Aurora toolset that NWN uses it not for the faint-of-heart. As the game shows, you can do some pretty awesome stuff with it, but if you want to get that level of wow factor you've got a pretty steep learning curve to climb. The toolkit lets you control just about everything from the tint of the fog in the forest to the type of VO a monster uses (so if you really want to make that orc sound like a vengeful dryad you can do it). Personally I know I don't have time for making games, so the builder's more of a bonus to the pack-in game rather than the other way around. Supposedly the neat thing about the builder part is that a Dungeon Master can actually create his modules offline and then run them online with a bunch of players, changing things on the fly to accomodate the needs of the game. While that sounds nice, I haven't joined any online games like that and my only friend likely to DM such a thing hasn't done it yet.

But back to the game. Playing online with my brother fell through. It was too difficult for two first time players to really get a handle on the story so my brother started running through the game solo. On account of sibling rivalry, and just because it's nice to have a RL person to discuss the game with, I plunged on through as well.

Neverwinter Nights differs from previous computer D&D incarnations in that you're restricted to one character. Typically you get a party of four or six and you can micromanage each of them from the exact place you want them to stand in combat to what weapons and armor they use. No such luck here. With Neverwinter Nights you get a huge amount of control over one character, much more so than in any previous game, but only that one. In the main game you can hire a henchman to accompany you, but only one at a time and they each have their own weapons and armor you cannot change. From a role-playing perspective that actually makes sense. You shouldn't be able to rob a hireling of whatever weapons and armor he has. On the other hand, if you're loaded down with loot, it doesn't make sense that they wouldn't give you hand in carrying it.

And actually, crowded parties can get annoying in a single player game. I played through the game as a ranger with a few levels of wizard. If I had my henchman, my ranger class animal companion (a large dire wolf), my wizard class familiar (a black panther), and a creature I summoned via a magic spell, that got to be a pretty crowded party of five. There are some narrow walkways in the game and on occasion it is possible to get stuck because there are too many companions in the way. Also, it's difficult for more than three characters to engage in melee with most monsters. Computer companions like to crowd around the player character so if you need your thief henchman to pick a locked treasure chest for you, not only do you have to stand out of the way, but you have to get all your animals/summoned creatures out of the way too, which sometimes results in a very awkward game of musical chairs. You can't go too far away or your companion will think you no longer need the chest opened. You can't stand too close or all your buddies get in the way. Initially I missed having a large party (because I like looting and selling everything I find in these types of games and I often need to split the loot between all my characters just to get it back to town), but the bags of holding that increased my inventory space and the benefits of solo gameplay made up for it.

Yes, there are times where it's actually very cool and, from a role-playing perspective, very sensible to go solo. The game doesn't really expect most players to have more than themselves and a single henchman, so if you're a warrior-type in good fighting shape, it's quite a rush to run into a chamber full of lesser undead knowing you can take them all down by yourself, and any sort of hiding in shadows and sneaking around is best done alone. For anyone who ever felt that being a rogue (formerly the thief class) in previous games meant getting shafted--no more! There's plenty for rogues to do, and a well-placed sneak attack can help them make up for not being a fighter on the battlefield. With the new skill system, even non-rogues can have a crack at disarming traps (my ranger/wizard could disarm about 80% of them by the end of the game) and picking locks though they won't be as good at it.

Combat in this game is pretty good, except that sometimes the AI needs a kick in the pants. Generally friendly NPCs can be relied upon to help out when needed, but a few times they wouldn't join the fight right away, either because they hadn't finished turning the corner in a hallway (so the enemy was out of their line of sight) or just some other odd reason. Once I was fighting a very large red dragon and my henchman refused to start fighting until she had directly been attacked herself. Needless to say, in a major fight like that one, that didn't help. Also, in some battles involving more than one enemy and me fighting with more than one companion, all my companions would die off before me, and any enemy other than the one I was directly engaged in combat with would stop fighting. This only happened two or three times in the entire game, and while I was grateful for the reprieve, it didn't make any sense.

On the other hand, if you get into a big battle in a mineshaft and there are say, orcish reinforcements just around the way, they will come over and help their buddies. AI wizards often cast useful spells, such as Stoneskin to force you to chip through gobs of defensive protection before you really start hurting them, and demon lords aren't above using a cheap instant death attack that'll kill you if you don't make your saving throw. That can make certain encounters extremely difficult depending on the character class selected. And other encounters are just difficult in general. In console RPGs if you find something too hard you typically level up and come back again. In a PC game you might have to just suck it up. You can't go back and forth between chapters, so once you've completed your main objective for the chapter (or part of the chapter since chapters 1 and 2 are broken up into two parts) there's no turning back. If you've done everything you can in the first half of chapter 1 and you still haven't beaten the Swords of Never, you've got to beat them then or you never will.

Since NWN is quite a long game and module driven, each main segment of the game appears to have been worked on by a different person. As a result, some of the component parts of the game are extremely cool (the Charwood subplot in chapter 2 alone is one of the best times I've ever had in an RPG) and others are of middling quality I would have expected in an older game. However, the overall story is very good. It's a bit slow throughout the first half of chapter 2 (there are four chapters), but once things come to a head in Luskan, the juicy plot bits keep falling and it's quite a ride by the time the end of the game rolls around, and it's really nothing I would have expected from the outset. And I'd have to say I'm surprised. The story deals with a lot of backstory of the Forgotten Realms never covered (to my knowledge) in the D&D pen and paper hardback resource books, simply because it's so old it goes beyond the scope of anything any FR campaign as we know it would be able to use in a typical campaign. Of course, that would have given NWN's designers free reign over what they could create, but I'm surprised they were allowed to go that far. It really gives the game some depth though, even for people familiar with the Forgotten Realms. And while I can say I've never really wondered how the city of Neverwinter got its name, it's nice to say I know now.

The only problems with the main story is really the slowdown in chapter 2. Chapter 1 was largely about freeing the city of Neverwinter from the plague known as the Wailing Death, so even though I was running around the city doing other things, the central quest was always prevelent. No matter where I went, I saw the effects of the plague. There was no escaping it. However chapter 2 was framed largely by the quest to find the cult responsible for the plague, which basically entails wandering around until you hit on something (or at least that's what it feels like). You really have only three areas to go to in the first part of chapter 2, but they are very large with an extensive amount of optional quests. The first part of chapter 2 is easiily the longest segment of the game with the least amount of mandatory plot. I say mandatory because the Charwood segment was very good, though unrelated, and the Aribeth and Creator ruins quests create a lot of backstory for the main plot even though they're optional.

By the end of the game, there are a surprising amount of console RPG-inspired touches. For one thing, the path to the last boss gives you four Heal potions to just make sure you're all powered up and ready to go. For another, the last boss is kind of a multi-part boss (though one of the earlier bosses did this too). You can't hurt her directly until you take out key minions, which in a console RPG might have been magic orbs or various body parts. Though I would have to say it took a while to figure out which was the right one to hit. Being primarily a sword-user (my character's wizard spells are used as support tactics) I tried whacking away at the first Protector minion I saw, the Protector of Flame, only to find out it was immune to all the damage I was doing, just like the last boss. Annoyed, I attacked another minion. Finally, I figured what the hell, even though the Protector of Sword should be immune to swords, I'd try him. Well, he wasn't immune, and once he died, the last boss wasn't immune either. And I finished the game quite handily.

One thing that would have been handled differently in a console RPG though, and I wish had been taken into account, was Aribeth. She starts the game as a good paladin, then falls from grace at the end of chapter 2 to become the leader of the invading army. You have a chance to redeem her in chapter 4, and in a console game this would have been the turning point for a good ending/"bad" ending scenario. However, the game's ending is uneffected by whether or not Aribeth lives or dies. I can understand it would be difficult to produce a detailed ending that covers all scenarios (because male characters can actually spark a love affair with Aribeth if they so choose), but after saving her I would have at least liked to have known whether or not Aribeth was forgiven of her crimes. It wouldn't have been much to record a single line to dialogue, or heck, even just flash an additional page of epilogue text without any dialogue at all, just to add in Aribeth's fate. Everyone in the game knows she has broken the law, and popular sentiment wants her dead, but there are a lot of other ramifications around why she fell from grace that indicate she might be spared. We, as players, unfortunately might never know. The ending tells us that the invaders were routed, and that's about it. I suppose one could argue that that leaves room for a sequel, since expansions aren't uncommon among popular PC games, but since Neverwinter Nights was primarily hailed as a dungeon builder, and standard D&D rules only go up to level 20. I was level 17 (just 2000 XP shy of level 18!) when I finished the game, and an expansion would have to add additional levels in order to accomodate a story large enough to be sold on its own. Also, the fact that rescuing Aribeth is optional doesn't bode well for these being a sequel surrounding it. Players who can't convince her to surrender have to kill her in order to complete the game.

Though I've finished NWN now, I'll still be playing a while longer. One problem (?) I have with these types of games is that I love trying all the character classes. The more, the better. While I got a good dose of being a ranger, and a bit of rogue and wizard mixed in through skills and actually levels, there's still a lot to try out there. Fortunately, because of the toolkit, other people have made a lot of modules and I aim to try one soon. Bioware, the developer, also plans on releasing a new series of original modules using the Aurora toolkit. So I might have a lot more D&D fun than I initially expected.