Arguably one of the most-hyped games ever released, Neverwinter Nights has a lot to live up to. When you tell people your game will change the game industry forever, you'd better come through. If you don't, well, look what happened to John Romero after Daikatana. Thankfully, NWN lives up to, and in some ways surpasses, the hype in every way and is one of the very best role-playing games ever created.
Although it is much different than Bioware's previous RPGs, the Baldur's Gate series, NWN still plays a lot like those games, but with one major difference. It's now in 3D, but that doesn't really change the way it feels. Neither does the addition of the Third Edition D&D rules, as opposed to BG's use of the Second Edition. What really makes NWN its own game is the fact that you only control one character. You do have the ability to hire "henchmen" and summoned monsters to assist you, but the AI controls them. This makes for a less "epic" feeling game, but it grows on you after a while.
Battles in NWN are real time, but the game can be paused at any time to issue commands, just like Freedom Force or Baldur's Gate. You can assign several actions for your character to do, then unpause and watch him run across the screen, flinging spells and drinking potions. You can cancel an action in the queue at any time by clicking on the appropriate icon in the top left-hand corner of the screen. The game is very combat-oriented, so expect to spend the majority of your time issuing orders to your avatar and equipping him with all of the fancy magical items you find. Even though there's a lot of combat, you shouldn't expect a game that plays like Diablo or Dungeon Siege. The battles require a good deal of strategy to win, especially some of the tougher ones.
The game plays quite differently depending on how you design your character. A wizard will spend much of his time behind the protection of his henchman and familiar, tossing fireballs and magic missiles at his opponents. A fighter will jump right into the fray, hopefully bringing a cleric henchman to heal him as he fights. This gives the game a lot of replay value, because you're going to want to play through the game with more than one type of character to see everything NWN has to offer.
The multiplayer aspect of NWN is equally entertaining. When playing online, you have the option of playing with a human dungeon master or the CPU controlling the game. The DM feature is very interesting, and it was one of the most-hyped features of the game. It is implemented very well, and assuming one can find a good DM to play with, it can be a lot of fun. It's just as entertaining, possibly even more so, to play as the DM. When you are doing this, you'll notice the interface is much different than normal. As the DM, you have the power to do just about anything. You can drop loot on the ground, possess NPCs, control monsters, or if you're feeling sadistic, trap a couple of level one characters in a room full of hostile dragons. The possibilities are endless.
Of course, the most talked about feature of NWN is its toolset. Bioware claimed it was so easy to use that your computer-illiterate grandmother could design a module. They weren't lying. Using a series of "wizards", you can have a basic module with a couple of monsters up and running in about five minutes. After starting with this, you'll slowly start to learn more about the toolset, and eventually you'll be able to create some truly wonderful adventures. It provides for a nice learning curve, and you can learn it even if you've never dabbled in modding or level-design. For those of you who are experts on the subject, you will also find that the toolset is in no way simplistic or dumbed down. It's the perfect mix of accessibility and functionality.
NWN is actually a fairly good-looking game, despite having been in development for several years. It certainly doesn't look like Morrowind or Dungeon Siege, but the graphics are still pretty good. Some of the lighting effects are very nice, such as when your character moves through a dark room holding a lit torch. Some of the character models are a bit blocky, but it's not really a major complaint. Overall, NWN looks good, although the graphics aren't its strong point.
To tell you the truth, I wasn't expecting much out of NWN's story. I was in for a pleasant surprise, however, because it's actually pretty entertaining. It doesn't rank among my all-time favorites, but it was good enough to keep me interested the whole way through. It starts off fairly simple. The city of Neverwinter has been struck by a plague, and, of course, it's up to you to stop it. The first chapter of the game is fairly straightforward, as you are trying to find a cure for the sickness. Near the end of this chapter, however, the plot takes a twist and begins to thicken. From here, everything becomes very interesting, and you will find yourself traveling all over the world of Faerun. It's a good fantasy tale, and it fits the game perfectly.
The only complaints I had with NWN came from its controls. The pathfinding is poor at times, and characters will often get stuck on objects. Also, the inventory management is very clunky. It has several pages to flip between, and when you factor in the vast assortment of bags you're likely to acquire, it becomes hard to stay organized. The control scheme gains major kudos for its radial menu system. Any time you right-click on anything, you'll get a circular menu of options. Clicking on one of these options leads to another circular menu, and so on until you get what you're looking for. For example, if you right click on an enemy, you could examine it, attack it, cast a spell, etc. Choosing to cast a spell will bring up a list of the spell levels you have access to. Choosing a spell level gives you a list of the spells in that level that you know. It's very intuitive and you'll soon be flying through the radial menus based on memory. It works very well and makes up for the crappy pathfinding and inventory management.
The sound and music of NWN are excellent. Voice acting is abundant and well done, even though a couple of characters have a tendency to overact. The music was composed by Jeremy Soule, of Icewind Dale, Dungeon Siege, and Morrowind fame. It's very good and it does a good job of capturing the feel of a high fantasy adventure. Note to RPG developers: Getting this man to compose for you means you will automatically have good music in your game.
Neverwinter Nights is easily one of the best RPGs I've ever played. It does almost everything perfectly and due to its possibilities for customization, it will probably still be being played several years from now. Between this, Morrowind, and several others, I'm already having a hard time deciding on my favorite game to come out this year. If you have even a passing interest in RPGs, or if you just want to start playing them, you MUST buy Neverwinter Nights. I can sincerely recommend it to ANYONE who enjoys computer games, and that's quite an accomplishment on Bioware's part. If you're one of the many people who already have the game, you know exactly what I mean. If you're not one of those people, you should be. Buy it now.