So this is a review of a PC game. We’ll thus assume that at least most of you readers out there are at least au fait with PC gaming as a whole. Sounds fair, right? Let’s take another mighty leap of logic – if you’re a PC gamer, then it’s even greater odds that you’ve heard about Neverwinter Nights, the smash D+D RPG from BioWare that took to the PC, amateur game developers and casual players all like a duck to something a duck takes very well to.
Well, now the big brother, Neverwinter Nights 2, has come along to attempt to wow and seduce us. Considerably shinier, ostensibly more polished and with a bevy of updates to both developer tools and the core Dungeons and Dragons mechanics within, it has an impressive rap sheet and a reputation to match. But with fan-made content for the original only now beginning to dwindle, and the hulking behemoth of Oblivion looming ominously over one shoulder, can it do enough to secure a solid fan base – the lynchpin of the original’s success? And, can it even stand in its own right as a good RPG?
Immediately you’ll notice — before even starting the game up for the first time — the sheer size the thing takes up. Dumping a weighty six and a half Gigs of data on your system, Neverwinter Nights 2 really can’t be said to hold back, and hard drive space is probably the least of your worries: Pixelshader requirements bump the graphics card needs way up and the recommended RAM and processor list is also no slouch. While it’s nothing a decent contemporary rig can’t handle, it is nonetheless something of a shock to the system after the wide and lenient demands the original placed upon a system.
Thus, armed with a trusty mouse, a stalwart keyboard, perhaps some loyal source of caffeine, our example player dives after a lengthy installation process into the game for his or her initial play experience. A few hours later the game has fallen foul of several AI and plotline bugs, some of them potentially terminal. It may have crashed, definitely run slow, and ultimately the player has quit in anger, disgust, or just plain confusion. This may sound overly pessimistic, but it’s a cautionary tale all too familiar to those who bought the game at release. There is simply no way around it: more so than any other recent PC game, you will need to patch Neverwinter Nights 2. And this is not a task to be undertaken lightly: with the breadth of updates and fixes that had to be made, the centrepiece of the patching system (which is, thankfully, automatic) is a gigantic 120Mb affair. This is easily a challenge for some users and an epic undertaking for any poor dial-up users still existing in the wilds out there. Let’s be fair, however: once applied the game does render itself far more robust, fixing a decent enough amount of AI, plot and performance woes to allow for hefty gaming sessions to commence.
Our intrepid player, therefore, goes back in after some judicious patching to try again, starting over from scratch. It’s character creation time, and by extension the perfect time for a more thorough appraisal of the system beneath. It is at least pleasing to report that the underpinning mechanics do conform considerably closer to the actual Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 system than the original ever did. Some concessions and changes have of course been made (mainly for coding and playability) but not so many that they detract immensely from the general enjoyment of the game. Indeed, there are a number of highly-welcome additions, from a couple of new prestige classes and advanced abilities, to a new base class : the Warlock, who is a mage that eschews actual spells in favour of simply blasting his enemies with raw chaos. The system also boasts a massively improved collection of feats, which include a smattering of truly fun new things such as the ability to dual-wield massive two-handed weapons in one hand each. Just in case you happen to be feeling particularly epic that day.
It probably should be noted at this juncture that all the various races available in the game (and there are a lot) all have one or two things in common. They’re all kind of dumpy, and rather ugly, too. There’s something just a little off about character models in general, and the game simply doesn’t provide enough customisation options (yet – we’ll get back to this) to adequately rectify the problem that at the very least the main character isn’t going to look too hot.
Fortunately, the same can’t be said of the scenery and landscaping, and some of the reasoning behind such high processor requirements becomes clear here. Every object is mapped out in 3D with its own lighting and shadows, and every house or street has a lot of objects – every book in every bookcase can be separately picked out and every nook and cranny is filled with piles of objects to at least render, if not be heroically sifted through for goodies. There is, in short, clutter. And it looks absolutely fantastic.
Other graphical effects – such things as the glowing trails whenever you rightfully assault someone, or the various glows, booms and bangs that any dabbling in a game with a magic system demands – are similarly top-notch, and used extremely well. There is, after all, nothing that feels quite as good as summoning a gigantic storm at a group of ravenous enemies and then throwing your fighters at them slapbang in the middle of it. Armor, weaponry and other such artifacts look really rather stylish and all in all it’s a treat.
All of this finery does come at a price, of course, though perhaps not the one you’re expecting. Especially once the patch is installed, the graphics can be throttled in a number of different ways to increase performance. While standard for these sorts of affairs, even at the lowest settings, Neverwinter Nights 2 is still a very pretty game, albeit perhaps a slightly fuzzier one. The real problem comes in the splitting up of large areas of the overall map into chunks called “modules.” Upon entering one of the predefined areas, the game will preload a connected ten-to-twenty other area files, effectively indexed of the content of an area without any of the actual graphical data behind it, and then uses whichever of these files it needs to graphically display the area. Enter a different module and this preloading process starts anew with that module’s files. It’s designed, one assumes, to cut out some of the loading times and, to an extent, works fairly well early on in the main game when your path is linear and expected. The problems arise later in the game where you may well be changing modules every time you move on the map as you clear up side-quests; in such, situations loading times spike as the game repeatedly preloads large chunks of data you’ll instantly discard upon moving. Hardly crippling, but so much unnecessary loading in a game with already-high loading times simply becomes irritating.
While we’re on the matter of finery, let’s consider sounds. There’s nothing to complain about per se here – there’s appropriate mandolin music in inns, the chatter of townsfolk, demons, undead or perhaps small birds as ambient noise depending upon where you happen to be, dramatic and thematically appropriate music when you enter a fight, and so on. The trouble is that almost everything is either hideously generic or – worse still – ported directly over from Neverwinter Nights. There’s the same old music, the same voicesets with only minor additions – all of which have a gimmick that tends to make them wholly suitable for use – and things get very tedious very fast. There is, however, a shining beacon of hope in the form of the various henchmen and NPCs encountered on your travels. The voice actors are fantastic and get right into their parts, and you’ll quickly find yourself keeping an ear out for the next inter-party argument or accusation of “runty dwarf.” This is backed up by a couple of stunning incidental pieces of music for the moments of the game that altogether pull off something of an aural saving grace.
But, oh gentle reader, you’re probably not here to hear about cosmetics. How does one of the most anticipated PC games in recent times play? As you might expect, the answer to that is “very similarly to Neverwinter Nights.” At its core, this is the same Neverwinter you may love and adore, just prettied up a lot. Movement, combat and the majority of dialogue and skill usage are exactly as you’d expect: point and click, point and click. Need time to think and plan? Pause the game, queue up actions. It’s a tried and true system that’s stood Obsidian, BioWare and Black Isle in the best of stead from the early days of the original Baldur’s Gate. Here too it doesn’t fail them, though shockingly the tremendously helpful right-click spoke menu from the original Neverwinter that let you – with a little effort – perform anything your character could do has been axed. Instead, it is replaced by an easier-to-use but somehow less satisfying series of segregated submenus and a hotbar to fill with shortcuts. Skill you’d like to use? Drag it off your character sheet to the bar. This is similarly done from the spellbook for spells and from the inventory for potions. All of the various layers of the new interface are freely movable and hidable to boot. It is at once familiar and yet polished and new.
Where this system fails brutally, however, is in the targeting reticule. It’s a well-meaning idea at heart: right-clicking on something will target it, displaying the object’s health and status and setting it as a default target for whatever action you next input. The problem here is not the idea of the targeting system so much as its inclusion within a game that allows so much to be done via left-click shortcuts (which do not automatically target the thing being interacted with), that will always ask for a target if one isn’t set up, and that permits an overly broad range of actions. Here’s a common scenario: our player, via a right-click menu, opens a bag to pull out some items. Later in the same location, he or she runs into a fight and wades in, left-clicking on monsters. Some time later, staring down an axe to the face, the player switches to the local healer to throw out a healing spell and watches in dismay as the game, still stuck on that bag from earlier makes quite certain that bag isn’t feeling any malady whatsoever. Promptly, our valiant hero snuffs it. This is a distressingly regular occurrence and at present there seems to be little in the way of methods to either shut off the targeting or demand for one every time, both of which would alleviate the problem.
There’s one aspect that hasn’t been touched on yet: the plot of the game. With the encouragement that the Neverwinter games give fanworks, the actual bundled plot is, arguably, the least important part of the package. That said (once more, the caveat: when patched) the game is a joy to play. Lengthy, involved and spanning the entirety of a standard character’s career, from humble farming beginnings to operating and maintaining a keep via a particularly pleasant mini-game, it’s full of completely bizarre NPCs, random acts of derring-do, an awful lot of party member kibitzing. In addition, experience can be awarded for befriending a giant magical spider which proceeds to sit in your castle basement and wave it’s mandibles at you. Evil players may find the same problem they regularly have with games of this genre (some minor railroading to justify the occasional help of townsfolk, that sort of thing), but in general it flows tremendously and does a very good job of showcasing what the system can pull off to prospective builders – a key point that the first game only figured out when it reached expansions.
It may seem that the tone of this review is rather negative. While Neverwinter Nights 2 is a solid example of the genre and a fine game, there’s a lot of niggles and bugs and a general bad feeling about some design issues. Fortunately, there is a natural counterweight to all of these niggles: the system encourages the player to play around with it in order to make new versions of mechanics and add-ons for the sounds and graphics. This extensibility means that, while fanworks are few and far between at present, there will come a time when a player can grab custom sound packs, perhaps a hakpak to remove the targeting issues, their own favorite fan-made modules. Vastly more important in this case is the groundwork laid for such endeavours, and Obsidian Entertainment have learned a lot from the original. All in all, Neverwinter Nights 2 shapes up to be a splendid platform bundled with a highly agreeable romp through a lengthy and entertaining sample adventure. In addition, fan-made modules are already beginning to pop up, and while most are tests and exploratory attempts at present, there are a few coffee-break modules that immediately extend the life of the purchase.
Just remember the mantra: always patch.