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Neverwinter Nights

Friday, August 16, 2002 by Helly || [0 Comments]

Neverwinter Nights
Overall: 4
Graphics: 3
Interface: 3
Multiplayer: 5
Neverwinter Nights is the latest release from Bioware, makers of the erstwhile classic Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, among others. And like these others, NWN benefits from the licensing of the official D&D rules, in this case the 3rd Edition rules.

Five years in the making, anticipation for Neverwinter Nights reached feverish heights (including for this reviewer). Why all the fuss? Well, Neverwinter Nights promised not only a new single-player campaign designed by the saviors of computer RPGs, but the promise of the first true multiplayer role-playing experience. How does Bioware accomplish this task? By giving control to the players and bringing back the Dungeon Master. More on that in the Multiplayer section.


First henchman and first level up

Drunken priest gains power

NWN contains a single player campaign set on the Sea of Swords (although I haven’t completed the game, I’ve heard that it takes about 60 hours to finish). At the beginning of the single player campaign, you find yourself in the city of Neverwinter on the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms. Neverwinter was a prosperous city until a plague named “The Wailing Death” shut the city down, slowly killing off the quarantined population. The call was put forth asking heroes to come to the aid of Neverwinter, and you are one of those who responded. Now you find yourself hunting for the cure and searching for the source of this plague. As you might expect, there’s more to the origin of “The Wailing Death” than expected. Expect to be sucked into quite an engrossing single-player game that will extend well beyond the walls of Neverwinter.

Graphics/Display:

Neverwinter Nights is visually entertaining, but quite obviously behind the times when it comes to graphical gorgeousity (Clockwork Orange reference, before you berate me for my spelling). Stand it side by side with a game like Morrowind, and you’ll notice the differences immediately: character detail; water effects; and a fully rendered sky are all aspects lacking in NWN. It’s still a good looking game, but the recommended requirements of an 800MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and a GeForce 2 or above video card seem a bit steep for what you’re seeing.

Spell effects vary from impressive bolts of lighting to humdrum, dullish buffs and prayers from the Cleric I was playing most of the game. Coming from Dark Age Of Camelot’s graphics (an MMORPG, mind you), the NWN spell effects felt washed out and dull in comparison.


Kinda bland cleric buff

Clerics and the undead: two great tastes that go great together!

Camera angles are pretty typical Bioware fare in that you’re generally going to play with a top-down view of the game. You also have the ability to zoom in or out and pitch the camera around until you get it looking like you’d like.

However, there are some neat little features that I enjoyed such as leaves falling in the forest, shafts of light from the non-viewable sky cutting in between trees, and the cool summoning circle that appears when my cleric’s pets were unsummoned.

Interface/Controls:

The biggest thing for fans of Bioware’s earlier RPGs to realize is this: NWN is not a micro-management game. I say this with glee, as I am opposed to micro-management in my games (which is probably why I’ve never been a fan of most computer RPGs or RTS games). In the Baldur’s Gate series I would find myself playing along happily until I was forced, quite against my will, to take on “party members” in order to complete quests and survive the game.


Under the city

Me and my...shadows!

The problem for me came in the complete gameplay interruption that would occur anytime my 6-person party would get into a scrape: pause game, assign this character to fight, that character to hide, that character to dance like a bear on an electrified grate…bored the crap out of me and ruined the gameplay. I’m an old-skool nerd and loved playing one character at a time in old-fashioned, pen and paper RPGs. I could immerse myself into the character and build upon that character’s story by the actions I chose in game. I didn’t stop and run around the table telling my friends exactly where each of their characters were going to position themselves, or how they were going to react…that was a big part of the fun of the role-playing.

But these computer RPGs insisted I play 4 to 6 characters at once, which meant I never really got into any of them and eventually let the game rot in the file cabinet. That was why I loved Morrowind so much when I first played it: I was in command of one character, whom I could mold as I pleased. That’s why I got so sucked into NWN: I’m one character with a story I can create and a song in my heart.

Unable to completely let go of their past, Bioware does force you to hire a henchman to survive, but at least I can generally ignore my henchman as he is little more than a battering ram for the faith of my cleric (read: game AI takes over). If he dies, I will say a prayer and hire another. I can live with that. But many, many players are going to be very upset to discover that NWN is not a game of micro-management where you control a massive group. So I’m warning you now….BE FOREWARNED! Booga booga booga.

Now, as for the actual interface of the game: NWN relies on a radial menu as your main interface in game. Right clicking on an item, an NPC or yourself pulls up a menu of buttons such as Examine, Equip, Drop, etc. Some of these buttons allow you to jump out to a further level of actions, so the radial menu can be multi-layered.

While an interesting approach, I found it a little less than intuitive to use and oftentimes hard to read when pulled up in a graphically busy area.

Other parts of your interface are pretty standard and solid. Using hotkeys, you can bring up your character sheet to see your vital stats and skills; your inventory screen where you can equip and store your items (similar to Diablo’s inventory screen); your spellbook (for those characters that need it) where you can view your spells and select which you’d like to memorize; as well as other, similar screens.

The best part of the interface is the (now-ubiquitous) Quickbar located on the bottom of the screen. Using the F-keys as hotkeys or by clicking on them with the mouse, you can activate whatever item you happen to have equipped in these hotkeys. Using the Shift and Ctrl buttons, you can access two more Quickbars where you can drag more items, spells, potions, scrolls or whatever. It’s a nice little interface and one that you will find yourself using quite often.

Multiplayer (if any):

Despite the lackluster graphics and iffy bits of the interface, the single player game was a blast. It sucked me in with a good story line that pushed me onwards without making me feel like I was being overly manipulated. While not as open in game play as a game like Morrowind, it is nonetheless quite a game with a good plot and storyline. That said, the game revolves around a lot of hack and slash action. For you hardcore rp’ers out there, it ain’t gonna cut it in the RP department. Faction does exist, and you can choose to be good, neutral or evil (and solidify your choice by choosing you actions accordingly within interactions with NPCs and others), but overall you have to be able to cut your way to the answer to complete the game.

But this is the multiplayer section, innit? So enough about the single player and let’s get on to the real story behind NWN. Very simply put, there has never been a game like NWN. Let’s take a look at the components before we put it all together:

The Aurora Toolset: this is the set of tools that allows anyone to try their hand at creating a module. A module is a created world where characters and NPCs can play NWN. I launched the toolset and, within minutes, had a big square chunk of forest replete with stream, bridge, two deer and a moody goblin. I saved the module, launched the game, selected my new module and ran my 1st level dwarf through my, albeit small, new world.


Fight, my pixelated brethren!

Welcome to the end...or is it the beginning?

With the Aurora Toolset you can create a simple hack and slash module, or create an entire world with custom characters, complete plot lines and scripted events. It’s limited only by your time, desire and imagination.

Scripted Events? Yes indeed – the Aurora Toolset also comes with the NWScript editor/compiler that you can use to script events for just about everything in the game. In fact, to really make a completely interactive and story-driven module, you will really need to use scripting. This can be a daunting task for a non-programmer, as it really is coding, but there are many tutorials available at all the major sites, including Bioware’s own.

This Toolset is what gives NWN the basic components of life as a true, multiplayer, computer RPG. Already there are a large number of adventures, campaigns and complete worlds either built or being built by the dedicated fans and DMs of NWN. As a veteran of pen and paper RPGs, the one thing I know about DMs is that they love to create worlds. That’s what makes me think that NWN will explode online: they’ve given DMs all the tools they need to create whole worlds.

But just creating worlds isn’t the be all and end all of the role playing experience. You still need people to put these worlds online and run others through them. Enter the DM Client. Once you have a module created and online (either on your own machine and your high-speed connection, or on a dedicated server), you can invite people to join your game. Now comes the truly genre-busting idea: a DM client. The DM logs into the same game and world as his/her players and proceeds to take control of the adventure. With the DM client you have full control of the elements within your module: add more monsters, throw a trap in the way of fast-moving adventurers, take possession of an NPC and direct the story, reward experience, kill with a command…you are god of this module, just like a DM in a regular pen and paper game. The DM client is complete with it’s own commands and hotkey which allow you control over the entire gaming experience. Too much work for one person? No problem: you can allow others to log into your module with the DM client and they can assist you with the myriad tasks a DM faces.

Another exciting feature is the potential for multiple servers to be hosted together to create large, persistent worlds. Someone, or a team of someones, could recreate the Dragonlance world using 3rd Edition D&D rules and the NWN Aurora Toolset, spread different sections of the world on different servers to balance load, and make link them together with portals and suddenly you’ve got players able to save their characters on the server, come back online and travel the world of Dragonlance in a giant campaign run by multiple DMs.

All of the above combined together create a unique multiplayer experience. As with any online game, there are going to be problems in the form of bad players on public servers, lag and poor gaming experiences. However, with NWN you can always choose to join another game on another server with people you’ve played with before and a DM you trust. Or you can make your own game and invite only those people you want to play on your server. Best of all, you’re not paying a monthly fee to play online (but you also don’t get the support and server bandwidth of an MMORPG).

Summary:

NWN is an entertaining but not cutting edge single player game, but its true glory rests in its multiplayer facets. Bioware may have finally found a way to meld pen and paper RPGs with the computer and Internet. By giving control to the DM to create and run modules/worlds the way they see fit, players can finally find the perfect experience in role-playing online. Just find the right DM and style of play, and you’re home free!

To that end, there are many fan sites for NWN. The best matchmaking site for DMs and Players that I’ve run across, and of which I am now a member, is NeverwinterConnections.com. I highly recommend you visit their page.

The future could be very bright for NWN. By giving control to the players, Bioware has followed the examples of games like the Quake series and (yet again) Morrowind where the fans extended the life of the game with the hundreds and thousands of modifications and additions they created. This could be the beginning of a revolution in how we play online RPGs.

To readers who are interested only in the single player game, I suggest that you purchase the NWN, but I recommend saving some cash and waiting until the price drops before getting your copy. For those of you interested in the multiplayer aspects – go buy now!

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