I am impressed with Neverwinter Nights, but I did not start out that way. I guess it’s just a matter of perception.
Given the long development time and the many, sometimes conflicting press releases and various other information I read about the product, I really did not know what to expect. Some people thought, and based on the feedback I get from our readers still do, that Neverwinter was a massively multiplayer game in the realm of Ultima Online or Asheron’s Call. Its not, though you could hardly blame gamers for thinking the wrong thing.
Basically, the development of the game spanned several years and two publishers. Interplay was originally supposed to publish the game for BioWare, but a dispute between the developer and the publisher over royalties sent BioWare packing off to Infogrames, the only other publisher at the time licensed to put out games based on the Advanced Dungeon and Dragons pen and paper RPG. Unfortunately, this move axed one of the features I was most looking forward to: the ability to transfer my Baldur’s Gate character to a new world. But, more on that later.
Given the developer, I just assumed that Neverwinter would be another game in the Baldur’s Gate series with a different name, much like Icewind Dale. Well, it’s not.
The game is basically two games in one. The first is a single-player adventure that takes about 50 or 60 hours to play and solve, depending on how many side quests you decide to travel on. The second is the online component where you can play in a series of user-created modules and even become the dungeon master and run the game.
The single player interface is a lot different than in Baldur’s Gate. The world is completely 3D and you can rotate your camera angle plus zoom in or out to get the best view of what is happening. At first this is a bit daunting, especially if you were not expecting it. The interface is more like what you would expect from a real-time strategy game in some respects.
Another main difference is that the single player game truly is a single player game. You don’t build up a party of adventurers like in Baldur’s Gate. You are allowed to hire a henchmen to help out, which gives you two people in your group. You don’t however control the henchmen other than issuing basic orders. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about arrows or buying armor for them either. They are given equipment appropriate to their level.
Some people have said that this makes the game have a Diablo-like feel, but it’s more like Darkstone if anyone remembers that title.
I say you can buy a henchman, but I should say you need to buy one. The game assumes you have one, so trying to do the game without one is basically impossible.
For an RPG, henchmen management comes off a bit scripted. Your henchman always matches your level. So if you go up a level, so does your henchman. If you hire a henchman who is a lower level than you, one of the dialog options is "You should level up." The henchman then increases in level till they are equal to your own.
If only pen-and-paper RPGs were that simple. I can imagine the conversations round the old table.
"Hey Morty, we are about to fight this dragon and I’m 10th level and you are only 2nd. It would be helpful if you could level up."
"Sure Stark, give me a second to add some points in and I’ll join you."
The other frustrating thing is that you can’t give equipment to your henchman. Say they are using a +1 axe and you find a +2 axe along the way. You would think you could give it to them, but they can’t accept it.
On the plus side, the game is the first to use the AD&D third edition rules. Third edition is fairly complex, but the computer handles it expertly. In fact, when playing the game, it makes the new rule set seem easy.
Combat takes a little bit of getting used to. It’s not fast and furious like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. In fact, you end up stacking orders for your character, that are then carried out in real-time segments. From what I saw of RPGs at E3, this will be a trend that is often repeated, so get used to it. It seems a bit slow at first, because at times both your character and your opponent will be standing there facing each other, waiting for their initiative to come up so they can perform an action. It’s kind of like a movie fight in slow motion.
The advantage to this interface is that you can be precise. Just pause the game and give a series of combat orders like cast magic missile, fire a crossbow bolt, switch to your staff and attack opponent. Then when you unpause the game you can watch as your character attempts to follow your stacked orders. Your henchman will do whatever they think is best, though I have noticed that magic-using henchmen tend to blow their powerful spells on small fights, instead of saving them till when really needed.
The graphics for the game are excellent, but make sure your graphics drivers are current. The Martox card on the test machine was not updated, and the people looked washed out before we installed new drivers. The game uses a lot of hardware power, so don’t handicap yourself with older drivers.
The sound in the game is probably one of the best features. When you are inside a cave you might hear the wind rushing through, or wolves moving around in the distance. In dungeons you hear screams occasionally and different noises to keep you on edge. The music is appropriate and crescendos at the right moments, so you feel pretty heroic. Once in a while a voice might get looped too much, like a near-comical death sound, but this is balanced by really cool tavern singing and the like in certain areas.
If it were just the single player game, Neverwinter Nights would still earn a good review. You follow an interesting plot and there is lots to explore and discover. The addition of the multiplayer game puts the title over the top in terms of re-playability and in fact, infinite possibilities.
You can build your own games without the need for an advanced programming degree. That’s pretty standard in RPGs these days, but Neverwinter takes this much further. For the first time, you can become the Dungeon Master, the undisputed God of your realm. That means that you can play all the non-player characters in the game, having them speak to the players and let them know whatever you like. You can also spawn monsters or take control of them if you think the party is having too easy a time, or cut some slack if you are killing them too much.
The game is supposed to support a lot of players, but in my experience groups of five or six seem best. Above that and the GM can’t really control the world, because there is always someone off doing something out of sight, and cooperation breaks down.
Your experience online depends a lot on the skills of the GM, both in creating the world and running you through it. I’ve played games where one or the other is not very good, and the game became a chaotic monster-killing and aimless frenzy. Then again I have been in some games that are really good, almost as good as the single player game itself.
Being the GM is difficult, but not because of the game interface. It just takes a lot of skill to keep track and manage everything, plus it’s helpful if you have good storytelling skills. I have only been the GM of one or two games, and these were in a test environment in the GiN Lab. Everyone had a good time, but it was a bit slow going at times when I had to ask everyone to pause a minute every now and then while I caught up. If you have friends who play D&D but live far away, this would be an excellent way to still be able to game with them.
Since we are near the end of this review, I would like to take a brief moment to express my disappointment that the promised feature of taking my Baldur’s Gate II character over to Neverwinter Nights is not part of the game. You can’t even truly re-build your BGII character because Neverwinter uses a point system instead of die rolls to determine characteristics. This results in some pretty average characters for the game, and not the unbalanced but exceptional possibilities you had in BGII. I suppose Interplay might have sued BioWare if they included this feature considering the publisher flip, but BGII has been sitting on my hard drive for two years awaiting Neverwinter.
I can’t help but think that diehard BG fans, what has to be the core of an audience for Neverwinter, will feel remorse at not being able to do this. It’s not a deal breaker and did not affect the final score. But it’s something folks were looking forward to that did not happen.
That said, rarely have I found a game as captivating as Neverwinter Nights. I found myself thinking about the game while I was away from it, and that does not happen often. That shows the strength of the plot, and the professionalism of the overall presentation. The limitless expansion ability of the game and the multiplayer aspects really make Neverwinter Nights worth the money. Plus its darn cool to be able to be the DM of a multiplayer game, and use the third edition rules to boot. Add onto that a perfectly good single player RPG, and you have a solid contender for Game of the Year.