5/10

Quote: By Matt Peckham
This review appears in the January issue of Games For Windows: The Official Magazine.

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As everything-the-original-did -- and more -- follow-ups go, Neverwinter Nights 2 deserves a banner & something like "mission accomplished." Think the sequel to Jurassic Park, where Spielberg's all "You want more dinosaurs? I'll show you more dinosaurs..." As a contemporary CRPG, on the other hand, NWN2 leaves a lot to be desired, and that's too bad, because these are the guys who brought us Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale 2...and therefore they are the guys I'm least inclined to take issue with.

But issues exist, and defining them is really no more complex than saying, "Hello D&D superchrome, buh-bye storytelling and character development (you know, those things you're supposed to "immerse" yourself in)." The idea seems to be that we're meant to rah-rah about a superabundance of feats, spells, races, prestige (advanced) classes, and math-equation tickers full of the usual "I attack you with a +4 sword of --" booooooring. Fine, sure, dandy...but when is a "role" not a "role"? Simple: when it's a rule to a fault.

Ever loyal bites
I'm cruising for a bruising (don't I know it), but NWN2 is a splash of cold water to the face: A revelatory, polarizing experience that -- in the wake of newer, better alternatives -- makes you question the very notion of "RPG by numbers." It foists Wizards of the Coast's latest v3.5 D&D system (a molehill that's become a mountain at this point) onto your hard drive with stunning fidelity, then tacks on dozens of artificial-looking areas vaguely linked by forget-table plot points you check off like grocery to-do's.

Sure, the interface is sleeker with context-sensitive menus and a smart little bar that lets you more intuitively toggle modes like "power attack" and "stealth," but with all the added rule-shuffling, NWN2 seems like it's working twice as hard to accomplish half as much. Worse -- and blame this on games like Oblivion -- NWN2's levels feel pint-sized: Peewee zones inhabited by pull-string NPCs with no existence to speak of beyond their little playpens. Wander and you'll wonder why the forests, towns, and dungeons are like movie lots with lay-about monsters waiting patiently for you to trip their arbitrary triggers. As if the pencil and paper "module" approach were a virtue that computers -- by now demonstrably capable of simulating entire worlds with considerably more depth -- should emulate. It's like we're supposed to park half our brain in feature mania and the rest in nostalgic slush, and somehow call bingo.

The dungeons feel especially stale, so linear and inorganic they might as well be graph-paper lifts filled with room after room of pop-up bogeymen (Doom put them in closets; NWN2 just makes the closets bigger). Maybe you'd rather chat with the dumb NPCs that speak and sound like extras in a bad Saturday morning cartoon? Oh, boy -- there's the portrait "plus" sign! Time to shuffle another party member (improved to four simultaneous) through the level-up grinder, which you can click "recommend" to zip past...but then, what's the point?

Rule-playing game
In all fairness, it's not entirely developer Obsidian's fault. D&D certainly puts the "rule" in role-playing, and a madcap base of D&D aficionados is no doubt ready to string me up for suggesting that faithful is here tantamount to folly (to these people, I say: "Go for it, NWN2's all you've ever wanted and more"). Call me crazy -- I guess I'm just finally weary of being led around on a pencil-and-paper leash and batting numbers around a glorified three-dimensional spreadsheet in a computer translation that should have synthesized, not forklifted.

That five-of-10 is actually a hedge, by the way. For D&D fans who want to play an amazingly thorough PC translation of the system they're carting around in book form, it's proba-bly closer an eight or nine. But if, like me, you want less "rules for rule's sake" and more depth and beauty to your simulated game worlds, you can certainly find more exciting prospects. Part of the reason we call them "the good old days" and think fondly of games past is that it's always easier to love what we don't have to play anymore.