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November 23, 2006

Neverwinter Nights 2

The most comprehensive computer simulation of Dungeons & Dragons ever wants to be two things at once—and that's at least one thing too many
Neverwinter Nights 2
By Obsidian
From Atari
MSRP: $49.99
By Matt Peckham
The original Neverwinter Nights was a landmark event in 2002 because it took an approach then-designer Bioware had been working up to since 1999 with the Baldur's Gate CRPGs and codified them in a sprawling simulation as the only bona fide way to play D&D on a computer. Grafting Wizards of the Coast's third-edition rules onto a powerful context-driven game engine, it allowed players to build complex modules from scratch and take them out for a spin with friends around the world. It even included a "dungeon master" supertool that allowed one person to have godlike control over a live game session, dropping in premade areas or creatures at will to foster a sense of creative spontaneity otherwise reserved for the offline pencil-and-paper version.
If there's saving grace it's the toolset, which in the right hands may over time yield better community-driven adventures ...
Neverwinter Nights 2 is the official sequel, but designed by Obsidian Entertainment and Feargus Urquhart (Icewind Dale 2, Planescape: Torment) rather than Bioware. It updates the D&D ruleset to v3.5, upgrades the visual engine and interface and includes a new campaign that can be played individually or with up to three others cooperatively.

In addition to the ruleset bump, NWN2 includes support for "normal"-sized parties of four players and offers 10 NPCs in the campaign who can join or leave your group. You also get more than a dozen new races (including "planetouched" Aasimar and Tiefling), new prestige (advanced) classes like eldrich knight and frenzied berserker, the ability to craft items using "recipes" and, later in the main campaign, a stronghold from which to base your operations and show off your accomplishments.

Character levels are capped at 20, and while NWN characters and modules can't be imported, it's possible to carry in scripts and dialogue created with the original toolset. The NWN2 "Electron" toolset has itself been completely redesigned to allow for more powerful scripting, and you can host yours or other players' modules with a standalone server application. While the retail version comes unequipped with a "dungeon master" client, a patch available in tandem with the store release adds support for a beta version with a promise to bring it to final at some point in the future.

Tired story and tedious mechanics
The problem with Neverwinter Nights 2 is that it wants to be two things at once, and those two things end up cooperating like fire and water. Take a complex ruleset mostly tamed by a commendably intuitive interface and wrap it around small, claustrophobic levels and a long, dull, predictable story that comes across as restrictive and linear to a fault, and you either have clashing design decisions or a game only patient D&D purists will find appealing.

On the one hand, NWN2 is probably the most ambitious attempt to date to simulate D&D on a computer, and if you want a computerized version of the ruleset with minimal deviation (mostly to accommodate things like combat rounds that have to run in real-time), here's your poison. But if you'd rather immerse yourself in a decent rip of a story that doesn't include wooden characters, endless FedEx quests and stuff to fight that stands around solely to go "EYAAH!" and charge when you get too close, then watch out. NWN2's campaign is like slogging through a particularly hackneyed Bob Salvatore yarn where you're just another unlikely zero-to-hero. Zero-to-hero is fine. Tired storytelling's not, especially since this is Feargus Urquhart we're talking about, the guy who turned Zeb Cook's somewhat obscure Planescape campaign setting into one of the best story-driven RPGs going.

Technical glitches don't help, like inventory remove/equip hangs and party members who stupidly walk over traps that your thief's disarming, but they aren't the biggest problem. Over the years we've seen RPGs move in two directions: One attempts to mask rules and stats and makes what you see and how you act the source of why you want to keep playing; the other hoists exotic canon into simulations that teeter on the brink of source fetish. Neverwinter Nights 2 is the culmination of the latter, where spending time tweaking classes and feats and spells and a bazillion inventory items amounts to half of everything you get up to. That's OK in the pencil-and-paper game, where it's necessary, but shouldn't a computer version be more?

But wait: "I know D&D, and you, sir, are no fan of D&D." Not true. I'm just not a fan of games that daisy-chain sparsely detailed areas together and require you to run from one end to the other battling enemies pulled from the tired old passive-aggressive playbook. I don't want to go spelunking in dungeons where every corner's perfectly squared and every segment's implausibly flat as a pancake. And I really don't care for situations where, for instance, you clear out a bandit camp, trigger a script and then the bandit camp's suddenly—presto—full of bandits again. It has nothing to do with D&D, but rather the collision of tortuously detailed rules with a mediocre game engine and a dog-tired storytelling approach that—in 2006—no longer entertains the way it thinks it does.

If there's saving grace it's the toolset, which in the right hands may over time yield better community-driven adventures or clever ways of lacing together areas that make the game world feel less arbitrary and lifeless. D&D wonks, have at it—it's your every dream come true—but everyone else should take deep breaths and think twice about what they expect out of an RPG today, and henceforward.

Convincing hardened D&D'ers that their beloved system may finally have teetered over into fetish is like rolling boulders up a hill, but it is, in the end, the big problem here. It's easy to say "But it's a D&D game, so fidelity's a virtue." Too easy. If you really want computer-aided D&D, it's far more satisfying to grab a copy of Code Monkey's eTools and stick with your local haunts. —Matt