Take your time and get it right — NWN is an object lesson in not releasing it ’til it’s done
Bleary-eyed. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Roughly 70 hours (six days) after starting my Neverwinter Nights quest, I’ve emerged victorious. The bad guys are vanquished. The good guys prevailed. And I need some sleep.
Sure, I had to finish the game to get the review in this issue. But it took only about six hours of playtime before that objective became as much a gamer’s obsession as it did a job. See, Neverwinter Nights gripped me.
Its subtle design touches are blended with pants-wetting action sequences and special effects.
Central to its pull is a storyline as persuasive as any I’ve encountered in a fantasy roleplaying game. Unlike many RPGs of its ilk, progression isn’t about getting that extra experience level. While the quality of items, weapons, and armor continued to dazzle deep into this marathon, I was seduced by the tale. It was for the people of Neverwinter that I concluded this quest (spattered by the odd waking moment of game-journalist integrity), and it was for them that I was most happy at its conclusion.
Neverwinter Nights pulls off a masterstroke of balance. Without getting into the minutiae of its inspirations and brethren in this genre, let’s just say that for the pure game-minded, NWN sits right in the middle (and arguably atop) the triumvirate of RPG splendor consisting of BioWare’s own deep Baldur’s Gate II, Gas Powered Games’ stunning Dungeon Siege, and Blizzard’s monumental Diablo II. It’s as replayable as Diablo II, with a vast treasure chest of equipment and online play to indulge in. It’s a visual feast of effects that pushes it close (but not quite) to Dungeon Siege’s mesmerizing intensity. And it wends a tale of torment, salvation, and betrayal surpassed only in Baldur’s Gate II.
For starters, regardless of what “Voiceover Man” says in the cool black-and-white cut-scene intros to a couple of the four chapters — and even at the conclusion, referencing the debt to the “adventurers,” it was I that prevailed. Me. Ask anyone. I saved the damn day, with at most a Best Supporting nod for the cast of occasional henchmen.
Personally, I prefer a scenario in which I’m the hero — the only hero. Even Dungeon Siege lost its sheen after my character’s well-balanced skills placed him in the second row of my eight-man, two-by-four–formation wrecking crew. In NWN, your henchmen (just one at any time) serve to balance out any deficits in your skill set. My paladin picked the halfling rogue Tomi Halfgallows to detect and disarm all the trapped chests and doors. Later in the game I dumped Tomi (he was “dying” constantly, getting teleported back to the temple base) in favor of a slightly more buffed, lithe elven cleric. But the people cried out my name! It made me proud, and it made me want to turn the page.
By the Rules
Just like any other 30-harrumph-year-old male, I’ve got a few…cough…years of D&D under my belt, but I wasn’t au fait with all the 3rd Edition tweaks. No matter. NWN follows those rules where it counts (and casts them aside in favor of better game balance when it doesn’t), with all the engineering issues of initiative rolls and swipes to hit, spell-effect chances, saving throws, and the impact of feats buzzing away in the background. (By background, I mean a box you can size to your liking, in which multi-colored text doles out your hits, misses, damage, and death in its quiet way while you stare at the action and work valiantly with the hotkey buttons to make sure every opportunity to emerge alive is addressed.)
Coming to grips with this process does take a little while. I’d progressed a few experience levels before I was happy that my combat strategies were (a) easily accessible using the hotkeys, and (b) most effective to help me survive. D&D rules supply mondo info, and though I went through the game with a paladin who focuses on melee (with a few spell back-ups), I’d like to free Neverwinter a second time with a spell-caster, as it seems to require just a little more experience to survive right out the door.
Starting with any class is made relatively simple thanks to the game’s prelude, which trains you how to use the interface, how to fight, and how to recuperate. It’s actually a pretty long and involved process, partly setting the scene, partly pure training.
Eventually you emerge with a purpose and a personality. While the purpose is pretty clear from the outset, it twists enough to keep you curious: how your temperament holds up to the dialogue-tree selections with the NPCs is up to you. As a paladin, I did all the right things, and in most cases my politeness was rewarded. But on several occasions, getting information was so important that…well, no one was looking!
Decking out your character with the latest in adventuring fashions is a predictable trek through fantasy hardware: find a +1 sword; trade up for a +2 sword; get a magic shield; and so on. Most of these objects are found in the numerous dungeons, crypts, and caves, but can also be bought from willing merchants in each central town, and even manufactured with the right ingredients (see sidebar for details).
While each upgrade imbues a new sense of power, it’s all too easy to be humbled amid the onslaught of D&D’s monstrous compendium. Entering the Spine of the World area in Chapter 3, after dominating Mountain and Hill Giants and their Ogre Berserker companions, I was flushed with success. Rampaging into some cultist archers, I suddenly heard an ominous pounding of footsteps. All I could do was nod in appreciation and prepare for a reload as a huge Fire Giant, at least four times taller than even my strapping frame, lumbered around the corner, wielding a gargantuan flaming sword.
Saving anywhere is vital, but NWN includes some supremely valuable player aids to prevent you from getting stuck. Die amid a huge battle, and you can “respawn” back in the fray for a cost of gold and experience, with any damage you’ve already doled out still in effect. Better still, drop a vital plot item and you can recover it (for a cost) at the Divining Pool at the Temple. Between limitations established by strength and sheer capacity, inventory management becomes one of the biggest headaches in the game (if, like me, you’re a pack rat and don’t want to leave anything behind).
Fight the good fight
NWN is a D&D game, so the monsters are all D&D, but that’s no bad thing with so many expertly detailed enemies to fight. From goblins to orcs, ogres to frost giants, zombies to wererats, to huge dragons, you’ll face them all and discover your own cunning ploys against each. (As the paladin, the sense of power you feel upon entering a room of zombie warriors and bringing down the wrath of a Turn Undead, watching every one of them drop, is not to be missed.)
Combat, though technically turn-based, is no “he goes, she goes”: there’s always something to watch. Enemies move from side to side, dodge and parry, slash, and cast spells with fluid determination. Particularly when you’re passing from one chapter to the next, the difficulty cranks up and suddenly a slew of new spell effects cascades down in a rainbow of colors, glyphs, and runes that comes close (but again, not quite) to the visual splendor of Dungeon Siege.
Underscoring the action are music and ambient sound effects — by turns moody, chirpy, ponderous, and epic. Individual spell effects make you sit up and take notice, and you know to prepare for trouble when the bass booms and the visuals darken.
Aside from the story’s sweeping grandeur, NWN scores hugely in its details. Though there’s a critical path — and it becomes somewhat linear in the final push to conclusion in Chapter 4 — the side-quests always feel like they’re vital to the central plot. Even the “take x to y for z” quests seem to have real purpose. My paladin turned down rewards in gold, explaining that he was doing it “for the honor” (and scored a bunch of experience points in its place).
If ever there was a game that was so compelling that its “issues” were easy to overlook, this is it. I found the starting game tough, as I needed to progress partway down each branch from the central core to gain experience before approaching the final boss at the end of each area.
And I encountered a bug wherein, after saving a game with a henchman resting (to recover health), I’d jump to each location I visited, only to find said companion lying dead on the floor. (I had to reload an earlier saved game to get him back.) On a PIII 1GHz machine with a GeForce2 card, I experienced slow-down, particularly toward the end when spell effects were animating everywhere — though I know of people running NWN on much lower machines with nary a hitch. And occasionally, the dungeons’ use of tile sets felt repetitive.
But NWN’s single-player component alone is absolutely worth the price. That’s without taking into account the multiplayer game that’s already burgeoning online. With the vast array of game options, there’s something for everyone. While the DM Client has a tough interface to master, many players will be dedicated to doing just that for the pursuance of more dungeon-delving. The much-ballyhooed editor works beautifully, and we’ll be enjoying the fruits of the fan bases’ creations for months to come.
So the game took its sweet time getting to us, but now it’s obvious why. With adult humor that’s a little bawdy without being crass (“I wouldn’t mind having her pork chops on my plate at dinner tonight,” says one character), every last word of text is worth reading. During the course of my 70 hours I got laid, drunk, and resurrected; slayed giants; performed (successfully) as a defense lawyer; and caught the flaming end of red dragon breath.
But as I said, I prevailed. When I yelled at my paladin in the closing moments, “COME ON, GET A CRITICAL!” it was obvious I was sold, and you will be, too. NWN is a total package — a PC gaming classic for the ages.
— Rob Smith