Not to sound like a whiny game reviewer, but this was a tough game to review. For starters, I didn’t play Neverwinter Nights I, nor Baldur’s Gate I or II, nor Knights of the Old Republic I or II, or really any of the other games from Bioware in this vein, at least not any great amount. I own most of them, and many of them are even installed on my hard drive right now, but in the life of a game reviewer you frequently find yourself unable to find time to play games that you’re not actually reviewing. That’s my cross to bear, and it’s going to make it downright impossible for me to form useful comparisons to anything other than Oblivion. The other thing that made this game very difficult to review is that Obsidian keeps patching it, three times I think in the last week alone, one of those a monster patch of over 100MB thank heavens for broadband. So while right out of the box I found the graphics frame rate plenty stuttery, even with many of the effects turned down, and the camera was an unworkable pain in the buns, patched as it stands now I’m running relatively smoothly on both fronts (though perhaps the camera could stand even a little more tweaking). So problems I mention that I came across while playing may well not be a problem when you go to play it because Obsidian is apparently devoted to patching it all up (either that, or they’re feverishly duct taping a game they released too early, depending upon your viewpoint). Finally, this game is big at around the 20 hour mark I don’t even know how big but judging from the map I’m kicking around on and the percentage of it I’ve presently covered, I’m probably about the 30% of the way through. This is the Xmas gaming season, and I’ve got a stack of games to review that 20 hours is going to have to suffice. If the game falls apart in the 21st hour, you’re not going to get to read about that here. Right around now my editor is probably looking for a teaser line that he can put on the front page to attract readers, so here it is: As a guy who played a fair amount of pencil and paper RPGs in my youth, but not many of the recently released computer RPGs, I’ve never seen a game that more faithfully reproduces that old pencil and paper feeling than NWN2. Want to read more? Now’s your chance.
That pencil and paper feeling begins from the very first with character creation. You have to pick your race, your class, your alignment; there are stats to adjust (strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, all the usuals), skill to assign. You can pick your gender, hair color, style, voice, alignment. You can choose to go multiclass (though technically you don’t have to make that choice until you are second level, but I knew from the first that I was planning to go multiclass and it effected some of my initial character generation choices). There are also a number of prestige classes that you can angle for. And while on the whole I’m not typically a manual-reading kind of guy, I spent more than an hour with the hefty 140+ page manual, not so much learning to play the game (indeed there is an in-game tutorial and the controls are more or less standard to this type of game), but to kind of plan out what I wanted my character to become. Character generation is serious business in NWN2.
Into the adventure you begin as a nobody (don’t you always?) living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere going to the town fair with some friends. The fair serves mostly as the tutorial, teaching you the fundamentals of shooting, brawling, casting, searching, disarming traps, etc. Of course it’s not long before the fair is upset by interlopers who are searching for “something.” This “something” quickly becomes the plot train, and I’ve been on it ever since. In your travels you can pick up other characters to form a party of up to four. The first several ones that you come across are fighters, not spellcasters, so if you chose your character as a fighter as well your party is going to be unbalanced for awhile. I restarted the game several times using different characters, but the first ones you meet on the road are always the same, so the game clearly is not adjusting for your choices. These characters are well fleshed out with quirky dialog and interesting personalities if a little stereotypical (ever seen a brawl-hungry dwarf?).
There are a number of things that stand out to me in sharp contrast to the gameplay of Oblivion. For one, the world is broken up into little modules, so instead of the sort of raw wandering around that you could do in Oblivion you select a location on a map and instantly (actually the time it takes to load the module off the hard drive) travel to that location. That’s not to say that you can’t wander around within that module and see what you find, but the modules typically contain only a single neatly packaged mini-adventure and as a result the world seems smaller (though that may not actually be the case). So you can travel to the graveyard, or the abandoned mines, or the bandits hideout (or not), and you have a fair idea of what you’re going to find when you get there. I liked the wandering of Oblivion more it felt more spontaneous in that you never really knew what you might find over the next hill or in the next valley. The other major difference is obviously that you have a party to adventure with instead of going with a solo character, but NWN2 took that concept one step farther. Your behavior (by which I mean the behavior of your primary character) can effect how the other characters in your party behave towards you. Certain alignments don’t get along well, such as lawful good and chaotic evil, so if your character acts in an evil way, you might piss off the good members of your party. Also, being a good character and yet performing a number of evil acts will cause your alignment to actually shift in the game, with the other members of your party reacting to that. I’m not sure it could break up the party, but I’ve angered my lawful companions plenty with my chaotic misdeeds, and while it doesn’t seem to actually alter the storyline, it does change some of the interaction dialogs.
With a simple multiple choice mouse click interface you interact with characters, accepting or refusing side quests, graciously accepting or violently demanding or refusing payment for their completion. There are a large number of them, some taking only a few minutes and some taking considerably longer. You can select the individual members of your party and given them instructions. You can even pause combat and give them up to five instructions in a queue. Or you can choose to let the AI run them. The AI for the most part does OK, but it has a nasty habit of lobbing area effect spells into combat thus injuring your melee fighters, and it sometimes seems to just stand there for awhile at the beginning of combat with no idea what to do with itself. Oh, and in dungeons, it tends to run ahead to attack enemies traipsing over whatever traps might happen to be in the way. I found that letting the AI do its thing with a little cat herding on the side worked for me.
Multiplayer is very simple to run just log into a free Bioware account and look at a list of all the games being played broken out into a number of group like ‘action’ and ‘role playing’. The primary multiplayer game consists of the single player storyline played cooperatively. Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least) is that very few people are doing that online, and the ones that are seem to be doing it with friends (in password-protected servers). Most of the online playing is instead sort of beta testing various modules that people are busily making using the provided construction toolset. I didn’t play with the construction toolset much that’s really not my thing but judging from the dozens of modules already in play it is clear that the user base is going to create a significant number of their own adventures, much as I understand they did with NWN the first.
The graphics are good, but not outstanding, even on the highest detail levels, and the web is rife with complaints about people who are finding the system requirements far too steep for comfortable running. Once again the όber machine came through for me without a hitch. The camera, though improved in this last patch, still has problems indoors where you find yourself constantly fiddling with it to try and see things without running into the corners or clipping in the ceiling or staring at the back of some character’s head. Outdoors the camera seems to work just fine. Sounds, especially voice work, is far above par, with boatloads of recorded dialog, good scripting, and passable accents.
Keeping in mind that I didn’t play NWN1 (or the host of similar games released recently), I was pretty impressed with NWN2. The adventure is rich and detailed, the D&D freak can go positively orgasmic with statistics, and the user community is undoubtedly going to create nearly limitless modules for the less-initiated among us to explore and experience. People who did play NWN1, who might see NWN2 as too similar I can’t speak to that. But taken as its own game, reviewed not as a sequel but alone (which is as I hope I have made abundantly clear the only way I can review it), it brought back some happy pencil and paper nerd memories.