Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: Neverwinter Nights 2

Probably one of the most hyped titles of the second half of 2006, Neverwinter Nights 2 has been anticipated by a large number of... well... nerds. But will it live up to their often unattainable expectations? And can somebody who's never even held a D20 get into it?

You've probably read the now-pulled review that gave Neverwinter 2 a 5/10 on 1up. I know I did, but I'm trying not to let that predispose me to one way or the other for this review.

The important thing to remember about NWN is that, out of the box, it's really a toolset first, and a "game" second. Sure, it comes with a campaign, but what made NWN 1 such a sensation was people making their own modules and campaigns for it, to let others play.

The short story is, if you liked NWN 1, you will like NWN 2. If you didn't like NWN 1, you probably won't like 2 either. For 2, basically the developer made some incremental improvements to 1.

The big draw, first and foremost, is that it is an extremely versatile system for playing a Forgotten Realms D&D campaign without having to lug around 40 pounds of source manuals and a sock so full of enough varieties of dice that you could brain a moose with it. It's all about your characters and the stories, etc you put them through.

Let's get into my gripes about it, though:

1) Although the limits on the camera angles have largely been removed (you can actually see the goddamn sky this time, if you want to), the camera and movement controls are still archaic and a little awkward. A lot of people complained that NWN1 could only be played top down and zoomed way out, and I was one of them. I even wanted a first-person perspective. Well, we don't quite get that in 2, but it is a step in the right direction. However, the camera controls and movement controls are still all operating from the assumption that you are going to play watching the action from 90 feet in the air. Even in the new "Drive camera" mode, controlling the view and your character's movement from down in the action is clunky and prone to overcorrecting, and when close to your character, turning the camera is excruciatingly slow. Not enough time was spent getting the game to be enjoyable from a more immersive perspective, despite the models having higher polygon counts... speaking of which...

2) If you thought some of the face models in oblivion were ugly, wait till you get a load of these lumpy-sack-of-potato-faced models. I don't know who they got to make the models for their humanoid characters, but they need to beat him within an inch of his life with a crab mallet. They'd have been better off using the older, low-poly-count models from NWN1. I can appreciate that more detail now goes into my character and those around me, but when the highly detailed face of every single person in the game looks like they just tried to perform cunnilingus on a beehive, there's a problem.

3) The big draw of the game is supposed to be playing it with your friends, but the official campaign that comes with the box is extremely unfriendly toward multiplayer, unlike NWN1. While the campaign is allegedly "longer and more epic," the game almost seems to be going to special pains to ignore the fact that there is more than one protagonist. NWN1's campaign had special coding in all their npcs to change dialogue where appropriate to reflect the nature of your party, but NWN2 does not. Much more annoyingly, other players cannot do ANYTHING while any other player is talking to an NPC. They all stand still, can't talk, can't get in their inventory, can't view their character sheet, nothing. Additionally, any faction hits or alignment changes affect only the "speaking" player and none of the others. Many a big strike against multiplayer, which is supposed to be NWN's strong suit.

4) The AI for the NPC groupmates is often dumb as a post. Many times a fight has started and one of my "allies" either stood there doing nothing, or ran into the next room, drawing the attention of even more enemies, which then consequently slaughtered us. The dumb tiefling rogue girl is especially bad about this, though the dwarf has his "moments" as well. The casters are particularly bad about running into a doorway and standing there casting, thus clogging up the path for anybody else who might want to get into the room.

Now, it's not all bad. Here are some of the good points:

1) The world is much more world-like. It doesn't look so "assmbled from tilesets" like the first one, at least outdoors. Indoors it still does, but that is to make it easy for the layplayer to design dungeons and stuff, and it isn't a big problem.

2) A lot of people have complained about technical problems playing the game, but I can't say I've experienced any. Maybe it is because I have an ATI card and the complainers all seem to have NVidia. Sure, the game taxes your system a little, and if you alt-tab out it will crash, but other than that I haven't ever had the game exit without my instruction to do so.

3) From a single player standpoint, the included campaign isn't bad, abarring above concerns. The story is similarly engrossing to past bioware fare, though after you play these games for 20-someodd years you often can predict what is going to happen next. That's not really the game's fault though... more our fault for being RPG nerds. For all the hype, it isn't "Longer and more epic" than NWN1's, but the plot is acceptable, and the ending leaves you hanging a little less than NWN1's did... but only just.

4) For all my griping about the multiplayer, it's pretty easy to just set up a server and get your buddies in on it with you. You start the game, your friends connect to you, and bam, you're on your way. Including the option for Direct connect via IP address was a sound decision on the developer's part.

5) The game lets you have as much or as little of the "behind the scenes" dicerolling and character building as you want. It will show you all the "rolls" that go into deciding what happens in combat, and just like in NWN 1, complicated things like attacks of opportunity, saving throws and other rolls are all handled seamlessly, automatically and transparently. Plus, if you're not into lovingly crafting your character's unique skills, feats, spells and talents... there's the handy dandy "recommend" button which will automatically get you the best cookie cutter stuff to make for a good adventuring character.

6) A vast improvement over past bioware titles is the new death paradigm. If a character is KO'd in combat, they fall down. If it is you, you fall down and you can switch easily to another character in the party to control directly. If everybody in the party gets ganked to 0, it's game over and you have to load a saved game or start over... but here's the difference: If even one party member survives to the end of the fight, the others (even you) get groggily up to their feet as if merely shaking off a terrible hangover. Sure, they'll be at 1 hp, but it's a far cry better than having instant game over for the protagonists' death or having to haul a body (and all that body's gear) to a temple to get him revived, or even having to return to base to get your henchman revived. Definite kudos for a progress-friendly method of handling death.

Well, that's about the size of it. As I said at the beginning of the article, if you liked NWN 1, you'll like 2 (and probably like it better than 1). If you didn't, probably safe to steer clear of this one. It's definitely a niche game, but members of that niche will gobble it up.

Rating: B-. And that's the word from Bandit camp...

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