Monday, May 21, 2012

Neverwinter Nights Review

Neverwinter Nights is a CRPG developed by Bioware, first released in 2002. The version I'm reviewing is the Diamond Edition, which includes the three official expansions: Shadows of Undrentide, Hordes of the Underdark, and Kingmaker (though Kingmaker could hardly be called a true expansion).

     Neverwinter Nights (abbreviated NWN) is sometimes called the "ultimate RPG," and not without reason. This game may not be the best roleplaying experience of all time (that title is reserved solely for the original Fallout), but it does come pretty darn close. This game looks good, plays great, has strong sound, and is, most importantly, great gameplay.

     Lets begin with the technical stuff. First up is the graphics. As always, this is an area of infinite difficulty for me to review, because I know a lot of people like their games looking nice and I personally couldn't care even a little less about the graphics. But I'll try my best and cut to the chase: the visuals in Neverwinter Nights are 100% functional with a number of nice little "perks" (for lack of a better word). The character models in particular stand out. They can be rather blocky on even the highest graphical settings, but overall they're really quite nice. Shadows change depending on where characters are in relation to a light source (including distance, height, and direction), there are tons of different looking types and styles of armor, different races have different body builds, and so on. Furthermore, there are certain interaction elements that are cool, like how your character turns their head when you hover on an NPC you can talk to. The tilesets are also pretty great. How good they look depends on who made them and when, but overall they're nice looking. Probably the best thing about them, though, are how unobtrusive they are. If there are large pillars that extend to the ceiling, the top half will disappear when they would get in the way of your view (and you can change this setting if you don't like it). And last is "special effects" as I call them. This encompasses things like spells, explosions, and so on. And honestly, they look great. Spells are the most numerous of the effects you'll see, and they're really pretty nice looking. While a number are, at their most basic level, little more than flashes of light (as spells in games usually are), there are a number of more interesting ones as well. While they, like the characters and backgrounds, can be a little blocky, it's the mere attempt at something different that counts. Things like stone pillars rising from the ground, summoning black tentacles to slow and damage your enemies, and creating visages of terror that kill your enemies instantly are all examples of interesting spells in the game, and they look good. All in all, the visuals are solid; nothing absolutely amazing, but nothing bad either, and there are few little things (like the head turning) that make them stand out.

     Next is the sound. The music in NWN is good. Done by Jeremy Soule (a fairly prolific music composer), the tracks usually fit the setting quite well, be it a bustling tavern, a snowy mountain, a peaceful forest, a dungeon full of undead, or even the main menu. I personally am not a huge fan of Soule's music in general, but I can't complain. The music fits 90% of the time and rarely gets old. The other aspects of the sound are quite strong as well. The effects for everything from door bashing to trap springing to spell casting are all quite strong, and there are almost no overlapping effects for anything but spells. The voice acting is also strong. Though there are a few weak performances here and there, for the most part it is quite competent, and the large amounts of it in the game are impressive. All in all, it's nothing to lose breath over, but it's certainly nothing to disregard, either.

     So those are the technical aspects of the game, as far as your computer is concerned. But with kind of blocky visuals and only "good" sound, you must be wondering what makes this game so well loved. The answer lies in the game system. NWN is based off the Dungeons and Dragons ruleset, and once you play this game you'll understand why D&D is so popular. Everything is remarkably deep and complex, from the character creation to the combat to the item properties, but nothing is very hard to understand. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of NWN: it streamlines D&D to the point that even an RPG layman can understand and enjoy it. I can't really talk about it in great depth without attempting to explain the system, and that would take far too long. So I'll try to keep this simple and (relatively) brief, just going over the highlights. I'll start with the character system. There are two main aspects of characters: attributes (strength, intelligence, etc.) and skills (e.g. persuade, open lock). Put these together with the 11 base classes and 12 prestige classes, you have a lot of freedom to create your character. Like ninjas? No problem, multiclass as a monk/assassin. Want to play as a silver tongued Barbarian? Devote some stat upgrades to Charisma and toss a few extra points into Persuade. Don't want to spend a lot of time on character creation at all? Use the "Recommended" button during creation, or play as one of the pre-generated characters. The character system in NWN caters to a number of different types of gamers, and it does it well. You'll be able to succeed and enjoy this game whether you're a person who spends hours making the perfect character, or a casual gamer who spends a minute and a half to make their game-world avatar.

     Another thing the game pulls off really well is the inventory system. Inventory systems in RPGs are always taken for granted until they're done poorly. Clunky and hard to use inventory systems can be a real detriment to a game, even ruining it in extreme cases. Thankfully, though, Neverwinter Nights has a system you'll take for granted. Pretty much everything is drag-and-drop; can't get much easier than that. The game uses a grid based system (see the image below to understand what I mean), which makes for very easy organization. These things, along with some other small additions (a weight counter, containers for organizing/storing, etc.) really make for an easy to use and comprehensive inventory, which is a better thing than most people realize. Simply put, if you're a pack rat like me, rejoice.

     This actually leads into my next point; the interface. It's not just the inventory that's easy to navigate; it's the entire game. Moving is easy, whether you're using the mouse or the keyboard, and there are very, very few movement glitches or AI stumbles. Using/equipping items, spells, special abilities, or pretty much anything else in the game is made remarkably simple with three 12-slot quick slots, which can be accessed by clicking or using the F1-F12 keys. Handy radial "web" pop-up menus make examining, bashing, untrapping, and interacting in general with objects a breeze. One of the nicest things is that you have total control over the camera. Using the arrow keys and Page Down/Up, you can manipulate it pretty much however you want. And lastly, perhaps the most under-appreciated feature, is the pause function. While most useful in battles (I'll talk about them next), the pause feature let's you pause the game at anytime. Not that impressive, a lot of games have this. What's special, though, is that you can que actions and continue interacting with the game. If you want to see what enhancement that enemy has but can't because he's killing you too quickly, just pause the game first. See his status enhancements, plan your next few actions accordingly, and unpause. Nothing could be easier.

     The combat in Neverwinter Nights is unarguably awesome. The game designers took the turn-based combat of D&D and perfectly transplanted it to real-time. Everything is divided into turns and rounds, but it's all so fluid you'll never even notice. You have so much freedom in combat, whether it's to run away or change targets between attacks, that nothing feels "set" or restricted. One nice thing about the combat is the difficulty. In each of the campaigns, combats can range anywhere from extremely easy to way too difficult, but for most of the time they meet somewhere in the middle. Also, if a fight is a little too easy, you can amp up the difficulty in the options without having to restart, and you can take it down a notch if they're simply too difficult. Of course, even with this, the difficulties of certain fights will be different. Even on easy, you'll have to go all out and use all your buffs to win some fights, and similarly some encounters will still be a cinch on hard. Nearly all of the fights are reasonable, but the range provides a nice variety, and helps accentuate the important fights. Another notable accomplishment of the combat how intuitive it is, despite being so deep. You can pause at any time and plan out your actions, which means that the real time won't ever get too much to handle. I could say more, but there's really no need. Overall, an excellent combat system.

     And finally, Neverwinter Nights is also great for being almost as good a game platform as it is a game. NWN comes packaged with the Aurora toolset, which lets users make their own modules and campaigns. Of course, some minimal skill as a programmer will make the toolset much much easier to use, but it's not what you can do with the toolset that makes this an accomplishment. Rather, it's what other people have already done. Sure, it may sound ridiculous to talk about a game's online community when reviewing the game itself. However, I feel I can make an exception for Neverwinter Nights because a) it has a great, accessible online community and b) the game itself makes it incredibly easy to get new modules. That's what I want to focus on with this point, how easy it is to get new content. It's as simple as downloading and extracting into the appropriate folders, and voila! You now have new portraits, character models, or most likely new modules. For the modules, you then just access it in-game from the menu next to the campaign list. This isn't a major point, but it's worth mentioning, because the ease of getting new material and the fact that the community really brings out the potential of the game.

The NWN community is like finding a bunch of treasure.
     I'd like to make one final note, on the campaigns that come with the game. The quality of the campaigns and modules is Neverwinter Nights < Shadows of Undrentide < Hordes of the Underdark. The stories and modules get increasingly better with each expansion. On their own, though, the earlier two are still quite a bit of fun, and together all the campaigns will keep you occupied for several hours. As far as the stories in the first two go, they're little special - pretty standard "save the world" in each of them - but that's par for the course with RPGs. The first campaign has some interesting character development, the second campaign has a more interesting story (than the first), and the last campaign is much more "epic" and better told story than the others. I just figured I should probably talk about the campaigns a little bit.

     Neverwinter Nights may very well be the best "traditional" - that is, fantasy - RPG I've ever played, and that's saying something. It has a solid visuals and sound, a fabulous game system, a great interface, and approachable combat. What more could you ask for?
     Plot/Story: While the first two campaigns are fairly standard and lackluster as far story goes, the third campaign (Hordes of the Underdark) is a much more suitably epic story, and has more interesting twists and turns. While it's nothing particularly amazing, it is quite fun to see and experience. All in all, this one pretty far above your standard "save the world" fare, especially because if you play as an evil character you get the option to rule over one of the nine hells. The other two campaigns are enjoyable as well, if only in their scope.
     Gameplay: Rich, complex, and approachable at all levels, NWN really shines in this department, which is good because it's the most important one. An excellent character system, streamlined combat, and intuitive interface are all reasons why this game is a wonderful experience. Oh, and I didn't bring this up in the review, but this game also has an awesome multiplayer.
     Visuals: There's little particularly impressive with the visuals in Neverwinter Nights. I mean, it looks great for a 2002 game, but beyond some nice variations with the special effects, nothing is graphically impressive. That said, lighting is put to excellent use in several of the areas in all the campaigns, and there are a few visually interesting uses of the toolsets here and there.
     Sound: Well made, mood-fitting music, strong effects, and copious amounts of voice acting are the real draws here. Overall, it's nothing mind-blowing, but it's certainly quite competent.
     Game Content: Even if you don't get modules online (which you totally should), there's a lot of replay value in the campaigns, and each one is several hours long just by itself. This holds especially true for Hordes of the Underdark, in which the story significantly changes if you play as an evil or good character. Lots of content.

Overall: Neverwinter Nights is a great game. An excellent adaption of the D&D system, it's complex and approachable at the same time. If you consider yourself a fan of CRPGs, then you have absolutely no good excuse for not getting this game. Highly recommended.

Got feedback? Be it suggestions, requests, criticisms, or even <gasp> compliments, I read it all, so go ahead and post a comment!

By the way, the only reason the player character is so small in the screencaps is because I was playing as a halfling for those playthroughs.

If you're looking for a good fan-made module, then I suggest you start with this one. It really shows just how fun and innovative they can be.


  1. Replies
    1. Can't attest to that myself, since I've never played it. From what I've heard, yes it is, but it's also supposed to be buggy.