Review by DarthMuffin

Reviewed: 01/02/07

Technical issues overshadow this otherwise great game

Introduction

As the sequel to a very successful role-playing game, NeverWinter Nights 2 (henceforth referred to as NWN2) has a lot to live up to. Obsidian Entertainment was chosen to bring the sequel to life, as they were for Knights of the Old Republic 2 (KotOR2). It should be noted that most of the designers at Obsidian were from the late Black Isle company, who worked with BioWare, creator of NWN1 and KotOR1, on the acclaimed Baldur's Gate series. Thus, it can be expected from Obsidian to try and create a game that would both live up to its predecessor and add new features. On most levels, NWN2 does succeed in doing this. Unfortunately, some technical issues are just too apparent to forget.

Gameplay 8

NWN2 is a role-playing game. Being based on Dungeons and Dragons (3.5 ruleset), it also puts a lot of emphasis on the role-playing part (meaning that it's not all about mindless monster bashing which is common in most games that bear the RPG title). That being said, the official campaign doesn’t really show this (but I shall cover this later).

The heart of a Dungeons and Dragons game is to explore dungeons and unique settings with an adventuring party composed by characters of different races and classes. This is precisely where the first game failed, as it only gave you direct control over a single character (the "PC" - player character) and allowed you to drag a hench(wo)man around (the second expansion added a second). One of the biggest improvements in NWN2 is that fact that you now have an actual party. Even though they officially state that the game supports parties of 4 (1 PC and 3 NPCs - non-player characters), the official campaign is played for the most part with a group of 5 - and I have reasons to believe that this limit can be raised, so community-made modules could very well include the classic 6-man party. It should also be noted that you get direct control over the NPCs of your party. This is handled in a way similar to the KotOR games: you can only have a single character "selected" at a time, and you cycle through the other ones by clicking their portraits. Considering that there is a lot of micromanagement to be done, I found this to be perfectly fine.

There is also an influence system in place for your companions, which is very similar to the one in KotOR 2. Basically, your companions will like you more or less depending on the conversation choices you pick. When talking to them, they will be inclined to tell your character more things if they like you more. This is a very neat addition, which is similar to the romance system of Baldur’s Gate II (this time it doesn’t apply exclusively to romances though). Of course, this is entirely dependent on the scripted dialogues within the game; so it depends on whoever made the module and wrote the dialogues. Unfortunately, this is not developed extremely well in the official campaign. While there are plenty of opportunities to gain and lose reputation with your companions, there are generally not a lot of “locked” dialogues and even if a companion’s influence is through the roof, they won’t say a lot of new things if you talk to them “manually”. Still, it remains a definite improvement over the original, and helps to make the companions more interesting and unique.

The basic gameplay is pretty simple; similar for the most part to the other RPGs on the market. The active character can be controlled in a number of ways, depending on the camera setting. Basically, it’s either point and click like in the first game, or a “driving mode” that places you right behind your character (more like KotOR and World of WarCraft). Some people have criticized the camera a lot, but I honestly don’t understand why. It works exactly like in the first game for me. I guess people are just used to World of WarCraft by now...

Combat is rather straightforward, and there’s not a lot to say here. Clicking on the enemy will make you attack, and casting spells is done through the action bar or the quickcast bar (more on this later). One problem, which is inherent to the DnD rules and not the game itself, is that warrior classes don’t have a lot to do beside sitting back and watching. Fortunately in NWN2’s case, the fact that you have a party makes things more interesting as you will probably want to manually direct your companions (the AI being relatively weak). Once again, I must applause the addition of a party, since it really adds a lot to the gameplay value.

You create your character from a selection of various races and classes, from dwarf to elf and from wizard to warrior. This time, subraces have been added to the mix (such as sun elves, gold dwarves, deep gnomes, etc.). This leads to more customizability, which is always great, but this time it is really a necessity. The big problem with character creation is that, unlike in newer RPGs, the appearance of your character is still defined by a number of toggles (you have X number of available "heads" per race, for example). Normally, I wouldn't mind much about that (as I strongly believe that gameplay is much more important in a game than graphics or appearance). However, I simply cannot pass over it this time. The number of available "heads" and "hairstyles" is abysmally low. To further add to the problem, many of them are, quite simply, ugly as hell. Elves seem to take the lower end of things in particular. Some people would probably think that this is neat because it's not stereotyped; but in reality, it's simply contradictory with the lore that states that elves are supposed to be a graceful people. Apparently, they did draw inspiration from “official” artwork; but if any artwork is as ugly as that, I don’t understand how it could ever be published. I won't even talk about half-elves, who simply look like mongrels. As befits the target audience, humans seem to have the better models.

The basic DnD classes are all there, and they added the warlock to the mix. The warlock is a spellcaster/light warrior hybrid who draws his or her powers from “outside” (demonic) entities. Although it wasn’t really “needed”, I find that it is a neat addition to the mix. They also kept all the prestige classes from NWN1 and its two expansions except for the shifter and added a few more to the mix. Once again, it is a welcomed addition. Still, there are no prestige classes for arcane casters who wish to improve their casting abilities; mages and sorcerers who wish to focus exclusively on their casting prowess are forced to remain single classed (the only alternative, Pale Master, adding physical abilities more than anything else). There are already lots of prestige classes for warriors and rogues, as well as for various multiclasses, so it’s odd that the developers could not add a single prestige class for dedicated spellcasters (there are many such classes in the DnD system).

The classes themselves are not really balanced, but this is a problem inherent to the DnD system and the designers would probably have been beaten up by Wizards of the Coast if they tried to change the abilities of some classes. Bottom line is that NWN2 is more about adventuring with a party than doing some player vs player combat.

The main interface has been reworked. Aesthetically, it is much better. However, some things that you could do in the original are gone, of note the ability to assign party commands to the quickbar (which was turned in a World of WarCraft clone, as is the common trend these days). The inability to hotkey everything is a bit frustrating. However, some things were made better. There is now a quickspell bar, which can be shown or hidden by pressing a single key. This makes the life of dedicated casters considerably easier. There is also a “modebar” which allows you to quickly activate/deactivate stealth, search, tracking, etc.

Finally, the game makes an extensive use of a crafting system, akin to those in Knights of the Old Republic and World of WarCraft. Throughout the campaign, you will find many different components and materials, which can be turned into various items, ranging from sword to armour to ring, provided you have some ranks in crafting skills and feats. Recipes can be found in books, which is neat and immersive (although you don’t have to “learn” a recipe to use it; so if you know some by heart, you can use them with any character if you have the materials). Overall, this is certainly a nice improvement.

Graphics 7

The graphics in NWN2 are very beautiful – if you can get away with a decent framerate at the high settings. Notwithstanding the technical issues, the problem is that there is generally a big difference between high and medium settings, but a small one between medium and low. Of course you can tweak tons of individual settings to better suit your needs. But overall, it really feels like there’s high and there’s low. If you are into computer games exclusively for the graphics, the high options will more than satisfy you; but the medium and lower will not.

To make a long story short, the quality and performance of the game are not good enough for the system requirements. Many people erroneously compare NWN2 to Oblivion when it comes down to graphics; I won’t do the same mistake, as it is obvious that both games are really different (Oblivion seldom has more than 3 or 4 characters on the screen at the same time, whereas NWN2 commonly has more than 10). Still, the overall performance is not what it should be.

NWN2 doesn’t support dual cores (the toolset apparently does, but not the game). This is very strange since the system requirements are so high that they obviously expect the player to have a high end computer; and most new computers have dual cores. Apparently, this has something to do with the fact that BioWare still holds the licence for the engine and Obsidian couldn’t modify it to accommodate dual cores. I shall leave the legal mumbo-jumbo to professionals, but from a gaming point of view, it’s very disappointing; the end-user shouldn’t have to cope with the legal problems of the developers.

Basically, the game is badly optimised. And like I said previously, the video settings are mostly binary. The result is that you need one monster of a computer to get the shiny graphics with an acceptable framerate. Meeting the recommended settings is not enough for this (in fact, I am not even sure if the game would run at an acceptable speed if your computer only meets the minimum requirements).

Still, I find it a bit odd that the graphics of an older game like Knights of the Old Republic are not that far behind of those in NWN2 (and yes, I run NWN2 on quite high settings). NWN2 does look noticeably better than KotOR, but not by that much considering the big difference between the computer requirements. Also considering how small most of the areas are, I can only guess that there’s something wrong within the engine.

In the end, it all comes down to this. What they call the “Electron” engine is basically an updated version of KotOR’s “Odyssey” engine, which is an improved version of NWN1’s “Aurora” Engine. Still following? NWN2 runs on the upgrade of an upgrade of an engine. The whole thing feels wobbly, as if they had simply piled new stuff without caring much about what is beneath. Needless to say, I predict a disaster if there’s a NWN3 based on yet another evolution of Aurora. So please, developers, stop being lazy and make your on engines from scratch.

Sounds 6 (9 if you never played NWN1)

The sounds and the music are great. Really, they are. There’s one problem though: every single sound and most of the music tracks are straight out of NWN1.

NWN1’s music and sounds were great, so no problem there. The issue is that if, like me, you spent the last four years playing NWN1 a lot, you were really expecting a change – and rightly so. I think that it is extremely cheap of them, for lack of a better term, to simply import the sounds from the first game.

Story 8

It's not Baldur's Gate or Knights of the Old Republic. But it's certainly better than what we had in NWN1. The official campaign does deliver this time, and it's a very noticeable improvement over the original. Of a respectable length and with a decent number of side quests, the campaign feels more open-ended than that of the first game and its expansions. The addition of a world map (although it's quite small) adds a lot the classic adventuring feeling (which is definitely a good thing). Unlike in games like Oblivion, where your character is the overly used stereotypical unlikely hero who ends up saving the world, there's actually something special about your main character that somewhat forces him or her (gives him/her a reason) to go on adventuring. It's a pretty small detail, not as important as who your character is in Baldur's Gate or KotOR, but it's still very decent.

I have a few complaints about the official campaign. First off, it's still based around the city of NeverWinter. And no, it didn't have to just because the game is called NeverWinter 2; Baldur's Gate 2 wasn't set in the city of the same name. Although you won't recognise the areas you saw in the first game (it feels like the city was completely wiped and reconstructed, although only a few buildings were destroyed in the first game), it's still a bit of a shame that they chose to reuse the same setting. Faerun is a very big place, and not much of it was shown in computer games. A second problem is that it suffers from the "human fighter syndrome". Although the story is reasonably unique, the game generally assumes, through dialogues and possible options, that your main character is the classic human sword-wielding adventurer. There are not a lot of things one can do to improve this, as a scripted campaign is a scripted campaign after all. Still, more dialogue choices and perhaps a few sidequests tailored to specific classes (like the stronghold quests in BG2) or races would have been nice.

The official campaign is, for the most part, a hack and slash adventure. I fully understand that the designers need to please everyone with the game (and hack and slash games are more popular these days), but they simply overdone it sometimes. Entering what looks like a small house to kill some assassins turns up in an endless slaughter of dozens of enemies in a big complex. It’s fine once, but it gets old really quick.

There are also a few weird things that basically scream “the designers were lazy”. Whether you are in the big city of Neverwinter or a small village, you can enter very, very few buildings. Even merchants (well, the 2 or 3 merchants in Neverwinter) are just standing there in the middle of the road with no shop, waiting for you to turn up and browse through invisible stacks of items. Stinks developer laziness. A real shame, especially considering that building interiors are some of the most beautiful areas of the game.

Speaking of strongholds, the campaign will give a castle to your character at some point. Although I was disappointed to see that there is only one choice (it doesn’t make much sense for a druid to go and live in a big castle, yet you don’t have the choice; which further supports my “human fighter syndrome” theory), I must say that I really enjoyed this. You have a few select NPCs to whom you can give orders and jobs to improve your keep and train your soldiers. For instance, you can choose to improve the defence by upgrading the walls and build towers. You can ask your officer to focus on training your troops, or simply go for a swarm approach and recruit loads of rookies. Special events can also give a unique flavour to your keep. Overall, this small touch is very well done, and I can only hope that they will reuse it in expansions and that some player-made modules will use a similar system.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the campaign. Unlike that of the original, I can actually see myself go through it more than once. Despite some of the problems I mentioned, the campaign feels much more like the classic Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale (minus the epic size) than the original, which is definitely a good thing.

Replay Value 9

This is mostly an estimate based on what we saw for the first game, since NWN2 is too “young” to have a large assortment of modules and persistent worlds yet.

The campaign by itself has 4 different endings, and quite a lot of different companions that you will want to travel with. Since gaining influence with one often implies loosing some with another, you do have to play the campaign more than once to unearth everything the game has. Still, besides all of these improvements, I don’t think that NWN2 is meant to be bought exclusively for the campaign.

Most of the replay value will undoubtly come from player-created modules using the toolset, which are to be played either in single player or in multiplayer. Persistent worlds (like mini massively multiplayer online RPGs - MMORPGs) were particularly popular in the first game. One issue here is that players have to download a path file before playing modules online; so you can’t just drop in any online module anymore. That being said, the best multiplayer modules generally include a lot of custom content and the player pretty much had to have visited the website and downloaded some files before playing the module online.

Overall, the game should have a pretty long lifespawn if the community gets as developed as that of the first game.

Conclusion

NeverWinter Nights 2 is a great game on many levels. The big problems come from some technical issues (basically a horrible optimization and a few gameplay quirks). Still, there are some patches out even a month after release, and we know that the designers are actually looking into the game to improve and fix it (unlike many companies, Obsidian seems to care; at least for now).
Most of the problems seem to come from the engine; developers should really create their own engines, since all the legal gibberish that is involved in using someone else’s engine tends to generate average products on the technical side.

NeverWinter Nights 2 remains very fun, and the gameplay does allow for a lot of story-telling and role-playing potential, which is quite refreshing from the endless monster bashing that we see these days. Although the official campaign is not perfect in that respect, it is much better than that of the original and should appeal to more people. Where NWN1’s campaign was pretty much a “demo” of what one could do with the toolset, NWN2’s campaign is more a full fledged story.

Overall, the game could become terrific if the designers decide to do their homeworks and patch the game properly. An expansion that adds to the gameplay and character creation/advancement would also be welcome, as long as it doesn’t shake the already wobbly structure of the game.


Rating:   4.0 - Great

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