Platform: Windows 98/2000/XP/Me, Mac OS X
ESRB Rating: T
Neverwinter Nights may well have been one of the most hotly-anticipated titles to be released in the computer game world in a decade, ever since it became plain that Daikatana was a hopelessly lost (and hopelessly lame) cause. The gang from BioWare have been racking up hits since the first appearance of Baldur’s Gate, including the sequel to that game, Icewind Dale (and its sequel), and Planescape: Torment (which needs a sequel). So when it was announced that they would be producing a video game that fully implemented the new D&D 3rd Edition rule-set, the gaming world began holding its collective breath. The hype that surrounded the game was the Holy Grail of computer RPG fans (and tabletop RPG fans) everywhere–they claimed to be attempting to create the perfect port of tabletop gaming into the digital arena. Such a claim took serious cajones, to be sure, but the consensus was that if it could be done, BioWare were just the guys to do it.
[ad#longpost]Countless delays and release date slips began to worry the public that the game was going to be another casualty of ambition–too big a project to be brought in on time or on budget, meaning it would get cut back, released full of glitches, or simply scaled down to a lesser product. But when BioWare’s publisher, Interplay, got testy about such matters, BioWare packed up their toys and went home. Suddenly, the future was very dark indeed. Interplay didn’t want to release the code to BioWare, but had no intention of releasing the game themselves (and as it wasn’t quite finished, probably couldn’t anyway). Several months and some legal wrangling later, and Interplay ceded the rights to Infogrames, who themselves had recently inked a deal with Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast to produce any and all future D&D related software.
So was it worth the wait, you ask? Gods yes. Combining excellent 3-D visuals, a deep (but incredibly player-friendly) user interface that allows for a horde of options in-game, a solid single-player adventure, and the tools needed to take the experience of hucking funny dice at your friends over pizza online, Neverwinter Nights has delivered on all it promised, and continues to do so even months after its initial release. A massive online community has already leapt into action to support the game on a scale unparalleled by any other title except perhaps Half-Life.
At its core, NWN is three products in one package: a single-player RPG with online multiplayer possibilities, a Dungeon Master client that allows you to run online scenarios for any and all you want, and a scenario builder comprised of the same tools used by BioWare to design the single-player adventure. In order to do the game justice in review, each of these products will be dealt with separately. It should also be stated up front that the game did not release without flaws (what PC game does these days?). But the gang at BioWare have worked hard to iron out the wrinkles, and have proven responsive to public pressure regarding a few unpopular “fixes” snuck in with early patches (particularly a security feature that did little but cripple the gameplay of legitimate users). So all discussion here assumes you are likewise enjoying the game updated to the most current version (a simple matter of a bit of time, especially easy with the game’s built-in updater).
The first, and most basic component of the game is what I will call the player component. This includes both the extensive single-player scenario included with the game and the multiplayer user interface. In short, the game looks and plays great. The move to full 3-D from BioWare’s traditional isometric perspective was most welcome, and adds a depth of detail and realism to the game that elevates its immersive character far above their previous RPG efforts. The innovative user interface makes it a simple matter to find the action option that you want and implement it, even in the midst of combat (though some choice hotkeys don’t hurt for the most commonly used abilities–and the game gives you twenty-four customizable hotkey slots to do with as you will). Interaction with NPCs sits slightly above the level of comparable titles, but still suffers a bit from the lack of depth that frustrates veterans of tabletop gaming, who want the freedom to interact with the inhabitants of the gameworld as they see fit, and not according to limited scripts. To the game’s credit, however, it does a better job than most in directing the dialogue tree based on factors like character race, class, and relevant ability scores (while this isn’t the first time such a method has been implemented, NWN does it quite well). Beyond these mechanical considerations, there is the simple question of scale. The single-player scenario comprises well over sixty hours of gameplay, and could entail double that amount, depending on how many side-quests and optional activities one partakes in. The game also includes an option allowing the export of your single-player heroes for use in multiplayer adventures, which is handy for getting a character caught up with those of your friends before setting out for adventure online.
The online play is where the second component of the game, the Dungeon Master Client, shines. Basically, this tool lets one person sit “behind the curtain” of the adventure online, directing the action of the villains (and sometimes the heroes, if necessary), adjusting difficulty on the fly, and even handling all dialogue and interaction with NPCs, if desired (neatly sidestepping the issue of limited dialogue trees and flat character interaction). This tool, too, is very user-friendly in its interface, making it a simple matter to master the basics of Dungeon Mastering online. However, mastering the basics may not be enough to present a truly memorable online gaming experience. The sheer pace of the action (and the utter unpredictability of player behavior) makes it a tricky business to keep up with what’s going on once the swords start swinging and the spells start flying. Running a combat encounter is more art than science, involving an ability to keep an eye on literally dozens of participants, as well as environmental factors, special abilities, ongoing magical effects, etc. Being a DM online is easy using these tools, but being a good DM online is going to take a little practice. Given the nature of gameplay, those that have little problem controlling massive armies in real-time strategy games will probably be the first to master the complexities.
And speaking of complexity, it is now time to address the final component in the NWN software–the world-building Aurora Toolset. This toolset, the same used to develop the game in the first place, provides an unprecedented level of creative control and flexibility to those that want to create their own scenarios. In order to do that, however, the toolset has a learning curve that’s nearly vertical. Once beyond basic dungeon-building (a few rooms, perhaps, with a few monsters in each and some treasure scattered about), building a scenario takes time. And lots of it. It speaks volumes that this aspect of the game has its own strategy guide, separate from the play guide and twice as thick. Some creators have complained that the scripting of NPC actions and dialogue is too limited, but with the ability to incorporate custom code in the decision trees of characters, those code-warrior types out there will be able to have a field day. But be prepared for some serious investment of time and labor. While the drag-and-drop tileset makes map construction relatively simple, there’s still all the consideration of light sources, creature behavior, treasure, traps, etc. The finished product will look stellar, no doubt, but some may be content to download the scenarios created by others (and there are well over a thousand of those already, ranging from bad to incredible, with more coming almost daily).
In short, if you’re a hardcore CRPG fan or you’ve heard the phrase “roll for surprise” more often than your given name, you should already own this game. If you don’t, you’re missing out. Nobody’s ever come this close to the experience of pencil-and-paper roleplaying games. The online community makes the game instantly more valuable, as there are hundreds and hundreds of potential hours of gameplay out there for the taking as soon as you complete the included scenarios. This game looks to set the standard for a long time coming, and it will be quite a while before anybody even bothers attempting to unseat it from its status as King of the Hill.