Neverwinter Nights 2 feels like a new Baldur's Gate game. For some of you, that's all you were looking for in a NWN 2 review, so I put it up at the beginning. That way, you don't have to read the rest and can go out and buy the game right now without delay. Any generous donations on your part as reward for this service can be directed to my secretary.
Jerky, jumpy sights
The first hour playing Neverwinter Nights 2 is an open-ended, branching endeavor meant to test your limits as a game player. Unfortunately, none of this content is actually part of the game design. It's all on your PC user interface as you play with sliders, settings, and even possibly initialization files or registry settings.
Unfortunately, having a great system with dual-core processors, SLI video card setups, and cutting-edge memory speeds doesn't mean much when it comes to NWN 2, because you're going to be playing with system settings for at least an hour while you try to get a manageable frame rate. I know it hurts to turn graphic options down after you spent thousands on the best hardware you couldn't afford, but NWN 2 is chaotic evil and you're a town peasant. As of the time of this review, no system can run this game at its top settings with ease. Frame rates are low and stuttering is present more than it's not, even though the graphics aren't any better than anything else on the PC market. Hopefully the culprit is just rushed programming and there will be a patch to fix these issues in the near future.
The most immediate change from the first Neverwinter Nights is the user interface. No longer will you frustrate yourself with an unorganized radial menu system, because NWN 2 features a more accessible, traditional pull-down menu. The action bar at the bottom of the screen is better designed with smaller buttons and more visible hotkey assignments. The irritating Diablo-style size-based inventory is gone and replaced with a simple uniform inventory only restricted by your character's encumbrance, though the multiple inventory bags are still graphically separated by frustratingly small tabs. But if you're not a fan of the new interface, you can change it, because NWN 2's interface is customizable through XML programming.
The first game's treasure-finding system of humping endless rows of empty boxes and chests is replaced in NWN 2 by the user's ability to press a single button to light up any lootable items on the screen. The often manually controlled camera from NWN1 is still here and it's made worse by the game engine's ability to render hills, slopes, and other terrain transformations that usually just get in your way.
The included campaign starts slowly; however, interest and pace pick up within a few hours as you move beyond typical beginner tutorial tasks to dark dungeon crawls and boss battles. The story is your standard fantasy fare, including early "sigh" moments such as a dwarf that loves to fight and an elf druid with a love for all living things. (Is there a count yet on how many RPGs start off with your hometown on fire?) Tradition eventually steps back for good old unpredictability, party member drama, political backstabbing, and other knee-slapping good times. The narrative is certainly far more interesting than the desert-dry sleeping aid of a story in NWN 1, and all of the story is made more dramatic by the use of the same dialog camera techniques found in games like Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire.
The most interesting moments will come when your computer-controlled party members disagree with your actions or dialog choices. If you're a chaotic evil assassin, your lawful good paladin buddy might take issue with you nonchalantly slaughtering his family. Branching dialog options further the character-driven narrative, and there is plenty of entertainment in trying to maneuver through dialog trees by mainly lying, bluffing, intimidating, or bullying. What happens when an ally catches you in a world-changing lie? What happens when he believes it?
Unlike the original's much-loathed henchman system, NWN 2 allows you to have a full party of up to four. You have full control over all of their in-combat actions, though you can also leave them in Puppet Mode to have the computer play them for you. As with most RPGs, it's wise to form a party full of characters with unique skills to round out your party's overall ability. Each character has his own inventory; though, gold is shared in a pool so you never have to worry about a lawful ally peacing out with some of your fortune after you burn down a house for fun. Unfortunately, your full party can often become a burden when the game's spotty AI gets a party member stuck behind a tree.
Multiplayer is the focus, but your group of friends will probably quickly tire of the campaign. Coming to the rescue is an included tool set used to create custom scenarios and mods. Anything that's in the original campaign can be recreated. If you and your friends are all about slaying armies of dragons that never stop coming, have fun. If you want your friends to try and solve puzzles or mysteries in a complex, branching storyline, make one. Everything is possible, and lengthy sessions of multiplayer fun are guaranteed.
Does it hit new heights?
Though this game is superb, there are, of course, flaws. The campaign isn't particularly difficult, and you may find yourself effortlessly felling bosses without giving a single direct control to your party members. Teammates that lose all of their HP are instantly resurrected without penalty after combat ends, and you can often hit the Rest button to fully heal between every skirmish. (Luckily, the included tool set will guarantee thousands of user-created scenarios that will hopefully pose more of a challenge.) But worst of all is the fact that non-hostile NPCs and innocent townsfolk are no longer attackable, resulting in evil actions being only dialogue or scripted action choices rather than indulgence in your everlasting lust for defenseless villager blood.
Beyond those quibbles though, Neverwinter Nights 2 is the game Infinity engine fans have been wanting for years. While the story can't hold up when compared to Planescape: Torment and the combat isn't as complex or varied as Baldur's Gate 2, NWN 2 is as close as we'll likely ever get to the standards set by those games. At least until the next spectacular Bioware or Obsidian release.
· · · Eric Williams