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Review: NeverWinter Nights 2 (PC)

This is something of an early review as I’ve far from completed NeverWinter Nights 2, but I think I’m far enough in to be past the “first impressions” stage and I know enough about myself to say that this game is good enough for me want to play it through to the finish.

Despite my initial excitement over Neverwinter Nights when it was originally released, the game failed to capture my imagination. The lack of a full party system didn’t help, but the game on launch really only was doing lip service to the single player with a greater focus on multiplayer. Unfortunately, on the 3rd or 4th play through of the initial chapters of the game, the imbalances of certain classes in a multiplayer group were clear and the games challenge dropped considerably.

Further problems were created by the single player campaign’s toolset origins being very apparent, with many areas appearing vert boxy and samey. The ferocious danger presented by traps also meant that your character either had to have some thievery skills or have a thief in tow to handle such dangers. Alternatively, you could just have a mage blast the crap out of all the very, very frequent traps.

For me, NWN amounted to a lot of frustration and tedium in what should have been a delightful 3D rendering of the forgotten realms. Watching a lone fighter go through the motions of fighting multiple mobs soon got dull as there wasn’t the micromanagement of a full party to keep things busy engaging. Finally the single player campaign plot was dull and while it placed the character in the role of “hero” it was done in such an “everyman” unremarkable way, that I simply couldn’t engage with the protagonist in any real way.

Graphically, yes, the screenshots showed a game with a lot of visual promise, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be NWN with more polish but the same lack of depth. However, I was tempted to test the demands of the game against the might of my new rig, just to see how shiny it could be.

Fortunately, the early rumblings from the folk at Gamersoasis encouraged me that there was more to this game that just pretty graphics. The words “party” and “crafting” were mentioned, followed closely by “prestige classes.” That was enough for me, I wanted in.

So one trip into town and an expenditure of £29.99 later, I was ready to install the game into “the beast” that is my P.C.

First thing to note was that I had bought the DVD edition and, in so far as I am aware, that’s the only version available in the shops. Good, only one disk to install.

Installation was quick and painless, as was the patching of the game as well. Further painless updating followed, courtesy of a few game mods made by Luchaire to fix things broken in the game (like certain talents), balance weapons out (a nerf to Katanas, yay! and a boost to things like Spears, as well an option to use Spears with shields) and then I was ready to roll.

My first task was to set my game options. Resolution to 1280x1024, various settings to high, some to medium (like shadows, where I really can’t see the frakkin difference between high and med) and make sure the game uses hardware rather than software sound.

Then start game, select campaign and onto character creation.

There are a lot of options in character creation. You have 8 base races to start with, followed by choosing the various sub races avaliable. For exmaple: if you choose to play one of the Planetouched, your next step in the process is to choose what subrace you want either Aasimar or Tiefling. The race and subrace has a fair amount of bearing on your characters appearance, which you can customise further at the next step. There are quite a few options here, enough to spend some time customising your characters appearance, but not so many that it becomes a game in itself as in Oblivion.

There are twelve base classes to choose from, with the 16 possible prestige classes listed for reference. You can completely customise your class yourself or let the game select skills via a few different “package” options, one of which tailors the class towards becoming a specific prestige class at a later date. This latter option by no means predestines what prestige class you can choose, it just sets your skills and feats towards being able to choose that particular prestige class asap.

Alignment and ability score assignment follow, which should present no difficulties for anyone familiar with 3rd edit rules and then a few final bits of customisation follow before you are ready to begin. It is worth noting here that people who either bought the limited edition version of the game or were party to some sort of early pre-order scheme, will have bonus feats for their characters. These are unlockable in game using the console and debug commands. Personally I think early orders or purchases of special editions should mean the player gets lots of extra tat in the box, not extra stuff in game that advantages them above other players.

Once character creation is completed, you are plunged into the first cut scene before the tutorial begins.

The first thing to note is assuming you have graphics settings set to reasonably high, is how impressive things look. These are in game graphics being used to render the sequence and the lighting, shadows and animation are quite striking. The voice acting for Daeghun is good and his face is well animated considering these are in game renders. You’re given your first task by your adoptive father and the tutorial starts. At this point you can fiddle around with the camera, panning around, up, down in and out. Worth doing because you can then actually see that what you just saw rendered in the cut scene were in game graphics. The game does seem to do a good job of scaling how much detail it renders as you zoom in and out. Close camera views are more demanding for the machine and while they look great, don’t give you the best view of whats going on around you. Zoom out and set the camera to a more isometric view and it’s a lot easier to move around, as well as much less demanding on the P.C.

I also found that the desirable viewing angle varies depending on the environment. Inside most buildings, a more top down view is useful as the game can annoyingly render walls so they obscure your view. This rendering can be a little unpredictable and in buildings with long corridors, setting the camera so its nearer parallel with the ground so you can see further ahead, only to have the view obscured by a wall is frustrating. It doesn’t happen often and is easily remedied by adjusting the angle, but it does make me ponder what the “rules” are when the game renders things.

Outside and in the game world, for the rest of the tutorial (and also some handy exposition on the game setting and some key NPCs) the village of West Harbor is rendered in lush detail. The graphics nicely convey that the village is located in an area of swampland, but there is a since of vibrancy about the place as befits a village festival. Indeed, the general well being of the environment jarrs slightly with some of the dialogue you get but not to any great effect.

The tutorial is a painless afair (compared to the tedium of the one in NWN) and while there is nothing terribly taxing, there are a few simple puzzles. The way the tutorial takes you through the various interfaces and basic mechanics core to the character classes (fighting, spell casting and rogue skills) could be more intuitive, but it gets the job done. I would say the tutorial’s main use is in scene setting and establishing relationships with certain characters.

The game itself starts in the middle of fairly dramatic events, which I think would probably be somewhat confusing without having gone through the tutorial. Indeed, without experiencing the happy atmosphere of the tutorial, the start of the story proper loses some of its dramatis.

In the early stages of play, it should become apparent to the seasoned D&D PC gaming veteran that the plot writers are not covering any new ground. I’ll not give anything away, but parallels with Baldurs Gate are there to be drawn. Indeed in the laters stages of the game, certain story options are almost identical to those found in Baldurs Gate 2. The story is still good though and certainly far better than the horribly predictable plot of the first NWN.

While the tutorial and opening of the game gives you a party to control, you don’t get your first proper party member until some way in. After that, you start to acquire them fairly quickly until you reach the game max of 4. This is where NWN2 shines in game play terms above the original and, to be fair, the KOTOR games as well. More characters = more interactions = more story. Having the other party members debate, argue and generally babble at each other at various points, while you play peace keeper or maybe fuel the fires, really adds to the game. In a way, Obsidian’s experience with KOTOR2 here shows that they realise the best RPGs are the ones that are driven by the players. So despite having a solid main plot, they have gone to pains to have your supporting cast of characters push and pull you on each decision you make, just like real RPG players bitching about what to do next. Eventually you’ll have more than 3 companions to pick and choose from, so you can stick with the ones you like or the ones that fit best with the character you chose. For example: Paladins may have a tough time keeping more chaotic party members happy while retaining a “Lawful” alignment.

The game also opens up and starts to give more options about where you can go and what you can do in terms of quest. While there is a main plot to be followed, the game does give some options as to how you can go about it also some options in the order events can be tackled. The downside here is that a lot of the environments are very linear.

Compared to the Baldur’s Gate games, where you slowly uncovered the maps as you move round it, the NWN2 maps are clear to you as soon as you enter the area and a lot of them contain impassable terrain. So a journey to uncover the cave of the Lizard men in the swamp is in fact, follow the only available path through the swamp to the cave that is marked on your map while overcoming the obstacles (Lizard men) en-route. The sense of adventure is slightly lost, but the surroundings can be visually impressive. This isn’t improved much in towns where again, there are a limited number of locations you can visit. So rather than have every building enterable ala Baldur’s Gate, you can only visit those relevant to the plot.

This does limit the immersion of having an environment you feel you can fully interact with, but has the advantage of focusing the plot and also easing the minds of those players who worry about finding and doing everything without resort to a guide or FAQ. There is optional stuff for those who bother to look, but its not hard to find. While I do find myself hungering for the days of the myriad of sub-quests available in the Baldur’s Gate games, I do question the amount of time I have available to do these things. NWN2 definitely sets itself up as a game to be played through many times with many different characters, whereas the sheer amount of content in the Baldur’s Gate series meant that I didn’t get through each game more than once. From my experience with KOTOR, I find this is not a trade off I mind making if the story and gameplay are good enough.

And the mechanics of gameplay are good enough. Once you have got the hang of the camera, moving your characters around is easy and simple key presses let you know what you can and can’t interact with in the environment. Combat is fun and a big improvement over NWN by sheer dint of controlling many different characters in a fight. In combat, the character AI works reasonably well and all the characters will cast spells, attack targets, use items as they think is appropriate but not in stupid ways i.e. casting stinking cloud point blank on the party just because monsters are close. It’s not perfect though and even with tweaking the AI settings, you will still want to take a few actions into your own hands. Still there are a few nice touches, like a rogue will automatically try to disarm a trap if detected nearby or unlock a locked door you try to open. The downside of this is that during a fight you may find a rogue character disarming traps rather than helping their comrades!

While combat AI is fine, characters do seem to grind to a halt for no reason on occasion rather than follow the leader. This can be frustrating and I put this down to problems with the path finding engine. In addition the rest function has changed so that it appears to take very little time to rest. While you still need to be in an enemy free zone, resting to memorise spells or recover HP is much faster rather than taking 8 or so hours. Characters can stop and rest anywhere as well, with no need to visit an inn, which feels a little “console-like” in its approach. It helps give the game a faster pace, but is that really necessary in a P.C RPG?

The game control interface is fine and easy enough to operate. It isn’t remarkable, but no worse than the interface of NWN which bizarrely a lot of people seem to think was revolutionary in some way. More customisation of the UI would be nice and this may be possible through the toolkit. I’ve been spoilt by WoW I guess when it comes to a modifiable user interface. Keeping track of stuff in your character’s inventory can be a bit of a chore as well and a few options here for sorting would have been helpful, but again its not really different to what we’ve seen in previous D&D games.


Presentation 9/10
+ Detailed character animations, outfits and well realised environments.
- Unless you’ve a relatively modern graphics card, your P.C will struggle above the more basic graphics settings.

Interface 8/10
+ Fully 3D camera allows you to view the game from the best angle for any given situation.
- Menus can be a bit fiddly and targeting is not as intuitive as it could be. While many objects go transparent when obscuring the camera view, some don’t and this can cause problems.

Immersion 7/10
+ Interesting and absorbing plot so far, with a good use of secondary characters and is well contextualised with the setting of Faerun. Music adds to the atmosphere.
- Plot is a tad formulaic. Some of the outdoor environments are a little too restrictive and feel very linear. Music can be repetitive. Occasional bad voice actings jars with the otherwise polish of the game. Cut sequences can occasionally be sudden, jarring and spoil the pace of the game.

Gameplay 8/10
+ Good story mixed with fun tactical combat. Large number of different character choices gives a huge range of options. Dialogue options are sufficient to enable to the player to stick to their characters alignment.
- Combat can be repetitive and perhaps too easy with abuse of the rest option. There are still many quests that are resolved through either killing or fedexing.

Overall [not an average] 8/10

I feel that perhaps 8 out of 10 is a little harsh, as NWN2 single player mode is a great game and I’m not reviewing the multitude of options available through the toolset.

Reviewer’s Bias: The first NWN really disappointed me!
Overall I think NWN2 is a great improvement over the first game. While it could be more immersive, it offers a much richer roleplaying environment than the original which feels sterile by comparison.

Comments

Wow, very in-depth review :)

Confirms what I'd heard elsewhere that this is much more Baldur's Gate-like than the first Neverwinter Nights, though it still sounds quite flawed to me. Mind you, I'm a bit indifferent to D&D so I really preferred KotOR to its fantasy brethren... ;)

(would have commented sooner BTW, but forgot to add the group to my friends list - doh!)
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November 2006

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