This game has several facets. You can play Neverwinter Nights as a normal roleplaying game and complete the 'official campaign'. You can play online and share the fun with friends. Added to this the package includes a Toolset for making your own adventures. You can share them with others too and even play the Dungeon Master via the inclusion of yet another component. The options are impressive, and very tempting, but sadly I just don't have the time to organise online play. So this review is for people like me and covers only the single player or official campaign.
Neverwinter Nights is the latest offering from Bioware of Baldur's Gate renown. As I enjoyed Baldur's Gate immensely I was holding my breath for this one. I was expecting really big things although I had some reservations because I knew it was designed more with online play in mind. I wondered if the single player mode would suffer the poor sister syndrome.
Then I heard about the 'Henchmen' companions that accompany you on your quest. Red lights flashed furiously. For me the word 'Henchmen' conjured up images of ultra macho minders with more brawn than brains; around simply to help you plough through your opposition. I didn't look forward to consorting with brainless bullies.
Well I needn't have worried too much. I suppose 'Henchmen' here is used in the truer sense of the word, to mean 'retainer' or 'helper'. The 'Henchmen' come in both genders and they aren't bulldozers as I imagined. However they are only 'retainers' you simply hire them to help out and, for me, they were the weakest aspect of the single player game because they never wholly felt part of the team and I didn't get to know or care about them as much as I did my companions in Baldur's Gate, for instance. More about this later and, just to put your mind at rest, Neverwinter Nights is a thoroughly enjoyable game just the same.
In Neverwinter Nights you control a single character. Although you can hire a Henchman (there's a choice of six of various classes) you can only take one at a time. Hence your party consists of a maximum of two characters plus, perhaps, a familiar if you are a spellcaster, and any summoned creature. If you insist you can play the game entirely with a single character and, indeed, this might be possible on the 'easy' and even on the 'normal' level, but the two more difficult levels would surely prove a bit of a challenge. I played on 'normal' and for some of the time I went solo and for some I hired help.
At the beginning of play you can pick up an existing character or roll your own. Character creation is a simple step-by-step process from choosing gender through to race, name, class, alignment, skills and magic spells (if you are a spellcaster) etc. etc. If in doubt you can select the 'recommend' button and apply the suggested 'package' for that particular option. It's very easy and all the information you need to make the various choices is right at your fingertips. At the click of the mouse button you can read all about the proficiencies of various races and classes to help you decide, and you can study the available spells to see what looks best.
Then it's time to test your creation so press the start button to view the introduction and learn that a terrifying plague, the Wailing Death, is threatening to wipe Neverwinter off the map. It's not looking good so Lady Aribeth has called for volunteers to sort things out. You turn up at her special request and the game begins in the Academy where you must prove yourself worthy of the task.
The Academy just happens to be the your personal training ground to learn the basics of the interface and to get in a bit of practice with your sword or spellbook, or lockpicking prowess, or whatever. Here various tutors give you good advice, whatever your class ... and there's also some hands-on instruction in trading by the resident merchant. So pass the initial 'test' (or complete the tutorial) kit yourself out, and the Academy will be raided and you get your first taste of what's to come.
Primed and ready to go you begin the journey and Lady Aribeth will inform you further on what needs to be done. The group of creatures she had 'collected' in her endeavours to concoct a cure for the Wailing Death have all escaped. So finding them is on your list of tasks as well as uncovering the source of the pestilence and who (or what) is behind it, and the story spins out from there through three sizable chapters and a final fourth chapter which isn't so long, but has some colossal fights that set me back a bit.
The story is traditional fantasy fare with some unexpected twists and turns and it's long and complex and very satisfying. As usual there are many side quests and they seem to fit well with the pathway of the story so it doesn't feel like you are taking too many lengthy detours on the way to your crucial destination. You don't have to complete all the minor quests but each of the Henchmen has a personal story to tell and a personal quest to fulfil, and it's advisable to keep them happy if you want to keep them around.
The quests in Neverwinter Nights come in all shapes and sizes. There are numerous lost people and items to find, mysteries to investigate, and a long list of 'heads' to separate from their owners. I don't remember carting around so many severed heads before in a game; one character even set them on poles as I served them up to remind me of my deeds.
There are some real heart-wrenching tales to hear from the locals too. They often involve finding lost friends and family. War and pestilence have devastated Neverwinter and all manner of evildoers are on the prowl, so even if these quests are completed satisfactorily they might not have a happy ending. I was devastated that I couldn't rescue some children from a diabolical fate ... and should I deliver the terrible news to their mother? There's also a whole village of children who've met a fate worse the death and you must decide whether or not to 'deliver' them. Another interesting quest requires you to interrogate witnesses and jury members and deliver the verdict at a trial, and you'll face a werewolf in yet another quest, and dragon or two.
Of course fulfilling most of the quests entails a good deal of fighting but this is tempered by a lot of fascinating exploration and you won't get far very fast if you don't talk to people and listen to their advice, and read the numerous books to pick up on crucial clues. There are also a few quests where riddles give the answers and sometimes you know you need particular objects to set magical contraptions in motion or vanquish particular foes.
As with other Bioware games Neverwinter is a third person perspective game and is largely mouse controlled with keyboard alternatives for just about everything except targeting and interacting with the game world. Combat is streamlined with a quickbar with 12 slots (expandable to 36) where you can assign actions, weapons, spells, etc. So by simply selecting the relevant slot (or pressing the relevant key/s) during combat you can change weapons, cast spells and gulp potions. Pressing the space bar will halt the action at any time for you to review your tactics.
Of course, you are likely to have a trusty Henchman along to give you a hand and this worked reasonably well in the beginning of the game when the combat was easy (sometimes I simply continued exploring while my Cleric or Barbarian did the dirty work) but later on problems arise. Unfortunately you don't have a lot of control over your companion. You can't equip them or involve them in any finesse, you can only give them simple orders, 'stand your ground', 'guard me', 'use melee weapon', or whatever. Then once combat commences they're not open to more intricate tactical suggestions, they won't change weapons to suit the situation. Once my Barbarian helper wasn't open to suggestions at all and he stood by whilst I got beaten to a pulp, and sometimes in dangerous terrain in melee mode he ran headlong into the action and got a good hiding, or (in range mode) hung back with his bow and let the hiding come to him because he wasn't ideally equipped.
I found this aspect of the game very frustrating, just keeping my Henchman alive was sometimes a trial. It was also frustrating when my helper wouldn't let me sneak around because of his need for action. I didn't want to kill all the innocents in the Heart of the Wood, but he did. At these times and others such as when you know your opponents are invincible, it's best to dismiss your companion and go it alone so that they don't commit suicide. Not even 'stand by' mode curbed the Barbarian instinct to attack. Maybe Daelan wasn't exactly the bulldozer I expected, he had honour, but he didn't always think and he didn't always compliment my weaker Wizard as I'd hoped. In fact, even though they had some entertaining stories to tell, I found the lack of control over the Henchmen distanced me from them, and their on-screen portraits are measurably smaller so that they feel less significant. All things considered they don't invite trust or extra tender care, especially as they are simply given a new life if they come to a sticky end. Not a miracle that encourages you to look after their welfare at all costs and treat them as a real 'player'.
So I repeat, the handling of the Henchmen wasn't the best part of Neverwinter Nights, and I have a few other complaints. It was disappointing, for instance, that you could rob people blind in their own homes, and even destroy their furniture, without them batting an eyelid. Also, in situations like in the Heart of the Forest where I avoided annihilating everything in sight, I didn't feel that my honourable actions were acknowledged. In fact I felt penalised because I was missing out on extra experience points. I also felt that the on-screen text was too small but I did get used to this after a while.
Well that's my complaints over and done with ... Neverwinter Nights isn't perfect. But I nevertheless had a great time on this journey and it's kept me well and truly entertained for the past few weeks. The graphics are excellent, the new 3D engine and music contribute greatly to the atmosphere, and the mapping and journal functions keep you right on track. Also you have the option to control the camera in three different ways and there is a handy function to zoom in on the action, which I greatly appreciated. I have to say that although I do fervently wish that the game had been based on a traditional party system, my wayward helpers never deterred me; I always had the urge to continue. The story kept me very happy; the questing was engrossing ... even now I have the urge to dip into it again ... but unfortunately not the time!
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2002.
All rights reserved.
Minimum: Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP for server/client; Linux for server; (Mac OSX pending in future) (note that 95 and NT are not officially supported, though the game may run for some users in NT) Processor: Pentium© II 450 MHz or AMD K6- 450 MHz, Memory: Windows 98/ME 96 MB, Windows 2000SP2/XP 128 MB, Hard Disk Space: 1.2 GB of install space is required, CD-ROM Drive: 8x or better, Video: 16 MB TNT2-class OpenGL 1.2 compliant video card, Sound: Any Windows 98/2000/ME/XP compliant soundcard, DirectX: DirectX© version 8.1, Keyboard, Mouse, Multiplayer (not required): Connecting as a Client - 56k Modem Server Hosting 3 or less players (including server) - 56k Modem
Recommended: Windows 98, ME, 2000 or XP for server/client; Linux for server; (Mac OSX pending in future) Processor: Pentium© III 800 MHz or AthlonTM 800 MHz, Memory: Windows 98/ME 128 MB, Windows 2000SP2/XP 256 MB, Hard Disk Space: 2.0 GB of install space required, CD-ROM Drive: 8x speed, Video: NVIDIA GeForce 2/ATI Radeon, Sound: Windows 98/2000/ME/XP DirectX© certified sound card, DirectX: DirectX© version 8.1, Keyboard, Mouse. Multiplayer (not required): Connecting as a Client - Broadband Connection recommended