Neverwinter Nights 2
Neverwinter Nights is back after a few years in this simply named #2. The original Neverwinter Nights, developed by Bioware Corp, was followed by two sizeable expansions: Shadows of Undrentide and then Hordes of the Underdark, and now it's Obsidian Software's turn to bring us Neverwinter Nights 2. Each successive episode has built on the last with various changes or enhancements and Neverwinter Nights 2 is no exception. It's another absorbing journey although not all the changes in this new engine are as friendly to all players as they could be.
As with the original title, Neverwinter Nights 2 comes with a multiplayer option, and a Toolkit for creating your very own adventures of which there are bound to be just as many fan-made 'modules' to share in the community. This review covers only the official campaign.
To begin with character creation is a familiar process of selecting your race and gender, their appearance, alignment, and a myriad of skills, feats, spells, etc. If in doubt or pressed for time, you can once more use the 'recommend' button to do this job for you, or even take a ready-made adventurer.
However there are now decisions galore when choosing a race as this time there are even more to ponder over. Added to the usual choices of Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling etc., there are several shades of the Elf race, (Sun-Elf, Wood-Elf and Drow), a couple of extra Dwarf, Gnome and Halfling races, plus the Plantetouched Teifling, and Aasimar. Each one has its own particular skill adjustments to watch out for, making them more fitting for different classes. Once again multi-classing is easy and there are some extra prestige classes too, so more choices if you want to further refine your character and give your fighter, for instance, extra zing with enhanced mobility, or maybe, your sorcerer or wizard would benefit from some supplementary combat skills. A thorough reading of this section of the manual will set you on your way.
The next big (and the most obvious) enhancement in NWN 2 is in the control of your companions. Not only can you take up to four on this trip (occasionally more) but you can also control them minutely if you wish, simply by selecting each character or moving from one to the next and changing the lead character, pretty much as you would in other party-based RPGs. You can access their inventories, control their weapons and armour, etc. When levelling them up, although you can't change their class, you can direct their areas of specialisation and equip them accordingly.
Combat is in realtime but you can again slow down proceedings and pause the action at any point. There is an option to give universal orders and tell everyone to attack, or stand their ground, or guard you, or you can direct each companion individually. It's your choice.
In fact you can set just how much autonomy you want to give your companions in a myriad of ways. Maybe keep them near or direct them to move further away. You can leave them completely to their own devices, or put them on puppet mode and intricately work out battle strategies. You can select a whole range of in-between options to regulate item use, use of combat techniques, lock picking, etc. For magic users you can let them throw all the spells they have, or just a few, or none at all. For many of the smaller battles you can rely on your friends to do their part, but there are some more fierce confrontations, especially towards the end, when it's a good idea to assert more control and do it your way.
It's all nicely done and it's a big improvement over the original Neverwinter Nights and its two main expansions, although sometimes 'someone' gets tangled in the scenery. If this does happen, and they get separated, then jumping back to rescue the tangled character can interrupt your fighting strategy when other characters break off fighting to follow the new leader at their specified distances. It makes for some 'interesting' battles with everyone running in all directions, but doesn't happen too often. A couple of times I had other minor frustrations with my fighter going berserk (literally) and just running madly back and forth between me and the fray, not landing a single blow. It pays to keep an eye on the distance settings!
There are a dozen or so characters of different professions and alignments who will join your party. They do have some spontaneous dialogue but for much of the chat it's necessary to enter conversation mode which offers a choice of questions and responses. They each have their own distinct personality and a backstory to share if they trust you enough. So it's important to say and do the right thing to gain their trust (or beef up your influence) if you want their help when it counts. Some of the characters have side quests, a few are crucial to the plot, and others just stand around and judge you. Often the choices you make will please one character and earn you influence and disappoint another and subtract from their influence quotient. It can be a juggling act at times.
Another big change in NWN 2 is the inclusion of a crafting option. Build up your own or one of your companions' skills in various crafts such as blacksmithing, potion or wand making, or crafting magical weapons/armour or wondrous items, so there's fun to be had fashioning new items or upgrading those that you find. You can make some better equipment than you find in the game although it's not essential.
It's a great addition to this series although some refinement to the crafting procedure would help a lot, plus a little more forward organisation. For instance different companions will likely have the spells to complete a crafting option, or different characters may carry the essentials, and juggling who has what can be annoying because changing characters is a tedious process, sometimes requiring a couple of loads. For crafting a single screen to include all characters would have been a real improvement, plus a little more thought as to the availability of materials. My crafting was severely curtailed because a crucial element was in extremely short supply compared to others. Another useful addition here would be a single crafting recipe book, updated as you learn more recipes. As it is there's a couple of dozen books, I think, each containing a few recipes. Chasing up particular recipes in particular books can be harrowing. I ended up with sheets of paper listing ingredients for various recipes.
Neverwinter Nights 2 uses the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 rules and, similar to other Neverwinter Nights games, this latest adventure begins with a tutorial as you make your name at your hometown fair. You begin as a simple country lass or lad, but before long you'll brush up on your skills and learn there's more to life than you ever imagined. Although you can skip this first part of the game, it's a good idea to enter the tournaments and assess your combat skills. Here there are pop up menus to teach all the basics of interaction and combat before the real action begins.
The story is engrossing, I thought, typical fantasy fare but with twists and turns to keep you entertained. The game is divided into three acts (excluding the tutorial) and story exposition occurs in cutscenes as you reach certain points. Some of your characters also have bits to add to, or enhance, the story.
Along the way there is a good serving of quests and combat and a few, not too many, optional side quests. As well as fighting for your life there's a few puzzles to face in the dungeons, a riddle or two, and one conversational challenge... a trial where your responses will either protect your reputation and prove your innocence of a crime... or not! Something different, and it works rather well. So does the challenge to build and equip your castle where you need to manage your finances and juggle your troops. I had some fun here although I'm not sure how the outcome made a huge difference to the game.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2007.
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Neverwinter Nights 2 looks pretty good with lots of colour and plenty of detail in the countryside and various towns you'll visit. The dungeons or interiors are considerably less colourful, of course, and they are all rather similar. The system requirements are pretty hefty so if you're like me and only pass the minimum system specs you'll likely have to turn off some of the extras such as shadows, antialiasing, etc, or even turn down the resolution as I did for some crowded fights. This means I didn't see NWN 2 in all it's glory but that didn't deter me. Character voices are generally pretty good, especially those of your friends, though I think their personalities rather than their voices will be the telling factor in your preferences here.