So I'm a geek. I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was 9 years old. A friend of mine from across the street from me turned me on to it. He and I and his brother would invite a couple friends and bash the hell out of orcs all night.
Dungeons and Dragons has always done something that is impossible in real life. It brought order to combat. You rolled of the dice to see who got to go first, to see if you actually hit your target or chopped off your best friend's arm. As in life, the longer you played with the same character, the better that character gets at what he or she does. A logical system based on "Experience Points," or XP, this method allowed a level of character advancement and maturation. A bold, revolutionary concept in gaming, D&D was the first real RPG. Originally, TSR - the original distributor of D&D - had two levels of play available. There was the Basic Rules, perfect for that beginner, and there was the Expert Rules, which added more depth and more complications to the gameplay. Eventually, realizing they had a good thing going, TSR pushed out the Advanced D&D Rules. AD&D has been it ever since. But when they crossed the line to the world of AD&D, they made it complicated enough that it entered the realm of geekdom. To run a game, you needed the Dungeon Master's Guide - textbook sized rulebook with hundreds of pages of information on creating and running a setting. Anyone that flipped through the book knew it was the world of the hardcore AD&D geek - The Dungeon Master. The malicious God of your character's world, rarely benevelent, always testing your limits. It didn't end there, though. The player was issued a Player's Handbook, also hundreds of pages of information and rules. Starting into the realm of AD&D became daunting.
Over time, the game was refined and streamlined. The 2nd edition of AD&D was widely considered the first really playable version of the game. After 10 more years, the 3rd edition - the current edition - was released. AD&D geeks the world over have rejoiced at its playability. The game finally makes sense. But there has always been the dice.
With the quiet popularity of Dungeons and Dragons came a need to fill that niche with a video game. No one had been successful. Every attempt to bring the D&D world to the computer had been mediocre at best.
Enter Bioware. Bioware has made a point of working toward the goal of a real D&D game, worthy of the name. Starting with the Fallout series, a move toward the D&D style rules began. Set in a post apocolyptic future, the rules of combat and advancement were loosely based on the D&D ideal. Randomizing algorithms were used in place of dice, but the general idea was the same. Most of life is luck or coincidence. But it still wasn't D&D. Finally, after gaining approval to use the D&D license - specifically the AD&D Forgotten Realms license, Bioware took the opportunity to give us the best so far. Teaming up with Black Isle, we were treated to a rapid fire of games - Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Sword Coast, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn - showing that the AD&D franchise was inherently successful. It didn't hurt that many computer geeks are also D&D geeks. These games combined a rich and rewarding story with gameplay that made the dice invisible. The ultimate Role Playing Games. We were set to keep this trend going. Shortly after the announcement of Neverwinter Nights, a mini disaster struck. Bioware had a falling out with their publisher at the time. Their publishers, owners of the D&D license, effectively killed Neverwinter Nights. After a year of negotiations, Bioware was able to recover and use the license with a different publishing company.
Interestingly enough, the new publisher chose Atari as their distributor. Amid a flurry of rumors of price gouging and threats of witholding the game from resellers unwilling to charge the $55 msrp, we finally have Neverwinter Nights. I hope these were all just rumors. I have to admit to being stunned by the price, right off the bat. Most retailers are selling the game for $50-$60 dollars. This is an unfortunate trend lately. The more anticipated a game is, the higher the initial price will be. But who is to blame? The distributor or the retailers? In all honesty, I certainly think that these prices are all but a guarantee of piracy. Neverwinter was on the internet two weeks before its release. Even as a stickler for buying games from companies I appreciate, I was tempted to "borrow" the game until it hit the bargain bin. I know I'm not the only one. 60 bucks is a lot of jack. I don't care how good a game is.
That aside, I am having a blast playing this game.
Keeping up the tradition of quality voice-overs and great FX, Bioware once again outdoes themselves. The music is mostly uninstrusive. Neither annoying or catchy, it is still high quality. The sound FX are impressive, to say the least. Both spells and melee sounds fit well, and are deep and rich. Creature noises are original and unique. NPCs, when they speak, are wonderfully voiced. If anything, the game suffers from too little of this voice acting.
Let's get one thing straight: this is not Quake 3. The graphics are incredible, but only for the genre. Bioware has finally said goodbye to the low resolution problem that has plagued their titles in the past. You can set the resolution as high as 1280x1024x32 - as long as you have the videocard to handle it. Using a top-down view, the game is rendered in 3D. You can change between several view modes, all of which allow for a great deal of freedom in choosing your camera angle. The two modes I preferred - Top-down and Top-down chase view - were very flexible. You are able to pan the camera angle all the way around your character. You can zoom in closer, or pull out to get a good view of your enemies. My only complaint was that in chase mode, the camera was slow at changing angles, making it difficult to see around corners at times. Also, the camera does get a bit awkward at times. Many times what my character was doing was hidden from view by a wall. This was notable because for the most part walls disappear when they obstruct your view. This meant that I would need to move the angle so that the game would "catch up" and occlude the wall. Even though the graphics are impressive, don't expect high-poly models and round objects. As I said, this isn't Quake 3. I was slightly disappointed, but I understand that the target audience does not necessarily have top of the line gaming machines. Anyone that has ever played the game Sanity: Aiken's Artifact will see that the graphics of Neverwinter are slightly dated. Sanity is now a couple of years old, and even though these games share the same perspective (top-down, 3D), Sanity has better graphics. Still, for this genre, Bioware did well. This is a good transition title. It may not be perfect, but it shows that the new engine has great potential if Bioware chooses to push its limits in future releases.
The only other game that compares to Neverwinter's open design is Morrowind. Most quests do not have a time limit, and it is fairly easy to pick up side quests, as well. Using the same basic character creation process from Icewind Dale, Bioware has updated the interface to match the recently released 3rd Edition rules. You can choose from a pool of pre-rolled characters, or you can create your own. Choosing everything from your class to what your skin and hair color are, this has always been a treat. Thankfully, for those of us that don't want to roll our own but do want to have a bit of control, there is an option on each page of the process allowing you to use a "recommended" set of abilities and attributes. Once in the singleplayer game, you can hire henchmen to fluff out your party, or you can go it alone and only use the party members that offer themselves to you. Of course, if you don't like sharing experience points, go ahead and do it by yourself. This is, however, very difficult, and you will need to take up the slack by hauling around a lot of heal potions for awhile. While the story is a bit weak, it is detailed and certainly sufficient. Combat itself is the biggest flaw with the game. There are odd pauses in combat. Almost like the computer is rolling the die. Not enough to slow combat too much, it still seems a bit wooden and almost turnbased. You swing, I swing, you swing, I swing. Also an issue is pathfinding. Many times I found my character walking into walls instead of going around them, or getting stuck on a crate or pillar. Hopefully this will be addressed in a future patch. A nice feature that has been added is the ability to put markers on your map, allowing you to track movements in confusing spaces, or mark where you left a hord of treasure.
Included with Neverwinter Nights is a development toolset. The toolset allows creation of your own maps, modules, scripted events and creatures. You can generate the maps on your own, or have the Wizard generate it for you a section at a time. Absolutely one of the simplest level editors I have come across, you can create a room in less than 10 minutes, populate it with creatures or NPC and export it for play on your LAN, or even over the internet. I imagine it will be only a matter of time before many of the printed modules make their way to the online community.
What a blast! We've known for centuries that games are much more fun when played with or against friends. D&D is the perfect example of this. Who doesn't remember sitting around at 2 in the morning eating Doritos and slamming down a 2 liter of Mountain Dew with some friends? Games were meant to be social. Neverwinter Nights brings us back to that golden age. Sure, we've had online multiplayer for 10 years, now. Why did this genre take so long to catch up? Who cares, its here now! Choosing a broad range of servers and ping times, I found gameplay to be smooth as silk - even at a 500 ping! At this point most servers on the Internet are running sections of the single player campaign, but with the comprehensive toolset included, it should take no time at all for good sized custom modules to make the scene. Considering the short amount of time that the game has been out, I was surprised to find many people had already created and started serving up custom maps. Just like everyone else these days, Bioware has hooked into a Gamespy powered ingame server browser. With the initial release, it was buggy as all hell. It seemed the slightest move of a mouse would cause a server refresh. When the patch released right after launch, most of these problems were corrected. The only issue is a chat bug that I personally did not experience. With the patch, online gameplay is pure enjoyment. With cheating in online games becoming so widespread, I truly hope that Bioware will keep the netcode updated and tight. This is an excellent online game, and can definitely add to long term replayability, as long as the developers keep ahead of the 12 year olds.
I can do nothing but rave about this game. Deep and sophisticated singleplayer, rich and truly social multiplayer, there is nothing that stands out as needing improvement. I almost feel the $60 USD pricetag is worth it. Do I have any issues with this game at all? Only one. As good as this game is, as much as I am having fun with it, its still a Baldur's Gate clone. Adding a good multiplayer aspect and updating the graphics does not change that. I think this issue is going to come up more and more as we see the next wave of games. We are in a stagnant period. The next wave of games are steps in an evolutionary process, but are far from revolutionary.