Game: Neverwinter Nights
Review Dated: 19th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 100
Average Score: 7.14
I’ll stand up and admit it; I think Neverwinter Nights is overrated. It looks good but it doesn’t look all that better than Dungeon Siege. I uses core d20 rules but if that’s done right you should barely notice. The main problem with the game is that the plot suffers hugely in the face of people getting carried away with the scope of the graphics. There’s very little in the way of plot. Oh sure – there’s a big story. (Surprisingly similar to Dungeon Siege on reflection). Story isn’t plot though. Your left to run around the northern bit of Faerun and gain levels faster than Popeye on a spinage drip.
The awful plot was compounded by a huge about of crashes. Neverwinter Nights holds the record for more crashes than any other two games put together. Currently on update 1.11.6711 it finally seems to have calmed down but multiplayer between two modem connections is still impossible. I positive note on Neverwinter Nights is the internal update feature. Click the button. Check to see whether there’s a patch available. Press another button. The process of checking advert laden websites and applying the patch yourself has dissolved away.
Technically, Neverwinter Nights is pretty impressive. The radial interface presents an original and yet intuitive set of multi-layer menus. The radial interface works by showing you a circle with options surrounding it – much like a clock face. You pull the pointer around to the option you want and let go. If that’s the final option then it implements and if not then the first circle fades away and the selected option opens up to be it’s own circle (a radial dial) surrounded by it’s own options. This select and fade allows for lots of layers without screen clutter whereas a traditional walking menu that leaves the original drop down in place would quickly block the screen. Another nice feature is the initial stage of the game allows you pick whether you want the camera to follow you around or float around somewhere overhead. It’s easy to poke fun at a game when the NPCs talk you through real life stuff like that, blurring the “in character” and “out of character” line but it only ever happens in this sort introductory section of the game and I think the benefits of such a tutorial outweigh the damage done to the suspension of disbelief.
As I said above the game implements the core d20 rules as made famous by D&D; and is set in Wizards of the Coast’s favourite campaign world. The rules used are not true d20 though. The game makes up a few stats for itself. There’s an additionally parry skill. Diplomacy is broken up into taunt and persuade. It all sounds like a good idea on the surface but I don’t think parry or taunt will be used by 95% of players. Why parry when you’re a good fighter? If you’re a poor fighter then cast a spell instead! If you’ve got the initiative and can launch a powerful first attack then why taunt? Persuade gets off to a better start. In conversations you’re sometimes given the option to make a persuade roll (and if you like you can watch the dice on the bottom of the screen). I loved it to begin with and then quickly released you could cycle through the same conversation until you got the results you want. Other attributes and character scores can offer additional options (such as ‘insight’) but as with persuade you’ll be able to repeat the conversation again and again unless the initial failure causes the NPC to become hostile and attack you.
All of the core character classes are implemented but they’re not all equal. It’s easy to rest and cover in the game. In fact you carry around a teleporting device that whisks you back to a healing temple when you need it – even if you’re in the middle of combat. You an sit, study your spells, recover, sleep all night, start a fight and then step back into the teleporting portal and be return straight in to the middle of the fight which you just escaped from. Once you’ve got the ability to do something one time per day you’ve got it whenever you want. The Druid class, for example, suffers badly. In core d20 a Druid is able to stride through woodlands and other natural obstacles without hindrance but this is clearly impossible in Neverwinter Nights where rows of “solid” trees are often used to border in screen areas. The Druid can turn into an animal X times per day. It doesn’t really matter whether the X is a 1 or a 5 because after a big fight he’ll rest and recover and reset the X value anyway. Not that there’s any reason to turn into an animal because you’ll just find that you’re ineffective against most foes. Some classes have familiars (and the Druid, suffering again, has an animal companion) as allies but rather than being factored into the balance of things these class inherent abilities count as having an extra character in the fight and reduce the experience points available.
The d20 system does have some quirks that suit CRPGs though. There’s no concept of “mana” or “magic points” and instead the game mechanics allow a number of spells per day and this suits the quickslot style of CRPGs. Levelling up is quick and easy. The feat system introduced by d20 adds tangible effects in a way that a simple boost to strength does not. If you give your character the two weapon fighting feat then you’ll see a big change in your game play and this can be very satisfying when it goes right. The d20 system’s Challenge Rating scheme also works very well. You’ll score more experience points by defeating an opponent more powerful than you and you’ll earn less experience points by picking on weaklings. Neverwinter Nights plays kind and lets you examine your foes from afar and gauge my way of their challenge rating how tough the fight’s going to be. It’s fair but it also spoils many of the hard fights. Knowing it’ll be a tough fight allows you to drink down all your powering up magic potions, cast all your defensive spells, sharpen your axe and charge into combat. Fights rated “Impossible” where the manual suggests that your death will be guaranteed can be won in seconds.
Unfortunately, as Neverwinter Nights takes full advantage of those positive d20 traits it also falls foul of every cheese fantasy cliché imaginable. I found a magical tower shield hidden under a pile of skulls. Farmers work in poverty, desperately struggling to survive but if they’d just bashed open the barrels strangely hidden at the back of their fields then they’d have found enough gold to found their own castle if they wanted too. You’ll find magic potions waiting to restore your health waiting for you in the bottom of never before explored catacombs. People seem able and willing to booby trap their bedside draws with giant fireball spells.
There’s also plenty in the way of traditional CRPG clichés that Neverwinter Nights fails to overcome. Your inventory expects everything to fit into nice squares. Gold is weightless. At least, though, the programmers’ leap on magical bags taken from the vast list of magical items available in Faerun as a way to allow weakling wizards to carry all the items they find.
Items are important in Neverwinter Night’s. The game’s engine needs them for it’s decision making progress. You might have destroyed the indestructible siege golems but until you get your hands on the secret note being held by the wizards controlling the golems the world will react as if the golems are still on the rampage. To encourage you not to sell, drop or destroy such important notes – you’re not allowed to. I’ve thrown books into flames, returned days later and retrieved them untouched. If the book had been a “plot item” then I wouldn’t even have been able to get rid of it that easily. Important items return to the temples that you operate out of (whether you like it or not) and so you can’t sell anything important. This spoils much of the fun for me! I remember carrying around a bunch of children’s toys until the end of the game in another RPGs because I couldn’t decide whether they were important or just a bunch of toys. In Neverwinter Night’s if they were just a bunch of toys I’d be able to sell them but would not be allowed to remove them from my inventory if they where important. This can leave your inventory cluttered with items left over as unnecessary after all or from uncompleted quests.
One of the supposed great aspects of Neverwinter Nights is the ability it gives you to do real roleplaying over the internet with friends. Actually, I think this is true – but only if you’ve all got cable modems or better. If you’re stuck on a dial up then you’re doomed. I’ve been unable to connect with any friends who share the curse of the dial-up with me. At one point we had a pair of IT professionals, people who’ve worked for highly recognised computer games manufactures, people who’ve hosted their own persistent game worlds, unable to stay on the servers at the same point. You need to go through third party servers whether you’re planning to host the multiplayer game locally or not.
If you’re lucky enough to be able to play with friends online then you’re in for a treat. You’ll have to throw away the characters you played in the single player game since it speeds you towards the maximum level (20) as quickly as possible, leaving no room for improvement. However, once you’re set up with new characters its not that hard to set about exploring a new world with friends and a GM. The greatest strength of Neverwinter Nights is the ease at which you can build your own modules. You can write your own game; taking advantage of the impressive technical abilities of the software and ignoring the cheese fantasy plot.
Neverwinter Nights holds promise. Neverwinter Nights has got the ball rolling in many areas. I just don’t think Neverwinter Nights is there yet and it certainly doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s an entertaining game if you can dumb yourself down a bit so you can ignore the awful lot and just soak up the graphics instead.
512 MB Ram.]