Neverwinter Nights - Staff Retroview  

Gaming by Community
by Michael "CactuarJoe" Beckett

50 to 60 hrs.


Rating definitions 

    Dungeons and Dragons is a system which has seen a number of forays into the digital medium, some more effective than others. Neverwinter Nights is certainly one of the most impressive attempts to digitize the D&D roleplaying experience, and, while not without flaw, the combination of an enjoyable campaign and a powerful module creation engine makes Neverwinter Nights a solid, enjoyable game. The story is a bit lackluster, and the combat system comes across as seriously overcomplicated in places, but any irritation over the gameís tendency to trip over its own complexity is mitigated in large part by the sheer number of things that are possible. The game's greatest ally is its depth, its ability to awe the player with the scope of their choices.

    The combat system of Neverwinter Nights works as a sort of hybrid turn-based / action RPG system. To explain: Combat occurs in real time, but characters are locked into a rhythm of attacks. Each character has his or her own rhythm, which may coincide with or even overlap that of other characters, and which can be adjusted over the course of a battle by spells and abilities entered into an action queue. The game can also be paused at any time to alter the action queue, change targets, or make other necessary adjustments to player tactics. Overall, the system is far more complex in setup than it is in execution - understanding what it is about a characterís stats and abilities that make them act a certain way in combat can be difficult, but becomes much easier to understand once the character is actually in combat. Controls for the game are reasonably well set up, with menus and the general interface designed to be welcoming to new players. The game even goes so far as to give players recommendations as to what class and skills they should be using, which is useful, if a bit overbearing. The system is highly intuitive and easy to use, which is certainly a testament to the skill of the game staff.

   However, the real meat and potatoes of this system is in its character creation and development system. There are a wide variety of variables to consider, from race, class, and equipment to level, skill point distribution, and special abilities. Characters gain levels not as a character, but rather as a class; for example, a character can have five Cleric levels, five Fighter levels, and a Ranger level, making them level eleven total. With a level cap of only forty, there is a lot of weight placed on each level a player takes, and the system can be brutally unforgiving at times. A player who takes a combination of classes which donít work well together or who takes the wrong skills at level up may find themselves having a seriously difficult time later in the game. The great strength of the combat system is that it allows player creativity to come to the fore, making it possible to create some very unusual and fun-to-play characters. This aspect of modular character-based strategy is, unusually enough, something Neverwinter Nights shares with the Pokemon games.

A wide variety of effects spice up NWN's visuals. A wide variety of effects spice up NWN's visuals.

   One thing Neverwinter Nights has over Pokemon is a plot with a far deeper theme and message to it. The plot deals in large part with the city of Neverwinter, recently besieged by a disease known as the Wailing Death. The player character is one of a number of soldiers and heroes recruited to fill the depleted ranks of the Neverwinter army and to safeguard those working on a cure. Naturally, things go wrong almost immediately, and in fact most of the game is spent dealing with the aftermath of the plague rather than the plague itself. The story deals with themes of revenge and justice, and the cycle of violence inherent in crime and punishment. Itís an unusual theme, but not one that is executed with a great deal of finesse. The game comes across as preachy and melodramatic even for an RPG, and the use of fetch quests to move the plot along becomes bothersome in short order. The characters are in large part cliches wrapped up in armor and magic, reduced to reacting to whatever style of character the player is role-playing at the moment. In the end, the plot works reasonably well to move the game forward, but it isnít good for much else.

   Although the main campaign is an enjoyable play, it isnít actually the gameís main draw. The Aurora Toolset included in Neverwinter Nights allows players to create a wide variety of unique and unusual scenarios. It mirrors the experience of being a D&D Dungeon Master to a certain extent, giving players a way to create new game modules, which can then be shared with others and even modified on the fly while being played. The Toolset is an unusually powerful and surprisingly easy tool for creating not just RPGs, but a wide variety of other types of games. In addition, it forms the basis of a tightly-knit community which still thrives four years after the gameís initial release. This is partially due to the steady stream of new modules and content from Bioware itself, but the longevity of this community would simply not be possible without player input. Overall, the flaws in the main campaign of Neverwinter Nights are counterbalanced by the Aurora Toolset and the presence of a nearly endless stream of content.

Certain types of enemies show up quite often. Certain types of enemies show up quite often.

   Visually, the game is much more solid in design than technical detail. The amount of attention put into monster, armor, and weapon design is impressive, and sometimes overshadows the other aspects of the game. From a technical standpoint, the game sits somewhere in between late PSOne and early PS2 - there are a lot of very good reflection and lighting effects, but character models are blocky and move a little stiffly. Overall, the visual style is solid, if somewhat predictable in its use of high fantasy influence. Given the nature of D&D, it is hardly surprising that the game would have a heavy high fantasy feel to it, but while the game does manage to come up with some reasonably unique ideas, its setting, writing and visual style all point strongly in the direction of relying too much on genre conventions to carry the game.

   Similarly, the music of Neverwinter Nights is done primarily in a classical style, heavy on the strings and horns. The music isnít bad as such, and it certainly fits the game, but like the writing and visual style, it is simply too heavily overwrought with high fantasy cliche to really be enjoyable. Itís a problem which plagues the voice acting as well. As the characters work their way through cryptic pronouncements and proclaim the player character to be the worldís only hope, the melodrama builds up to the point where it becomes near self-parody. Of course, some of the voice actors get more into the spirit of things than others - in particular, Aribethís VA seems to relish the melodrama, working the lines with a gusto that borders on the unseemly.

   Even with the variable difficulty setting, it is not likely that anyone would have a hard time with Neverwinter Nights. Between the easily available cheat codes and the fact that the difficulty level can be changed on the fly, Neverwinter Nights is very open to tweaking. However, this also means that there is always the temptation to just do it all the easy way. On the flip side, Neverwinter Nights is a reasonably long game, topping out at around fifty to sixty hours with plenty of side quests and little extras to keep the player going.

   Neverwinter Nights is a game that has aged particularly well. Though plagued with bugs and errors at the time of its release, the efforts of Bioware and the established D&D fanbase have combined to make Neverwinter Nights the seminal D&D roleplaying experience. Not satisfied with simply producing one high-quality RPG, Bioware has managed to create an entire online community out of one infinitely extendable toolset, an accomplishment which cannot be understated. The main campaign is an enjoyable if flawed experience, but the quality of this module may just be beside the point. After all, if it is found wanting, there are literally hundreds of other modules out there waiting to be played. Neverwinter Nights is therefore one of the rare games which delivers on its highest promises. The game really does present infinite worlds to conquer.

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