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Review - posted by Saint_Proverbius on Fri 1 November 2002, 21:26:30Tags: BioWare; Neverwinter Nights
Just a lead in
I remember the hype before Neverwinter Nights was released. You really couldn't visit any major gaming sites without at least a few tidbits every week on the game. There were interviews, forum clipping, screenshots, and so on to tease the taste buds for this title. You'd pretty much have to live in a cave, a remote one, not to have known this game was coming.
Invariably, there was statements made by BioWare people saying that NWN would have things like a speech skill similar to how Fallout had one, or that it'd be open ended. It was going to be a game that focused on you as a single character, which I also think is the best possible thing for a good RPG to do. Basically, all the catch phrases that I really wanted to hear about were slung around liberally.
I was anxious about this game. I really was, even though I didn't care much for BioWare's previous titles. In fact, I bought the game the day it came out, just so I could have the maximum amount of time to play it.
Along the way, through the five years of development, something went terribly wrong with this title.
Beating a dead horse
That's pretty much what D&D has become in CRPG these day, a dead horse. It's such a popular license, that for a lot of CRPG developers like BioWare can just write up a story, code a set of established and recognizable rules, and run with it. It will most likely sell large simply because of this recognition.
One of the problem with this is that most of the D&D rules are combat rules. Developers implement the rules of D&D, and they seem to forget implementing the role playing aspect of the game that pen and paper has. In fact, I really can't name too many D&D CRPGs that aren't filled to the extreme with combat and most D&D titles are dungeon crawls.
I figured that since NWN would have a speech skill implemented, that maybe - just maybe, this trend was going to change. Boy, what a set up for disappointment that was. You can blame the hype the game had going for it as a set up for this disappointment. Perhaps it was just high hopes. In the end, though, NWN delivers nothing more than another hack and slash type game using the well flogged D&D rule system.
Enter a new Edition
Okay, this is probably the high point of NWN, it uses the Third Edition rules for D&D. The character system is very well implemented, in my opinion. While it may not have everything 3e's character system has because of the real time combat scheme, it certainly does have enough to make you feel like you've tricked out your character.
NWN thankfully uses the point buy system for generating the attributes for your character. I know this will make some dice chuckers unhappy, but honestly, point buy is a fantastic system to use. It totally eliminates the problem and tendency some people have of smacking that re-roll button for hours on end until they get the ubermensch. This also allows the developers to make a more structured and balanced game simply because they won't have to deal with characters with lower or higher than average ability characters. It also means that in multiplayer games, you don't have to worry about one person being vastly superior to you since the point buy system tends to balance things out for all characters.
The character system in NWN is also a bit excessive, since there are, indeed, useless skills. The speech skill is in there, but basically, it doesn't do anything. You may get a few more tidbits of story with it, but it really has no big impact on anything through most of the game.
The same thing goes for attributes that affect dialogue. They do nothing. If you have a high Wisdom, your character can have the intuition to know that Desther in Act I is an evil person, but there's no real point for this because you can't do anything about it. No matter how smart your character is, or how insightful, you can't alter the story at all.
Also, BioWare saw fit to have dialogue for dumber characters. This is normally a good idea, but the implimentation of dumb dialogue is that dumber characters may not be able to do things as well as smarter characters so you have to offer them different ways of doing things. Instead of doing this, BioWare simply altered the normal speech tree to where it sounded like your character was dumb with no substantial gameplay changes or consequences. You'll see no alteration in getting quests or doing things just because your character isn't that bright, so the inclusion of dumb dialogue trees in NWN is largely a gimmick.
Of course, you could probably cipher what type of game NWN is when you look at the list of feats, and notice that the vast majority, if not all of them, are combat devoted feats. As stated above, that's what this game's all about, combat.
One nice addition to the game is that alignment can shift. This does give the ability for characters to start off as bad guys and seek redemption or good guys that go astray. Well, in theory, that's how it would work. Unfortunately, NWN also does this very poorly. For example, you can agree to murder someone you haven't met for cash, the game doesn't adjust your alignment for that at all. However, if you agree to murder someone for cash, and ask for the money up front, your alignment slips towards evil. So, murder for hire is neutral, but murder for hire with a touch of greed is evil.
In fact, that's the basic theme of evil in the game. If you're evil, your main recourse for your dastardly ways is doing what the good guys want you to do and expecting to be paid to do it. I don't have the 3e rule books, but I'm pretty sure that Chaotic Evil isn't Lawful Good for hire.
Aurora, it's not your father's oldsmobile
NWN sports the latest version of Bioware's latest engine, the Aurora engine. It's basically a tile based, 3D engine in NWN. The graphics are acceptable, with a few nice features like the water effect and the skeletal animation system that makes those characters look entertaining while fighting.
The problem is, they have a 3D engine, but the game really doesn't do much with it. You can't jump, you can't swim, you can't scale walls. Things such as these are a good reason to have a 3D engine in a CRPG. However, other than the character animations, there's really no good reason for this game to be 3D since it makes use of none of this. Even the terrain, for the most part, is just standard, multilevel terrain that you get in your run of the mill 2D games.
Since it's tile based, you also have the problem of nearly every part of a city looking just like every other part. Unlike their Infinity Engine, everything looks like the Forgotten Realms version of a 1950s prefab suburb. All the caves look the same, all the towns look the same, all the outdoors look the same. If you've been in one forest, you've pretty much seen it all. For those used to other 3D CRPGs that came out this year, NWN just doesn't look up to code.
Honestly, other than the character animations, which are nice, the 3D engine hurts this game more than it helps it since it doesn't really take advantage of the 3D engine "plus" column of the design checklist.
A big problem with this engine is also how it saves files. Rather than saving what information has changed about a module, NWN saves the entire module as the player has changed it. This means that save game files can be an unseemly 10-20MB per save game. half way through Act II, for example, I noticed my save game directory was eating up nearly 2GB of disk space, which is as much as the game itself takes up on a fresh install. I'm not sure what justification BioWare had when they designed the game, but there's no real need to save terrain geometry that never changes with each and every save.
The world of Neverwinter Nights
Alas, NWN also suffers in it's presentation of the world. A small example would be the dragons in Act III. We all know people love their dragons. However, BioWare seems to be under the assumption that if one dragon is good, six dragons must be six times as good! What's even worse is that they toss together unlike dragons in close proximity to one another, dragons which typically don't like being near one another, and never mind the fact that dragons are typically rare critters by nature. Given the fact that NWN also has that wonderful town porta.. I mean, Recall Stone, it's very easy to kill these dragons even though they're often marked as Impossible kills. Oh, and an Impossible kill results in about 300 experience points, in case you believed the difficulty rating of the creature.
Another odd part about NWN is how easy it is to get really, really nice equipment considering it's a run of the mill location. For example, you can snag your newbie character a lovely set of Armor of Comfort in the first act. Around Act III, you should be equipped with some damned fantastic gear. You can even buy the nice +3 stuff for your 12th level character, assuming you haven't found anything better. If you use the exotics, there's several places to get some extremely nice double axes in the first act which will make your fighter or barbarian insanely powerful. Heck, you can't even make it out of the tutorial without a magic item or two.
It's really this over abundance of things that hurts NWN as a good D&D setting game. It's almost as if BioWare seems to think that tossing around things that should be rare makes for a good game. In reality, it just gets very silly to have such large and powerful things all over the place, especially in a location that doesn't really warrant such things.
NWN also has some rather dumb design concepts such as the way towns are designed. Is there any reason that everyone in every town keeps their loot in chests outside their houses? Most towns feel more like wide open dungeons than actual towns and there's very little interaction going on with the people there. You might be able to get two or three sub quests out of most town locations, but there's really just not a lot going on in most of those locations.
In fact, you'll notice the lack of thought given on things in the game during the tutorial, when your combat instructors will tell you how to use the mouse, how to make keyboard short cuts, and even how to level up. There's really nothing that kills immersion faster than NPCs refering to the computer input devices you use to control the game itself.
Furthermore, BioWare did have some neat ideas in the game. However, because they wanted a consistent flow of combat, there are perfectly good role playing areas trashed by adding combat which seems senseless. Case in point, Act II, there's a location that's stuck in time waiting for the right person to come along to prove that they're worthy to judge two men accused by their god of committing mass murder in hallowed ground. Pretty neat idea, isn't it?
I thought it was a neat idea, with the exception that the way you prove yourself as a worthy judge is by fighting a gauntlet of monsters, rather than actually using your wits or whether or not you're willing to adhere to an aligned choice. Furthermore, after you're worthy of judging, you get more combat! That's right, you have to fight your way to the two accused people, who are in different areas, to get their statements. Because the area is trapped in time, those monsters respawn, so you get to fight them on the way out as well! Nothing like taking a great idea, and then muddling it with pointless and frivolous fighting, is there?
In fact, looking back, the only halfway long quest I can think of that didn't involve a lot of fighting was the trial quest in Act III.
Finally, let's talk hirelings. With the stock game, you can pick up one and only one hireling, regardless of how charming your character is. One is all you can have. You can't equip this character either, their items somehow get better when they gain levels. You can't give them potions to use on their own, either, because handing them a potion makes them drink it automatically.
However, it's important to note that BioWare says it's important to have that one hireling because they "balanced the game" for you having one. This is basically a cop out. The game wasn't balanced for a hireling, it was designed like your standard party based CRPG where you have dungeon areas that have lots of monsters and lots of traps. The traps, of course, are often pretty fatal, so if you're not a thief, you'd better have a thief follow you around unless you plan on saving often.
Instead, given the five years they had to make the game, they should have actually designed it similar to Fallout or Arcanum, where you're allowed various ways in which to complete objectives in most cases. Give the fighting character his battle route to mission complete, but also give the Thief his stealthy route to victory. Heck, even give the Bard, or other Charisma based character. a route through the game where they can schmooze their way through. It's not as if BioWare didn't have the time or the funding to actually design the game well.
Role play? Where?
Another problem with NWN is your place in the world. Basically, because the modules can't carry over information from one to the other easily, NWN's story is pretty much set in stone, no matter how you play it. No matter what you do, you can never save Fenthick. As mentioned before, you can also never kill Desther early, because the end of Act I must have Desther betray Neverwinter and be executed. Because of this, you're powerless in the story. You'll never make the slightest difference until the bitter end because the story can't be changed.
Because the story can't be changed, you're also faced with another serious CRPG problem. You just aren't allowed to kill certain people because that might screw up the story. This leads to a consistency problem where some people in the story can be hurt at certain times and not be hurt at other times because it's the way the story must be done.
However, the biggest problem with the fixed, unwavering story is that you have to question your role in the world. If you can't really change anything, how important can you really be beyond a superficial nature? Basically, your role in the game is the guy who kills enough stuff, or the right stuff, in order to achieve the next bit of story, which is always the same. Your character is, in essence, inessential to the plot other than being the grunt who racks up a body count.
That's honestly what the whole game boils down to being, just another fairly mindless hack and slash game that uses D&D as a selling point.
Want to be evil? Too bad, not in this game. You can collect money to behave, but that's a drop in the bucket as far as evil goes, isn't it? You can slaughter town people to stay evil, but other than that, you can't do anything remotely dastardly because, despite five years of development, they just didn't do much in the way of evil. Well, unless you think questing for a living is evil.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the character discussion, dialogue is really rather useless. You might learn more about a person than you would if you had lesser attributes or didn't invest much in a skill, but what's the point if it really doesn't do much other than that throughout the course of the game? If I have a high Wisdom, Charisma, and am skilled in diplomacy, why can't I use that to change the course of events in a peaceful fashion most of the time? There are a few subplots where this works, but it often involves a bribe as well. However, it doesn't matter at all for the main plot because those events are predetermined, and heaven forbid you alter the events of the story. Truth be known, NWN almost plays like a console RPG where you're merely wandering your way through someone else's idea of what should happen in your CRPG.
Wrapping it up
I suspect I'll get a few rabid replies from this review, mainly because I'm really only covering the single player module of the game. Before anyone emails me about how fantastic the multiplayer is, I did try it with a few friends and the single player module. It was less thrilling than my single player experience. There's nothing like being on a server with three other people and having to line up to talk to Aribeth because she simply won't shut up until everyone talks to her.
Yes, I know there's lots and lots of modules made by other people out there and some of them might actually be better than the module that NWN shipped with. Fantastic. I don't care, because that's not the content that's provided with the game. I'll acknowledge they may or may not exist, because the game does have a splendid editor, but I wouldn't review the original Quake based on the merits of Team Fortress. Giving a game a good review because you're forced to turn to what others have done with the game isn't par for the course. BioWare provides the tools to make things, that's swell, and we'll leave it at that.
It's also nice that NWN comes with that nifty Dungeon Master mode. Kudos to them for that. That's probably the strongest element in the game, but let's face it, the majority of people who bought the game will be drudging through the single player portion of the game. If they go looking for a rich role playing experience, they're not going to find it in this game, not out of the box and definitely not without an internet connection.
All in all, I really have to wonder what BioWare was doing for the five years during the development of this game. If you look at other CRPGs that have taken that long, you can see the quality of the extra time in them. NWN just doesn't have that.