Friday, August 16, 2013

Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 (Retro Video Game Review)

I am mostly a console gamer. Largely because I am unwilling to invest the money required to keep a gaming PC up to date. I also loathe the numerous problems I seem to run into when simply trying to install and run a game on my computer. For this reason, I tend to play PC games about five years or more after the height of their popularity.

In 2008 I fell in love with Bioware's "Neverwinter Nights"(released in 2002). Now, five years later, I'm finally getting around to playing Neverwinter Nights 2(released in 2006). With the recent launch of the Dungeons And Dragons Neverwinter MMO, I thought the timing might be right for a retro review of these classic games.

Neverwinter Nights owes a large debt to Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2, two fantastic, classic, PC RPGs also developed by Bioware studios and similar to the Neverwinter Nights games in many ways.

The Baldur's Gate games were an attempt at taking the paper and pencil Dungeons and Dragons rules and using them to create a computer game in which the player controls one or more of the hero characters. Meanwhile the computer takes on the role of the game master, crunching numbers, rolling dice and keeping track of rules behind the scenes.

The Baldur's Gate games were presented in a top-down isometric view very similar to the Diablo game series, although instead of an action RPG, Baldur's Gate battles took place in real-time "turns". Players could pause the action at any time, select tactical options for their characters, and then unpause the game to let them take effect. Players could select tactics in real-time if they wanted, but as the challenge increased, a purely real-time approach became ultimately impossible.

Baldur's Gate players could choose numerous character types to play from the Dungeons and Dragons rules, including thieves(or "rogues"), fighters, magic users, clerics, etc. Each character type developed differently as they gained experience, making for a tremendous amount of replay value. Add to this the non-linear nature of the adventures, and you have a precursor to the open world RPGs of today.

Neverwinter Nights took all these elements (except for the ability to directly control more than one party member, which was restored in Neverwinter Nights 2) and gave the presentation a massive graphical upgrade, bringing the experience beautifully into the 3D realm, including a camera that operated completely under the player's control. On the average laptop today, Neverwinter Nights has graphics that look somewhere between the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. So despite the game's age, it still looks great.

The basic campaign offers around 30 hours of very enjoyable game play. The story is interesting enough, but the strength of the game is in the level of immersion. Somewhat like the amazing Elder Scrolls game series, players can be and do almost anything they want in Neverwinter Nights. Not every door can be opened and many crates and barrels are just there for show.  Still, the level of detail and the options to distract players from the beaten path are impressive. Though for some, the level of detail in the game may be off-putting.

The first time I played I attempted to run a magic user, but soon learned I was biting off more than I could chew. In fact I was turned off so much by the experience that I didn't give the game another try until about a year later. Looking back, I can see that the reasons I felt overwhelmed were twofold.

The first was because of the rules governing magic in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which are also used in Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2. Every RPG video game I had played before used some form of spell point system for magic. Characters had a certain number of mana points they could use to spend on casting spells of varying costs. These points could be regained by resting at an inn or drinking mana potions. In Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, Wizards must choose in advance what spells they think they will need, and place them in available "slots", using the same spell in multiple slots if they wish to cast it multiple times. Once a spell in a slot is cast it is no longer usable until the Wizard rests, which is only possible in certain places.

Early on, Wizards have very few spell slots available, and rely heavily on ranged weapons, summoned monsters or their familiars to win combat encounters. I didn't like the idea of my "pets" having all the fun, so I tried to ignore this strategy and also often forgot to rest when the option became available. As you might guess, I died badly and often. And at the time I just wasn't interested in the strategy involved in choosing what spells I wanted to slot.

The second reason Neverwinter Nights initially felt too complicated was the nature of progression in the story. Although not as open-ended as recent Elder Scrolls games, Neverwinter Nights still had far more opportunities for side-quests and less heavy-handed instruction for what I should do next to advance the story. It wasn't that I didn't know where to go next. I just wondered if I was supposed to do all these other side-quests first or risk losing my opportunity. In the 8-bit and 16-bit eras of RPGs, I was a strategy guide reading completionist. But there was just so much going on in this game compared to those earlier experiences that the thought of "doing everything" was just too much. Until eventually I realized that I don't HAVE to do everything. I can just do what I want! (What a novel idea, right?)

And there is a LOT I like to do in the Neverwinter Nights games.

Looting bad guys, barrels and treasure chests is extremely satisfying. Loot is randomized but always useful or able to be sold.

Character advancement can be meticulous and deep, or as easy as clicking the "Recommended" button during the level up process. Each character class can be developed in extremely different ways. As you become more familiar with how the game plays you'll likely appreciate the incredible ability you have to develop a character that plays almost exactly the way you want it to. And with numerous starting character classes to choose from (11 in NWN1, 15 in NWN2), multi-classing rules and even more classes to switch over to as you advance (12 in NWN1, 24 in NWN2) you can just begin to imagine the insane replay value. (I've just started playing the Neverwinter Nights 1 campaign again as a different character class and it makes for a VERY different experience!)

Combat is fairly tactical in Neverwinter Nights 1. Although you only directly control one character, you'll often have hired henchman of your choosing along for the journey, and may adjust their general AI behavior or even give them commands on the fly (such as "attack this target" or "disarm this trap"). And if you choose a character class that uses magic, or one with numerous activated abilities, you'll have plenty of tactical options to engage your mind with.

If you're not interested in much of the tactical experience, you can also have a great time by simply sticking to the basic fighter class, ignoring activated abilities. You'll point and click your way through swarms of enemies while chugging potions and feel pretty powerful. This is how I enjoyed the game for quite a while until I broke out of my strictly turn-based JRPG mold and began enjoying the kind of combat and game play that RPGs like these provide.

As mentioned earlier, the graphics for Neverwinter Nights are not fantastic, but still very enjoyable. The graphics for Neverwinter Nights 2 are much closer to what one would expect from an Xbox 360. But although the polygon count for both games is different, the textures are wonderful to look at in both games. Even up close. The visual design perfectly suits the classic D&D mold the game is taken from.

The sound in these games is also fantastic. Voice acting is not used through the entire game, but still frequently and with solid performers. There is something oddly satisfying about the rustle of cloth and leather that can be heard every time you loot a fallen foe. The sounds of crackling fireplaces, clicking locks, creaking floorboards and jingling coins almost place the fantastical treasures of the game in the palm of your hand. The sounds of magic spells, slicing swords and squishy-crunching maces are likewise enjoyable.

Then there's the music. These games boast some of the best and most varied music created for any fantasy video game ever made. Whether you're making friends in the tavern, praying in the temple, crawling through the dungeon or fighting cosmic-level enemies, these games have the score to perfectly fit the occasion. So much so that I've made the music of these games my soundtrack for tabletop dungeon-crawling as well.

One of the biggest selling points for these games is the massive modding community. Both games come with built-in tools for creating your own adventures, and hundreds of these have been posted online on various sites. The first I'd recommend is where users have banded together to create a massive "Community Expansion Pack" which upgrades textures and models for the game, improving its overall look and potential.

Beyond this, the hundreds of adventures and campaigns found there are all free, categorized and ranked by the community, making it easy to find not only the kind of adventure you'd like to play ( for example, "heavy on role play, light on traps and puzzles") but a quality adventure as well. There is very little risk of wasting time on bad modules with the ranking system on the site. And many adventures created by users are even better than the official adventures sold by the creators of the games.

On a similar note, some users have also taken advantage of the game's online multi-player capability to not only invite friends to play modules with them, but to create persistent worlds not unlike MMOs. There are close to a handful of respected persistent worlds still operating for Neverwinter Nights 1 alone, all free to play. And while I have never played any multi-player games of Neverwinter Nights 1 or 2, this option undoubtedly adds vastly more potential game play.

And if all of that customization isn't enough, both games have built-in cheats that can help you fine tune your experience to your liking. Cheat codes for both games are readily available all over the web.

Now a few brief words about the downsides for both games. Because Neverwinter Nights is as old as it is, you will probably need to run it in compatibility mode on your PC, which may or may not result in some unexpected crashes now and then. I experience a crash for Neverwinter Nights 1 about once an hour or less often, sometimes while saving. So I'd recommend saving often and in multiple slots.

Neverwinter Nights 2 has similar issues, and has since the day it launched. In general it is not as stable of a game as the original. Glitches sometimes take place around the time that quest lines advance, making it impossible to continue the game. After some hair-pulling, I found the simplest solution was to save often and successively in multiple slots. For example: Save in slot one this time, slot two next time, slot three the time after that, and eventually come back to saving in slot one again.

I kept a bank of 10 save slots, and when I encountered a glitch that wouldn't let me advance, I simply reloaded the last save and replayed a little material again, or the one before that if I didn't find success. In most cases I didn't lose more than 5 minutes or less once I developed the right saving habits. The key for me was to save before talking to named characters and especially characters who advance quests by talking to them. And glitches like this only happened for me once every 2-3 hours or more.

If all this talk of glitches sounds off-putting, I'd emphasize that in light of the fantastic experiences these games provide, the glitches are largely worth it, and not what you will likely think about when looking back on the great adventures you can have in these worlds.

Concerning differences between the two games, there are several worth noting. Neverwinter Nights 2 has noticeably better graphics and animations. Though you'll hear new sound effects and music in Neverwinter Nights 2, there is still quite a bit of recycled material brought back from the first game. You also have the ability to directly control multiple characters in Neverwinter Nights 2, with a maximum of 6 party members. Personally, I didn't use this option much, content to let AI do the work for me. Additionally, party members are often forced on the player that he/she may not choose on their own. I preferred being able to choose my companions in the first game, even if it meant having less control over them.

Although Neverwinter Nights owes a debt to Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age owes a debt to Neverwinter Nights. All three game franchises were developed by Bioware and it doesn't take much to see how they are related. If you are a fan of Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights should be a must buy, even all these years later. And for all other fans of RPG video games, if you've never tried these games before, now is the time.

Both Neverwinter Nights games can be found for fantastic prices, completely free of digital rights management, on They've digitally re-packaged these games to make it easier than ever to install and run them on modern machines. (Their version of NWN2 set up and ran MUCH more easily than the CD copy I got first, and also comes with an exclusive campaign!) also runs great deals frequently on these games if their already incredibly low price for both isn't enough for you. (In fact is running a 40% off sale for both of these games right now that ends on 8/20/13. You can get NWN for $6 and NWN2 for $12!)

As long as I've gone on, this review wouldn't be complete if I didn't talk about the potential these games have to stimulate worthwhile thought or conversation on moral or spiritual issues. Both games take places in the "Forgotten Realms" setting of Dungeons & Dragons. The universe is polytheistic, with each god reflecting exaggerated traits of humans, or stereotypes of various real-world religions.

In settings like these, priests of the "good" gods have high moral values but tend to be out of touch with the common man, even if they are genuinely caring. Just as often they are prideful, hypocritical and power-hungry. It's very rare to run into a priest that doesn't fit one of these descriptions pretty well in either Neverwinter Nights games, even when playing modules created by users. Since there is "nothing new under the sun" and these ideas come from somewhere, these stereotypes always lead me to wonder what experiences with Christians (or those professing to be Christians) the game's writer has had. Are these the impressions we as Christians are giving non-Christians? How much of this is based on reality and how much is in the mind of the writer?

Faith is also handled strangely in many instances, whether in the official campaigns or those created by users. In the Forgotten Realms, as in many D&D type fantasy settings, faith seems to involve a rejection of the pursuit of truth. A priest of the god Lathander once told me, "Being a priest isn't about answers. It's about keeping faith when the answers do not easily come." While there is some truth to that, this response followed a pretty basic question I had just asked him about his beliefs.

There are also numerous opportunities to choose "good" or "evil" paths, depending on how the game's writer defines those terms. Often there is no ideal moral choice available, either because the writer wanted to create conflict in the mind of the player, or because the writer isn't basing their morality on biblical principles.

All of these elements are common to classic Dungeons & Dragons RPGs, but since the Neverwinter Nights games are played through a series of modules and campaigns by numerous creators, it's never easy to know which experiences will emphasize these moral and spiritual elements more than others. But in the broadest strokes, I'd say players are fairly likely to consider their own sense of morality and understanding of who God is at some point while playing Neverwinter Nights 1 or 2.

These games provide an immense amount of both lengthy and varied game play. For me, they represent the best value for my money out of every video game I've ever played. Even "The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim" can't compete with the potential game play you can get from Neverwinter Nights 1 alone. Hundreds of hours of RPG bliss. The games also make a good vehicle for the exploration of moral and spiritual ideas. And based on many of the modules I've played, I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Quality: NWN1- 9.5/10, NWN2 9/10

Relevance: NWN1&2- 8/10

1 comment:

  1. Your last paragraph sums it up pretty nicely. Best game ever.