Top positive review
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An improvement over the original in some ways, but in others a step backwards
on January 28, 2008
I want to get this out of the way - it's taken me a very long time to get from start to finish of Neverwinter Nights 2, and for good reason. When the game shipped in 2006 it was all but unplayable for many people because performance was just atrocious. For this reason, I couldn't get passed the first hour or so of the game; it was just too distracting. But the state of the game now is not the state of the game as it was at release. Numerous patches and an expansion pack have made me pick up the game again to give it another try, and I was pleasantly surprised with the game's improvement.
Character Creation (not scored)
When you first start the game, you'll be taken to the Character Creation screen. There are many, many, options for you when you start character creation, and I'm not just referring to what color hair your character has. So much so that it's overwhelming. In fact, I almost didn't get into the game at all because I didn't know what to do. There isn't really a tutorial or anything to help you figure it all out; instead, the game just gives you paragraphs of information on the right side of the screen detailing complicated, esoteric Dungeons and Dragons jargon. I will revisit this problem later when I talk about game-play, for it is a problem that permeates the game - in order to get the most out of the game you really need to have a pre-requisite knowledge of the way D&D works. It wasn't anywhere near as overwhelming in the original game or Baldur's Gate or other D&D based games - the game worked with or without your own personal experience with the game's systems. So when the game describes dice rolls, and stat offsets without explaining what they mean, it alienates the less hardcore consumer who hasn't spent half their life in a dank basement rolling for initiative. In the end, I just chose one of the pre-set character customization options or else I never would have gotten started. I will say, though, for the aforementioned D&D fanatic, the options and classes are very deep and varied; just don't expect for the game to cut you any slack, at first at least.
This is one of the game's biggest strengths. Within the main campaign, you will easily find 50+ hours worth of playtime. The game takes place in the Forgotten Realms, more specifically the Sword Coast. You play a guy/girl/creature from a small southern swamp town, with an unknown destiny. There is an attack on your town at the beginning of the game, leading you to discover said destiny and set off on an epic journey to the city of Neverwinter and beyond. The set-up is very familiar, but the execution is top-notch. There is political betrayal and intrigue, racial tension and other problems to contend with that help make the world feel alive and vibrant.
The game also employs use of a good/evil alignment system that attempts to make character interaction more interesting, but it doesn't have any effect on the story at large - you'll still end up battling the same final boss, and you'll either win or lose. Which brings me to the main problem with the campaign: its linearity. The world is large, but you'll discover it in a very linear manner. There are side quests, but for the most part, they are just optional objectives to fulfill along the main story arc, rather than allowing you to explore other parts of the Sword Coast.
Game-play is exactly what you would expect of a D&D game. The difference between the original and the sequel, though, is that you control an entire party of four people rather than just one. You have complete control over your henchmen, rather than having the game automate all of their actions. The AI does control them when you want them to, but you have the option of micro-managing every action and level up.
Battle consists of giving orders to your characters, watch them act out those orders, hitting the space bar to pause the game, giving more orders and doing it all over again. It isn't really any different that it has been in games like Baldur's Gate, but why fix what isn't broken? It's fun, engaging, and the reason to play the game. If you didn't like it before, you won't like it here, but it's dungeon crawling at its finest.
The game gives you a rather slow-moving, basic tutorial at the beginning of the game to orient you with the way combat works. It sort of does its job, but once again, the game doesn't really teach you the way D&D works. So you either learn it elsewhere or ignore the underlying mechanisms, but it will make you feel like you don't understand what's really going on if you do just ignore it. The idea behind having a computer version of a D&D game is to automate it for you, but I felt alienated by being kept in the dark, and I often didn't know how to play different classes.
Also, it is FAR easier to play as a melee-oriented class than a caster. Because you need to rest constantly to recharge spells, you won't always have your basic spells to use on your foes. When your casters have leveled enough, this will cease to be a problem, but if you start out as a mage, expect to rest after every encounter for the first 8 or 9 hours of the game. Also, you won't be able to manage any kind of aggro, so be prepared to need a fighter or warrior to get through most battles. This is part of the challenge of the game and the nature of D&D, but playing a fighter really is a breeze, while playing a sorcerer can be an exercise in frustration. Also, the AI is okay, but you'll notice sorcerers using their most powerful spells on rats when just a magic missile will do. As such, you'll probably want to order around all of your characters rather than trusting the AI. Inventory management can be clunky, too, but you generally have plenty of space for everything you want to pick up and sell.
All of these issues are often minor, though, and playing the game is a blast most of the time. After a few hours you'll get a handle on how everything works, and it'll start to feel more natural. Later in the game you gain control of a fortress, which is yours to reinforce and work on, hire soldiers for, etc., which is also really engaging.
And here we reach the biggest issue with the game. The game just wasn't programmed to perform well on most systems. Especially considering the level of graphical detail inherent in the game design, performance is downright awful. Framerates rarely exceeded 15fps for me, and I have a gigabyte of video memory and two gigs of ram. The game has a particularly difficult time dealing with SLi or multi-core processors, which may have resulted from the game's lengthy development period. The patches and updates have made a big difference, but since then huge game-breaking bugs have reared their ugly heads.
By far the biggest bug is one where the game actually deletes party members from your roster. It wouldn't be such a huge issue if certain campaign events didn't require you to have specific characters in your party at the time. See, the game stores character information every time you change scenery. However, when you have a familiar summoned, it will overwrite your useful tiefling thief or dwarf fighter, or what have you, with that familiar, effectively losing said character. It requires clunky file manipulation or a game restart, to fix which almost made me give up the game after 35 hours of playing. It is inexcusable to have such an enormous bug in the game a year and a half after release still in its code. Also, in order sidestep said bug, you have to unsummon all creatures every time you leave a scene, which is just irritating. Patch documentation state that this has been addressed, but this is a flat-out lie; I started a new game after all the latest updates had been installed.
Even with the game's poor performance, the game looks okay. It kind of gets away with it much of the time because it doesn't require twitch action from the player. The backgrounds are pretty, with certain districts of Neverwinter being almost beautiful. The spell effects are the highlight of the game, with firebolts, mage missiles, and ice balls being flung all over the place during combat. It's very pleasant to look at while fighting, and satisfying when a meteor storm obliterates a boss character.
However the characters look like they fell out of a time warp circa 2001. They often look awful, and the hair is particularly bad. I would expect character models of this caliber on the PSP, not on PCs. Also, the graphics engine is buggy, with random flickering happening quite frequently. Again, this all depends on your setup, but it is the norm, rather than the exception, if forum dwellers are to be believed. Loading times are very high, framerates are low, and bugs abound. The camera is particularly suspect - it's kind of isometric, kind of over the shoulder, but you there is no automation whatsoever, so plan on constantly manually moving it to get a better view of the action. Even more frustrating is the fact that it doesn't save where you were last looking with it when you transition to a new area, so you end up with an awful view every time you gain control of your characters. I don't know what was wrong with the way the original camera worked, but it detracts from the game experience.
I don't really have any criticism here. The voice acting is of high-quality across the board, the orchestral music is compelling and fitting, and the sound effects are satisfying. This is easily the most consistent part of the game.
All of the issues can really creep up on you while you play, and it's unfortunate that there are so many of them because there truly is a lot of fun to be had here for the persistent. All of this isn't really new to PC gamers, who are used to doing all kinds of tweaking to get games to work, but a history of this doesn't exclude Obsidian from the responsibility of releasing such an unpolished an inconsistent piece of software. That having been said, once I got the game working at a stable rate, I had a great time discovering and becoming part of its world and the tale it has to tell. The bottom line is that it's fun, engaging, and deep. Keep in mind the bugs and problems you may encounter before making a purchase, but it has my recommendation.
-Fun, deep gameplay
-Extremely inconsistent performance
-Difficult to get started
-Complicated game systems
-Lack of in-game explanation of those systems
Overall Score - 8/10