Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Oct 27, 2007

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

For the most part, I enjoyed Neverwinter Nights 2. I'm not claiming the game was flawless, simply that I enjoyed it, so I was really looking forward to the expansion when it came out. Well, now that I've played it through I can give you my impression of it. It was disappointing.

I was a bit leery from the beginning when I learned that Obsidian was introducing a bizarre and pointless extra game mechanic, the "spirit energy" bar. From what I understood, the idea was to prevent you from resting too often (to recharge spells and abilities) and force you to wage a war of attrition as in most action games. My reaction: D&D is a STRATEGY game, not an ACTION game. The end result of any war of attrition in D&D is always death for the players unless the DM is an absolute management GENIUS. Besides, this was supposed to be the EPIC expansion, and no one feels very EPIC if their adventure is simply a lengthy process of being nickel-and-dimed to death instead of facing something, well, EPIC.

This kind of gets back to some central difficulties with converting a paper-and-dice system to a computer game. D&D is also a turn-based game, which means it doesn't translate especially well to computer games that want to be real time. (Recent turn-based D&D offerings--Pool of Radiance and Temple of Elemental Evil--have been PARALYZINGLY boring.)

In order to compensate for the fact that *no one* could *possibly* keep up with the real-time system and still make all the complex strategic decisions inherent in D&D, the first NwN game limited you to 1 PC. While this goes against the "party" dynamic of D&D, it was at least acceptable. Sure, the enemies were easier because you were only one guy, and they had to make it possible for classes with wildly disparate abilities to overcome all the major challenges, but it was fun.

In NwN2, though, you were back to the unmanageably large party. Obsidian's solution? Not a sensible return to the old Baldur's Gate style of doing things, where you can actually manage your entire party simultaneously without resorting to the semi-useful suggestions (that meaning: your party doesn't always obey them) of "follow", "attack", and "stand there like a complete moron". Instead, we get annoyingly stupid AI, in which the druid NPC persistantly uses one of her most powerful class abilities to transform herself into a badger and thus make herself utterly useless in combat (literally the ONLY way to stop her from doing this is to turn off ALL class abilities ENTIRELY, turning her into little more than a mediocre healer and a secondary blaster). Still, I persevered because, once again, I was having fun.

My concerns about the Spirit Energy Bar were laid mostly to rest when I found out that this is a plot development (i.e. there's a reason for it other than "we didn't want to design actually interesting encounters"). In fact, at the beginning of the expansion it looks like rather a clever plot. It reminds me of my own GMing style to an extent, which a friend of mine once described as "we are screwed". The ceiling falls in on you, and you have to cope.

Sadly, it just doesn't live up to its potential. I was a little anxious at first when I thought my spirit energy might tick away quickly, but I never had *any* difficulty resting. In fact, you can complete the entire game without being *forced* to use your more unsavory abilities, rendering the "moral conflict" aspect somewhat unfulfilling. There are very few areas to explore and most of them lack any significant degree of unexpected cleverness. It is also necessary in some areas to transit though a "shadow world" and complete a different set of challenges on the SAME map. Double your tedium. That mirror universe thing? It's been done.

Obsidian also bragged about how well-developed the NPC's were. Well, that's easy to do when there are ONLY FIVE OF THEM. (And two are exclusive, you can only get one if you don't get the other.) This paucity of companion choice and some really dumb design ideas (hey, let's just make it so that this door mysteriously can't be opened by the spell that HAS NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO OPEN DOORS) mean that there are some things you cannot do as a good character unless you, personally, play the Rogue class. I don't mean class-specific quests. I mean like entire sections of maps that you simply can't access because you can't unlock the freakin' door.

Still, I persevered because I was having fun. It took me a while, but I did eventually get caught up in the story. This was easy for me because the backdrop of the plot is a colossal, monstrous, EPIC injustice and the idea of correcting it and doing battle with the fundamental forces of the Forgotten Realms universe was really, really SWEET.

And then it turns out that you can't actually do anything about it in the end. You can't complete the EPIC goal, you can only manage to sorta save yourself. LAME. In fact, they go to great effort to pound your helplessness in the face of this enormity in the conclusion by having one of the NPC's get screwed over by it AGAIN.

Oh, and they sort of end on another cliffhanger. Sigh.

1 comment:

Andarian said...

Jennifer, thanks for the MOTB review. I haven't had a chance to play it yet and your thoughts were helpful in giving some perspective to what I've heard about it.

I agree that D&D is closer to being a strategy game than an action game -- but I think it's really in a separate category from either. It's a Role-Playing Game, or RPG. D&D isn't just about the battles, whether fought with turn-based or real-time combat dynamics. When done well and utilized to its full potential, it's a storytelling medium. And it makes possible an immersive form of storytelling that is not just passive, but interactive -- one in which the player can become an active agent in the story.

That's why I think that Computer RPGs like Neverwinter Nights have a great deal of promise as a potential medium for the evolution of a new kind of fiction -- and why I've become enthusiastic about building custom game modules and stories for it myself.