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This is about the Bioware game, not the America Online one. Though, you probably already knew that.
The not-so Forgotten Realms
I haven't played the Hordes of the Underdark expansion, nor have I played this game multiplayer. This little essay will concentrate on the single-player aspect that I'm familiar with.
I'm a fan of Bioware's games. I loved the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale series, and Planescape: Torment. Neverwinter Nights (hereafter: NWN) seemed a natural extension to these games. Seemed. The truth of the matter, it isn't. The focus of NWN is arguably multiplayer, not single. From hearsay, I believe the best way to enjoy this game is online though like I mentioned, I've never tried it.
It features the 3rd Edition Dungeon & Dragons ruleset meaning mages and sorcerers aren't restricted from wearing armour, etc. There's penalties for doing so, but there's no outright prohibition, like there was in older D&D games. A gripe that I brought up in my xerogram for Pools of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor is that sorcerer's skill is based on charisma not intelligence. Makes close to no sense at all to me why this is the case, but oh well. Unlike that game, NWN is thoroughly documented so there's no stealth discoveries to be made. Also unlike that game, you can make and play bards.
NWN uses a variable 3D isometric viewpoint which takes some getting used to. One of the better things about this setup is that you can pivot the point-of-view about your character to get a 360° view on proceedings. This is good for planning out tactical encounters, not to mention better to loot things lying about.
Once you've conquered the foibles of the viewpoint, you can actually get into the swing of the game. NWN's single-player storyline is quite good for a game geared toward multiplayer. It's the usual bad guy wants to take over the known world scenario but at times the story forks into plot-lines that are intriguing, such as the one concerning the Creator Race.
Like Baldur's Gate 1, there's a fair amount of "Fed-exing" in the game, where one NPC tells you to take item A to character B and there's a great deal of linearity here. Nothing is really meant to be done out of order. In fact, a lot the game involves clearing out section A of monsters, so you can get to section B to do the same thing all over again. It's more fun than it sounds though. In fact, one of the modules (player-built adventures) I've downloaded is a re-make of the original Pool of Radiance, which essentially was a series of missions to clear out square sections of Phlan.
Everything is point and click, movement and combat and looting/giving. It's fairly intuitive.
The game world is made up of pre-fabricated tilesets and it shows. When you reach a playfield border, the area past the active gaming area looks decidely fake. It's a large flat expanse of the main surface you are on, be it paving stones, grass, etc, and ends in sort of a fog. It detracts from the continuity of the game. There's no true curves here; in fact, the way the playfield pieces join remind me of Squad Leader boards together.
This is all to facilitate the making of modules. The toolset that comes with the game is a no-brainer to use and in minutes you can have a decent town made up. Like with Morrowind, it's this aspect of the game that has given it both popularity and longevity. There's more to it than just slapping tilesets together obviously and the scripting of dialogue and events is a science in itself.
Lastly, the music and sounds in the game are terrific. I especially liked the sinister sounds that accompany expeditions to graveyards and the like. Eerie and eldritch stuff. Some of the environments are wonderful, like the green mist and the falling leaves in some of the forest areas.
It's a great game with vast replayability if one downloads or creates modules to play. One I mentioned above was the re-make of Pool of Radiance. Other folk have recreated either old D&D modules such as Keep on the Borderlands or actual games like Ultima 7: The Black Gate. NWN's engine seems to be adaptable enough to do this.
I've noticed no real bugs in the game, though the game does suffer video lag here and there, though I'd put most of that down to my current video card.
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