Neverwinter Nights (2002, RPG): The Netbook Gamer

Neverwinter Nights is a RPG based on the Dungeons and Dragons rules developed and published by Bioware in 2002. Since then it has been patched, expanded, enhanced, gotten loads of community extensions, and patched some more, and remains a favorite game for module developers and multiplayer gamers alike. But is it something for the netbook gamer? Read on for my review of this RPG classic with a special look at how the original game and all of the commercial expansions play on a netbook.

I tend to tell my ‘abandon and rediscover’ story regarding the RPG genre often when talking about games released before 2003, and will repeat it here. I was playing the earliest Wizardry games on my Apple ][+, but did very little gaming through most of the 80’s, and only picked back up when Wolf 3D came out – and even them my focus was pretty singularly on the FPS genre. At the recommendation of a friend, my wife bought me Diablo when it came out in late 1996, and after a few hours playing and hating it I set the game – and the entire RPG genre – aside.

That is, until mid-2003, when I was enjoying the excellent Star Wars games releases and anticipating the upcoming release of Knights of the Old Republic. Since I had only played a single RPG in more than a decade, I sought some advice on what I should play to get myself ready. I was pointed towards Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights (NWN), and coincidentally Bioware was just about to release the Mac version of the game, so I grabbed the demo which had just come out and gave it a try! As it turned out, I enjoyed the demo, loved the game, and got myself totally immersed in the genre and have been a huge RPG fan for the last 6.5 years or so!

Bioware started advertising for Neverwinter Nights back in Baldur’s Gate 2, talking about bringing in characters and so on. Coming off the heels of Baldur’s Gate 2, a game that had exceeded the epic expectations of the gaming world based on the excellent Baldur’s Gate, Bioware had quite a large task ahead of them. There was also a huge advertising campaign based around the ease of creating modules using the NWN tools. In short, NWN promised something for everyone – epic single player experience, deep multiplayer, easy to use tool set that facilitates content creation, Dungeon Master client for running games, and so on.

The game is based on the 3rd edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rule set, and as such the process for creating a character is more or less familiar to folks who had played any of the earlier D&D games, most of which used the 2nd edition. You choose gender, race (each one except for humans get a bonus and hindrance), class (standard D&D classes such as Fighter, Cleric, Mage – Wizard and Sorcerer, Ranger, Rogue, and so on), attributes, alignment, feats, skills, spells (for magic users), appearance, and so on.

Leveling up is slightly more complex as each character and race has a different formula for when you get new attribute points and feats and how spells are allocated. Fortunately NWN came with a decent manual (reduced to an on-disk PDF for later releases). The manual details the various character classes, the racial bonuses, different skills and attributes and spells, and is a great way to learn about some of the D&D implementation in NWN.

Neverwinter Nights opens with a fairly typical tutorial that gets you familiar with controls and how to make things work for your particular character class, from inventory to movement to spells to managing henchmen to leveling up. The tutorial ends with a critical turn in the plot that leads you right into the main game.

Technically Neverwinter Nights remains an excellent game. The visuals were generally praised on release, and through scalability and patches they still look quite good on a wide variety of machines. The music by Jeremy Soule is definitely some of his best work and adds to the experience. Also, the ambient sounds, voice acting, and visual effects and character animations are extremely well done and have lost none of their charm over the years.

The controls are, well, abundant. You move your character with the typical WASD or by clicking on a spot to move. You open your character sheet by pressing ‘C’, ‘I’ for inventory, ‘J’ for journal, and so on. You move the camera around with the arrow keys depending on your camera mode (more on that in a moment). Perhaps the coolest thing is the stacked hotkey bars. You have 12 quick-keys (F1 – F12) to access everything from weapons to items to spells, and by pressing the shift key you get another set of keys to use, and controls gives you a third set! That is 36 easily available hotkeys! When playing as a mage I tend to put my buffs on the standard keys, ‘meat and potatoes’ spells on the shift-keys, and less used (but still valuable) spells on the control bar.

Of course, if you don’t want to use the hotkeys, you can access everything using a radial menu by right clicking on a target. That brings up their portrait and lets you choose from special abilities, talking, examining, casting spells, attacking and other class-specific actions.

Previous Bioware games used the Infinity engine (also used by Black Isle Games, who created the Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment games using the engine), which presented a game in a fixed angle isometric view with no rotation. Neverwinter Nights introduced the Aurora engine, which allowed pan and zoom as well as free rotation of the camera.

The game’s tutorial stepped through the standard camera modes: top-down, drive and chase. These camera modes allowed different players to adapt the view to a mode they felt most comfortable with, from a more traditional top-down strategic view to something closer to a third person action game. My personal preference was the Chase Camera, which followed your motions but allowed a wide range of zooming options.

Neverwinter Nights uses a new version of the ‘real-time with pause’ combat system from the Baldur’s Gate games, enhanced to focus more on single player combat and provide a faster action feel while still allowing the player to strategically pause and plan. I say ‘single player’ because while you can have a henchman (or as of the Hordes of the Underdark expansion, two henchmen), this was not a traditional party-based game. This got the game roundly criticized by fans of Baldur’s Gate, but as I was just coming into the genre from FPS, for me it was very exciting and worked perfectly – I could take care of myself and if my henchman fell during combat they would come back at a preset location and for a small cost could be brought back to the team.

The story tells of a plague that has come to Neverwinter, and how the Paladin Lady Aribeth has managed to gather four creatures that are believed to be able to combine to create the cure. Of course, the even that happens during the tutorial means that the creatures are lost and scattered and you need to spend the next couple dozen hours gathering them back up again.

The main quest of Chapter One involves venturing into the four main regions of Neverwinter and solving the mystery created by the creature, killing them off and bringing the body to Aribeth. Of course, there are loads of side-quests along the way; everything earns you experience, but some quests gain you ‘lawful’ or ‘good’ points, while others bring you ‘chaotic’ or ‘evil’ alignment shifts. That is in keeping with the traditional D&D alignment grid, which dictates certain classes must maintain certain alignments – for example, if a Paladin does too much evil he is seen as ‘fallen’ and can no longer benefit from special class perks.

I said Chapter One is involved with the search for the creatures – but there are actually four chapters! The game opens up after the first chapter as you need to uncover a larger plot and find and destroy those responsible for the plague. Along the way you will be involved with a myriad of quests, some for different factions, others for your henchman (and you can – and should – try to use as many as possible), and some that just pop up along the way. Each time I have completed the game it has taken me about 80 hours for the OC (original campaign).

There are two potential romance options that will change the plot somewhat, but it is nothing compared to the scope of the romances available in Baldur’s Gate 2 in terms of depth or scope. There are also some flirtations with one henchman and a limited romance with another that are possible. I enjoyed all of these when I first played and still pursue them in replays, but after struggling through the Baldur’s Gate 2 romance with Jaheira I no longer look upon them the same way.

Playing a game after several years always brings new perspective. However, I have played some part or other of Neverwinter Nights each year since release. I mean, there was new content all the way into the fall of 2006, right before the sequel was released. And even during those times I would replay some of the original campaign or the expansions or modules – but putting it on my netbook last fall represented the first time I had ever attempted to replay the entire experience from beginning to end. It washed away all of the flaws that have been patched through the years, brought all the remaining flaws to the fore, yet also reaffirmed my love for this classic.

I have talked about the story – but not commented on whether or not I like it as of yet. This is a tricky area with RPG fans. Most people – even fans of NWN – consider the original campaign of NWN to be weak and boring. Personally, I never shared that opinion. Certainly it is not a ground-breaking tale, but there is plenty to do and it is highly entertaining, and the experience is varied enough to be enjoyable for multiple player classes taking different role-playing approaches.

My criticisms of the core story elements are that the game is often uneven, varying between exciting and boring tasks that feel like drudgery. This actually had little to do with the story as told by Bioware, and more to do with the fact that I like to work through all of the henchmen tales. This involves taking each one on initially, playing some amount with them, talking to them until no more options were available, and completing each of their side-quests.

As for the henchmen themselves, they are never full members of your party, just companions who help you out and you help them along. As a reward for helping them you gain special items and experience points, as well as the ability to help them again in the next chapter. Depending on your alignment or class, using some characters might be more difficult than others – if you are a (lawful good) Paladin, taking on a chaotic evil henchmen can be distasteful … if you are role-playing.

The main characters are fairly traditional ‘hero’s quest’ fare, all falling well in line with many of Bioware’s other games (for example, one reason I liked Aribeth so much is that she is very similar in character type and story arc to Bastilla from Knights of the Old Republic). There is plenty of depth to the characters and the lore in all of the areas, you just need to want to explore it all.

Perhaps as a side-effect of the Aurora engine, most of the areas are relatively small and the overall game structure is fairly linear. This was definitely another issue with gamers – just as we were getting games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Gothic 1 & 2 with open worlds for exploration, Neverwinter Nights features tons of content, but it all felt very confined and linearly presented.

In terms of running on the netbook, I have had some mixed experiences. My initial install was on my HP Mini-Note, and it was such a terrible experience that I never got through the tutorial. On the Lenovo s10, however, I was smarter and installed all of the texture packs and spent a fair amount of time tweaking for a balance of presentation quality and performance. And for the most part it has worked quite well.

However, there were many times when I was thankful for the turn-based nature of the game, since things like number of enemies and area-of-effect spells tend to bog things down considerably. Playing anything outside of the original game generally makes matters worse, and I’ll make specific notes on the added content at the end of the review.

So I would summarize my netbook experience by saying that it is playable, but will push your hardware very hard. Expect your fans to be working overtime, to have to set your PC to ‘Performance Mode’, and to see significant battery use as a result.

Neverwinter Nights was the sort of game that divided gamers who were gravitating towards more action-oriented content from those looking for a more traditional experience. And even within the more traditional audience, Bioware’s shift to a more single-player focus and action-centric combat system was met with loads of criticism from fans of their earlier work.

Yet Bioware persevered: they added two expansions, and six official Premium Modules to the heap, making the complete gaming experience last nearly 200 hours without even considering replayability, multiplayer or unofficial content. Indeed, one of my favorites was Darkness Over Daggerford form Ossian Studios, which was originally meant to be a Premium Module … and in my mind is better than any of the commercial modules – yet it is freely available.

I owe Neverwinter Nights a debt of gratitude for pulling me back into the RPG genre, as I have been rewarded with thousands of hours of quality gaming for the last 6.5 years in games I might never have found otherwise. There are many flaws in the game, but it remains a fun, challenging, and rewarding experience that any fan of the genre should experience – and it works well enough on the netbook that it is worth loading it up and rolling yourself a character!

Notes on the Expansions: Bioware released two expansions for NWN – Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark.

Shadows of Undrentide (SoU) was a small module about 20 hours long where the player starts a new character and works through up to about level 12 or so. The story is told in three modules, two chapters and an interlude, and occurred at roughly the same time as the original campaign. It brought in new ‘Prestige’ classes, as well as new skills and spells. It also introduces the hilarious character Deekin, who is similar to Dobby from the Harry Potter books. Personally this was my least favorite official release, but I still enjoyed playing through it again, and performance on the netbook was solid throughout.

Hordes of the Underdark (HotU) is an ‘epic level quest’, and lasts about 30 hours. Being ‘Epic Level’ means you start at a minimum of level 15, and can get all the way to level 40 by the end of the game – by which time I thought my netbook was going to melt under the strain of some of the massive spells and hordes of enemies in battles. HotU brought in the ability to have a second henchman, as well as more new prestige classes and epic level skill and spells. You were able to forge weapons and enchant them with properties for gold, which allowed me to have my mage’s staff emit a fury of elemental damage! I loved HotU when it came out … and still love it now!

Notes on the Premium Modules: After the second expansion, Bioware did something new and innovative: it opened an online store and started selling in-house modules created with their tools that they called ‘Premium Modules’. There were already hundreds of quality fan-made modules, so this was met with some initial resistance, but Bioware said they were putting all revenue from the modules back into supporting the community. Personally I enjoyed them all – just as I have enjoyed many fan-made modules!

The modules released were Kingmaker, Witch’s Wake, Shadowguard, Pirates of the Sword Coast, Infinite Dungeons. After Infinite Dungeons came out Atari and Bioware canceled the program, thereby stranding Darkness Over Daggerford. Ossian Studios released it free to the community, and a few months later Bioware released the last Premium Module, Wyvern Crown of Cormyr.

I had done a full Premium Module review article in the past for a (now defunct) site, and you can read it all here at Gear Diary now! The sad thing – because of contractual reasons, Bioware had to pull the Premium Modules from their store, so you can no longer purchase them, but can continue to play if you already own a copy.

RetroGamer Perspective: Neverwinter Nights might be more than 7 years old, but the flow of expansions and ‘premium modules’ for nearly four years, as well as patches from Bioware all the way into 2009 means that the experience is much more fresh.

Netbook Gamer Perspective:
– Digital Download / CD version? – there is not a digital download version, only versions on 3 CD’s or later special releases on DVD.

– Installation Notes: CD-installation goes quickly and easily, and when you are done installing you simply enter your serial number and then patch the game up to date, and you are ready to play.

One note on installing on a netbook: by default the installer will look at your system and likely recommend you only install the 64MB texture pack. Whatever you do, just check all three packs – 16MB, 32MB and 64MB – as that will give you the most flexibility at setting options and optimizing performance.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install of just the main game takes > 2.5GB, but when all of the patches, expansions and premium modules are added, my NWN folder exceeded 7GB!

– CD Required to Play? Patch 1.68 removed the need for a CD to play the game, which makes it very netbook friendly.

– Control Considerations? The control set is amazing as noted in the review. On a netbook you often don’t have all function keys – on my Lenovo I had to use a multi-key approach to get to F12, which became more convoluted when I wanted to use the alternate control sets.

– Will it run on a VIA C7? It will ‘run’ but I consider it ‘unplayable’ and don’t recommend it.

– Will it run with 1GB RAM? Yes, but due to the way the game works it is preferable to have 2GB.

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP? No problems at all – Windows XP was the ‘OS of choice’ when NWN was released.

– Does it work with Vista? Yes, but the overhead can make it unplayable.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? There is a Mac version of NWN with all expansions and premium modules, and Bioware has also provided support for the game running on Linux.

Conclusion: Neverwinter Nights remains a popular game for multiplayer sessions, and the module creation community still thrives. After nearly seven years this game has truly attained classic status – there are many who find the main story lacking, but there is no question that the game presents an awesome amount of content and role-playing opportunities to those ready to devote dozens of hours to it.

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  1. Allistair Lee
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