Neverwinter Nights 2 for the Mac (App Store Version)

Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2) arrived late in 2006 on the PC, and the Mac version took about sixteen months longer to arrive on Mac OS X. In fact, the first expansion for the PC game arrived before the Mac port, but unlike the expansions for the original Neverwinter Nights there is not a simple way to get ‘Mask of the Betrayer’ (or ‘Storm of Zehir’ or the ‘Mysteries of Westgate’ adventure pack) running on your Mac. I had thoroughly enjoyed the PC version of NWN2 when it was released, declaring it the best RPG of 2006 over Oblivion and Gothic 3 despite the fact that it had a number of bugs and camera issues that took some patching to fix. So I knew that the core of the Mac game would be very good, it was all about the quality of port. Now that NWN2 has been released on the Mac App Store I found myself wanting to play again, so I grabbed it on a recent sale and made another run through. For those who have not played the original game I will run through a review of the entire game and also comment on things I noticed specific to the Mac version.

The Hype:

Build a character that suits your style of play – good or evil, chaotic or lawful, with any number of skills, feats and professions available at the click of a button. Whether lobbing fireballs and researching forgotten spells as a powerful Wizard, hacking a trail through legions of Orcs as a Fighter armed only with a battle axe and your courage, or taking on the role of a Rogue that can slip into the shadows at a moment’s notice, the choice is yours. Choose your alignment, your allies, your companions, and how you want your character to develop… design the character you want, role-play the way you want, and carry the battle to the enemy.

The Reality:
To me the release of the original NWN2 signaled a basic battle for the RPG genre – between Oblivion and Neverwinter Nights 2. It isn’t about whether or not they are good games – both are excellent – but what they mean to the genre, and what they say about the future of the genre.

But let’s start talking about Neverwinter Nights 2 by talking about the original Neverwinter Nights from 2002. That game was amazingly successful, despite being in a position that suggests disappointment – it followed on the heels of the beloved Baldur’s Gate series, was the subject of much pre-release hype, and promised to break new ground in several new areas at once. Yet after four years, two expansions and six premium modules, the game is still enormously popular as a single player and multiplayer experience, as well as maintaining myriad persistent worlds and fan modules. The toolkit has been used to create modules so large and deep (such as the excellent Darkness Over Daggerford) that they rival full RPGs released by commercial studios. Yet the original campaign released with the game shows up regularly on ‘most disappointing’ lists for hardcore gamers, many of whom put in several hours a week playing the game in modules and multiplayer sessions. For them the original content created by Bioware was more of a demo of some possibilities than an interesting story worthy of carrying the game. Indeed, through the years the original game has been in continuous development, with tremendous amounts of community support. That is the legacy that Neverwinter Nights 2 inherits.

Neverwinter Nights 2 looked to make advances in all of the same areas as the original – strong single player content, solid multiplayer experience, excellent toolkit and support for all aspects of the user community. It is very successful as a game and as a sequel. As a game it is solid and fun, delivering dozens of hours of interesting and challenging role-playing despite being even more linear than the original. The role of a sequel is to feel at once new and familiar, fresh and accessible. Neverwinter Nights 2 does an excellent job of bringing new things to an existing and well-established genre – you get the same action-packed turn-based combat, interesting story and characters as before, but the roles of the party members are much greater than before. Indeed, for the first time since Baldur’s Gate 2 you feel like you are really leading a party of disparate individuals requiring your attention and adding to your experience. As for the other things – multiplayer, toolkit and community support – we will discuss those later.

One significant difference from the original game is the use of the updated AD&D 3.5 rule set. The changes here are not on the scale of those made between the version 2.0 and 3.0 rule sets – which was reflected in many of the character and class differences between Baldur’s Gate 2 and the original Neverwinter Nights. Changes to the rule system this time are largely about balancing the characters. For example, people who played a Sorcerer in Neverwinter Nights could change all of their spell choices every level, and also casting haste spells would allow them to cast extra spells per round. Now they can only change spells occasionally, and haste doesn’t impact spell casting. Indeed, haste has been significantly limited – you can no longer have items that are permanently hasted, similar to items that cast a permanent light source; instead items allow you to cast the haste spell multiple times a day, similar to other enchanted items. I have to admit to really missing this ability – but at the same time I know that having it caused my Sorcerer to get entirely too powerful, especially at very high ‘epic’ levels in the final ‘Hordes of the Underdark’ expansion to the original game.

The next difference is in the graphics and performance. There is a clear progression in the look of recent Bioware and Obsidian games from Knights of the Old Republic to KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords, and now from Neverwinter Nights to Neverwinter Nights 2. Each game looks better than the last, but the performance suffers greatly. It isn’t just the absolute performance either – it’s the relative performance, or the way a game looks compared to how it runs on a computer that meets the recommended specifications. The original Neverwinter Nights looked and performed very well even on systems just passing the minimum system requirements.

The sequel, however, is a pig. It is certainly better looking that the original – or even the more recent KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords, and the details and environments are nicely done. But even on systems exceeding the recommended system requirements, the performance is not very good, with frequent drops in frame rate. It is possible to get solid performance by tweaking your settings and figuring out your system bottlenecks and getting good performance, but for too many this game is just frustrating in terms of performance. Many PC gamers complained that NWN2 was just too demanding for them, and that as RPG gamers they had no interest in joining the annual ‘upgrade dance’ that FPS players are forced to endure.

The Mac version took this poor relative performance to a whole new level – from what I have experienced and seen on forums, if you don’t have a Mac that is sold by Apple either new or refurbished (in other words, either current or last generation), expect to struggle to get decent performance with even moderate visual quality. I started the game in 2008 on a ‘first generation’ top of the line Intel MacBook Pro, and playing the game was a disaster. This computer could easily run the PC version with excellent performance under Apple’s ‘Bootcamp’ system running Windows XP, yet was very sluggish performing at lower resolution and with fewer graphical details on the Mac version.

Installing the Mac App Store version game on a new, Core i7-based, top of the line 15″ Macbook Pro was much more satisfying and I never had any serious performance issues … but makes gamers ask just how much it is worth to play a 2006 game!

Playing NWN2 is very similar to the original in terms of character creation, advancement and progression through the story. You create a character based on all of the usual D&D characteristics – gender, race, class, skills & feats, and so on. You can modify the appearance of your character, but if you are looking to spend thirty minutes making your character’s chin look like your favourite TV character then you should just return to Oblivion now. Once you are ready to explore, the game begins. You start off as a simple villager in training with one of several local residents, depending on which class you selected during character creation, and proceed through a Harvest Fair section that also serves as a tutorial. From there the action immediately picks up and you need to put your new skills into practice. The game’s combat engine is turn-based, but you can play it almost entirely as an action RPG if you choose. You can click the ground to move to a location, or use the ‘WASD’ keys to walk around in third person mode. You attack simply by clicking on a hostile target, or you can select a special skill or spell to use on an enemy. You have an action queue that displays four items at a time, but that can stack commands up to eighteen deep. This is very useful late in the game when you need to make sure one of your party is carrying out a particular task while you control characters engaged in combat.

The party system has changed considerably from the original game – and entirely for the good. Well, perhaps there is one downside – if you are a spellcaster then you will find that your familiar is much more ornamental than your previous true companion. That is not a major loss though, especially since you get a party of characters instead of the henchmen from Neverwinter Nights. This means that they all are fully developed characters with needs and wants that you must work with – in the original game there was a side quest to get at your henchman’s history in order to gain special powerful items. Some of the characters you meet up with are fairly ordinary archetypes, but there are several very interesting characters that definitely spice up things on your travels. And similar to some of the better party based RPGs, your companions don’t always agree with you – and aren’t afraid to say something! The influence system shown in KOTOR 2 is used to great effect here, as your standing with certain characters impacts quests, obtaining items and even the end of the game! There are some issues with the dialogue with party members though – outside of triggered times when you can have certain discussions, they have little to say, but that won’t stop them from repeating the same conversation over and again.

The story is very good overall, but is nothing surprising or particularly innovative – there is no ‘Revan moment’ here. But that doesn’t make the story a failure – in fact, it allows breadth in other areas. As mentioned before, the characters in your party are interesting, with distinct personalities and histories that add to the experience. Also, there are a number of major elements of the game that are more about expanding gameplay than adding to the story (I’ll not spoil it here, but suffice it to say one of these also features in the ‘Darkness Over Daggerford’ module for the original NWN). There are romantic options for male and female characters, but evidently only heterosexual choices (sorry Juhani lovers). The romance is only slightly different from the typical quest-oriented romance found in most RPGs, as it is your actions and decisions that decide what will happen.

Although many people complain about the system requirements and performance, perhaps an even more divisive issue is the sound. More specifically, they complain about the reuse of audio assets from the original game. The soundtrack is once again varied and stirring, with sweeping themes appropriate to each situation and location. While the music and voices are new and very well done, the sounds of spellcasting and other effects are identical to those from the original game. Does this matter? It depends on your view of what should be in a new game and also your opinion of the original Neverwinter Nights. If you loved the original then this won’t be an issue – unless you feel strongly that a sequel should not have anything carried directly from its predecessor. In my opinion the sound works very well throughout the game and I welcomed the familiar themes. I was looking at this again specifically as I played the Mac App Store version and found that nothing stood out – when initially playing on the PC the differences were distinct, but now it all seemed to blend much better.

The gameplay is very linear – both in terms of the story progression and the area layout. There are a few puzzles that suggest non-linearity, but for the overwhelming majority of the time all you need to do is talk to a few people and move to different areas and you will get through the main quest in forty to sixty hours. Is this good or bad? That really depends on how you play the game and your personal preference. Personally I prefer more actual non-linearity, but who just wants to play the main quest anyway? The greater joy in role-playing games comes from exploring every nook and cranny, every last possible side quest available to test your character. Since Neverwinter Nights 2 is alignment and class-based, each character can have a significantly different game experience – not everyone is going to want to walk in the footsteps of a Paladin as I did on my first time through, but trying different combinations of class and alignment allows you to experience a greater depth out of the game. So I would call the linearity a ‘mixed bag’ in terms of impact on gameplay, as the game provides some options to find areas outside of the main quest, but mostly it is just a main quest and a fair amount of side-quests you can grab if you are thorough in each area.

My personal preference is towards single player gaming over multiplayer. When I first completed the PC version of the game I checked around and found a few small modules that were more ‘proof of concept’ than anything else. Just over 5 years later I looked again and discovered a few things: that the path of the toolkit for the PC has been slow and bumpy (and non-existent for the Mac), that many really good and substantive modules are being released for single and multiplayer, but that the amount of patience people have waiting for this stuff is much lower than when the original was released. For single player fans this isn’t a big deal – reinstall the game and try out some modules. I have fiddled with the ‘Pools of Radiance’ remake as well as a couple by famed NWN module developer Adam Miller, and they were all very well done – and all single-player only.

It is well known that much of the life expectancy of a game is due to multiplayer. For role-playing games this often consists of playing single player campaigns cooperatively rather than using computer controlled characters. Other times, players create custom campaigns especially for group exploration and combat, with one person playing an active ‘dungeon master’ similar to pencil-and-paper role-playing games. Still other times, ‘persistent world’ servers allow players to join and leave as time allows, maintaining records of all player activity and world states. Neverwinter Nights excelled at these, and the sequel looks to deliver similarly. I have little direct experience with any of these, but some things are clear. Obsidian didn’t have the NWN2 Toolkit in any shape to be released when the game shipped, and it has made very slow progress since. It is a testament to the skill and perseverance of module makers that they have slogged through this all to produce excellent work, with much more on the way.

But things have not been so rosy for multiplayer modules. There has been a relative paucity of modules released, and many of those have not had the greatest implementation of the DM-player model. Many online NWN teams that had planned to migrate to NWN2 have gone back to the original NWN or just found something else. Progress is being made, but it is just too slow. Major patches continue to be released to address all of the issues, but it always feels like the toolkit and DM client is at the bottom of the priority list. Of course, for Mac users this is a non-issue, since just like with the original game NWN2 doesn’t come with a Mac version of the toolkit. In general, if you are looking for extensions to the single player experience, you are all set … for multiplayer just find another game.

It IS possible to play many of the mods available on the Mac, but there are a couple of stumbling blocks: some mods require the toolset to be present, so they will never work on the Mac; others require one of the expansions (usually Mask of the Betrayer), and while you cannot do it officially if you own the PC version there is a way to install them on the Mac documented very well here for retail or Mac App Store version.

By now it should be clear that Neverwinter Nights 2 is a game that I really enjoyed, but also one that I have some niggling concerns about. My biggest concern with the original PC release was that the performance and system requirements would turn potential players – and module developers – away from the game, and would limit the reach and long life of its predecessor. The Mac release only exacerbates those concerns. Sadly both of those concerns turned out to be true – the PC version never caught on with teams, and the Mac version is STILL a pain to run unless you have top hardware.

I also wish that the developers had made the game feel more open, and the story more intriguing, but these are small concerns. I heartily recommend getting this game to anyone with a beefy enough system to run it – it will reward you with dozens of hours of gameplay and tremendous replayability through the single player campaign, as well as through online multiplayer and user-created modules. It is the type of game that you will still have on your system three years from now, with extra modules and content piled all over the place. I am further heartened by the obvious commitment Obsidian has made through their extensive patches to date – each one significantly reducing the bugs and problems while also improving performance and taking user suggestions into account, and how the Mac version is now up to date with the PC in terms of patches.

I am also bothered by the need to do a ‘manual install’ of the Mask of the Betrayer expansion on the Mac. I understand that having the PC expansion work on the Mac is a disincentive to folks buying the Mac versions of the expansions. Many Mac gamers I know were thrilled to buy the PC versions of the expansions for the original NWN and manually install them, then to re-purchase them for the Mac when they were available. Most say they would have done the same for NWN2 – I know I certainly would. Besides, the manual install for the original expansions wasn’t for a computer novice – but it did work. I am glad that similar measures exist for the NWN2 expansions – but wish they had released them for the Mac so I could have rewarded the developers. Sadly the reason that Mysteries of Westgate was never made for Mac by Ossian was because it depended on resources released with the official expansion Mask of the Betrayer … making it impossible unless MotB hit Mac.

At the beginning of this review I spoke of a battle – between this game and Oblivion. While I greatly enjoyed Oblivion, I have always felt that the design decisions and changes from earlier games made it more like a console action game and less like a PC RPG. Specifically, the lack of choice and consequence throughout the game removed the feeling of playing a ‘role’ and taking part in a living world being threatened by denizens of evil. That isn’t really a shot at the game – it is designed in a way that you could simultaneously be the guild leader in the ‘Cheese Lovers Guild’ and ‘Cheese Haters Guild’. For fans of traditional role playing games it is a significant concern – again, not so much because of Oblivion, since many of us who have concerns about it have put in well over 100 hours and feel we got our money’s worth and more. The concern is that given the popularity and influence of the game, every new game bearing the RPG moniker is instantly compared to Oblivion, with similarities being regarded as positives – even when they are elements that were criticized widely in reviews.

It is interesting looking back at the last several years through the lens of my concerns of 2006: because while the mainstream continued with Mass Effect and Bioshock and their sequels, there were some big hits with Dragon Age, STALKER, Fallout 3, Skyrim, Dungeon Siege III, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and loads of other games that bring some amount of role-playing to the fore.

Dragon Age in particular is a very similar type of game to NWN2 and Baldur’s Gate 2, with a great epic story, loads of role playing, tons of great characters and so on. The sequel was an insult to gamers in many ways, but still provides a template for a potential return to form in the next one. Also, the independant game market has stepped up and delivered some really incredible games (Avernum, Avadon, Eschalon Book I & II, Depths of Peril, and Din’s Curse) which would not be possible for the big game makers to produce. So suddenly the future looks pretty solid for the genre.

The life of a Mac gamer is tough. There are fewer releases, we have to wait even longer for console ports, if they ever arrive, and quite often the performance is inferior on the Mac side than on the PC side of the same computer! For many, Apple’s Bootcamp utility allows an opportunity to have robust PC gaming and the joys of Mac OS X on the same machine … if you are willing to reboot frequently. But for those looking to add gaming to their favorite operating system, there are compromises to make – the delays waiting for the port, paying full price for a game that has become a PC budget title, and unfortunately dealing with unreasonably high system requirements are too often necessary.

Neverwinter Nights 2 asks all of those things – and while the game is in much better shape than on Mac than on the PC at release, it has an uncertain future in terms of expansions and modules, and cost me $14 on sale the same week the ‘gold’ version on the PC (containing all expansions) cost $4.99. This makes it a game that I recommend with hesitation – I would more easily advise gamers to get the PC version to run on the PC partition of your Mac. As for how this all reflects on the future of RPG’s on the Mac in specific or Mac gaming in general, that is a topic for another day. Until then, I need to get back to toasting some Githyanki with fireballs from my female Sorcerer named Trislyn – wish her luck!

Review: Neverwinter Nights 2

Where to Buy: Mac App Store

Price: $19.99

What I Like: Solid story; Plenty of role-playing opportunities; Great turn-based combat.

What Needs Improvement: Mediocre performance; No way to install expansions; No toolkit; Unclear future.

Source: Personal purchase

Categories: Gaming, Reviews

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