“Bioware gives us more reasons to pay for Neverwinter Nights Premium Modules while still grabbing tons of great free ones!” That is what I said when I initially wrote this back in 2005 and still held true when I updated it in 2006 for a now defunct site. Since then Atari and Bioware are no longer connected by the D&D license, and due to contractual reasons Bioware has had to stop selling the Premium Modules on their store, but fortunately their master server will still authenticate the modules and let you play. Other than that note I’m leaving the article more or less just as I wrote it nearly five years ago with one exception – I’m putting a * next to stuff dealing with the sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2, and will address those items in a small update at the end. Oh, and I have replaced the original screens with ones from my Netbook!
Update Oct. 2006: this article has been updated to include the recently released Infinite Dungeons premium module. Aside from the module review, there are other comments to put the entire series into context since Atari announced they won’t support any further official releases. Of course, since that announcement the Wyvern Crown of Cormyr premium module has been released – and of course I have included a review of that. In between these modules a ‘canceled’ module – Darkness Over Daggerford – was released in August 2006, and I have played through that as well. I had contemplated using that as a new ‘free module’ reference, but the scope and design was for a ‘premium’ module, so I have reviewed it as such and left the venerable ‘Eye of the Beholder’ as the reference.
Neverwinter Nights is more than four years old and has a sequel fast approaching*, and Bioware has continued to issue patches that add features and content to the game. A previous patch makes it so that the CD is not even required to be in the drive to play the game. This is a game that has enjoyed constant support and updates from the developer – across PC, Mac and Linux platforms. In November of 2004, Bioware opened their own store and began selling what they called ‘Premium’ modules directly to consumers.
So what are “Premium Modules”? They are modules produced in-house at Bioware that you have to pay for, and can download directly. “Premium” means at least four other things: the BioWare name indicates a quality level up to the same standards as the official Neverwinter Nights campaigns, solid quality assurance, high quality production values, and support including patches and compatibility with official patches.
One bad thing that “Premium” currently means is that you have to stay connected to the internet so the module can verify ownership every time you start the module or load a saved game.
As of this writing there are six modules available. Three – Witches Wake, ShadowGuard, and KingMaker – were released in November 2004, and Pirates of the Sword Coast was released in June of 2005. Infinite Dungeons was released in May 2006, and Wyvern Crown of Cormyr arrived in September 2006. Since their release, Witches Wake and ShadowGuard have been sold as a reasonably priced bundle; KingMaker and Pirates of the Sword Coast have been sold individually. KingMaker has been sold in ‘lite’ and ‘full’ versions – with the ‘lite’ version being less expensive but lacking voice-overs, load screen graphics and some other graphical features.
There has been a thriving fan development community for Neverwinter Nights – the developers released robust tools with the game, and hundreds of characters, creatures, weapons, and full modules have been released. So is it worth spending money for these modules when you can get others for free? Read on and decide.
This started as a half-finished module from one of the developers, and eventually became the first Premium module. It has a very interesting start to it, in that you are the sole survivor of a horrific battle and need to uncover what has happened, despite having no memory. You will travel through a wide variety of terrain – snow, planar spheres, hills, forests and caverns – and meet up with all sorts of interesting creatures.
The whole problem with Witches Wake is the abruptness of the ending. It is obviously a ‘part one’, and leaves you feeling unsatisfied and abandoned. It is not a bad module – indeed there are many good elements – it is merely incomplete. And it feels somewhat insulting to pay for an incomplete module.
My score: 2.5/5 stars. (if Witches Wake 2 came out, this would probably become 4/5!)
In this module you are the wealthy daughter of a city magistrate, just completing your training and the Imperial academy and obtaining full citizenship. Bad things happen and you must help get to the bottom of everything that is going on.
While this module – like Witches Wake – ends without a full conclusion, it doesn’t leave you hanging. That is partly because you aren’t built up as a ‘save the world’ person. The module is somewhat linear, as I found on replaying it that areas I thought were optional were actually mandatory and needed to be done in order. But on the first playthrough it all feels emergent, and remains fun on subsequent playthroughs. ShadowGuard also lends itself nicely to using different characters – I played as both a Sorcerer and a Paladin and each was very satisfying and challenging. The character class and alignment enforcement is done very – unlike in the main Neverwinter Nights game – in both this module and Witches Wake, Paladins cannot run around picking locks or opening chests in private or they will find themselves ‘fallen’.
My score: 3.5/5 stars. For the combination of Witches Wake and ShadowGuard at a single low price, it is worthwhile.
This module starts you out pursuing a mysterious ‘Masked Man’ in a pitched battle that ends in a blaze of spells in front of the Cyan Keep. It seems like a high level module with little direction and just hacking-and-slashing, but that is just the intro. From there, you are awoken from quasi-death by a strange force, and then pursue your destiny within the Keep of Cyan and beyond.
This module is a role-player’s dream. You get choices all over the place, and they aren’t always the ‘I’ll pay you to help out / Sure I’ll help / Give me gold and I’ll think about it / what were you saying?’ type. You must play your character closely to succeed, and everything impacts the outcome. My only gripe with the game is that there is a magical weapon you are given, and while you can choose the type, it clearly favors a melee fighter for the player character.
My score: 4.5/5 stars.
Pirates of the Sword Coast
You are a traveler on a ship docked at Neverwinter, booked to go through to Calimsham. But after bringing two strange passengers and one very strange piece of cargo aboard, things go wrong quickly. It is an epic adventure that takes you across the seas through a wonderful pirate tale with a great story and voice acting.
Bioware claims this is the largest of the initial four modules, and they are right. This module took nearly as long as some full action-RPG’s that have been released this year. It is a very open module in terms of role-playing your character – you get many choices along the way, many of which have only local impact, but others which change the entire course of the game. Be careful what you promise to whom, because it will come back in the end. Another really cool feature is the ‘treasure map’ system. Find a map, go to the right area, and the map becomes an interactive tool that will lead you to the hidden treasure.
My score: 4.5/5 stars.
Released in May 2006, this lower-priced module had a simple but intriguing premise: you return to Neverwinter and meet a strange boy named Timmy at the entrance to a dungeon made by the wizard Halaster we learned about in the Hordes of the Underdark expansion. Your goal is to traverse the dungeon and destroy the evil wizard. That is the plot – the rest is all about the dungeon. And the dungeon isn’t infinite – but it sure feels close. I took four characters through a total of six dungeon runs – my typical Paladin and Sorcerer I took through twice, and a cleric and monk cleverly named Cadderly and Danica. Each time through the dungeon was quite different, and tailored to the specific character. You battle through one section of dungeon, battle a boss and move on to the next section – which is bigger and harder.
Have you ever wanted to play Neverwinter Nights as a pure hack-n-slash experience? Me neither. If I wanted that type of experience, there are plenty of games in the action-RPG genre. Yet I enjoyed this module more than I expected – it is not the type of game you’ll discuss at length with friends as a great role-playing experience. There are some cool puzzles and some exciting battles, and a few quests, but this is pretty much a combat module. But then, you probably didn’t buy a module called Infinite Dungeons looking for inter-party romance.
My score: 3.5/5 stars.
Darkness over Daggerford
This was planned as a Premium module, but was cancelled when Atari pulled the plug on that program. Ossian studios continued on and released the module in August for free. And thank goodness they did – the game offers tremendous gameplay as well as innovations that make it hard to believe this is just a module.
From the start it is clear that things are different in this module – there is an overworld map and unfolding story reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate 2. The ability to gain a stronghold is another thing that makes this feel like that classic game. There is a love for the D&D world and gaming universe heaped on this module that adds to the fun without feeling forced – for example, in one quest, you find a floating skull who was from a different plane … a place of Torment. Add to this a solid story and quest that unfolds gradually as you open areas on the map and you have a feel for the excellence of the module. Many newer modules are stricter about enforcing your alignment, and this is no exception. You get small rewards or deductions to your alignment as always, but also small bits of experience as a bonus.
There is a single criticism I have – the game was released needing some more testing and polishing. There are broken quests and other bugs that occur to almost everyone who plays the module. There was a patch that addressed most of those, and since I finished the module a second patch has come out. I had one quest that seemed broken, but it was a minor one that didn’t impact my ability to play through.
It is perhaps ironic that my favorite of the Premium Modules is the one that was cancelled and released for free. That aside, this is just a tremendous game – and I can’t think of it as anything but a ‘game’. It has as much content as either of the NWN expansion packs, and is larger and more interesting than many full-priced role-playing games being released. This succeeds by leveraging the strengths that already exist in the game and focusing on what matters most – providing a compelling story that unfolds in an interesting way, and a wonderful player experience.
My score: 4.5/5 stars.
Wyvern Crown of Cormyr
Out of nowhere. The premium module program was canceled; we were all gearing up for Neverwinter Nights 2. But then it appeared out of nowhere – on September 13th 2006 Bioware announced the new module called Wyvern Crown of Cormyr and made it immediately available for purchase. A solid role-playing module, the strength of Cormyr is in the innovative features: this is the first use of visible capes; it is also the first time players could ride horses in the game; it has a tournament filled with various skills matches such as archery, melee and a clever darts game. But the centerpiece is the jousting tournament. Rather than relying on your character attributes, your success in each round is based on your ability to choose the correct offensive and defensive postures. There are even penalties for being too aggressive. This was a fresh and fun experience. I also loved how the module kept my Paladin tightly in check – I was rewarded regularly for keeping ‘in character’ and playing my alignment. My character was also rewarded for making use of skills. The ‘alignment hunt’ becomes part of the game, as you are graded for how well you play your alignment – I spent a lot of time wondering where I could have lost that one alignment point.
For all of the innovative features, the module falls slightly flat as an overall experience. It is every bit as high quality as any of the original modules, certainly tighter and smoother than Daggerford. But the characters aren’t as interesting, and the story doesn’t flow with the same intensity and spark as that module. I knew that when I met a couple of optional characters and wanted to toss out my brother and best friend to let others join! Ultimately the pace set by the addition of horse riding and jousting isn’t sustained by the overall story. It is a very solid and enjoyable module, and you will still work your way steadfastly to the end ? this is a huge module, lasting me over 25 hours through the puzzles and exploring and tournaments up to the final battles.
My score: 4/5 stars.
The four original modules combined cost just over $20, and provided me with about 30 hours of gaming time for a single run. Add the replayability of different character classes and types – as well as story-impacting decisions in the KingMaker and Pirates of the Sword Coast modules – and I have gotten well over 50 hours from these modules. The quality of modules is certainly very high.
The three newer modules cost a total of about $20 (which should have been more – someone needs to write the Ossian guys a check), and I have gotten over 100 hours of play before taking replay into account. The Infinite Dungeons module is one that I just keep going back to when I have fifteen or thirty minutes free and want to get in some gaming action. It is the best action-RPG ‘hack-n-slash’ style experience I’ve had this year because of the puzzles added to the unyielding load of enemies to battle. Wyvern Crown of Cormyr delivers an experience that makes NWN feel fresh and new rather than a four year old game only a couple of months away from a long-awaited sequel. And Darkness Over Daggerford is more than just my favorite NWN module to date, it is my favorite role-playing game of 2006 thus far. There is a depth of role-playing and storytelling in the Daggerford and Cormyr modules that hasn’t been seen this year in any other game on the PC.
When I originally wrote this article I compared the Premium modules with the freely available Eye of the Beholder, which is a recreation of the classic game. Eye of the Beholder is about 30 hours long and freely available – and is one of the highest rated modules at the Neverwinter Vault, but like the classic game offers minimal role playing. The focus is on hack-and-slash action against a wide variety of enemies and gathering up loot. I had played this module some time ago, and enjoyed it – but in terms of production values and polish it does feel like a fan work. I replayed again after finishing all four initial ‘premium modules’ and again more recently, and there is clearly a distinction, particularly with regards to the more recent modules, which are superior in pretty much every way to Eye of the Beholder.
Since then I have played a few other modules – some of the Shadowlords and DreamCatcher series as well as working through the Siege of Shadowdale trilogy by Alazander – and continue to be amazed with the quality of work being done by the community. (Of course, the last module in that trilogy, Tyrants of the Moonsea is another canceled premium module!) Yet there remains a difference in the overall level of polish in the premium modules – watching the Daggerford module progress through patches has demonstrated the value of the quality assurance process that the premium modules endure.
Does this diminish the value of fan modules? Not at all – there are tremendous amount of really well done modules for any number of players and types of scenarios available. What it told me was that Bioware provided a high quality gaming experience that justified the cost of the modules. I would strongly recommend these modules, though the newest ones make specific recommendations more difficult. I would definitely recommend everyone go and download Darkness Over Daggerford immediately – it is an excellent game. For depth and breadth and innovation, I would tend to favor Wyvern Crown of Cormyr over the earlier KingMaker and Pirates of the Sword Coast modules, although Kingmaker still has a level of pure role-playing that stands alone among these modules. And don’t forget Infinite Dungeons – for a very low price, you get a more intense and interesting game than the recently released Mage Knight Apocalypse delivers for $50! While it is bittersweet to see the end of the Premium Module program for Neverwinter Nights, the early work done with the pre-release Toolkit for Neverwinter Nights 2 makes me hopeful that the creativity and excellence will start immediately and continue for years to come!*
* Neverwinter Nights 2
As I finished writing this in October 2006, Obsidian Entertainment was getting ready to release the sequel to Neverwinter Nights. As I mentioned, there were great hopes that the NWN2 Toolkit would do for that game what the tools did for the original: provide years of added gameplay. Since 2009, we have seen three add-ons. Obsidian released the amazingly awesomely well-written Mask of the Betrayer (I seriously cannot over-state how good it is) released in October 2007, and the well done Storm of Zehir in November 2008.
Before either of those were released there were plans for an Adventure Pack (similar to the Premium Modules), once again from Ossian Studios (who had made Darkness Over Daggerford). The adventure was called Mysteries of Westgate, and was meant to be a moderate sized downloadable adventure, and was planned for release as early as September 2007. However, issues with the DRM (digital rights management) caused delays, since Atari didn’t want to use the same ‘internet connection required’ solution from the Premium Modules. Eventually a internal protection system was devised and the module was released
Soon after the release of NWN2 module developers began touting their projects, but progress has been slower and the modules far fewer than for the original NWN. One glaring example was the high-profile Planescape project that promised to bring the classic setting into new modules using the NWN2 toolkit – and as of now we have a three year old trailer and a small demo module to show. The community is still working hard on things and continues to come out with quality modules, but it is clear things are not at the same level of activity or quality as with the original game.
And if you bought the Mac version of NWN2, all I can say is I’m sorry – no patches, no expansions, and as a result Mysteries of Westgate doesn’t work and neither do most of the community creations.