Monday, 18 August 2014

Neverwinter Nights (PC) - Part 1

Neverwinter Nights title
Today on Super Adventures I'm taking a quick look at classic Forgotten Realms D&D RPG Neverwinter Nights! No not the revolutionary 1991 game by Stormfront Studios that dared to find out what would happen if you took an MMORPG and added graphics, I mean the other one by BioWare that came out around a decade later in 2002. I couldn't blame you for getting the two confused though, as they're both D&D games with a strong multiplayer component that share the same bloody name, setting and city!

The dumb thing is that all that BioWare needed to do was think of another word to go with 'Neverwinter' and it would've been fine! Or they could've just called the thing Neverwinter on its own like the folks who made the 2013 MMO would later do. Legacy of Neverwinter Chronicles: Origins, there you go!

Great looking font though.

I said earlier that I'd be taking a quick look at the game, but it's an RPG so that was actually code for 'I'll be playing this for hours'. I've written about enough of these games by now to know the drill: to get a good feel for what kind of RPG this is I'm going to have to invest a fair bit of time, so forgive me if this drags on a bit.

(Clicking gameplay images will likely open them up a little bigger, with more readable text and obvious aliasing.)

Okay, that's how you sign your name on your video game! I'm just relieved that I've convinced it to display anything though to be honest as the game's been messing me around. In the end I had to open up the compatibility options and set it to Windows XP (Service Pack 2) just to reach the title screen.

It's funny, no matter how much they dress it up with scrolls and dragons, the 'BioWare' text itself always looks very sci-fi. They've been THE traditional western fantasy RPG developer since 98's Baldur's Gate, but I reckon their logo looks more at home on the games they'd end up making later like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

And that's how you don't do a title screen. I'm sure it was simpler and more elegant once in days past, but I bought the Diamond Edition with all the expansion packs included, so now it's logos all down the right side and an advert on the left.

By the way, those modules it's promoting are short expansion packs with their own stories and characters. 'Premium' modules are the ones created for sale on the BioWare site, but the game comes with all the RPG making tools needed for anyone to craft their own home made module. It was designed from the start to be the ultimate pen and paper role playing simulation, allowing people to make their own content and even run multiplayer games as a Dungeon Master with full control over the game world during gameplay.

I'll just be playing the original campaign on my own though, because I'm boring.

The game begins with this CGI video of a hero out stalking a minotaur through some moonlit ruins, because... I don't know, maybe the developers had some money left over to burn. It would've made a good E3 announcement trailer back in the day, but as far as I can tell it's got absolutely zero to do with the story.

But before I get into the real plot I've got to build myself a newbie hero! Do I go with a young Conan the Barbarian type? A ninja elf in training? Gandalf the green?

Or should I go with the young girl cuddling a blinged out cat? It's tempting, but there ain't no way they're letting me keep that thing in game.

There seems to be several different styles of portraits here and I'm guessing that's because more were added in the expansions. It does mean there's a fair amount to choose from though and for once in an RPG I don't have to click through them one at a time!

By the way, the game adds a huge border to these windows in higher resolutions (in a similar way to Knights of the Old Republic), so I've cropped them down for you. Imagine you're drifting through an endless black void filled with spinning red fog: that's what you're missing out on here around the edges.

You can even import your own character portrait, though the game doesn't make it obvious how. Turns out you need to move your jpeg into the portraits folder, then open up the console in game and use the ConvertPortrait command (unless you feel like renaming and resizing all the images yourself).

The character creation options seem pretty similar to the ones I saw in Baldur's Gate last year, but this based on a newer edition of Dungeons and Dragons, (the 3rd Edition in fact), so the rules are a little different. I don't have to roll my character's attribute scores for one thing, which I'm massively grateful for. It never made any sense to me why I'd basically be rolling a random difficulty level.

Wow, full marks for giving me choices, but this is not a great way to set hair colour. The tones are scattered all over the place, they're a terrible indication of what the actual result will look like, and no matter what I go with it's always wrong. Plus I have to keep cancelling out of this window to check what my portrait looks like, which seems like something that should've occurred to someone during development.

I've decided to go with a female sorceress with a random name and a whole lot of Charisma. They throw far too much info at you at the start for a new player to really understand the choices they're making, but the game at least make it that clear that sorcerers need good Charisma to unleash their higher level magic.

The game takes place in the Frozen North of Faerun, a bleak wilderness where barbarian clans and tribes of giants roam the land, while fierce dragons rule the skies, apparently. So it's basically the Forgotten Realms equivalent of Skyrim then.

BioWare's next game, Knights of the Old Republic took a bit of a cinematic approach, throwing in pre-rendered cutscenes where appropriate to carry the story along, but Neverwinter Nights has already gotten bored of CGI. The story is instead introduced with narration and illustrations, and I doubt that I'll be seeing another interlude like this interrupt gameplay until I've reached the next chapter.

The video goes on to show off the city of Neverwinter, ruled by a guy who looks a whole lot like the bloke fighting that minotaur in the intro video. It's a bastion of civilization, the Jewel of the North, or at least it was until the Wailing Death swept through the population.

The plague could not be cured by magic or medicine and soon the streets erupted into panic and violence. Romans are being mugged for their spears, warriors are dueling on top of burning wagons, bird cages lay broken across the roads; it's utter mayhem right now.

To save Neverwinter, a paladin called Lady Aribeth put forth a call for a champion... and then set up a champion academy to train all of the wannabe protagonists that showed up. Because she's wise enough to know that level 1 characters are utterly useless in D&D.

And so my heroic sorceress Ameniel Cys'variana has been sheltered from the plague in this academy ever since, studying the arcade arts of... armour modification? I'm still level one, but I sure know how to add pleats to my trousers.

I have to admit that I'm immediately put off from the game by how it looks. Glowing green text in transparent windows looks more sci-fi than fantasy, having the spell icons obscure the shortcut keys I'll need to activate them isn't very helpful, and the lack of a ceiling isn't doing much to immerse me in this place. Also traditionally shadows tend to fall away from light sources.

But what really puts me off is this radial menu, with a cryptic icon in every circle. And worse it's got nested menus, so to figure it all out I'll have to explore a few levels deep into this labyrinth of glyphs, highlighting each in turn so it'll tell me what they mean.

Wow there's a 'bored' emote here? Well that's not a good sign.

Look at this though, it really is impossible to know what I'm selecting here without hovering my cursor over them! Other games have made this kind of menu work (like The Sims for instance), it's definitely got its uses, but they generally had the sense to skip the icons and just use words.

I walked over to open the chest in the back of my room, only to discover find that a club is my sole possession. Well it's the only thing I wasn't already carrying around with me anyway. You'd be surprised how many health potions and crossbows you can fit into a dress like this. Six pages worth of them in fact (though my carrying capacity is also limited by my strength). Yep, even though I'm playing as a single character I still have to manage my inventory between different grids (and there's no auto sort).

Oh cool, it seems that equipping armour makes my AC go up instead of down in this; they've moved on from all that THAC0 business used in the earlier games. In Baldur's Gate mages couldn't equip armour at all, but in this I'm choosing to wear the dress because bulkier clothes increase the chance of spell failure. I can do without every tenth spell blowing up in my face.

Hey, I found Cam Clarke skulking around outside my room, along with his brother Cam Clarke. It's possible to get past them and just leave, but they're keen to give me a basic tutorial on how to use the camera first. Also they make it very clear that:
THE QUICKBAR IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES IN THE GAME! YOU SHOULD LEARN TO USE YOUR QUICKBAR!
They really do bring out the lime green text for that one. It is a very nice quickbar though I suppose; you can add anything to it, from inventory items to emotes. I'm impressed.

Neverwinter Nights was released between Baldur's Gate II and Knights of the Old Republic and it really does feel like a transition between the two. The world is now full 3D, but characters don't move their lips as they talk. They don't even talk all the much either, as I'm lucky if I can get once voiced line out of them before they switch to dialogue boxes only. There's a dialogue box on screen right now in fact, though I can forgive you if you didn't notice it up there.

Oh, I told him that I'm here for profit by the way, because I am. I'm gonna loot every chest in this whole academy.

Man, the lighting in this place is so dim I can't even see to the other side of the training hall. Are we underground right now or did the architect just forget to add windows? Or maybe we're floating through the inky blackness of deep space; that'd be a cool twist.

The staff understand that I'm not a fighter type so I don't need to take part in combat drills, but they're willing to let me join in anyway if I want to learn the ropes. I'll have the choice to switch classes at some point, so it makes sense that they'd give players a chance to learn how they all work.

Hey man, is this where I learn to shoot arrows? I've been dragging this crossbow around with me all game you see and I'd like to know how to... wait second, is this another one of the Cam Clarke brothers? He has the exact same portrait they did!

Well it turns out that I suck at shooting arrows, huge shock. Right then, I'd better get back to looking in every door for a magic tutor then.


SOME TUTORIALS LATER.


Typical, I finally find my away through the tutorial rooms to meet up with Lady Aribeth and complete my Academy training, then suddenly invaders teleport in and start killing everyone!

The voice acting has been generally solid so far, but there's something really off about Aribeth's dialogue to me. I know she's supposed to be a noble paladin, but she's so damn 'well met, fair hero' that she sounds like she's wandered in from a CD-i game made a decade earlier. The character's played by Wendee Lee, who has been everyone in everything (Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop is the first thing that jump to mind), so I can only assume she was asked to ham it up deliberately.

Uh, Lady Aribeth I think I need your help here! I tried to use the door and accidentally climbed out of the level instead.

After the fight against the invaders only Aribeth and I were left (because all the dead bodies fade away), and now I'm the one tasked with saving the day. You see, Aribeth had actually managed to find ingredients for the plague cure while her champions were all still in training, and that's what the bad people are here for. Her theory is that the invaders are magically tracking her so that she'll inadvertently lead them right to the ingredients, so instead she'll be luring them away while I race through the Academy to single handedly defend the cure for the city. This isn't going to end well is it?

Goblins sure don't like a ray of frost to the face, that was a one shot kill that was.

Like in Baldur's Gate, magic users only get a number of shots before they need to rest. My magic tutor gave me an infinite rod of frost though, so I can keep this up all night. I simply press F4 to activate the appropriate quickbar slot and then click on anything that annoys me to make them disappear, and I never miss. Funny how the dead students lining the corridors haven't faded away like the enemies I've been killing.

The game has the same 'real time with pause' combat as the BioWare's earlier Infinity Engine games like Baldur's Gate, meaning that I can either make my plans on the move, or hit space bar to pause, figure things out, and queue up my next few actions. Either way it's simulating a tabletop game, one round at a time, so there's always a delay between attacks.

You know, all this solo combat is reminding me of that other D&D game released around the same time on the consoles.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (PS2)
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is an action RPG closer to Gauntlet or Diablo than Baldur's Gate, but check out the difference in visuals compared to NWN! Granted Dark Alliance needs to lean more on its graphics seeing as there's less going on underneath (you wouldn't need to pause to issue commands here) but still, this came out six months earlier and just look at the game!

GRATUITOUS MARIO 64 SCREENSHOT BOX.

NWN has a good excuse for its dated (for the time) visuals though, or at least an explanation: BioWare began the project way back in 1997, when even the first Baldur's Gate was still a year or two from release. Epic development times aren't so unusual these days, but five years back then was the difference between a Super Mario Bros. 64 and a Metal Gear Solid 2.

Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64)
You wouldn't believe how much of a pain in the ass it is to get acceptable screenshots of this game.

That other game I mentioned (PlayStation 2)
Obviously NWN was never going to look like Mario 64, but the way the game was planned required artists to start working on the art assets early in the project, for a game engine still in development with specs that hadn't been worked out yet. Some of the graphics were reworked or remade over time, but they were still trying to hit a moving target with a shot fired over three years before release.

I got a level up! Weirdly I also get the option to switch classes, and the game doesn't go out of its way to explain in plain English what that actually means and how it affects gameplay.

I've deliberately avoided looking through the manual because I wanted to see how much of it I can learn just by playing (plus I bought the game from GOG, so it's a massive PDF file instead of a handy booklet), but things like this make me feel like I've got some reading to do.

The game goes out of its way to explain the interface, how to perform actions, and other video game things, but when it comes to D&D elements like classes and intelligence modifiers and DC and saving throws etc. I'm left to figure it out myself. If I switched to a fighter right now, would I keep my spells? Would I be reincarnated at level 1 again? Would it mean I level up slower? Should I hang on and wait a few levels until I have earned the prerequisites to unlock a Prestige class?

There's a 'recommended' button there, and the game often recommends that I should quit thinking about all these boring numbers and just click that instead, like the process of character creation and development is just an optional feature for hardcore D&D fans. Well if the game's going to be like that, then I'm just going to stick with what I've got and move on then.

I get to learn new spells on level up? I don't have to find scrolls for them all and memorise them? Wow, I'm starting to think I chose right when I stuck with my sorcerer class.

There's a lot here to choose from here, but that's fine because I didn't actually unlock any of these level 1 spells. I've unlocked a crappy level 0 spell instead and there's far less of them to pick from, so I'm just going to go with 'Flare' and move on. It makes enemies "suffer a -1 penalty to attack rolls" apparently, and it seems plausible that this helps me somehow.

It would've been cool if they could've thrown a line like 'reduces an enemy's accuracy, by...' or 'reduces an enemy's attacks per second, by...' in there as well though, for the benefit of people who haven't played the tabletop game.


LATER.


Well Lady Aribeth gave me one job, and I went and screwed it up (big surprise).

It turns out that the cure ingredients were actually animals being stored intact and alive for extra freshness, and when the assault on the Academy gave them a opening to escape the creatures took it. So now they're out wandering the plague-ridden streets of Neverwinter, and as the only graduate of the Academy's champion training program before the teachers were all slaughtered it's up to me to catch them again.

To aid me in my quest I have been given a stone of town portal, which will bring me back to the city center free of charge where I can sell my gear and get some free healing. Could've really done with one of these back in Baldur's Gate.

And now I'm actually finally free to go and explore the city! Plague victims dying in the streets, burned out buildings, riots, bird cages scattered everywhere... should be fun.


Continued in part two!

Semi-Random Game Box