Blog 847: Neverwinter Nights

As far as I can remember, I played Neverwinter Nights precisely once at the time, and the same again for its first expansion pack Shadows of Undrentide (before missing out on its second expansion Hordes of the Underdark). A while back, gog decided to hand out the complete Diamond Edition for free, so I figured it might be time to give it another shot. I created a Paladin who seemed to be utterly unable to hit anything and gave up on it not far into chapter 2.

But I was haunted by this failure; I had to try again and see it through. This time I made a Fighter — who I knew would be boring to play, but at least should be able to hit things and not die.

Neverwinter Nights

You have to remember the context of the time: Baldur’s Gate II had loading screens telling us we’d be able to import our characters into Neverwinter Nights. It was the Next Big BioWare RPG.

It’s nothing like Baldur’s Gate. It’s not a grand adventure with a varied party of compelling companions, it’s a thinly-disguised co-op action-RPG that only pays lip-service to singleplayer.

Ganon? This isn’t a Zelda game.

Let’s take a step back. D&D has always realistically been a party game. You might have made your Bhaalspawn a simple Fighter, but that’s fine because you’ll be micro-managing Evoker Dynaheir and Cleric Branwen while your protagonist, Minsc and Ajantis hold the line and smack stuff with their magic swords (and Imoen provides ranged support).

Indeed, the asymmetric nature of the different classes makes a game where you control multiple characters managable for a soloist: you don’t have to give everyone the same amount of attention to successfully navigate combat, but their differing abilities all contribute. As a fairly seasoned pen ‘n’ paper (well, virtual-table-top) player of D&D, I can also appreciate the need for a gradient of simple to complex classes at the table: the burden of sheafs of paper and buckets of dice can make it hard to manage your character and your options and honestly, I just don’t have much of a brain for mental arithmetic. Even so, since there are literal other human beings to spark off, planning and taking even a simple turn in person can still be engaging (“steady aim/sneak attack” all day every day).

Your one henchperson is generally a bit useless.

In Neverwinter Nights, though, you sit back and watch as your singular little puppet does their thing. You dish out the odd command and hope the machine rolls its dice in your favour. Don’t get me wrong, this has been improved somewhat by the way the Aurora Engine plays; when two melee combatants are going toe-to-toe, they shimmy and move around each other and it adds some amount of interest to battles that would otherwise be very static.

But the difference between playing a complex class and a simple class is suddenly in stark focus: since there is not much management required for a Fighter beyond the odd target selection or potion quaff, it really is dull. Consider the alternatives, though; you could play a squishy 3rd Edition mage who can barely take a hit and has no front-liner to absorb damage (the one henchperson you can hire will never walk ahead of you), or you could play a Paladin who can barely hit, barely take a hit, and can’t even cast spells for another 10 levels to mix things up.

D&D really doesn’t work as a single-character action-RPG, and yet… here we are.

Trolls don’t even need fire or acid to be killed! They just drop like any other creature!

You can feel the ARPG blood everywhere. Simple and perhaps subtle things like the way the dialogue window is relegated to the top-left of the screen, rather than dominating the entire bottom half like it used to in the Infinity Engine. Who needs dialogue anyway? You’ve got monsters to kill.

Consider also the Stone of Recall that lets you teleport back to a safe temple for a shop, a free Greater Restoration+Heal on tap, with a pitiful cost to teleport you back to where you left off. It’s almost impossible not to cheese the game with that power at your fingertips. Just got overburdened with loot? Back to the temple to sell the junk. Just had your henchperson murdered? Back to the temple to retrieve them (for free). Just picked up a quest item? Yep. There is no tension in a dungeon when safety is a click away.

I mean, sure, it does give you plenty of opportunities to ask for more details about stuff, but the details are always unsatisfying. Just get back to the killing, mate.

There are other symptoms of rot. Healing Potions are incredibly common, since you probably aren’t playing a Cleric or didn’t take the Cleric henchperson. Locked chests, even those with very high DCs, rarely contain more loot than the unlocked barrels next to them, because you probably aren’t playing a Rogue or didn’t take the Rogue henchperson. The game has had to contort itself to suit the fact that you don’t have the varied set of tools that the mechanics are built for.

Except, of course, you probably do. Because all of this is on me for completely misreading the game: Neverwinter Nights is not a singleplayer RPG, it’s a co-op RPG. The journal is written in the third person, citing the actions of “the adventurers” rather than CHARNAME. Even in singleplayer, the action log is full of messages like “[Server] You have now entered a No PVP area” — it’s an online game that just happens to keep working with the internet off, and it makes no effort to disguise the fact.

Even dragon battles — those things that were tentpole bosses in Baldur’s Gate II that required all your wits — are rote bags of hit points in Neverwinter Nights.

I was drawn in by the hype and past greatness of BioWare, then sold something that… simply wasn’t made for me. Obviously I wouldn’t have been self-aware enough to recognise and articulate this at the time, but the fact I never replayed it, and never got too deep into modding it (despite the seductive ease of its toolset), surely implies that some part of me could smell a rat.

The thing is, though, on paper this is little different from the singleplayer RPG maps I love to make for Warcraft III. In those, you control one character with similar top-down RTS-lite controls. Why is that any different? Probably because in WC3, every hero has 4-5 abilities to use, and is tailor-made for the scenario in which they find themselves — so they can be appropriately squishy or not while still retaining the expanded suite of options that make combat more than just a sit-back-and-watch affair. D&D just isn’t built that way, and in Neverwinter Nights, it really shows.

Even the outdoor “wilderness” areas are suspiciously linear.

So why did I chug through, all the way to the end? Because, for all that, its brainlessness was a little bit of what I needed. It’s very easy to just slam on some CDs and wander around, working through all the quests carefully and methodically, without burning too much mental energy.

And for all you face a thousand monsters with few mechanics to differentiate them, there is a lot of visual variety and plenty of the more interesting D&D monsters are out in force. Sure, there are zombies, skeletons, wolves and bears aplenty, but there are also intellect devourers, ettercaps, slaad, vrocks, umber hulks and more. The artwork is stylised enough and the animations expressive enough to blast through the low polycounts, but without drifting over into cartoonish exaggeration (give or take Aribeth’s infamous “jiggly mesh” boobs). It is a pretty game and on that front it has aged very well. Just a shame about… well… all the rest of it.

The big-chunk tileset system means that, although it’s effortless for modders to add seamlessly consistent levels, everything gets very samey very quickly. Exploring isn’t fun because there’s never anything novel to find.

5 thoughts on “Blog 847: Neverwinter Nights”

  1. The game campaign overall isn’t the worst, but is presented in a dull fashion. The stock single player experience is utterly forgettable, indeed!

    But the editor!

    Oh my, the editor!

    It has bugs, sure, but NWN excels at giving players an engine to mess around with, and the campaign is just a large tech demo for better or worse. If so inclined, one could work for weeks on a single map and script so many interactive details into it, it’s insane.

    Did you give the scenario editor a try?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, I did give the editor a try — I’m fairly sure it was before I learned how to program enough to make anything meaningful, but I definitely spent hours playing dress-up with the character and item creators. I remember being quite annoyed that the price of a magic item was fixed based on its enchantments, so I couldn’t make something stupidly powerful and yet hilariously cheap. (Of course now I completely appreciate this power and am literally building auto-pricing into my own game.)


      1. Ha, same here! I was astonished by how cool gear could look, and all the customization options you had. Never had that kind of gear in my campaign play-through.

        Though I now sorely begin to remember that beating the final boss was a bummer. I soft-locked myself into the fight by overwriting useful save files (the classic!) and I was absolutely underpowered continuing with the caracter in the expansion for some reason.

        Was a half-elf paladin, IIRC. Boring, couldn’t hit hard, but I survived that far 🙂


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