Is this the last of the big fantasy RPG dinosaurs? Sandwiched between World of Warcraft and the big online blockbusters on the one side and widescreen, action-oriented epics like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights 2 feels like it belongs to a dying breed: the classic computer RPG. OK, so it’s a proud breed, its lineage stretching back through Baldur’s Gate and Fallout to Ultima, Eye of the Beholder and the old gold box AD&D RPGs, but it’s a breed whose time came long ago, and now seems to be going fast. I mention this upfront because your response to NWN2 will depend a lot on your experience of these earlier games. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool RPG nut who’s been playing the things for eons, you’re going to love it. If you’re an RPG newbie looking for the next big hit after Oblivion, this might not be the game you’re looking for.
Why? Well, this is a game where an understanding of the hallowed traditions is part of the pleasure – the plot couldn’t be any more old-school if it tried. Young lad of mysterious parentage? Check. Dramatic raid on village by forces unknown? Check. Lad sent off on quest with unidentified object? Check. Lad meets up with wandering adventurers who are only too eager to accompany him? Check. Makeshift party becomes embroiled in plot of fiendish dark forces? Check. The fact that Obsidian – the guys who brought you Knights of the Old Republic 2 – are able to transform this mess of clichés into something not just engaging but actually intriguing is testament to their skill with a script. However, I’m not sure if it works nearly so well if you don’t already have some nostalgia for the well-worn ways of the classic fantasy RPGs.
The same holds when you get to the gameplay. Some knowledge of the rules and general mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons – either gleaned from earlier games or the old-school paper and pencil product – is definitely going to help, as will considerable experience of other computer RPGs. There are a lot of floating menus, character profiles and inventories to deal with here, and while they’re well laid out and steadily introduced by an entertaining tutorial sequence, they hardly make for a pick up and play game. In fact, as the plot of NWN2 unravels, previous D&D experience proves crucial; if you don’t know when to use rogues to disarm traps and unlock chests or when to save or bring out the sorcerous heavy artillery, then you could be in for a tough haul. Even character progression is a complex affair. Sure, you can ask the game to recommend new skills or spells as your characters level up – and context-sensitive explanations are always just a mouse over or click away – but optimising your character’s choices demands some grasp of the way in which the underlying D&D game works.
Of course, in order to level you’ll also need to fight. Now, NWN2 isn’t nearly as combat-heavy as, say, the Icewind Dale games, but it does involve a lot of bloodshed, and they’re all played out in true old-school fashion. Real-time thrust and parry isn’t part of the picture – here it’s all about making a disparate group of adventurers fight as a team. Now, the combat is pretty much point and click, bar casting spells, using potions and changing weapons, and if you want to concentrate on your hero, the other members of your party will take pretty good care of themselves. In fact, the AI system does a creditable job of selecting targets, using spells and handling health (though getting from one side of the door to another still proves occasionally problematic).