Published in Gulf Times on February 16, 2003

Cold, cruel nights in Neverwinter

By Daniel Lam
The courtyard was crowded. There were men clad in plate, the metal so shiny it hurt to gaze upon them. There were women in robes of blue, tattoos on their faces and crackling energy between their fingers. Dwarves with beards in braids and menacing warhammers, laughing at some joke. Grim elves in leather, perhaps having some knowledge of what lay ahead. Whatever their motivations, they all have one thing in common. The city of Neverwinter, in the grip of the Wailing Death, a plague with no known cure - divine, magical or mundane - had sounded the clarion, and they have answered. 

I, Dunael Sparrowhawk, am one of them.
- A Hero's Tale

For many who have played pen-and-paper role-playing games (RPGs), and moved on (by choice or otherwise) to computer RPGs (CRPGs), Infogrames' Neverwinter Nights (NWN for short) must be a dream come true. Especially if you started out playing the grand-daddy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, now in its fourth incarnation). Over the years many a computer game company has tried making a game based on D&D rules, and sad to say many have failed. 

Then Interplay published the excellent Planescape: Torment and Baldur's Gate (and later its sequel, Shadows of Amn) CRPGs in the late 90's, and fans of the genre were ecstatic. In a market full-up with hack-and-slash games masquerading as CRPGs, these actually had storylines that matter, that unfold as you play the game, and are D&D games. So what of NWN?

What you need?
The game's minimum requirements are: a Pentium II 300MHz or AMD k6-2 350MHz processor; 96MB RAM if running under Windows 98/ME, 128MB if under Windows 2000/XP; a 16MB TNT2-class (OpenGL 1.2 compliant) video card; a DirectX-certified sound card; 1.2GB hard disk space; and running on Windows 98/ME/2000SP2/XP. The official website recommends a Pentium III or Athlon 800MHz; 128MB RAM (Windows98/ME) or 256MB RAM (Windows 2000/XP); a GeForce 2/ATI Radeon video card; and 2GB hard disk space. 

Night falls on Neverwinter
The city of Neverwinter is in big trouble. The single-player campaign (four Chapters plus the Prelude, which serves to teach new players how to play the game) begins with a short intro telling of the city of Neverwinter's plight, and the call to the brave, bright or just plain foolhardy. The hero, having answered the city's call for champions, was admitted to an academy for adventurers. 

It is graduation day, and on the way to the graduation hall, the hero hears of rumours that the city authorities have learnt of a possible cure for the Wailing Death. Things never seem to go smoothly, however, as the academy is attacked! Once the dust settles, the real adventure begins....

The Generation of Heroes
Following the D&D 3rd Edition system, you get to choose the hero's gender, race (the usual races from human to half-orc), class (from barbarian to wizard), alignment, assign points to ability scores (from Strength to Charisma), skills, feats and spells (if your hero can cast them). You also get to choose the hero's portrait and voice. 

During the adventure, the hero gains experience points. With enough experience points, the hero advances a level. And following the 3rd Edition rules, you can either advance one level at his or her present class, or pick a new class. As the hero advances, you can add a third class, or advance one of the present ones. Thus you might have a 1st-level fighter/2nd-level wizard hero, or maybe a 3rd-level ranger/2nd-level monk hero. NWN allows up to three classes (anyone for a fighter-rogue-wizard?), with combined levels of up to 20.

Interacting with the world
The primary tool for interacting with the world of NWN is the radial menu. Right-click on anything and a context-sensitive radial menu pops up, showing a variety of actions that can be performed on that object, person or creature. You can use the mouse to select an action, or use the numeric keypad. It is as simple as that.

Blood and Betrayal
In a genre shaped by games the likes of Blizzard's Diablo, how a game handles combat can make or break a game. Combat in games are usually either in real-time (like Diablo I and II) or turn-based (like the Sir-Tech's Wizardry series). With Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, game developers Bioware went for a combination - combat takes place in real time, but the player can pause the game to issue instructions, select another target, retreat, drink a potion, etc.

That is thankfully preserved in NWN. Left-click on an enemy (the mouse pointer turns into a sword) to attack them. Casting a spell? No problem. Choose the spell, and the mouse pointer turns into an arrowhead. Left-click on the target and blast away. In serious trouble? Pause the game and have your hero heal using a potion, a scroll or a spell. Then unpause the game to have your hero do so (no, your hero cannot actually do anything when the game is paused).

How it looks
NWN is a 3D game. As is to be expected of any 3D game today, you can zoom in and out (the view centres on your hero) and pan left or right. You can go for a top-down approach, or two other display modes (which I didn't bother with). The lighting and special effects are impressive ... when a spell is cast, shadows are formed to reflect the sudden burst of light. Whether indoors or outdoors, the visuals are decent enough, although nowhere as good as in Dungeon Siege.

How it sounds
While the sound effects are decent, and the character dialogue clear and crisp (voice acting is good, too), some of the background music reminded me of Baldur's Gate.

Create (and run) your own world
In pen-and-paper RPGs, a bunch or people get together to play. One is the gamesmaster (GM ... in D&D they are called Dungeon Master, or DM), the rest are players. The GM creates the game world, describes it to the players and plays the world in relation to the players. The GM is kind of like a playwright, and the players are the actors. Sort of like the imaginary games kids play, only with rules to determine and define what the players and or cannot do. 

The game developers aim to simulate such GM-player gameplay, and towards that end, they came up with the Aurora Toolset. This program, which comes with NWN, allows players to literally create their own worlds. You can create a world, and use the bundled DM client to invite your friends to play it either as a solo adventure or as part of a multiplayer experience.

Before me Morag stood proud and confident, daring me. I would have to slay her to lift the curse upon the Frozen North. The Queen's minions would have none of it, for they moved to block my way. It is said that she is impervious to harm. I shall soon find out. 

I drew my twin blades slowly.
- A Hero's Tale

Return of an ancient evil
NWN is a good game. You only get to play ONE hero, but you can hire a henchman if you so choose. The henchman's AI is questionable, however, so I played mostly without one. There are other flaws, mostly so minor that they do not warrant mention. True to its name, NWN drew me into the game most nights, and often I went to bed when people usually wake up.

Neverwinter Nights
Publisher: Infogrames
Developer: Bioware