Neverwinter Nights First Impressions

The one-word summary? Wow.

I’ve read many reviews on this game, and I was in slight disbelief as review after review refused to rate this game at any less than 90%. Now that I’ve got my hands on it though, I know why.

Keep in mind that this is a first impression. It’s not an extensive review, and no doubt my opinion of the game will go down as I encounter bugs, or realise that the single-player plot is about as boring as Baldur’s Gate. However, BioWare looks like they really have done what no other company has ever done before: taken the D&D concepts (not just the rules), and faithfully implemented them as a computer RPG.

They got 3E right

For hardcore D&D players, NWN is everything that you’ve been waiting for in a computerised version of D&D. It’s not perfect, but it’s so good that you just won’t care about the insignificant shortcomings.

Part of the reason that it’s so good is simply because it’s the very first game to use the 3E mechanics: it’s the same D&D that we know and love (or hate), and it’s a huge improvement over the 2nd edition rules that previous D&D games used. Yes, you can multi-class in this. Yes, every feat that’s in the Player’s Handbook is in the game, and they’re all implemented perfectly.

Sure, some bits were changed around to suit the nature of CRPGs better; for instance, the Rogue’s “Disable Device” skill has been split up into “Disable Trap” and “Set Trap”. But those changes are small, and they’re Done Right.

But really, for all intents and purposes, this game is 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps this won’t dawn on you until you see all the skills and feats that you can choose at your character generation, but this in itself makes the game worthy of buying. The amount of attention paid by Bioware to implementing every single last detail in 3E is truly staggering; if they got nothing else right about this game, I wouldn’t care. The 3E implementation is just so good that any hardcore D&D fan would be impressed with it. (Hey, if Ryan Dancey’s happy with it, it has to be That Good).

So what didn’t they quite get right with the 3E rules? It’s not extensible enough. You can’t add new feats, for instance. If you want to create a new weapon model, you’re going to need 3DSmax. But before you sneer, the Aurora engine which Neverwinter Nights uses is extensible enough that you can simulate everything that you’d ever want in a computer RPG just by using various types of items.

And on that note, let’s talk a bit about the Aurora toolkit.

The Aurora Toolkit

Forget everything you know about level editors, map editors, and anything else related to modding games. The Aurora thing is so usable and so friendly that it makes creating basic modules fun, and not a chore.

There’s a little bit to learn, but considering the worlds that you can craft with this thing, there’s very little to learn. Put it this way: the section on the toolkit in the manual is less than 20 pages long. The toolkit’s interface is so good that it just makes creating modules trivial.

For instance, take the conversation editor. You can add new dialogues for NPCs by using this tool. You click the ‘Add’ button and type in “Greetings! What’s two plus two?”; the toolkit automatically tags that message as being spoken by the NPC. You click ‘Add’ again and type in “1” as a possible response, and the toolkit immediately tags that as being spoken by the player’s character.

If you want to add more things that the player character can say, just click on the “Greetings” message, click ‘Add’ again, and type in “2”. This can send the player down a completely new conversation path, which implies that it might be complex to handle. Not at all; the conversation’s represented as a simple tree, which makes it trivial to insert new conversation items.

As I said before, the core engine doesn’t let you expand feats or races. Is that a big oversight? No. You can simulate almost of these things by using items which grant the characters whatever abilities you wish.

For example, I was disappointed that I couldn’t play an Aasimar, one of the standard Forgotten Realms races. So, using the half-elf template, you can give the character an invisible, intangible item called a “skin” which grants her those Aasimar qualities. Change your subrace name to “Aasimar”, and bingo, you’re an Aasimar. You just added a new race.

So while the game engine doesn’t allow the extension of some core 3E ideas such as classes and feats, you can do a lot with the toolkit. I imagine that implementing prestige classes and new feat-like things won’t be out of the question at all. Of course, you can create new items, weapons, armour, magical staves, rods and spoons with ease.

So, the toolkit makes doing all the standard things easy. Of course, if you want to do wacky stuff, the Aurora engine is driven by a programming language called NWScript which you can write stuff in. Don’t be mistaken —- this isn’t a play-language. From what I understand, it’s fully OO, and gives you full access to the internals of the game engine.

What’s even better than that is that Bioware realised how powerful NWScript is, and provide you with a script editor right in the toolkit. No more whipping out that sorry-ass excuse for a text editor (notepad.exe) to change things around; all your development tools are in the toolkit. Effectively, it’s a small IDE (integrated development environment): the toolkit can edit scripts, debug them and compile them. This makes things so much more accessible than fooling around with two dozen text files. (Civilisation, anyone?)

If you’re a DM and have never done programming before, well, now’s a good time to learn. The toolkit is so good that you could use it as a basis to build a module that you wanted to play in table-top RPGs. That’s really cool.

The network effect

Now we get into romantic territory. Fasten your seatbelts!

By itself, the flawless implementation of the rules doesn’t mean all that much. By itself, an easy-to-use toolkit doesn’t imply that much. By itself, the DM client, which allows you to dungeon master a module that you’ve created, isn’t a big deal.

However, combine these three things, and the effect is exponential: I kid you not, this thing is a truly viable alternative to tabletop RPGing.

Read that again, just in case it hasn’t hit you yet. NWN could drain away as much of your time as regular D&D does, or perhaps even more. (Although in the case of our current gaming group, draining more time than our D&D sessions isn’t all that hard :).

I’m not saying that it should replace tabletop RPGing, or dethrone it as the RPG method of choice. I’m saying that’s NWN is an alternative to tabletop RPGs; it’s an alternative because it offers a completely different experience to tabletop RPGing.

Computer RPGs vs tabletop RPGs

Let’s get something straight, first: computer RPGs will never be able to compete with tabletop RPGs. They never have, they never will.

However, now that NWN has been released, something has emerged which I thought never happen: computer RPGs now offer something which table-top RPGs don’t, and never will be able to: the feeling of being immersed in a computer game created by friends. The graphics detail in NWN is good enough that just seeing the environment makes for a completely different experience from conventional RPGs; the fact that you will play your DM’s module just like any other computer game also makes for something different.

If you’re a DM, you can prep the entire module before the session starts, watch your players walk through the world, talk to them as you would over a table, and then watch with glee as that pretty NPC they picked up is actually a succubus and teleports them to hell. You get to see all that in vivid graphical detail, in a campaign you wrote, on a computer game that your players are playing, and you’re watching them do this as they’re playing*.

Think about that for a second. Come back and read the rest of this when you’re done.

Thought about it? Good. Now imagine that you can have multiple DMs controlling a session. This is unfeasible in real-life RPGs, but it’s actually recommended for NWN. You can have a DM/PC ratio of 1:1; for every PC, there’s a DM. DMs can control NPCs to say exactly what they want, and the human players on the other end will just think it’s all part of a computer game.

That staggers me.

So, first impressions of NWN? Awesome. If you’re a D&D player, buy this thing. Right freaking now! (And I mean buy, not pirate.) If you’ve got the computer to run it, it will provide you with as much joy as any D&D book does, and at least from my point of view, that’s possibly the highest accolade that I could ever award to a computer game.

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