Friday, November 03, 2006

Never Winter in California

It's raining! We had a little drizzle of almost-rain a month or so ago, but yesterday and today are the first "real" rains of the year. I really don't mind. Sure, I miss being able to ride to work, but it is very liberating to know that I have a reasonable expectation that I will have days of sunshine and warmth in the months ahead. I'm not like Persephone descending into the underworld.

Colder weather and shorter days means that it's that special time of year, when video game companies release their best titles to grab a slice of the lucrative holiday season. Fortunately, they've gotten a little smarter about spreading around release dates more - someone eventually figured out that you're in better shape if you're the only gorilla in May than if you're competing against dozens of must-have titles in December - but it's still an embarrassment of riches. Case in point: this week saw the release of both Final Fantasy XII AND Neverwinter Nights 2. Two sequels to greatly loved RPG franchises arriving on almost the same day... craziness!

Not only that, but I'm amused to see Neverwinter and Elder Scrolls once again dropping major new games in the same year. I remember when Neverwinter Nights came out in 2002, and everyone thought it was going to win all the Game of the Year awards, but Morrowind ended up wowing everyone and walking away with a good chunk of them.

This week I overhead co-workers talking about going to Fry's to pick up NWN2, which got me all nostalgic and thinking about how excited I was when the original came out. In case you haven't noticed yet, I don't exactly have great breadth in my video game interests, but I am fanatically devoted to a few top-notch franchises. In the case of Neverwinter, I'd eagerly been awaiting it for well over a year, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it had been announced that it would ship simultaneously on Windows, Linux and Mac, and I was in a phase in my life where I felt a moral obligation to spend money to support Linux gaming. More than that, though, it had been six years since I had left Minnesota, and in that time I hadn't played any pen-and-paper roleplaying games. I really missed the humor and camaraderie and creativity of sitting down with some good friends and adventuring for a few hours. Even more than the game itself, Bioware was hyping the dungeonmaster tools it would ship with, and I dreamed of being able to campaign once again. As I've previously noted, I'm not a big fan of MMORPGs, but roleplaying with friends seems like just about the most fun I could have.

While I didn't feel betrayed by NWN, I was disappointed on multiple fronts. First of all, the promised Linux support got pushed further back and back; the client wasn't released until 2003. Furthermore, the dungeonmaster and mod creation tools were underwhelming. The game has spawned a robust creator community, but the reality of the toolset did not match the lofty expectations Bioware created. I was dreaming of a system where the game would handle all the tedious aspects of being a DM while leaving you all the open-ended gameplay; in reality, you had to choose between a practically non-existent DM and one who needed to exert superhuman efforts.

I was still glad to have the client, and I do enjoy RPGs. The first chapter was only OK, but I'd been told that the game got better later on. The final straw was when I upgraded the game and found that all the quests were broken... I would gather the item or something that an NPC needed, and they would act like we were meeting for the first time. In a rage, I uninstalled the game, and other than a brief multiplayer game with David hadn't touched it since.

Hearing talk of NWN2 made me think that I should try it again. After some effort I reinstalled the game, upgraded to the very latest version, and reloaded one of those old old games. I played for an hour or so, only to find that the quest was STILL broken. I guess I wasn't that surprised - future patches probably fix bugs in the game itself and don't correct savegames that have gotten into bad states - but it was still a deflating experience. I need to decide whether to keep going or not. The good things I've heard about the game and the expansions tempt me to keep at it, but memories of the incredible amount of time it takes to beat an RPG cause me to hesitate. (This problem is exacerbated by my preferred play style - I'm a rogue, and sneak everywhere, lure enemies away one by one to finish them off, and exhaust my conversation options with every NPC.)

What's kind of funny is that I now have a much greater love for Bioware than I did in my original play of the game. I didn't start playing the Baldur's Gate games until later, particularly the phenomenal Baldur's Gate 2. In some ways, returning to Neverwinter Nights makes me disappointed for what they left behind. Sure, the graphics are far better, and I think I prefer the third edition rules, but I really miss the great party system of the Baldur's Gates games. Particularly in the sequel, I was just as interested with the relationships NPCs had with one another, their own progress and evolution, as I was with the main plot of the game. Planescape: Torment was just as strong in this regard, with incredibly fascinating and rich characters that you came to know and care for intimately. And in NWN? You get exactly one henchman who you can hire to follow you around. That's it. Do you want a sorcerer and a thief? Too bad, you just get one companion. Granted, the individual henchmen have interesting stories, but they lack a lot of the complexity that came from having a large party.

At some point I need to decide whether I want to get NWN2 or not. I keep flip-flopping on this. My first thought was, "Oooh! Bioware RPG is good!" Then I realized that Bioware didn't actually make it, just some company called Obsidian. Then I realized that Obsidian was made up of ex-Black Isle folks, the guys who actually made Baldur's Gate. Then I realized that I would need to worry about system requirements again. Then I realized that NWN2 gives you an expanded party to play with. And then... well, I sort of started wondering whether I'd be better off beating the first game before playing the second - you can't import your character, I'm just wondering if I'd be missing on some of the plot and story. That just circles back around to the problem of time - I'm not sure if I have time to play the game I already own, so why drop $50 on a new game I won't have time for?

I ended up deciding to defer the decision to my next upgrade. My current thinking is that in the first half of 2007, after Spore comes out, I will upgrade my computer and get Spore, Oblivion, and maybe NWN2. On the bright side, by then the worst bugs should be squashed and the mod community will have had a crack at the game.

PS: Anyone who has a blog on Blogger, it's worth switching to Beta just for the vastly improved spellchecker.


  1. Brother-

    Do we have a confirmation yet on when exactly Spore will be coming out, or is it still the nebulous "2007" that it got bumped back to?

    Second, you didn't miss much with NWN. Having played through all of it AND all of the expansions, it ranks as a decent game but the story, character development and interface remain just as lackluster the entire time [honestly, who on earth came up with the radial menu? they need to be shot].

    Finally, I hadn't heard that Obsidian was composed of ex-Black Isle employees. That makes it sound rather nifty. I'm still hesitant to try it after my disappointment with KOTOR:II.

    Right now, I'm looking forward to Gothic III, which will be releasing in the states ~ the 20th. Its designed by a German company, and holds more true to 'classic' single-player RPGs than the current modern run. It does have hack and slash elements to it, but if it follows in the footsteps of Gothic II then its not too annoying. Most importantly, unlike modern fare, the Gothic series adopts the old 'Your character is Your character, and we let you choose a name and skill set and how you interact with the people around you.' I've been following it for a year now, and I'm pretty excited about it.

  2. Thanks for the info! You've probably saved me several hundred hours.

    Gothic sounds interesting. I may try it out.

    Still no firm release date on Spore. On a side note, the current issue of The New Yorker has an interesting profile on Will Wright... no new information on Spore, but some good information on Wright's history that I hadn't known before.

  3. A couple counterpoints:

    First, I'm not sure if you realized it, but in NWN, you can, in fact, hire all of the available henchmen. You can only have one travelling with you at a time, but you are able to switch between them as needed. Also, in the 2nd expansion, you can have two henchmen at a time.

    Second, I've always felt that the real strength of NWN was not so much the game itself, but the toolset. The DM and multiplayer aspects of the game did fall a bit short, but the most fun I had with the game was probably creating custom maps, equipment, and monsters. I never got into the scripting aspects of the editor enough to actually finish a module, but I still find myself going back to it every now and then.

    Okay, that's my $0.02.