Sunday, November 17, 2013


Well! I've been enthusiastically making my way through Neverwinter Nights 2, and liking it enough that I figured I'd made a rare mid-game check-in post to record my thoughts. I'd initially been impressed by all the ways it had managed to improve upon the spotty track record of Neverwinter Nights 1, but as I've gotten further into it, I've been surprised at the degree to which I've started making comparisons to Dragon Age, and in several ways finding this entry superior. No, I can't say that NWN2 is better than DA:O... but there are certain things it does that are more interesting, or more fully-formed, or more fun than the latter game. (Which, yes, is from another studio, but I don't really want to get into the whole BioWare/Obsidian thing now. Maybe some other post will.)

I've decided to modify my usual practice of posting insanely long albums consisting of screenshots from RPGs, and instead post an album that only covers the first chapter of NWN2, and is merely gargantuan in length. This time I captioned the album before writing the post, so I've already touched on some character and plot details in there (mild spoiler warning!) and don't feel like repeating myself in this post. So, congratulations, you get a shorter post than usual!

A quick tangent on the topic of web albums: loyal readers might have noticed that I've enabled Google's face-detection algorithms, and am inordinately amused when it manages to place circles around the faces of characters in my fantasy and science-fiction role-playing games. It's been able to instantly recognize all humanoid characters from the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, even among races that we don't recognize as humans, such as Asari and elves. (Impressively, it's even able to group them accurately; it knows the difference between Liara and Samara, and between Shianni and Ariane.) It wasn't able to identify any faces in NWN1, which isn't surprising, given how limited its graphics were. (Exception: in extreme close-up, it could identify a couple of major NPCs like the Valsharess.) In NWN2, though, it can recognize practically everyone, often even if they are in profile or partially obscured. That's pretty impressive, and also kind of crazy. I think it's amazing that, like, there's a particular threshold of polygons above which we can fool a computer into thinking that a video-game character is a real human being. And, in more disappointing news, the only humanoid character in NWN2 that Google doesn't recognize as a person is my PC... who happens to have black skin. Dang.

Hopefully that's because of his hat. It's a sweet hat! You have much more flexibility to mix-and-match gear in NWN games compared to the DA series, and in some ways I prefer the fashions of this game. Take helmets as a specific example. In DA, helmets are a major source of stats, and are often parts of matching sets that must all be equipped in order to gain large bonuses. So, you're often stuck wearing a shockingly ugly mage cap, or a full plate helmet that fully obscures your character's beautiful face. In contrast, in the D&D system helmets have very low bonuses, so the stats don't matter very much and you can pick based on appearance without penalizing your character. Also, NWN has cloaks! Man, I miss cloaks. They look so awesome.

So, armor is one way in which, despite being less technically advanced than DA, NWN graphics can actually feel richer than DA. Another major aspect is lighting. DA uses fixed lighting for all scenes: it's always just after twilight in camp, always midday in Denerim, etc. And it looks good. NWN2, though, has a full day-night cycle, like the Ultima or Elder Scrolls franchises. It's purely cosmetic - shops never close, NPCs don't travel on schedules - but man, it looks so good! Because cut-scenes, conversations, and combat can occur at any time, you can get totally different looks for your scenes than another player would, just based on the time when it occurs.

I've written about this at length before, but modern BioWare's approach to RPGs depends on carefully staged scenes. They're a bit like Hollywood movies, with excellent blocking, camera work, scenery, reaction shots, etc. They look great, but, to me, slightly diminish the value of replays, since the cut-scenes will seem a bit same-y after a while. In contrast, earlier BioWare games (like Baldur's Gate) and many other RPG franchises use more emergent systems for scenes: they might occur after a timer has expired, or when certain conditions are met, regardless of where the player is and what their surroundings are. NWN2 is more in this vein, and as a result the companion chats, while technically lower-fidelity than those in DA, feel more unique to your experience. Every time you talk with Morrigan about Flemeth's mirror, it will be the same time of day, she'll always have her back to her small fire, she'll make the same gestures, etc. In contrast, when you chat with Elanee about her prior lives, you could be standing in a midday swamp next to Khelgar, or lurking in a Neverwinter alley with Neeshka, or relaxing in a candlelit inn surrounded by friends. Now, this does mean a less controlled atmosphere, and so you'll occasionally get weird blocking; but for the most part it looks surprisingly good, and I think would help subsequent play-throughs feel fresher.

Moving on from graphics: I've been really pleased by how well-drawn the companion characters are. I've already written about the progression in quality from NWN1 to HotU, from disengaged automatons practically devoid of personality to unique and engaging characters. Well, NWN2 feels like another leap up from the already-good characters in HotU. I think this is partly a result of the increased party size: so far I've been able to recruit eight NPCs, and I think there might be a couple more to come; similar to DA, they hang out in a home base when you're not actively traveling with them, so you can stay somewhat involved in their stories without totally committing to a set party; and best of all, you can finally have four party members (your PC plus three NPCs, plus whatever summons or familiars they have). Among other things, this leads to some really great banters, and great-if-frustrating intra-party conflicts. The Baldur's Gate series had a bunch of these, done incredibly well, which forced you to think carefully about members' alignments in addition to their battle prowess; HotU finally re-introduced banters, but they were all flavor, and came from a fairly small number of potential members; in contrast, NWN2 finally brings back the true D&D party feel of the earlier BG series.  I don't think it's necessarily any better than DA, but it has a different feel; the conflicts feel a bit more serious and potentially dangerous, unlike in DA where it was pretty easy to navigate conversational minefields to keep everyone happy.

Combat and AI are much improved from NWN1. Very improved, in fact. I absolutely hated the AI in those early games, and it was particularly bad at some things like spellcasting. In NWN2, I almost never need to jump in and manually control my party members: they're great about picking the right spells and feats to use at the right times. My spellcaster opens up with high-damage AOE attacks at the start of combat, buffs the most appropriate characters, and heals people when they're low on health; my tank uses knockdowns and taunts to keep attention on himself; my thief sneaks up on enemies who are engaged with one of the two tanks, then launches sneak attacks on them to burn them down. And I'm not even setting any tactics or anything. It all just seems to work, and is pretty magical. I'm very impressed.

One of the few faults with the AI: pathfinding is pretty bad. It's inconsistently bad, and I haven't been able to figure out what triggers it, but sometimes an character will get stuck at a corner and not be able to move forwards. Other times they'll head in the opposite direction of the fight; this is usually just annoying, but I've also had some disastrous results when they've opened a door and started an entirely new second fight while my PC is trying to hold down an entire flank all by himself. It doesn't happen often enough for me to think about it in advance, but often enough for me to feel annoyed.

Hm.... I don't want to go into plot in this post. There's a bit in the aforementioned web album, and I'll probably write up more after I've finished the game and gotten the complete picture. I would like to write a bit about my character, though, so I will!

I love RPGs, and usually try to avoid repeating myself. I enjoy switching up races, classes, personalities, and even genders from one game to another. In my multiple decades of playing RPGs, though, I don't think that I've ever picked a fighter class in a game that offers a choice of characters, even on replays. As far back as Hero Quest / Quest for Glory, I've tended to be attracted towards thieves, with mages as an attractive fallback. Well, there's a first time for everything, so I decided to roll Toman Benton as a fighter.

It's been pretty fun! A big part of the reason why I've tended to avoid fighters is because they seem boring. Rogues usually have a large toolkit of solutions to a problem: they can attack, or sneak their way around it, or talk their way out of trouble, or pick the lock of an alternate route, etc. Wizards usually have complex spell systems to manage, and I can put a lot of thought into deciding which spells to study, how to structure spells to create effective combos, etc. Fighters... hit things with big sticks until they die. Not as interesting.

But, at least in NWN2, not boring, either. First of all, with 3rd edition D&D rules, it's really easy to drop in other class levels to create a more complex character. In my case, I took a single level of Bard, which makes me a slightly more effective leader and lets me inspire my companions to fight more valiantly; building on my bard skills, I then started taking levels in Red Dragon Disciple. In many ways this supports my fighter build, by giving me lots of hit points, better physical stats, some useful combat immunities, etc. However, it also grants access to some unique (but complementary) abilities, such as the ability to breathe fire on my enemies. Eventually, I plan on taking some Weapon Master levels, which will let me achieve complete mastery of my two-handed falchion fighting style.

Even as a straight fighter, though, there's some fun stuff to do. I get to tank for my companions, charging into combat and drawing enemy fire, keeping them distracted while Neeshka sneaks in to stab them. I feel like I'm responsible for overall strategy for any given encounter, deciding when to press forwards and when to fall back and regroup. I have far fewer tools at my disposal than a rogue or a mage, but combats aren't rote, so I'm enjoying it so far.

Playing around with personality has been fun, too. I tend to have a couple of archetypes who I enjoy playing as in my RPGs. I often make my thieves into mischievous tricksters, happy to rob people blind and shameless liars, but who deep-down care about the greater good and will use underhanded means to achieve positive ends. Other PCs are more classical do-gooder types, often with particular empathy for certain oppressed groups, who quietly organize like-minded people in pursuit of their goals. The former maps onto Chaotic Good, the latter is vaguely Neutral Good. Toman is technically Chaotic Good, but expressed in a very different way than that of Seberin the dwarf commoner rogue or Cirion the half-elf bard. Toman is blunt and outspoken where the others were circumspect and duplicitous; he enjoys tweaking other people, doesn't bow to social niceties, and can sometimes exasperate his allies, but ultimately wins them around thanks to his unflinching war against evil. I don't really have a direct inspiration for him, but it mixes aspects of Boromir, Malcolm Reynolds, and Brynden Tully.

That's a good place to leave this for now, I guess. I think I'm about 1/3 of the way through the game, and will probably do one more post at the end. It may be a while; I recently got the itch to jump back into Fall from Heaven 2 again, and have been lent The Last of Us, so I might put this one on the shelf for a little while. Not too long, though! I'm loving the atmosphere and characters, and finding the plot pretty interesting, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it all develops. And, yet, moving one step closer to Mask of the Betrayer.

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