the king of shadows Just a warning at the start: this article contains a number of spoilers about the game. There was no way I could avoid that. So if you’re already playing it, you may not want to read much farther.

Neverwinter 2 was highly anticipated, but while I enjoyed the first one, held off until a stable patch was available. So this review covers the 1.04 version.

Obsidian made a number of changes – only to be expected – so I’ll start off with those first. The biggest change from Neverwinter 1 is the revised party system. Up to three NPCs are allowed in chapter one, and four in the remaining two chapters. Unlike the previous game, you now have almost total control over each member.

You can possess a party member at any time, thereby making it your character, while your own hero switches over to automatic. This ability is also used at level-up time, as you now determine the allocation of skill points, attribute points, and feats for everyone in the group. You also choose which spells the mages learn, and which ones (except for the sorceress) they have memorized.

Actions can be fine-tuned through a set of behavior options, allowing you to turn on or off using items, casting spells, detrapping/picking locks, and so on.

Further, party NPCs don’t die during a fight. If they take too much damage, they drop and are out of it until combat ends. At that time, they get back up, although with only a hitpoint, making for a sort of auto-resurrection.

These are all good features, and make traveling with a party less of a hassle than it was in the original NWN games. However, the AI is still less than perfect.

“Scaled casting” is supposed to match the spell with the situation. Inevitably, though, once higher levels spells are attained, you can be sure your mage-types will be using them first. A couple of orcs don’t require a fireball, but if one is available, off it goes.

Your mages are, at least, smart enough to get protections going early, and will cast Stoneskin, Barkskin, etc. on the first round if one isn’t up already.

Facing in combat can cause problems. If an NPC is a short distance from an enemy, but not looking in that direction, it could take several seconds or more before the NPC realizes a target is available.

On the other hand, if they’re looking in the right direction, they are often aware of enemies long before you are, even when you’re in the lead. At which time, they go haring off to fight it, sometimes alone.

So the group system, while much improved, still requires a careful eye and a quick hand on the pause, whether to redirect party members or take over a spellcaster before things get out of hand.

nwn2githyanki3.jpgAnother addition is “influence”. How you talk to your companions in conversation, what you say to other NPCs in the game, and the actions you perform will have an effect on how your pals view you.

Unfortunately, this is only partially implemented, because influence really comes into play only at the very end of the game, and in some cases, will have no effect at all. So this is more a sham than anything else.

New sub-races have been added: Aasimar, Tiefling, Drow, Sun Elf, Moon Elf, Wood Elf, Deep Gnome (Svirfneblin), Rock Gnome, Shield Dwarf, Gold Dwarf, Gray Dwarf (Duergar), Lightfoot Halfling, and Strongheart Halfling.

The Aasimar, Tiefling, Drow, and Deep Gnomes come with special abilities, and advance in level slower than others. The remaining new races offer minor variations in abilities on the base race, and advance normally.

There is one new class – the Warlock – and several new prestige classes: Arcane Trickster, Duelist, Eldritch Knight, Frenzied Berserker, Neverwinter Nine, Shadow Thief of Amn, and Warpriest.

I didn’t try any prestige classes (old or new), and took only a brief look at Warlock. Warlocks have no restrictions on how many spells per day they can cast, and like sorcerers, have no need to memorize any beforehand.

The downside is that their spell selection is severely limited, with only four levels of spells, and even at the highest character level – the cap is 20 – can’t know more than three spells from any level. They also learn new spells at a very slow rate.

The offset is the ability to switch spells in and out of the book on any level gain, replacing a less-effective one with something better. They can also wear light armor without a chance of spell failure. The Warlock thus comes off as more of a support offensive class rather than a primary spellcaster.

nwn2map2.jpgAn extensive crafting system has been added to the game, so that making ordinary weapons and armor can actually be accomplished. However, it takes a regular spellcasting class to enchant these items and give them magical properties.

This requires collecting various “ingredients” and having a recipe book that details what each type of enchantment needs, along with the proper magical workbench. There are players who like this activity, but not being one of them, I skipped crafting entirely.

The basic game mechanics have changed little from Neverwinter 1, but there are some differences. The radial menu is gone, replaced by a drop-down menu, which does speed thing up a bit. Spells can be accessed by hitting F, which brings up a quick list of those available to cast. As before, spells, along with items, abilities, weapons, etc., can be put on a hotbar for easy access. Combat is the usual click-on-target.

Like its predecessor, Neverwinter 2 has a tutorial. This one is safe, being the Harvest Festival, and designed to acquaint you with the interface and mechanics in an easy fashion. As before, you reach level 3 at the end. Happily, you can skip the tutorial, and be leveled up to 3 at the beginning of chapter 1, if you prefer.

The main map has also changed. Now, when opened, there is no “fog of war”. You can see the entire area immedediately. This is a great help, especially in the city.

These are all good features. When we get to the game itself, however, things are not so cheery. The main plot is a combination of old chestnuts: “The Chosen One With Sword Of Xeen vs. Ancient Evil”, and the Rod Of Seven Parts thrown in for bad measure.

For newer players, in Might & Magic IV, you could only defeat Lord Xeen with a special weapon. The Rod Of Seven Parts goes back to 1st ed. AD&D. It was a powerful artifact, in pieces (shattered in a great battle too, hmmm), and had to be put together to be really useful.

To this is added an illogical storyline of such painful linearity that a straitjacket would seem loose in comparison.

nwn2neeshka.jpgYour home village of West Harbor comes under attack by Duergar and Bladelings, who are after a silver shard your foster father hid years ago. He sends you to get it, and then on to his half-brother in Neverwinter, who has another one.

So the object is to collect the pieces, reforge them into a silver sword of great power, and then head to the finale to defeat the King of Shadows, the game’s main troublemaker.

Along the way, you come across various recruitable NPCs, each meeting involving long cutscenes that can’t be avoided, and usually requiring some sort of rescue effort.

At Neverwinter comes the first block. You’re supposed to see Aldanon about the shards, but he’s in Blacklake and that’s locked down. Someone is killing off nobles in there.

This is asinine. The murderer easily bypasses locked doors and guards. How does closing Blacklake help? Doors are no barrier to high-level magic. And that’s not counting the fact that Lord Nasher is in Blacklake, Castle Never having mysteriously moved from the City Center of last game.

So let’s just keep all the nobles penned in and make the killer’s job that much easier. Not the player’s job, though.

The only way to enter Blacklake is to jump through hoops, for either the City Watch or the local criminal mob. There isn’t any variety here. It’s much like in Might & Magic VII, where the dark and light paths through the game were either the same jobs, or mirror images of each other.

So no matter which way you go, you get the same result. It makes you wonder why they even bothered. If the designers wanted to include a branch for the evilly-inclined, surely they could have created something better.

nwn2garfight3c.jpgAt the start of Act II, you are framed for mass murder by Luskan and have to stand trial. Before the hearing, you’re allowed to go out and collect evidence that you’re innocent.

This is all nonsense and a total waste of time. The full trial lasts a half-hour (a real world half-hour), and whether you’re found guilty or innocent, the losing side appeals and you enter trial by combat against a Frenzied Berserker.

You can skip much of the trial by having your “lawyer” plead the case, but you’ll get the same result. So this is nothing but padding to no worthwhile purpose.

Sometime later, you get your very own keep. Right in the middle of a role-playing game, they stick a strategy sequence. You have to build and fortify the place; recruit, train, and equip the soldiers; and secure the surrounding area.

Not everyone enjoys strategy, or having strategy suddenly shoved on them in the middle of a CRPG. So what was the point? Except, perhaps, as a supposed “Let’s wow the players” feature, it, too, has little purpose. This entire business of the keep could be removed, and it would make not a whit of difference in the storyline. All we have here is more padding.

There is the matter of the Githyanki. They are at war with the King Of Shadows, for no good reason. The KOS exists solely to protect the (long dead and gone) Illefarn empire. That has nothing to do with the Githyanki at all.

You’re told that the King of Shadows invaded the Githyanki home, which is in Astral plane. Why? Illefarn was here on the Prime Material. So this is totally senseless, especially in view of the “evil” ending.

I think you’ve gotten an idea by now as to the loose and shoddy thinking that went into this story, and I’m going on the the finale.

For the “good” ending, once the KOS is destroyed, the place falls apart. And-you-don’t-out. Nope. Search parties find no trace of you or your stalwart band, except for your knight’s cloak.

Then we see the closing video of how the world is a better place and rebuilding. Tra la.

There were many complaints over the end of original Neverwinter, and it is evident that Obsidian learned absolutely nothing from it. If they wanted some sort of lead-in to an expansion, some sort of cliffhanger, this was not the way to do it.

By having your character and party disappear at the moment of victory robs players of any sense of achievement or satisfaction. I have said this before, and I’ll say it again: the ending is what we work towards, and all too often, as here, it is a feeble effort unworthy of the time and effort we expend to reach it.

And there’s the evil ending, where you decide – at the very end – to join the King Of Shadows (this offer made only to evil characters, so I looked it up in the toolset).

We’ve been told how evil the KOS is. How much misery he will bring to the world. Etc. Etc.

nwn2portal2.jpgSo, with you and your party leading them, the dark armies march on. They march to the boundaries of the old Illefarn empire….and stop. Because the KOS was created to defend Illefarn, and nothing else.

Gosh, we haven’t seen anything this evil in a long time, eh? He doesn’t destroy the world, he doesn’t take it over. He just wants his old home back, and he’s happy when he gets it.

Regarding the graphics, aside from the artifact problem, they were okay. Just okay. Why this game had such high requirements, I don’t know. The visuals in Oblivion were much better, and that was at a resolution of 800×600 and no artifacting, either.

Before finishing up, I want to say something about the the people in the game. By far, most of them are amazingly unpleasant. They tend towards being arrogant, rude, and discourteous (and I don’t mean bad guys here, either). And the ones who blathered on about “duty” and “honor”, tended to be worse than the rest.

The replayability value of this game is low. Aside from all that extra padding, there is the matter of the many – too many – cutscenes. You can’t get away from them, so if you do it again, you have to sit through everything again, because so many involve conversations.

Also, during the game, you see scenes of “what’s happening elsewhere”, and those can’t be aborted, either. The first time through, this is not a problem, but again? And again?

It is obvious that Obsidian put too much time and effort into show-off programming and not enough into the nuts and bolts of NWN2. More of their attention should have been directed to the story, and the code that runs the game.

Overall, Neverwinter Nights 2 is a disappointing experience. The story is full of holes, and there is too much makework that seems to exist only to display virtuoso programming. Much still needs to be fixed, as anyone can see from the official boards, although with v1.04, the game is stable and playable. If you want to play. I can’t recommend this product to anyone except diehard Neverwinter fans.miniscorp