Game Name:  Neverwinter Nights
Developer:  BioWare
Publisher:  Atari
PC Release Year:  2002
Review Date:  April 21, 2014

BioWare is one of the rare game studios that is almost as recognizable as the titles they produce.  With popular RPG licenses like Mass Effect and Dragon Age in their wheelhouse, they have developed an almost cult-like following among their fans in recent years.  While they are not the undisputed creative king in their genre space, a story-centric design philosophy is primarily what sets them apart from rival Bethesda.  One need only look at Knights of the Old Republic, regularly regarded as the greatest Star Wars game ever made, to see how well they translated the adventure, humor, and epic scope of those films into a narrative that was entirely new.  This success made me a fan, and also made me believe that gaming can rival the emotional power of film and literature.  I was seeking just such an experience when I decided to delve into the world of Neverwinter Nights.  Based upon the slew of positive reviews from 2002, I had high hopes that this earlier BioWare title would capture the magic and wonder of later releases.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  From my playthrough, it is evident that this was a very ambitious game.  It marked the studio’s transition to a beautiful 3D engine for the first time, provided cooperative multiplayer support, and also introduced a set of development tools for the most hardcore fans to create their own adventures.  However, it is clear that this came at the expense of both gameplay and story, which are cardinal sins in my book.

Like most other RPGs, the first task in Neverwinter Nights is to create a character.  Unlike most other RPGs, this is the first place where things start to go sideways.  I have never played Dungeons and Dragons, nor do I have a desire to.  Yet this is exactly what is required, since the underlying rule set is lifted heavily from pen-and-paper games.  Do you know what willpower ratings and saving throws are?  I hope so, because I did not and the interface does very little to break such terminology down into layman’s terms.  Without taking unnecessary time to read FAQs and walkthroughs, it is very easy to mess up this foundation step and subsequent character development.  The double whammy is that the mistake does not become readily apparent until well after the point where it can be corrected.  Four chapters break up the lengthy storyline, and the first two are complete cakewalks.  It was not until I started reaching bosses in the third, about 38 hours in, that my cleric-fighter hybrid hit a wall.  At that point, what is a player to do?  Besides starting over, there are really only two options; open up the command prompt to input cheat codes, or do like I did and start stacking an insane number of potions to buff stats and heal through fights.  Neither of these are acceptable solutions to, what remains in my mind, a serious design flaw.

The sheer prospect of needing to replay those earlier portions of Neverwinter Nights was terrifying, because the campaign itself is so incredibly dull.  It is filled to the brim with the kind of quests that World of Warcraft has since burned gamers out on.  Seek out the Waterdhavian creatures in the four corners of the city, bring back the head from the troll chieftain of the caves, and rescue the farmer’s wife from the tribe of bugbears; this is just a small sampling of what is in store for prospective players.  The question is, who enjoys such superficial gameplay anymore?  If shrinking MMO player base metrics are any indicator, gamers are moving on from this type of design philosophy.  From start to finish, it takes about a 50 hour time investment to traverse the title’s four acts. About half of that could have been removed as unnecessary fluff, and the end product would only have been stronger because of it.  Unfortunately, this tedium begets more tedium, since the player has plenty of time in the long playthrough to become bored with the remainder of the game.  Extremely limited tile sets and textures are the perfect example of this.  The continent of Faerûn is supposed to be some kind of wildly diverse fantasy realm.  Yet every single forest looks the exact same, as does every cave, field, city street, and home interior.  Lighting levels and coloring are cleverly used to try to hide this fact from the player, but it is ultimately inescapable.  The irony is, nobody would notice this limitation if the game were shorter, because there would not be the need to recycle design elements quite as often.

Equally problematic are the action-RPG tendencies of Neverwinter Nights.  Diablo II was still a very big deal at the time of this title’s release, and it is clear that overtures were made to lure some of those players in.  Combat is fast-paced, but it sacrifices quality for quantity.  There are near endless waves of enemies, but most require a simple auto-attack to vanquish.   I come into a “real” RPG expecting to see a party system with queueable commands, so fighting is more of a tactical battle that plays to individual character strengths than a mindless hack-and-slash.  Not that there is anything wrong with the latter, but overall game flow needs to be quick to support it.  What we have here is a bastardized hybrid of the two, where vapid battles and extremely limited NPC support are slowed down by the need to rest between spell casts and unlock chests before looting them.  It is a mixture that simply does not work.

Most disappointing of all, BioWare’s excellence in storytelling is not enough to save Neverwinter Nights from itself.  On paper, it should have worked.  You start the game quarantined inside a plague-infested city, with the initial goals of bringing hope to the populace and halting the spread of the disease.  Upon finding out that the illness was man-made and part of a wider plot to upend the world order, you embark on a quest to determine who is behind this death and chaos so you can stop them.  It honestly cannot get more epic in scope than that.  However, the glacial pacing of the game runs counter to this sense of urgency and purpose.  From an immersion standpoint, how can you possibly keep this in mind when you are forced down too many random tangents, like freeing animals from a zoo at the behest of an environmentalist, or returning the property of a woman who was robbed after a drunken one-night stand?  Beyond these distractions is the added reality that the high fantasy setting is so overdone in gaming today.  Elves, orcs, dwarves, dragons; who cares?  Tolkien’s works are awesome, but the absurdity of this subject matter makes it nearly impossible to tell a serious tale, as is attempted here.  That is why the Warcraft and Orcs Must Die! franchises are as popular as they are.  They contain a level of self-deprecating humor to put gamers at ease and have fun with the content.  You will not find that in this game, despite the seemingly comic fights with lizard men and giant rats.

I can only guess why the original review scores for Neverwinter Nights were so astronomically high, because it certainly does not warrant them today.  My working theory is that in a rush to get pieces posted, reviewers failed to complete the lengthy campaign, which ultimately buckles under its own enormity.  My own opinion would be vastly different if I had only sunk 10 to 20 hours into this title.  However, I did play through the whole campaign and I can safely say that this is the worst game that I have played since starting my web site.  I can see why players loved this title at launch, because its multiplayer inevitably gave them an experience like World of Warcraft, well before that title’s release.  Having been there and done that, though, it just failed to provide me with anything else.  If you want a good single player RPG, check out one of BioWare’s later releases.  If you are nostalgic for this type of multiplayer experience, just reactivate your World of Warcraft account instead.

Verdict:  Not Recommended