Saturday, September 3, 2011

Neverwinter Nights 2: You say goodbye, I say hello.

It was sometime last year, while I was looking for some good fantasy style artwork for character portraits, that I came across this "Aribeth's Farewell" picture (reproduced here), marking the final official Bioware patch for Neverwinter Nights 1. I had no idea who this character was, or anything about the plot or stories of the NWN campaigns, aside from them being set in Faerun.

I wish someone had tried to convince me to look into the second game of this series earlier. Despite its numerous flaws (which you can be sure I'll unflinchingly enumerate in detail over the course of my posts on the subject), it has in abundance what I've found to be missing in the games of this type that have come after it. The second game, developed by Obsidian, appears to have also already received its final patch at the time of this writing. So here again, is a game whose developers have said goodbye to it years ago, and here I am coming in just now to say hello for the first time.

"This is so exciting! Wow! Where to begin?"

--Neeshka, a character I think I'm going to like.

Now I can see that my comparison between Dragon Age: Origins and the Baldur's Gate games was missing this very relevant intermediary. A great amount of what I found to be missing in DA:O (compared to BG) is in fact in Neverwinter Nights 2.

So, coming from DA:O, which has 3 races and 3 classes to choose from, I was delighted with the character creator for NWN2, which sports 8 base races and 16 additional sub-races, with 28 classes to choose from, not counting specialisations within a class. I picked druid for my first character, partially because I've enjoyed playing a druid in WoW, and also because I liked the style of armour. Each of these classes has its own style of armour! And from what I can tell, it doesn't have to become obsolete once you find better armour, because the crafting system allows you to put up to 4 enchantments on it. So after selecting the druid class, I was further delighted when the character creator basically asked me, "okay, now what kind of druid?" with a selection of druid specialisation packages to choose from, or the ability to customise my own.

Sample head and hair combinations

The one place where character creation seems to be inferior to Dragon Age is in the appearance, since they use a selection of pre-made heads rather than facegen sliders, and the artistic design of the heads and hair is rather unappealing, though not as bad as some other games I've reviewed here. There are, however, a number of mods that provide better, more appealing heads and hair, including a conversion of the popular Ren and Idkrr hair sets, known from the Oblivion mods. NWN2 does have one notable bonus in the appearance category, though, and that's the height and girth sliders for your general body type, allowing you to be tall and skinny or short and stocky. It would be nice if more games included that option. Even when it's a simple scaling and not actually visibly changing your body fat/muscle tone ratio, it's a welcome additional bit of customisation.

There was a pretty long list of voices to choose from, as well, though the voice sets seem to be shared across all races. There were no really good dwarf male voices that I could tell, for instance, but there were several that suited my female sun elf. What I don't understand is why they made the voices randomly shift pitch up and down, both in the character creator and in the game. In other words, the vocal lines that you hear over and over in the game will sometimes be raised to near chipmunk-style pitch, and sometimes down to demon-style pitch ("Urr lerrtle wrrrghed derrrwn errt therr merrmerrnt!"), which, even when it's somewhere between those extremes when I hear it in the game, always sounds obviously artificial. Who thought this was a good idea, and what did they hope to accomplish? We've already picked the voice set, so why is the voice changing? Are they suddenly breathing helium or sulphur hexafluoride?

Graphics and art design

The graphics have some pluses and minuses. The major advantage is the sheer variety of items, textures, environments, placeables, architecture, etc. The world of Faerun is perhaps the most detailed and expansive fantasy world ever created, and the range of story types that can be set there is very wide, and this is reflected by the art assets. However, the art style used for these assets lacks personality, being in general rather bland and inorganic in both modeling and texturing. This critique extends to the characters and their animation, as well, which I find to be stiff and awkward in places. Dwarves are especially awkward, always having their heads tilted forward, with their chins in their chests.

The textures of the interior environments also appear to be very mild on the specular mapping, giving a dry, clay-like appearance to everything, and in some cases (like the crypt walls) the normal mapping seems a bit excessive or inexpertly applied. There are also glaringly obvious seams in some oft-repeated wall textures and extremely pixellated cobwebs that I can't believe got past quality assurance.

I'll be interested to see if any of the user-made campaign modules make improvements to the basic items and architecture.

Optimisation, bugfixes, and tweaking

The game may be poorly optimised and have some performance-reducing bugs, but over the past couple of days I found the necessary tweaks and workarounds to get it running smoothly and change the control scheme to something more comfortable and familiar (in fact, almost exactly like DA:O or WoW). Kornstalx's NWN2 Hotkeys v1.05a changes the camera control from the middle mouse button to the right one, and also allows me to simply hold left and right mouse buttons to move the character forward and rotate the camera at the same time in whatever direction I want to move, which is the comfortable DA:O and WoW control scheme.

I have the graphics settings almost all at maximum, at 1920x1080 resolution, with the only reductions being no point light shadows, no rendering of far distant shadows, and character shadow quality set to medium. I would actually rather have character shadows disabled completely, but I can't find any way to do that without also disabling the environmental shadows, which would degrade the visual quality of the environment greatly. The character shadows I'm talking about aren't the ones cast on the ground under the character, but the self-shadows, such as the ones cast on the character's face by the hair, which is unnecessary and generally looks bad.

Tweaks to the nwn2player.ini file reduce the ridiculous sensitivity of the camera control to normal levels, as in any other game of this kind. These are the settings I found to be comfortable:

[Character Mode Options]

I use character mode all the time, and don't really see much difference in any of the other cameras, aside from the fact that you can change settings for each of them individually. I can zoom in closely or zoom far out to a distant overhead or faux-isometric view in character mode, as well as either click to move or hold the mouse button to move, or even move with the keyboard.

The NWN2 Client Extension fixes a timing bug that was causing the background to move in a kind of choppy stutter when panning. Now it's all smooth sailing.

What it felt like Shepard was saying

Poorly timed for my entry into this game was the decision a few months ago by Bioware to take offline their pre-Social forums, which contained uncountable numbers of posts about NWN and NWN2. In my searches for solutions to the problems I mentioned above, I would almost always hit several links on Google that looked from the summaries like they had the exact answer I needed, only to be directed to Commander Shepard's ugly face on the front page of I cannot adequately express how much this repeated occurrence increasingly felt like an insult, and how much bad faith it engenders. It has been months since their incident, and they haven't put that knowledge base treasury back online in any form, preferring instead to use all those links as a redirect to an advertisement. The likelihood of me buying Mass Effect 3 is surely decreasing with each such instance.

Crashes are rare with this setup, and far fewer than the crashes I still sometimes get with Dragon Age.

There are still some issues with the movement. Characters, including the one I'm controlling, can easily get blocked and stuck by environmental props. If I run too near to, say, a barrel, I can hit the collision box and just start running in place until I unstick the character. When companions do this, I may not notice until I'm on the other side of the temple. Other games handle this sort of thing better, by transferring some of your forward motion to the sides, so instead of stopping you, you're deflected around the item.


The user interface is designed in XML, and can be changed without any special tools. Thus, there are many user-made interface changes to choose from. I've found ones that increase the window sizes to use more of the available screen space for larger resolutions, as well as a larger font for the same reason.

I've also installed a tweak to change the size and aspect ratio of the portraits for the PC and the party members, making them use the same portrait size as NWN1 (larger, and a better proportion for portraits) instead of a square one. The default portraits in NWN2 are simple snapshots of the rather unappealing 3D character models, just like in Dragon Age. They're all facing the same direction, with the same expression, and have nothing to make them uniquely identifiable or artistically represent aspects of their character. Obsidian apparently understood this as a flaw, since you can easily change the portraits by double-clicking on them in the character sheet screen and selecting a new file in Targa format. There are many custom made portraits online to choose from in the correct aspect ratio since I'm using the NWN1 portrait mod, although finding appropriate portraits for the OC characters in particular is just as difficult as it was for Planescape: Torment, or even more so since the few actual portrait replacements I've found were made in the same square aspect ratio.

But look at the difference! The 2D portrait has personality and mood, while the 3D one is just a bland screenshot of a doll-like 3D model.

Starting experience

I found it highly refreshing to play a game with a starting experience like this. After so many games starting me in a barren wasteland, junkyard, prison, or other unpleasant surrounding, here I began in a land of lovely green wetlands and meadows, during a harvest festival full of games, entertainment, small-town rivalries, and competitions. The townsfolk had vibrant personalities, and the whole setting of the harvest festival allowed me to learn the controls of the game in a relaxed, pleasant environment before getting thrust into battle.

During the initial introductory areas, two friends are provided as party members: a fighter and a wizard, with a couple of other party members added briefly for tutorial purposes. Once you leave for the wider world, the first two companions that seem to be available are a dwarf fighter named Khelgar and a cheerful tiefling thief named Neeshka, who I quoted above. I don't yet know how long it'll be before I find any more, but I'm glad I'm a spellcaster (as a druid), since otherwise that role would be lacking.

Comparisons to Dragon Age: Origins

I'm noticing quite a number of elements that Dragon Age could well have acquired from this game, such as the companion influence system, the 3-companion limit, and the area-of-effect circle marker that you place on the ground when casting an AoE spell. That last one is one of the things for which I praised Dragon Age, calling it an improvement over the blind AoE in Baldur's Gate. Characters who die during a battle also get right back up again after combat is over, as in DA:O, so I don't know what good these "raise dead" scrolls are, unless it's for combat rezzing.

Problems and letdowns

The AI is abominable in this game. That goes both for pathfinding and for following the orders I bloody well give my companions. They'll sometimes directly ignore an order I broadcast right in front of them, such as "follow me", despite me ordering it multiple times and moving in a direction, and instead they'll charge in the opposite direction right into the Cloudkill that was billowing in the hallway for the enemies I wanted to draw out. Not to mention unexpectedly charging forward to attack distant enemies while I'm having Neeshka disarm a trap. Running right onto the trap, naturally, before I can stop them, and when I thought I had them all on "stay". Even failing to obey my orders, the AI should be smart enough not to run into poison clouds that I cast or traps that I've detected. It's a real exercise in companion wrangling. I don't even want to get into the times in the heat of battle that I position myself to cast spells that cause damage in a straight line (like Lightning Bolt) so that they'll hit multiple enemies and none of my companions, and it's almost guaranteed that several of my companions will get right in front of me to receive the full blast when it goes off. I might have to try the "puppet mode" where they don't do anything without orders, even though that's not what I want -- what I want is for them to act intelligently.

Companions are constantly getting stuck on scenery. There's no excuse for the party members getting stuck on walls while running down a hall. When they're following a party leader, they run in a direct path toward the leader, and clearly aren't using the walkmesh for the level. Switching to controlling them directly, and clicking on the spot where I want them to go makes them correctly run around those same obstacles they get stuck on when they're following the leader. That's bloody ridiculous! How can this have gone unfixed for so long? The companion pathfinding is one area where Dragon Age: Origins is clearly superior to NWN2. Companions should always use a level's walkmesh, following or not.

A stranger bug that I often encounter is that sometimes I'll be running around and am abruptly teleported back to where I started from. This can happen at quite some distance, causing me to need to retread my steps. What the hell could cause that, and how can that have gotten past quality assurance?

On an aesthetic topic, the various temples are very disappointing compared to the Baldur's Gate games. Whereas in BG they were unique and interesting, Obsidian basically went the Oblivion route with the temples, making them all look like generic Christian churches with hard wooden pews and angelic choir music, with a token shrine to the particular god near the front. By contrast, the temple of Helm in BG2 was dripping with atmosphere appropriate to that stern, obey-the-law kind of god, with industrial sounds and an authoritative voice echoing through it reminding everyone of the laws they must follow, while the temple of Umberlee the water-queen was essentially a giant indoor pool with narrow catwalks crossing over it for the adherents to walk on.

Spelling mistakes and incorrect grammar are also noticeable. "Nevermind" instead of "never mind," using the word "discrete" when they should have used "discreet," "it's" when they meant "its," "pouring over books" instead of "poring over books," "who's blood" instead of "whose blood," and so on.

This may seem to be a pretty harsh review for a game that I like and recommend, but believe me, it deserves the criticism as much as it deserves the praise. There's a brilliant, shining game under the grime of its bugs, and I only wish I had a way to scrub that grime away. The game system is expansive and very flexible, and (companion AI issues aside) fun to play. Even the official campaign is a fun ride. I've already begun downloading user-made story/quest modules, though, which I expect to also enjoy. I'm beginning with highly-rated, spotlighted, and award-winning modules on the Neverwinter Vault, which I think will have to suffice in lieu of personal recommendations. I'll have to look for some module reviews somewhere, too.