Saturday, October 15, 2011

Neverwinter Nights 1

The last thing I expected to happen after playing Neverwinter Nights 2 was that I might also get into Neverwinter Nights 1 after my initial lackluster impression of it.

I had tried NWN1 briefly a few years ago, and I was not inspired to continue. I played the original campaign from the beginning up until escaping from the besieged Academy, and it was an incredibly boring experience (not at all like the delightful starting experience of its sequel), with a headstrong companion who I couldn't control and who kept engaging with far-off enemies when I needed a break. It had a radial menu (good for gamepad, pointless for PC) with monochromatic abstract icons that didn't even tell you what the options were until you moused over them. Icons are for buttons. Menus want text. And monochrome icons are another offense to UI design. The priority for UI design is function, ease of use, and clear differentiation between options, not a unification where everything looks like everything else.

The graphics, as I've mentioned before, were from that transitional period when publishers stopped accepting 2D-based games, and so every game had to be 3D, even though the hardware of the time required them to use a frighteningly low number of polygons and extremely low-rez texture maps to support a wide enough customer base, regardless of whether or not there were enough skilled artists out there who could make good-looking art under such restrictions. If there were, most games' budgets weren't being used to hire them.

All these things kept me from getting into it at the time. But I couldn't help noticing that it remains a very popular game, and has a very large number of free campaign/quest mods to download (around 6000?) -- far more than NWN2. I found many interesting-sounding and good-looking NWN1 mods by accident while searching for mods for NWN2.

Also, when I first tried the game, I was tending to play it with the camera pretty close to the action, and with the characters clearly in view, where all their flaws were most evident, but in my recent playing of NWN2, I'd been generally playing with the camera zoomed far out and above, in the kind of pseudo-isometric perspective to which I've grown accustomed in the Infinity Engine games, which I hadn't experienced until after my first brush with NWN1. So if I tried playing NWN1 with a zoomed-out camera like that, I reasoned it would make the blocky meshes and low-rez textures irrelevant.

So, when GOG had a sale recently that included Neverwinter Nights (diamond edition), I succumbed to the temptation and bought it, because it was a pretty good gamble that there would be enough enjoyable content to warrant the cost at that price. I ended up pleasantly surprised.


Happily, I also found numerous mods to improve various aspects. First I should state here (in case there's any confusion) that there are two different meanings for the word "mod" in the context of gaming that I use here (not counting a third meaning, which refers to forum moderators). The kind of mod I'm about to talk about here, which is short for "modification", which modifies or changes aspects of a game, and then there's the kind of mod that's short for "module", which comes from the old modular adventure packs (originally called "modules") that were sold for D&D, which were designed to be modularly added to fit into anyone's already-running gaming campaign. I'll be talking about both here, and I'll try to reserve my use of the shortened "mod" to only mean "modification", and try to remember to use the word "module" to refer to anything that adds new adventures or quests to the game.

Amethyst Dragon has several mods that improve the UI by colourising the icons (including scroll icons), as well as making many parts of the UI transparent. I need to figure out which files do what on that last one, though, so I can disable some bits of the transparency. I like the transparent quickbar and the no-background compass, but some of the UI shouldn't be transparent (such as text boxes).

There were also a few head packs that improved the character design, a shader mod that adds some better lighting effects, bloom, and better colour saturation, and an environment mod that improves some of the geometry and textures. However, managing all these mods and dealing with conflicts arising from everything going into a single "override" folder promised to quickly become a headache, so I looked for a mod manager like I used for Oblivion, Morrowind, Dragon Age, and even the Infinity Engine games via WeiDU. Surprisingly, I couldn't find any. There were a couple of override managers I found, but they seemed to work by making backups of entire different sets of the override folder, instead of keeping track of which files are associated with which mod and tracking conflicts and such.

I ended up repurposing the Morrowind Plugin Manager for use in NWN. I needed to have a dummy "morrowind.exe" file in my NWN folder to get it to set up its directory structure, but after that it worked without complaint. This allows me to install and uninstall any override mod without having to remember which files it installed. The only inconvenience is that I need to temporarily rename the override folder to "data files" any time I want to install or uninstall something, and then rename it back to "override", because that's where Morrowind Plugin Manager installs things, and I couldn't find any way to change that, or fool it with a shortcut to the override folder. This also means that I still have to install certain mods manually, if they include files that need to go somewhere other than in the override folder.

I also needed to "prepare" the mods I wanted to install, by having each mod in a single ZIP or RAR file, with any extra folders removed, and any readme files renamed to something unique to that mod so that they didn't get overwritten.

For some reason, mod pages on the Neverwinter Vault are often full of multiple revisions of each mod, in multiple parts (for patches or optional components, or other reasons), sometimes with the same files duplicated in multiple archive formats, and rarely any explanation as to which files are actually necessary to get it running. If the Vault doesn't allow revising file descriptions, I suppose I can understand it, but if they insist on keeping old versions on the page for the sake of maintaining download counts, there should be some kind of clear separation between the latest and the older ones.

After dealing with all that mess, though, it's a convenient install and uninstall. I could get around the folder renaming and override-only issue if I placed my entire NWN folder inside another folder called "data files", and then included the "override" folder in the directory structure in the RAR files, but I'm not going to go that far.


The GOG bundle came with the original campaign (of course), the toolset, the expansions Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark (two names that can be easily confused for new players), as well as premium modules Kingmaker, Shadowguard, and Witch's Wake. (All of the screenshots in this post are from the Kingmaker module, with various improvement mods applied.) There were also some nice wallpaper images included. Most of them I'd seen on the web already, but these are in resolutions higher than I've seen elsewhere.

"Premium modules" appear to be what we would today call "DLC", and it also appears to have been an early experiment on Bioware's part, because several of them were made with sequels in mind, and had cliffhanger endings that were never resolved. More of these premium modules were in the works, but Bioware apparently changed its mind about publishing them, and canceled the rest of the projects for reasons unknown to me. Even stranger is that there are three premium modules that were published, but were not included in the pack and are no longer being sold anywhere.

I've heard it said that I should look at the NWN original campaign as if it were an afterthought; just a kind of large demo module for what they were really selling, which was the toolset for making your own modules, combined with the multiplayer component for conducting DM-led D&D sessions as you would in a pen and paper session, except with a group of people online in a shared 3D world.

I'm more interested in single-player modules, myself, since playing this kind of game in realtime without the ability to pause or take turns is not at all the kind of experience I enjoy (such as missing a turn because I was trying to find a scroll in my inventory to cast). But with that perspective on the OC in mind, I figured the premium single-player modules would be a good choice to try for a more enjoyable experience than the OC had been. I started with the one called Kingmaker.


The word "kingmaker", which I think I first heard in the movie Being There, describes an individual with considerable influence who remains backstage while pulling strings in order to get a personally chosen and groomed candidate into a position of power, possibly with the intent of controlling things from the shadows.

I tend to think of Merlin of Arthurian legend this way. Though it might not be how it was intended, I imagine that when Merlin embedded a sword into a stone and declared that only the one who could pull the sword out of the stone would become king, he must have been in full control of whether that sword would budge at all, and for whom. The people would surely never accept a wizard for a king, but why not a man chosen through a feat of strength? It would probably have been easier to get popular support for the idea that way, since history is full of kings who became king through brute force. But he tricked them all by allowing the sword to be pulled out of the stone by the child Arthur, a boy that he could influence and shape to rule as he wanted him to, while he sat in the background as court wizard. That's the kind of "kingmaker" that appears in this premium module.

As a player, you find yourself raised from the dead by a shaft of light who tells you that he wants you to gather up some allies and win an election to become Lady or Lord of a local fortified town. Mr Shaft then manifests himself as a magic talking weapon to help guide you along this chosen path. You then have to choose only two of your former four companions to be resurrected alongside you, which is a choice made more difficult than simply choosing them based on their classes due to the fact that some of them are more eager to live than others. I ended up choosing Kaidala the nymph druid even though she had fully embraced her death, because there was a monster waiting for her spirit to be released so it could torture and devour her. Calibast was an easier choice, since he was very friendly, clearly wanted to live, and I needed a tank.

This module takes the abstraction of buildings to an extreme when it comes to the dungeons, or at least that's one possible interpretation of why almost all dungeons outside of town are represented by small shacks. It's possible that I'm meant to understand that all of these shacks are simply protective structures around staircases that lead underground, where the actual dungeons are located. But some of them don't lend themselves well to that explanation. For instance, a ranger's dwelling inside the trunk of a large tree turns out to be a standard-looking (and very large) house on the inside, like a TARDIS. [Note: the windows pictured here are not part of the original tileset.]

The companions generally behaved nicely with the basic management commands "attack nearest", "guard me", and "stand your ground." They had a good amount of interaction and personality, too, with some nice lighthearted dialogue, some joke conversations, and even a romance option, which was a pleasant surprise.

In fact, there was quite a bit of personality all over this module, from most of the NPCs. I especially liked the personality and voice of Alias, which prevented me from hating her for the issues surrounding her. One was that if I took her offer to escort me to a quest location, and had her stand by to escort me back when I was finished, it made it extremely difficult to move around the surrounding area, because the game kept automatically targeting her and making me run to her and initiate her "Are you ready to go back to the keep?" dialogue. I was able to override it by repeatedly clicking on the spot where I wanted to go, and I could have sent her back to the keep without me, but that would have aggravated one of the other issues.

The other issue is one of design. You can't complete all of the quests in the module without some very careful planning and workarounds, because there's a vote to be had, and you can only delay it 3 times, after which the election has to take place, and all other quests are closed off for good. Walking around town, which is necessary for some quests, leads you past certain spawn points where Alias appears to tell you about the vote. It's possible to avoid those spawn points except when you go to the area of the keep where the guild hall is located, because there's a spawn point there that you can't avoid when you try to leave. I hated having to game the system in that way, but I really didn't want to have to play through the module 2 or 3 times just to finish those quests.

There were numerous dungeons to crawl through, some of which had some puzzles or unique features. The manticore room was a notable instance. You have to lure a manticore into a gas chamber and lock it inside, to kill it without damaging its pelt. It was a bit difficult, though, because most of the times I ran in to get its attention, it stood stock still without pursuing me, and just shot darts at me, which tended to kill me in one strike. I can't tell what it was that I may have done differently that got it to chase me, but once it did, it all went smoothly.

Those were the only bugs I recall, and the rest of the module was great fun, and a very positive experience. I enjoyed dealing with all the traps in the dungeons (which can be recovered as well as simply disarmed, giving you a free trap!), and experiencing the variety of creatures and architecture. A couple of the dungeons had riddles and puzzles as well, with secret doors and environmental hazards to either disable or attempt to use against my enemies. There were some interesting, non-dungeon-oriented side quests as well, that could be solved through character skills like persuasion (there were many skill check opportunities throughout the module), and an interesting mystery in which you can get involved if you decide to purchase a haunted house. Some of the quest text didn't quite match up with the locations, such as referring to an unseen power of the ghost on a nonexistent second floor of the house, but that's a tiny niggle in an excellent questline, which is nice and lengthy, involves many NPCs, and can be solved in at least 3 or 4 significantly different ways.

This module proved to me that NWN1 can be just as much fun as NWN2. Next I'll have to talk about the Wyvern Crown of Cormyr.

A few more screenshots