Our preparation for this year's biggest gaming show wouldn't be complete without an advance look at one of the most highly anticipated role-playing sequels in development: Neverwinter Nights 2. 2002's Neverwinter Nights was a massive role-playing game that offered a huge single-player adventure, online capability, and editing tools to create your own custom dungeons. The sequel will attempt to improve on all fronts by introducing the updated "3.5 Edition" Dungeons & Dragons ruleset along with a much-improved 3D graphics engine.
We were able to sit down and observe an early game from the beginning on through some of the game's single-player quests. Character creation seems like an even more involved process than it was in the original Neverwinter Nights--if you want it to be. Like the original game, you can choose to simply click on a "recommendations" button that will fill in all the blanks for you, but true Dungeons & Dragons nerds will probably want to explore the sequel's expanded "subrace" options, which lets you create "deep gnome" and "shield dwarf" characters in addition to plain old humans--like with 2002's Icewind Dale II (which was developed by several of Obsidian's current team at the now-defunct Black Isle Studios), which also included subrace characters, each subrace will have various racial abilities and penalties to balance out their unique skills. You'll also be able to choose your character's various ability scores in the usual attributes (such as strength, dexterity, and constitution), skill points, and heroic feats. You can even choose a "character background"--a new option unique to Neverwinter Nights 2 that will give your character a bit of a back-story that may or may not be accompanied by additional skills, feats, or ability scores, and may also cause other characters in the game to react differently to you.
We watched a part of the very beginning of the game in action, which will act as a lenient tutorial area for new players. Your character begins his or her career in a small, firelit hovel that shows the game's impressive animated lighting and shadows, then leaves through the door to your character's home village. The village is apparently holding some kind of festival with numerous activities that lead into basic quests, and eventually, to your meeting your first potential companion. Unlike previous Neverwinter Nights products, the sequel will let you build out a bona fide adventuring party with up to four characters (from the single-player game's pool of about 10 recruitable characters). While you'll be able to control only one character at a time (and set general behaviors for your other companions, like in previous Neverwinter producers), you can switch direct control of your active character to and from any character in your party whenever you wish. Obsidian president Fearghus Urquhart suggests that this party system is "a hybrid between Neverwinter Nights and Baldur's Gate II," since you can pause and issue individual orders to each character while paused as often as you wish in the single-player game.
We also had an opportunity to take a look at the new editing tools, which include all-new texture sets for new environment types, as well as implementation of the SpeedTree middleware, which lets the game render large clumps of trees and other vegetation quickly. Though the editor is no longer tile-based (as the previous game's was), it will let users create much larger environments that can be quickly filled out by copy-pasting existing segments into other areas. The editor also allows for the game's numerous layers of lighting and reflective effects, which can produce cloudy stormfronts in the sky and ensorcelled dungeon rooms walled with shiny layers of ice. Unfortunately, the new editing tools won't be completely compatible with the toolset from the original game, but considering the much-improved graphical power of the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine, enthusiast adventure-crafters will at least be able to make even larger adventures that are much better-looking.
Things are looking up for Neverwinter Nights 2: the sequel looks much better than it did when we'd seen it previously, and it will clearly offer much more than its predecessor did. The game is scheduled for release later this year.