Neverwinter Nights was in many ways a complete role-playing game, which is why the folks at Obsidian Entertainment are taking an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to the sequel to 2002's highly successful RPG. That's not to say that Neverwinter Nights 2 will be a mirror image of the original game; Obsidian is taking many of the core ideas of Neverwinter Nights and improving them, as well as introducing a fancy new graphics engine to bring the visuals up to 2006 standards. We recently had a chance to pay a visit to Obsidian's Orange County offices to get our first look at Neverwinter Nights 2, and if you're a fan of Neverwinter Nights, the good news is that we came away with the feeling that the future looks like it's in good hands.
There are three reasons why the original Neverwinter Nights was so successful and appealed to so many gamers. First, it had a solid single-player campaign that let you uncover the evil that threatened the city of Neverwinter. Second, it also featured an excellent multiplayer component that let you role play online, old-school-style, with one player serving as a dungeon master. And, finally, it featured a set of tools that let you create a custom adventure module that you could upload and share with the world, and, correspondingly, download hundreds of different player-created modules and try them out yourself.
Perhaps the biggest improvement will be seen in the single-player campaign, as the original game suffered from a somewhat weak campaign. "Bioware spent a lot of time working on the engine," said Feargus Urquhart, CEO of Obsidian. Since Obsidian doesn't have to worry about the engine, the designers can focus more on the actual gameplay. And Obsidian is no stranger to creating follow-ups to excellent Bioware RPGs. The company's debut title was Knights of the Old Republic II, and the developers are taking some of the elements that appeared in that game and transferring them to Neverwinter Nights 2.
According to lead designer Ferret Boudain, the single-player game will still focus in and around the city of Neverwinter, though this isn't going to be the same city that you saw in the original game. In addition to taking creative license (to avoid seeing the exact same stuff you saw in the first game), the sequel is set sometime after the first game, and Neverwinter is trying to recover from the epic siege and battle that it endured. You will create a completely new character, born in the swamp village of West Harbor, which itself was the site of a cataclysmic battle. One of the main differences in Neverwinter Nights 2 compared to other RPGs is that Obsidian wants the story to feel believable--at least, as believable as a fantasy role-playing game can be. That means that you aren't handed quests by the king when you enter a city, just because you're the "hero" of the game. "We want a certain amount of integrity and believability to the world," Boudain said. "The tale is the rise of your personal power, your responsibility, and all sorts of adventures and mishaps that happen along the way."
One of the ways that Obsidian will accomplish this will be through companions, the previous henchmen of the original game. The original Neverwinter Nights only let you have one henchman, while the expansions let you have another one later, for a total of two. Neverwinter Nights 2 will let you have three companions, and each one will be far more interesting than any of the henchmen that you encountered before. For example, each companion has his or her own motivations, as well as a detailed history, and your path through the game will vary depending on the companions that you choose to adventure with. You will be able to control companions directly, as well as control their inventory, which is something you couldn't do in the original game. You will also be able to "influence" your companions, much like you could try and influence your companions in Knights of the Old Republic 2. In that game, you could gain or lose influence with your companions depending on what you told them, and that would in turn determine whether they revealed secrets of their past to you. Meanwhile, the conversation system in Neverwinter Nights 2 has been completely overhauled, and now there are cinematic-style camera angles that can zoom in on faces, instead of the static portraits used in the first game.
Never Say NeverwinterUnfortunately, game is still a ways from completion and details regarding the story remain scarce. We do know that Neverwinter Nights 2 will use the 3.5 edition of the D&D rules, though there will be modifications when required to make the rules conform to a computer role-playing game. The bard class has been improved quite a bit, and now you have access to multiple bard songs, as opposed to the single bard song seen in earlier games. Yet perhaps the most interesting new addition is the warlock class, which is a first for a D&D computer game. The warlock is an attempt to make magic users a lot more useful, especially at early levels, when they're ridiculously weak. That's because the warlocks only have a handful of powers, but they can cast them at any time, as much as they want. This gets rid of the need to constantly rest to "memorize" or recharge your spellcasting ability, like you have to do with the sorcerer and wizard classes.
Obsidian wrote an entirely brand new rendering engine, which gets rid of the generic "tile-based" look and replaces it with an up-to-date graphics engine, so outdoor environments look a lot more natural and organic. For example, you can have hundreds of trees, and you can make each of them unique by just changing the numbers in the editor that determine their appearance. There are now hills and folds in the terrain, along with intricate lighting and particle effects such as ground mist and a day/night cycle with real-time shadows. The visual difference between Neverwinter Nights and the sequel is like night and day. Meanwhile, indoor environments, such as dungeons and building interiors, still have a "tile" look, mainly because indoor areas tend to have lots of 90-degree angles to begin with. However, it's important to keep in mind that Obsidian separated objects from tile sets, which means that you can mix and match objects and interiors to your heart's content, and also hand-place objects anywhere you want. This means that you can put grasses and plants inside dungeons to give it an overgrown look, which is something you absolutely couldn't do in the first game.
Of course, because one of the hallmarks of Neverwinter Nights is being able to create your own adventures and levels, Obsidian needed to improve the toolset to support all these new features, as well as to become more user-friendly--or, at least as user-friendly as such an editor can be. As with any type of complex editing program, there's going to be a learning curve to figure out what everything does. To alleviate this, the designers are thinking of perhaps creating tutorial movies that walk players through the basics. They're also thinking of having a more powerful "wizard" system, which will let regular players just input a few parameters to make the editor generate a random map--of an indoor dungeon-style crawl, for example.
For power users of the editor, Obsidian has implemented a lot of user-requested features for the editor, such as the ability to dock windows in place or move them around and resize them. More importantly, the tools will let you do everything the game designers do, as they use the same set of tools themselves. And judging from what we've seen, there's a lot of power at your hands. For example, you can scale creatures and monsters in the game, so you can place a few plump cows around a village to indicate that it's wealthy and prosperous. Or, you can scale a regular monster, such as an umber hulk, to huge dimensions, to make it monstrously big. If you want to import existing Neverwinter Nights modules to Neverwinter Nights 2, there's both good and bad news. The bad news is that you'll have to rebuild the module in the editor to take advantage of the new graphics; but the good news is that the scripting language and object properties haven't changed, so you can import data, such as character stats, easily.
Multiplayer is also getting improved in a number of ways. We're told that the designers looked to popular online role-playing games for inspiration, though Obsidian was coy about specifics. But the company will say that, as in the original game, they're looking to support 64 players maximum, with the possibility of support for even more. Of course, you'll still be able to play with one player serving as a dungeon master, and the rest controlling their own characters.
This was admittedly a very early look at Neverwinter Nights 2; we only got to see some of the new graphics engine technology in action, some of the new toolset, and very little actual action or role-playing. Still, the graphical improvements alone make Neverwinter Nights 2 appealing, and the idea that it should feature a much stronger single-player story (which was one of the original game's weaker sections) has us excited--especially because the folks responsible for making it are also responsible for excellent RPGs such as Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. Neverwinter Nights was already a great game, and Neverwinter Nights 2 looks to improve upon its predecessor in all regards. We'll keep a very close eye on the game, though for now, all we can tell you is that it's scheduled to ship sometime next year.