The classic role-playing game has you playing as a would-be hero who must perform a bunch of quests, recover a bunch of treasures, gain a bunch of experience levels, and maybe fight a bunch of monsters, some of which may or may not be skeletons. But the upcoming sequel Neverwinter Nights 2 from developer Obsidian Entertainment and publisher Atari will offer a very different experience, because the game will not only ship with a massive single-player game that will eventually make you one of the most important and powerful characters in the world, but it will also ship with a robust toolset and everything you need to build and play your very own adventures online. Fortunately for us, Obsidian creative director Chris Avellone--whose writing and design credits include the flawed-but-still-enjoyable Knights of the Old Republic II, the postapocalyptic RPG Fallout 2, and the cult-classic Planescape: Torment--gave us a guided tour of what this sequel has to offer. A warning for Torment fans: this preview contains a spoiler that may make you get all nostalgic and misty-eyed.
To begin with, Avellone showed us the game's mostly finished character-creation system, which is even more comprehensive than the feature-rich system from the original Neverwinter Nights (which was developed by BioWare). The sequel will let you create a character with highly distinctive appearances by choosing from many different armor and clothing sets--which can also be accessed in the editing tools to create flashy-looking weapons and armor, or to create a uniform worn by guards in a city. It will also offer just about every canonical character choice in the standard "3.5 Edition" Dungeons & Dragons rules the game is based on, including elves, dwarves, humans, half-elves, half-orcs, and "plane-touched,"--half-humanoid, half-otherworldly creatures (such as half-demon "tieflings"). The character models all look distinctive and detailed, and because the game offers plenty of different customizations (including skin color, hairstyles, and starting clothes), creating a unique-looking character should be a breeze. In addition, you'll be able to choose from plenty of different "subraces"--subsets of standard races, like the infamous "drow" dark elves of the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting, as well as the somewhat less-infamous "deep gnomes." You'll even be able to choose a religion for your character by selecting a patron deity from the Forgotten Realms pantheon.
The subraces will have specific advantages and disadvantages that will help differentiate each of them without making any one of them unfairly powerful. And as Avellone explains, all characters will be able to take an optional "background" feat that further develops their abilities by adding even more bonus skills--at a cost of weighty penalties that balance them out. The designer compares the approach that Obsidian is taking with character creation to the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system of the Fallout games, which let you take powerful "perk" traits that also often carried equally powerful disadvantages. And like with Neverwinter Nights, the character-creation menu (as well as the menus you'll be shown later when your character advances an experience level and earns more skills and feats) will offer "pick for me" buttons that will make the game choose optimized picks for players who don't care to constantly roll the dice to see if they're getting drunk. You'll be making these choices (or letting the game do it all for you) all the way up to a character level of 20--which, in 3.5 Edition rules, is an almost-godlike level of power.
You'll also be able to create a character from a brand-new character class, the warlock--which Dungeons & Dragons fans will consider to be an even more-focused version of the sorcerer class. For those of us who aren't already D&D nerds, this means that the warlock, like the sorcerer, doesn't learn spells from magical scrolls, but rather gains them from resting. However, the warlock has even more focus than the sorcerer. This new profession takes a decreased number of different magics that can be memorized and used for the trade-off of being able to cast those few spells more or less endlessly each day. So, the warlock can be a very powerful combat spellcaster who pelts his enemies with continuous fireballs, lightning bolts, and everyone's favorite spell, magic missile. Plus, it can be a good choice of profession for beginners who don't wish to choose from huge lists of spells.
The character-creation system will also include a full suite of heroic feats and character skills, and because the game is being developed by some of the same talent behind the Fallout games and the later Dungeons & Dragons RPGs of the late 1990s, which emphasized story and character interaction, you can expect to see non-combat skills like bluff, diplomacy, and intimidate to be much more useful than in a standard hack-and-slash game. You can also expect to see some very spirited and unusual dialogue, including dialogue options to do things like, you guessed it Torment fans...snap someone's neck when he isn't cooperating (don't worry, though, that character was asking for it).
And those who enjoy a good story with memorable characters to go with their hacking and slashing will likely spend a great deal of time exploring and enjoying the adventuring party system in Neverwinter Nights 2's single-player game. You'll be able to create an adventuring party with up to four characters (your original character plus three companions), and you'll have full control over each one's actions if you care to take it. Though you can control only one character at a time--in battle, for instance--you can pause the game and switch control to a different character whenever you like. You can also control your characters' advancements by choosing different feats and skills as they gain levels, manipulate their inventories, and equip them with different items.
Three's Company, Four's a Party
But perhaps more importantly, you can gain influence over your companions in Neverwinter Nights 2 using an enhanced version of the "influence system" that Obsidian first used in Knights of the Old Republic II. In that game, taking certain actions and saying certain things to your travel companions could cause them to shift their ethical alignment more toward good or evil. In Neverwinter Nights 2, influence is much more subtle than being naughty or nice. Instead, gaining more influence may cause your companions to reveal more of their personalities to you or to get them to cover for you when your character isn't quite up to a challenge (for instance, getting in good with a stout dwarven companion who is skilled at intimidation may mean that he'll jump in and bully someone on your behalf if your skills aren't up to snuff).
In some cases, you may even change your companions' destinies--you might, for example, persuade the same stout dwarf warrior to pursue a different career path if you can exert enough influence. In the meantime, different characters will have their own personalities, which they'll reveal not only to you, but also to their other companions. It will be very, very possible to put together a party with characters who dislike or even hate each other--but, as Avellone points out, it will also be very possible for you to take advantage of that animosity and play your companions against each other.
In the single-player campaign, you may have to pull as many strings as you can get your hands on, since, according to the story, there's a serious power struggle that threatens to tear the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms apart. Three mysterious and exceptionally powerful beings are at war with each other over control of the area, and although you may begin your career working for one or more of them, you'll eventually find yourself on the other side of their swords (or magic wands, or whatever).
In the meantime, should you arouse their ire, they'll not only send their henchmen to destroy you in battle, but they'll also spread rumors and accusations to destroy your reputation. So, during the game, you'll be fighting for your life, as well as fighting to acquire evidence and to rescue witnesses who can clear your name of the charges brought against you, and in some cases, you may have to make some hard decisions about making truces with former enemies or bending the rules a bit to get your way. Perhaps this isn't surprising coming from the same development team that created Fallout and Planescape: Torment, but Avellone assures us that Neverwinter Nights 2 will offer the same compelling and rewarding gameplay experience for an evil character as it offers for a good character.
Perhaps because you find yourself at odds with such powerful beings who exert such tremendous political influence in the single-player game, you'll eventually find yourself to be a key figure in the future of the realm. You'll advance through the ranks in Neverwinter until you become a high-ranking official, and in much of the later parts of the game, especially during the campaign's third and final "act," you'll act much more as a general commanding an army in a full-scale war, rather than a down-on-his-luck adventurer fighting rats with a rusty dagger in the hopes of earning some copper pieces. Sure, several of the skirmishes we watched--which included exploring an ancient forest inhabited by gigantic forest animals and a wizard's dungeon full of elemental spirits--look like they'll pose a good challenge for most role-playing fans.
However, the game will also offer titanic battles, such as one of the later conflicts in which you and a small army under your command must hold the ramparts of a fortress from attack by swarms of undead creatures. This impressive-looking night battle requires you to run back and forth along the walls, smashing any siege ladders that try to unload packs of vampires and other nasty critters, all while being pelted by catapult blasts and a continuous hail of magic missiles. (And as the designer suggests, this extremely chaotic battle won't even be the worst of the conflicts you'll face.)
If you've been following the development of Neverwinter Nights 2 so far, you should already know that the game will ship with an enhanced toolset and enhanced online multiplayer options. However, we suspect that most RPG fans will be at least as interested in the single-player campaign, if not more so, especially given the intriguing story and party mechanics. And don't worry--the campaign should last for a good, long time. According to Avellone, the game's testers have been hammering away at the single-player campaign for months, and although they know the campaign like the backs of their hands and are continuously playing through while skipping all cinematic sequences and side quests, they still end up taking about 25 hours each time they play through...which means that most of us may end up looking at 30-40 hours.
Neverwinter Nights 2 stands to become the same kind of successful, all-in-one RPG package that the original Neverwinter Nights was, just better--with more content, a more-powerful editor, and an even more-substantial campaign with bigger party sizes and much more compelling character interaction. The sequel is scheduled for release in October.