Neverwinter Nights Updated Preview

Desslock visits BioWare and comes back with more details of the ambitious Neverwinter Nights.

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BioWare's Baldur's Gate ushered in a new era for D&D gaming by introducing solid graphics, real-time gameplay, and a malleable gaming engine. The promising sequel to Baldur's Gate is scheduled to be released within the next couple of months, and like Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, it will use a reworked version of the same engine. But at this year's E3, it was Neverwinter Nights that received the bulk of the attention from the gaming press. It uses an entirely new engine and is shaping up to be the most faithful and ambitious computer adaptation of D&D to date.

We've previously given you a couple of early impressions of Neverwinter Nights, but after our recent trip to BioWare to check out the latest build of the game, we now have updated information on the game's status. Although Neverwinter Nights has the same name as the old online-only version of SSI's gold box games, there's no doubt that Neverwinter Nights is an original product. By emulating the pen and paper version of D&D's modular system and using an overseeing "dungeon master," Neverwinter Nights represents the first significant attempt to port the entire D&D system into a computer game.

One problem that RPG adaptations have historically faced is their obligation to impose some linearity when translating from the tabletop version of a game. One of the real strengths of tabletop RPGs is their flexible nature: Once players have created characters, they can generally role-play those characters any way that they want, without being impeded by arbitrary geographical boundaries, non-interactive environments, or a rudimentary physics system. In a pen and paper RPG, there are no limits on the actions characters can take or on the reactions of other characters in the gaming world. This is largely because the player who is acting as the game master can dynamically reshape the fantasy environment to respond to the often-unpredictable choices of the other players. By giving players the option to play the controlling "dungeon master," Neverwinter Nights retains some of the inherent flexibility of tabletop RPGs.

There will still be gameplay limits imposed in Neverwinter Nights. For example, it just isn't feasible for a development team to predict all the potential ways that a suitably demented player could make use of a powerful "wish" spell. Even a DM-controlled computer gaming world can't be that dynamic. Also, there are limits still imposed by technology, and so for game balance reasons, thieves will not be able to climb walls, swim, fly, or levitate. For the same reason, BioWare will also not include the paladin's warhorse. Nevertheless, because of its DM feature and its tremendous customizability, Neverwinter Nights should provide very open-ended gameplay.

Gameplay

Neverwinter Nights was designed as a multiplayer game - up to 64 players on the same server - with each player always limited to controlling a single character. Unlike massive online multiplayer RPGs, Neverwinter Nights will ship with its own comprehensive storyline and be completely playable as a stand-alone single-player game. The overall storyline will be divided into about 25 discrete modules, each playable within approximately four hours. Like other recent D&D games, Neverwinter Nights will be divided into various chapters, each consisting of several modules, although many of the modules will be optional adventures. Players can even switch back and forth between playing the game in single- and multiplayer mode while advancing through the modules. The game's difficulty not only increases with the number of creatures in each encounter, but it is also proportionate to the number of player characters in a party.

Neverwinter Nights, like Stormfront's upcoming Pool of Radiance - Ruins of Myth Drannor, will use the new third edition D&D rules. Perhaps in recognition of the increased importance of computer versions of D&D, the new rules seem more suitable for conversion to computer gaming than the previous two. All of the third edition character classes and races will be playable, including the new sorcerer class, the restored monk and barbarian classes, and half-orc race. Instead of imposing arbitrary class restrictions on the use of weaponry and armor or the class levels obtainable by the different races, Neverwinter Nights adopts the more open-ended third edition rules to character development. Mages can wear armor, but they will initially be heavily encumbered by it and will be more likely to miscast spells. Characters in Neverwinter Nights gain additional abilities, or "feats," as they move up levels, allowing players to further personalize their characters beyond the traditional class and race stereotypes. For example, mages can elect to improve their ability to wear armor or instead can elect to generally speed up their ability to cast spells.

Characters will be able to advance all the way up to the 20th level, which is the maximum level permitted by the pen-and-paper third-edition rules. The developer indicated that once Wizards of the Coast unveils its plans for higher-level adventures, it should also be possible to increase the level limitations in Neverwinter Nights. BioWare intends to include approximately 200 spells with the game, most of which will be accurate representations of their third edition tabletop counterparts. However, the developer has also elected to include a few second-edition spells that Wizard of the Coast decided to purge from the new third-edition rules. In fact, there may be some new spells included, primarily to permit BioWare to balance out the magic system.

Graphics

To date, the developer has demonstrated very few of the monster models scheduled to be included in Neverwinter Nights, but it has announced its intention to include approximately 60 of the third-edition creations. All the creatures will be to scale, resulting in some gigantic foes, rendered to look like their depictions in the new third-edition Monster Manual, which is scheduled for release this fall. When Neverwinter Nights was initially announced, a non-interactive demo featured a giant spider. Since then, the development team has unveiled Umber Hulks, Fire Elementals, and a thunderous Ogre. If all the included monsters are of comparable quality, you won't be disappointed. You will be able to summon creatures, like elementals, and call familiars for your wizards and sorcerers. Familiars are creatures that aid and bolster the wizard and sorcerer classes, although BioWare is debating whether these familiars will be constant companions.

The fully 3D, tile-based gaming world continues to look impressive. While the development team has demonstrated only a few tilesets, such as a basic urban setting and a deep forest environment, the gaming world looks detailed and varied. By organizing a handful of building types in different configurations, the town setting looked vast, and it did not seem repetitive in spite of the limited number of tiles used to create it. When the game ultimately ships, the development team intends to include about 200 different building types for city settings, as well as a few additional abodes for more rural settings. Building types can be combined to create still more buildings, and the development team intends to create additional tilesets after the game ships.

But you won't need to wait for additional settings, since the game will ship with its own powerful editor, which will let you create your own adventure modules and potentially your own artwork. The game is tile-based, so the editor is as easy to use as any of those that have shipped with real-time strategy games, and it is considerably less intimidating than the editors that are used to craft first-person shooter levels. The editor displays the area being created, using the same vivid graphics that the players will ultimately see in the gaming world, which lets you constantly review the progress of your construction. It likely won't take long for gamers to craft impressive reproductions of some of D&D's most famous pen-and-paper modules, just as they did when SSI released its D&D Unlimited Adventures construction set.

Other Features of the Engine

While the Baldur's Gate engine games incorporate only rudimentary environmental lighting effects and accordingly don't include torches or light spells, Neverwinter Nights makes impressive use of lighting effects. Realistic shadows are created by light sources within the game, and players will be required to tote around torches to light up evening or subterranean environments. Characters can be located at different heights in the gaming world - it's possible for a character to hop along the rooftops of buildings, for example - and the elongated shadows produced by elevated characters can give away their locations. It's amazing how much more immersive the isometric environments look, simply because of the addition of realistic lighting effects.

There are a number of other features that make the graphics striking. Armor and other metallic items have shiny, reflective surfaces. Weapons exhibit a subtle motion-blurring effect when swung. In the deep forest tileset, leaves constantly detach from their branches and gradually float to the ground. Since each item type is typically composed of a variety of components - a sword, for example, consists of a blade, a crossguard, and a hilt - it'll be easy for the developer or players to create thousands of unique items. The developer has also indicated that it intends to support most weather effects, including fog, rain, and snow. The inclusion of lighting effects also ensures that the gaming world will have a day/night cycle.

Another distinguishing feature of Neverwinter Nights is its simple interface. The interface is largely transparent when playing the game, other than a few optional indicators that can be used to highlight the status of, and direction to, other players. To cast a spell or to interact with an object or character, players bring up a radial menu that looks like a clock face to select their desired action. The menu system has been newly streamlined, and it now gives players additional options to prioritize frequently used actions or spells. Since the game will always run in real-time (generally only the DM will be able to pause gameplay), an accessible interface is vital, and the radial menu seems to work well. It'll also make the game easy to port over to console systems. A Mac version of the game is already working, so the game should seamlessly permit Mac and PC players to play multiplayer sessions together.

Final Thoughts

The multiplayer sessions could be even larger in scope than the 64-player server limitation that the game suggests. The gaming world can contain "portals" to other servers, letting players construct even larger worlds or maintain persistent gaming worlds. Players can communicate to each other within the game by using either Ultima-style speech bubbles that appear above their characters or by reading the scrolling text at the bottom of the screen. Unlike the Baldur's Gate engine games, players won't be collectively tied to a specific area of the gaming world, so they'll be able to explore different areas simultaneously. Depending upon the available RAM of a host server, areas can be as large as a 32-square grid, which can take several minutes for a character to run across. The game will use a stamina bar, similar to the one in Diablo II, to limit a character's ability to run away from encounters.

The server host will have the ability to customize a wide range of options in the game. The host can elect whether monsters respawn and can determine whether a character's death is permanent or reversible by a resurrection spell. The host will also determine whether player characters can attack each other, either directly or indirectly using area of effect spells. While BioWare is trying to create a computer RPG as open-ended as its tabletop counterpart, it recognizes that the anonymity of online gaming invites abuse. To grant gamers some assurance that another player's character hasn't been artificially enhanced with attributes or magical items that couldn't reasonably be obtained by adhering to D&D rules, the developer intends to maintain an official "character vault" at the game's official web site. Players will be encouraged to store characters within the vault between adventures. Characters can freely be removed from the vault in order to embark on new quests, but they will only be allowed back into the vault with additional experience and equipment that the developer determines could reasonably have been accumulated during that character's absence. Ideally, the character vault will grant stored characters some level of legitimacy, although the developer realizes that creative and dedicated hackers will be able to bypass the vault's security. It is hoped that there'll be little incentive to do so, since gamers can opt to store their characters on their own computers. They will also have the freedom to create their own modules stocked full of empowering artifacts and godly experience points.

The developer insists that the game's focus on expandability and online gameplay won't limit the game's appeal for players who prefer a more intimate solo gaming experience. However, delivering a game that lives up to this promise will certainly be challenging, especially given the second quarter 2001 target release date. Still, the only real complaint we currently have is that we just wish that there were already more of the game to see. We wanted to see additional monsters, characters, tilesets, and spells and to receive more background on the campaign's storyline. Perhaps when the third edition rules are officially released next month, we'll start to get additional gameplay information, but Neverwinter Nights already looks both incredibly ambitious and promising.

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