Interplay Announces Neverwinter Nights

Black Isle Studios and Bioware intend to build on the success of Baldur's Gate with a third AD&D RPG.

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GenCon isn't just a time for geeks from across the nation to congregate and compare hit dice. In recent years, computer game developers have set up shop alongside collectible card game and role-playing game makers. Typically PC role-playing games and strategy games command a good amount of attention on the GenCon show floor. This year, there were some big announcements made at GenCon, which should have every PC gamers talking.

At Interplay's booth, Black Isle Studios announced Neverwinter Nights, a new multiplayer AD&D game from Baldur's Gate developers, Bioware. Neverwinter Nights takes its name from the 1992 original, which was a multiplayer role-playing game available on America Online. This game, though, is nothing like the original. It uses the MDK 2 3D engine, called Omen, and will be 3D only. It is due out at the end of 2000, but Bioware had a technology demo for show. The game sports smooth animation and crisp and detailed graphics.

The biggest graphical feature is the interface: it's almost invisible. The game screen is not cluttered with an interface. Instead, you call up transparent side inventory boxes and hot-keyed items as needed by right-clicking. You can cast spells, initiate combat, and use items using a system Bioware calls the "radial menu." Say you want to cast a spell; you click to call up a menu of eight choices arrayed in a circle around your character. These choices include spells, combat, use item, and other actions. You then move your mouse in the direction of the option you want, spells, and click. Then you get another "radial menu" from which to choose your schools of magic. Once you move in the direction of the magic you want, say priest spells, and click again to get another menu of eight specific spells. You choose the spell you want and click to cast it. The entire time, you're still viewing the main game screen, as the radial menu appears as a circle of eight small buttons around your character. The interface might sound complicated, but Bioware says with practice, it becomes second nature. You are flicking the mouse quickly in different directions to perform an action, all while viewing the game screen and never having to remove your eyes from the action.

Neverwinter Nights won't be a persistent, massively multiplayer world like Ultima Online or Everquest. Instead, it gives players the tools they need to create multiplayer D&D games with a real DM and player characters. There will be a lobby or matching system for gamers to find one another and start online games, but once you have a DM and several players, the DM spawns a server and starts a Neverwinter Nights game. Neverwinter Nights will ship with 28 modules, each with roughly four hours of game time. All 28 will form a cohesive and large story, although not all 28 need be played in order to complete the game. The DM, though, will have leeway to jump into characters, adjust monsters, add NPCs, or tweak gameplay to make it more or less difficult for players. Players will also be able to jump between multiple DM's worlds, although DMs have ultimate say over which characters can enter their setting. Currently, Bioware says allowing up to 64 players per server is a possibility, although that maximum limit will probably depend on available bandwidth. DMs will also have tools to create their own modules for Neverwinter Nights, and Bioware hopes to release new tile sets and modules as well.

You'll be able to play Neverwinter Nights as a LAN game, where the DM makes all the rules, or as an Internet game, where a matching service will keep records of popular DMs, best role-players, and advanced characters (the actual Internet games are still hosted by a player DM, not Bioware's servers). While the danger of cheating is always prevalent, Bioware says it will implement the "character vault" to cut down on cheating for Internet games. The character vault is where you create characters to play Internet games. The servers will keep track of your progress with your vault characters, so if it sees that a player has advanced his 1st level fighter to 22nd level in eight hours, the server will note the suspicious nature of the player and ban that particular character from Internet games. Of course, these controls won't be in effect for LAN games that aren't recorded on the Neverwinter service, since Bioware believes players should be free to do whatever they want during "house" game. You just can't bring your ultra-powerful house character to an Internet game with strangers.

Neverwinter Nights will use the just announced 3rd Edition AD&D rules, which will be available August 2000 and moves the D&D game to a more skill and point based system. Some changes include a revamped armor class system, a skill point system for character advancement, and an overall streamlining of the rules.

Bioware certainly understands that its game is ambitious, but says it has the engine done and plans on spending a year and a half working on implementing the modules and game system. Neverwinter Nights is still not due for quite some time, but the announcement of a return to multiplayer D&D, and on such an ambitious scale, is heartening news for role-playing fans. And it won't be limited to only one platform as the title is being developed simultaneously for the PC, Mac, and Linux. Although there is still plenty of time to watch the development of Neverwinter Nights, we'll try to bring you a more in-depth report from GenCon in the near future. And come back money when we post several screenshots of the game in action.

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