Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer Hands-On

We discover what's new in this expansion to last year's hit fantasy role-playing game Neverwinter Nights 2.

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Neverwinter Nights 2 was one of the best role-playing games of 2006 thanks to its epic story and rich gameplay. You begin the game as a young ward in a small farming town, and then adventure your way through the game until you become a great lord, which requires you to oversee a mighty keep and a small army as you defeat the enemies of the city of Neverwinter. With Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, Atari and developer Obsidian Entertainment will try to follow up on your personal saga through a new campaign that will offer between 20 to 25 hours of gameplay. We got to dive into the recently finished expansion pack to discover what's new. As such, please note that this preview contains story spoilers.

Loosen up your sword arm, it's time to kill some monsters again in Mask of the Betrayer.
Loosen up your sword arm, it's time to kill some monsters again in Mask of the Betrayer.

If you played through NWN2 then you know that the game ended on a cliffhanger. Your character was caught in the middle of a collapsing cavern, which prompted howls from fans, and of course the story couldn't end that way. Mask of the Betrayer is a brand-new campaign that will answer the biggest question from NWN2 (how you survive), as well as introduce a slew of new questions. However, if you're expecting another romp on the fabled Sword Coast, you're in for a surprise. You're no longer near the city of Neverwinter. Instead, you'll find yourself transported across the world to Rashemen, a region full of witches, barbarians, and spirits.

This expansion is made for high-level characters only. You have to be level 18 or higher to even survive the opening levels of the game. The good news is that if you haven't played through the NWN2 campaign, you can either select a premade level 18 character or create one for the expansion. There are some new races to select from, such as the wood elves and the elemental genasi, along with a few new face and hair types for some of the existing races. Mask of the Betrayer will also introduce a couple of new character and prestige classes, such as the spirit shaman and the Red Wizards of Thay. (What's cool is that all of these options exist for the original campaign, so you can play through NWN2 as one of these new races or character classes). We imported our existing NWN 2 character and were pleasantly surprised that we got to start with the red dragon armor and other high-level equipment that our character was wearing at the end of the NWN2 campaign. However, you'll lose the stuff that was in your backpack.

You begin Mask of the Betrayer at the bottom level of an ancient barrow, a burial site for a long-dead race of sentient animals. The powerful Sword of Gith has been taken from you, including the shard that was embedded in your chest. In its place is a dark hunger to recover it, and of course to find out who ripped it from your body. At the very start of the game you'll meet your first companion, a Red Wizard of Thay who has decided to help you, though her reasons may be dubious. Your escape from the barrow inflames the ancient spirits that guard it, including the local bear god. That incident will play an important role later on. Answers begin to be revealed when you reach Mulsantir, the main town in the expansion and what appears to be a hub for your many adventures. In Mulsantir you'll find yourself drawn into a web of intrigue that involves the Red Wizards of Thay, as well as a legend that involves a betrayer who tried to usurp the god of death. One of the intriguing things about Mulsantir is that it offers you access to the shadow plane, a dreamlike version of the real world. There's hardly any color in the shadow plane, so it's almost like you're exploring an oppressively gray world.

We don't want to get too far into the story and spoil all the details, so this is a good place to note some of the major gameplay changes in the expansion. Perhaps the biggest one deals with how you play through the game. If NWN2 had a weakness, it was the ability to rapidly rest after every battle, which let you fully heal and recharge all of your magical spells in about five seconds. Consequently, the game seemed a bit too easy. You weren't forced to make the hard choice about using a fireball spell or saving it for later on. Mask of the Betrayer has an interesting solution to this issue, and it's tied heavily into the plot.

The dark hunger that resides in you forces you to consume spirits to survive (the magical kind, not the alcoholic type). You become a spirit-eater, an entity that is feared in that region of the world--exactly how you find and devour spirits is something that will be revealed over the course of the game. Unfortunately, being a spirit-eater is a lot like having a drug addiction. The longer you go without consuming a spirit, the weaker you become, until you eventually die. However, if you eat too many spirits too quickly, it's like being addicted to a drug. You'll need to consume more and more spirits just to get the same level of satisfaction as before. So the trick is to balance spirit consumption carefully. A spirit meter will show your character's current hunger level, and it slowly drains while you play the game (though it pauses during conversations). If you rest in the game, you lose a fair amount of your spirit reserve. So if you rest repeatedly, you'll find yourself in big trouble quickly.

This new system ratchets up the challenge; resting after each battle is no longer possible. The side effect is that healing potions and healing kits are actually valuable, given that you can use them to restore hit points and avoid resting. Another potential problem in NWN2 was that your computer-controlled companions would unleash every spell in their arsenal during a battle, no matter how much overkill it would bring to a situation, which forced you to rest to recharge your companions' abilities. The designers at Obsidian say that they've worked on the artificial intelligence so it will be smarter about such things in the expansion. We'll have to see how that pans out as we play further through the game.

The expansion looks set to offer up a darker, more personal story than before.
The expansion looks set to offer up a darker, more personal story than before.

Another feature is the new control scheme. Given that many role-players may be more familiar with the play style of massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, there's a new behind-the-back camera mode that lets you play entirely from a traditional third-person angle. Additionally, there's a new strategic mode that lets you pull the camera up toward the sky to play from a more top-down approach. If you were a fan of the standard NWN2 control system, it's still there, though you might need to fiddle with the game settings in order to activate it.

One thing is very clear: This is very much an epic expansion. Right from the start you'll battle high-level foes such as formidable animal spirits and shadow creatures that are extremely tough to put down. The new magical spells that you can unleash are almost unbelievable in power. Correspondingly, the rewards have been jacked up considerably. It's not uncommon to reap hundreds, if not thousands, of gold pieces from a single enemy, and there's plenty of low-level magical weaponry for loot. Nevertheless, you'll need it, because the shopkeepers in Mask of the Betrayer have some truly awesome items for sale, and the sticker shock is mighty. We've encountered at least one item that cost over half a million gold pieces alone.

The expansion looks great, courtesy of the new tile sets and the fresh setting. More importantly, it plays much more smoothly than Neverwinter Nights 2 did out of the box. Obsidian has managed to optimize the code considerably over the past year. From what we've seen of the opening levels, Mask of the Betrayer looks as if it'll serve up another intriguing and excellent story in the Forgotten Realms. The expansion has recently gone gold, according to Obsidian, and it will ship to stores early next month.

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