If Neverwinter Nights 2 was a movie, it'd be a typical summer blockbuster. After all, last year's fantasy role-playing game was packed with tons of colorful characters, humorous dialogue, and, above all else, nonstop action as you battled your way through the game. On the other hand, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, the newly arrived expansion, is a much darker and more cerebral experience. There's not that much comic relief, and there's a lot more puzzle-solving than before. That's not to say that it doesn't feature plenty of action. In fact, it's packed with titanic battles. However, the tone is a lot more serious.
It's almost impossible to talk about the plot without spoiling the ending of Neverwinter Nights 2. Then again, most people who pick up this expansion will probably have played through that epic RPG and will transfer their existing characters over. Nevertheless, it's still possible to pick up the expansion, create a brand-new level 18 character, and play the game even if you've never played NWN2, though the plot will likely be confusing. So with that out of the way, Mask of the Betrayer finds you on the other side of the continent from the city of Neverwinter. The fabled Silver Sword of Gith is gone, including the shard that was embedded in your chest. In its place is a dark and mysterious hunger, and the ensuing quest to find answers will have you uncover a story of a failed rebellion against the god of death.
Mask of the Betrayer brings a lot of exciting new things to Neverwinter Nights. First off, there are new races in the form of the elemental genasi and wood elves, as well as new character and prestige classes. If you want to play the original NWN2 with these new races and classes, you can. The setting of spirit-infested Rashemen is a refreshing change of pace from the Sword Coast, which has been the subject of countless D&D games. Rashemen makes for a much more haunted setting, particularly when you take into account the shadow plane, an alternate mirror dimension that feels as if you're trapped in a nightmare. Mask of the Betrayer introduces some cool new characters and companions, and even more intriguingly, the companions you have access to depend on key decisions you make throughout the game. For instance, if you spare the spirit of a bear god during a pivotal battle, he'll accompany you on your travels and open up quests that you would have otherwise not had access to. These decisions basically fall in good and evil categories, so there's not a lot of moral gray area in the game.
The expansion also does a great job of diversifying the gameplay. In NWN2, there was almost no situation that couldn't be solved with a little combat. On the other hand, Mask of the Betrayer is packed with all sorts of devious puzzles. For instance, a trip to a wizard school will have you trying to figure out an elaborate mirror puzzle, as well as attempting to break a contract with a devil. This is an expansion that will make you think, and that's a good thing.
Everything about Mask of the Betrayer feels epic compared to NWN2. You begin the expansion at level 18 or higher if you imported your existing character, and at that point you're already flirting with D&D's "epic" character levels. To give you a challenge, the game forces you to battle a variety of ridiculously tough monsters and opponents, though you'll also have an opportunity to pick up extremely rare and exotic weapons and equipment. You really feel like a legendary hero in this game. If there's one issue about the battles, it's that if you have a high-end system and all the graphical effects are turned up, it can almost be impossible to figure out what's going on during a fight. There are so many massive spell effects obscuring the screen, and lightning flashes creating huge shadows on the ground, that trying to manage a fight is almost impossible. Sure, it looks spectacular, but it's also completely chaotic.
Not every new feature in Mask of the Betrayer is a home run. The game's most controversial addition is undoubtedly the spirit hunger that consumes your character. This hunger acts like a drug addiction, and it can be completely frustrating at first because the mechanics are confusing. Basically, your character has to consume spirits (essentially souls) to stay healthy and alive. Consume too many spirits too quickly, and you become more addicted and the effects of eating souls are shorter and shorter lived. The easier path is to suppress and satiate your hunger, which is basically the good path. But if you play an evil character, you have to consume spirits, so it becomes a vicious cycle in which you spend most of your time worrying about your spirit level. It's too bad that developer Obsidian doesn't let players opt out of this mechanic entirely. As it is, you have to carefully manage your every move, given that acts such as resting and travel will only drain the meter more quickly. This hunger system is probably a boon to hardcore role-playing fans who enjoy making tough decisions, but those who enjoyed NWN2 as a fun romp are apt to be frustrated.
Furthermore, Mask of the Betrayer introduces a new camera system that lets you play the game from a third-person perspective not unlike the one found in World of Warcraft. It's a nice feature that potentially opens the game up to new players, but it's annoying that it's the default setting. If you're a NWN2 veteran and prefer the prior camera style, you have to tweak the options to get it back to the familiar top-down isometric view. Unfortunately, the isometric view takes a step back because it now lets you rotate the camera around. The problem is that the game never quite remembers your favorite orientation, so if you load a new section of the game or a save, you'll have to reorient the camera most of the time.
Aside from those issues and a few small bugs, Mask of the Betrayer is a fairly polished game, and it's a lot more impressive out of the box than NWN2 was at its debut. The code has been optimized over the past year, so the frame rate holds up, even during graphically intense battles where spell effects are everywhere on the screen. Additionally, mod makers and dungeon masters will appreciate the new tile sets and improvements made to the built-in editor that lets you build your own adventures. The audio experience in Mask of the Betrayer is excellent, from the abundant and solid voice acting to the bombastic orchestral music that swells during battles.
Mask of the Betrayer is a much more mature expansion, both due to its content and because it demonstrates how Obsidian Entertainment is maturing as a developer. If you felt that NWN2 was a bit too action-focused, then you should definitely check out Mask of the Betrayer's blend of combat, puzzles, and decision-making. As it is, Mask of the Betrayer offers up a rich role-playing experience for fans of the genre.