Friday, May 20, 2011

Best Game Ever: Neverwinter Nights

Neverwinter Nights DiamondNeverwinter Nights was a big disappointment.

Sure, it was the first D&D-based computer game with 3D environments, but the backgrounds looked like they were made from Styrofoam. On top of that, the damn thing died every time I rotated the camera. Those 3D effects demanded a massive amount of processing power from my poor computer.

And when I did get it running, there wasn’t a party to speak of. Just my character and a henchman. What was this, Diablo?

I uninstalled it and put the damn thing back on the shelf.

Six months later, I got a new computer with a shiny state-of-the-art graphics card, and I gave Neverwinter Nights a second chance.

I learned to appreciate it on its own merits, and not as a successor to the amazing Baldur’s Gate series. I must have played it all the way through a dozen times in the years since.


In the game, you play The Hero of Neverwinter. That’s what they call you at the end of the game, at any rate. At first, your character is a face in a crowd of first-level nobodies who have been recruited to help protect the city of Neverwinter from a deadly plague.

How can adventurers protect a city from disease? Well, it is a D&D fantasy world, so state-of-the-art medicine involves fetching magical creatures, ingredients for potions, and whatnot.

A bleeding eye has something to do with it.
Also because it is a D&D fantasy world, all is not as it seems. As one of a handful of survivors of an attack on the academy, you are first charged with retrieving the elements of the cure, but you uncover much more. Sinister forces are behind the plague, and they threaten not only the city but the entire world. And along the way, you figure out exactly why Neverwinter is always balmy, even though it is located in a frigid land.



As your quest progresses, you recruit allies. Unlike previous D&D computer games, you cannot recruit a party. Instead, you can bring one “henchman” along at a time, though you can choose among a selection that represents all the major D&D classes.

Tomi Undergallows:
Most annoying / most useful henchman
You cannot micromanage your henchmen’s actions or inventory, either. You can set their general actions, such as following distance, melee or ranged weapon, etc. You can also use them as pack mules, if necessary, but that’s it. On the plus side, each time you level up, the henchman and his equipment levels with you.

The henchmen each have interesting backstories, which they will happily relate to you at length, but only after you’ve logged some adventuring time with them. If you take the time to listen to their stories and help them with some side quests, they reward you with some powerful magic items.

Most importantly, the henchmen taught me how each class is supposed to function. You can watch them and learn the best uses of, say, a cleric as opposed to a rogue in combat. Since I almost always play a vanilla fighter at first, my henchmen inspired me to try the game again with other classes that I would not have tried otherwise.

And there were many, many to try.

Neverwinter Nights is the first game to use the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 rules, which allow deeper customization of the tried-and-true character classes of fighter, mage, cleric, and thief. You can, for example, create a fighter who can pick locks or a mage who’s handy with a sword. There are always trade-offs, but that’s part of the fun.

My dude looked cooler than this
And then there are the prestige classes, highly specialized roles you can take on after you meet certain criteria. For instance, a Dwarven Defender (my first prestige class) must be a lawful dwarf with an attack bonus of +7 and the Dodge and Toughness feats. The quickest way to meet these requirements is to start as a fighter, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He could be a wizard who gives up some spell progression for this class’s extensive defense bonuses.

The wide-open nature of your profession is one of the game’s primary appeals. You can be whatever you want to be and play with whatever style suits you best. That’s a lesson that BioWare seems to be slowly but surely unlearning.

Likewise, your character can be *whoever* you want him or her to be. The backstory is left completely up to your imagination. You simply show up one day and start kicking ass. You are not some prophesied messiah, but rather the guy who gets it done when others fail.

As with “silent protagonist” games like Half-Life and Portal, you fill the empty vessel of the main character with your own personality. There’s not a lot of opportunity for true role-playing in the game, but other characters respect you more as you progress, to the point where they turn to you first in times of trouble. It feels good, and makes you more invested in the fate of the city.

Other Stuff

Surprisingly, the sound design of Neverwinter Nights played a big part in keeping me coming back. Ambient sounds flesh out the images on the screen, setting the mood for each mission. For example, as you patrol the slums near a prison that has just spilled its violent inmates into the streets, you can hear fighting and cries of pain all around you. It creates a sense of menace, making you feel like you could be attacked at any moment. That’s good, considering that’s exactly what happens!

Finally, the modular nature of the 3D graphics had another purpose—it enabled savvy users to use the pieces of those modules to construct their own dungeons. Over the years, the community has created hundreds of adventures to take your characters through, including (probably in violation of copyright law) adaptations of classic D&D modules from the 80s. Good times.


Pros: Wide-open choice of character classes, solid combat system, good story and character backgrounds, amazing sound design, build your own modules

Cons: 3D graphics lack the texture of previous games; only one henchman at a time; little control over henchmen
Baldur's Gate 2: The Collection (Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal)
Play it.

Some may wonder why I would review this D&D game over others, such as Baldur’s Gate II. Indeed, the latter is perhaps the epitome of the genre. But I have to go with the game that had a larger effect on me.

I loved Baldur’s Gate II, but I played through it once. I keep returning to Neverwinter Nights. It may not live up to its predecessor’s story, but the gameplay has it knocked. And gameplay beats story every time.

* * *
Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.


  1. I know this was written a while ago but I have to agree! NWN is still one of the greatest RPG's to date. No other game offers you so many limitless RP'ing possibilities. The main campaign alone is long, but then there's the toolset, custom content, multiplayer, etc. Even in 2012 it is still incredibly fun to play (outdated graphics are annoying, though).

    1. I take no issue with the graphics, personally. I think the animations, lighting, et cetera, still look pretty good for being so old.

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  2. I just downloaded this from GOG and it is still a great game to play!

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