Can I skip to the dessert?
Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002, was BioWare’s follow-up to the hugely popular Baldur’s Gate series, and the question was whether they could replicate their success. While the game is also based on Dungeons & Dragons rules – 3rd Edition this time – the focus is very different, emphasising the multiplayer aspect, as well as encouraging players to create their own content via the Aurora toolset (shipped with the game). The latter was probably a result of all the mods that flourished for BG, ensuring a robust following for the game over the years and a lot of fan-made content, but also diverting time and resources from the single-player campaign. Three official expansion packs were released, of which only the first two – Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark (2003) – constitute a whole with the original game. The third one, Kingmaker (2004), consists of three standalone stories, or premium modules, that BioWare released as a way to milk more cash get more mileage out of the game.
So what’s the verdict? Well, despite its popularity, NWN was a disappointment for me, partly because I’m not interested in multiplayer, but mostly because I just found it boring. It was the first WRPG I tried, but it didn’t spark my interest in the genre. Good thing I gave Mass Effect and Dragon Age a try a few years later, or I might have missed out on WRPGs completely. NWN is unique in two ways in my eyes: it’s the only game I know where the original campaign (OC) and the expansions deliberately star two distinct protagonists, and the only one where the expansions are more interesting than the OC. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the OC’s storyline or characters, who cut a poor figure by comparison with BG (with a small handful of exceptions).
There are several other significant steps back from BG, such as a dramatically reduced party size, minimal control over companions or a clunky inventory system. Moreover, despite the effort to up the ante on graphics, I would much rather have kept the tiny character models from BG than the deformed bunches of polygons on display here. Voice acting is generally poor, and both protagonists are even more of a blank slate than in BG. And then there’s Aribeth, who, while not being a step back per se, is just incredibly annoying. Clearly a pet character designed by one of the developers – complete with over-sexualised armour and lascivious poses –, she’s presented as such a big deal that it becomes aggravating. Everybody loves her and pities her when trouble comes calling. She even monopolises the game’s promotional artwork.
So why should you play NWN? Well, perhaps you value combat or multiplayer above storyline and character development, in which case you will likely enjoy it a lot more than I did. Or maybe you’re curious about player-created content. Or perhaps you’ll genuinely like Aribeth and sympathise with her issues. More importantly, the game just gets better in the expansions: while SoU is a bit pedestrian, it does introduce chattier companions, including the lovable dork known as Deekin. HotU finishes things off with a bang, as you finally get the ability to form an actual party and proper interaction with interesting characters (Valen and Nathyrra), including romances that amount to more than just “I like you, but we’ve got more important stuff to sort out right now”. You also get interesting options for dealing with the final boss. All in all, think of it as a dinner with a lacklustre main course, a tolerable cheese platter and a tasty dessert. This isn’t BioWare’s strongest effort, and it shows, but it does have some redeeming qualities.
A remake entitled Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition was released by Beamdog in 2018. It includes both expansions, as well as all of the premium modules released over the years, as well as the usual bug fixes and graphical improvements. It also makes multiplayer easier, as the old servers have now been shut down. So if you’re interested in the multiplayer aspects of the game and want as much content as possible, this is the version to go for.