February 7, 2008

Neverwinter Nights 2 Gets A 5

If you’re as hooked in to internet hysteria as I am (à la Samantha Morton in Minority Report, if instead of the future she saw, you know, idiocy,) you might remember this. In November 2006, Obsidian’s Neverwinter Nights 2 was ushered into the world alongside a negative review written for the magazine Games for Windows but which first appeared on 1UP. It was written by Matt Peckham and it engendered a level of message board hostility that wasn’t matched until Jeff Gerstmann gave Twilight Princess an 8.8 later that month.

For that week, though, the internet coalesced around this one review, which had taken issue, perhaps disproportionately so, with typical CRPG conventions and the Dungeons & Dragons rules in particular. It wasn’t a review of Neverwinter Nights 2, they said, it was a review of D&D rules – and a bad one. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t review the game on its merits. This guy’s just not a fan of RPGs. The epicentre was a thread at the usually stable Quarter to Three, which this time Peckham had crawled all over and stabbed in its weak spot.

Peckham’s crime, rather than penning the single worst piece of video game writing ever, was to throw rocks at the wrong hornet’s nest: the hardcore RPG set – brittle, humourless and internet-savvy. The Ron Paul supporters of video games. The internet has always had a significant and ridiculous percentage in the initial review scores for games they haven’t played and this was no exception – but they’d never seemed so insulted.

The review was eventually pulled, due to complaints regarding its tone and fairness. This being the internet, though, the original text will always be around on one blog or another. I encourage you to read it over and judge for yourselves the fairness or the quality of its writing. I can’t tell you that but I can tell you that his review is completely accurate as to my experience. I don’t know Peckham but I can vouch that his review is – 100% — the honest product of playing this game.

Neverwinter Nights 2 typifies the D&D video game experience like nothing else I’ve ever played. I don’t mean that, like Baldur’s Gate 2, it perfects the formula, but rather that there is nothing else there. The charge that the text was all invective directed at CRPG convention would be a fine complaint if Peckham had written the same review for Planescape: Torment, but not for this game.

He didn’t review it on its merits, cried the people who had never touched this game. Well, please, what are they? The purpose of this game is to evoke other games, and to allow for the least obstructed simulation of D&D rules ever. A thoroughly serious appreciation for character sheets and die rolls is a minimum system requirement. It is not Neverwinter Nights 2’s prerogative to have a personality of its own. The game practically celebrates cliché.

This is patently clear from the outset. The player character is introduced to his foster father and soon his village is under attack. How can you pull this in 2006? I’m absolutely serious. It’s like opening a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Are you trying to be funny?

I’m tempted to conclude that the whole thing is an intentionally nostalgic throwback, but that’s dressing up its banality to make it appear cute. This is not a very creative game. For a genre with relatively broad auspices, Neverwinter Nights 2 always comes back to overlong exterminations of bandits and monsters. There’s one part where the player must reach a certain room, but the door is locked. It comes as no surprise that there’s a secret underground passage full of demonic creatures that the player must fight through to get to the door that’s one foot away. At the end of these catacombs are a series of statues that will administer a quiz. If you answer incorrectly: monsters. If you answer correctly: monsters. Rinse and repeat.

The combat is still straight out of Baldur’s Gate, still clunky, still hands-off, still orchestrated as to simulate D&D rules; that’s the priority, still? It has contemporary worth only as a deliberate anachronism tailored to players who angrily resent BioWare et al. for prostituting themselves to the console hordes.

I’d have no problem with the combat if it weren’t the focus. It’s something this game, operating on this very specific model, simply cannot do. The game climaxes in a long dungeon grind—fight this guy, fight him again, fight twenty copies of him—followed by an astonishingly poor post-script that erases any remaining goodwill the game had earned.

The straw-man is that this is a game for D&D fans and if you’re not among their number you will of course find the heavy mathematical bent to be tedious. But none of the above is the result of an over-reliance on D&D rules. However, it is, all together, evidence of creative exhaustion, and consequently, a fallback on tradition. This is a game for ten years ago. Here I am the put-upon hero with a special destiny solving everyone’s problems, choosing between good and evil, and as the alarm threatens to go off on my biological clock, desperately clutching onto whichever party member will have me. Do I have to do this all over again? Isn’t it time you found someone else?

BioWare took their strain of RPG in a new direction with Knights of the Old Republic: more accessible, yes, but streamlined and tightly focused on narrative with emphasis on characters and choices. With the real-time combat of Jade Empire and Mass Effect they eschewed significant facets of the traditional CRPG to varying degrees of success. Obsidian, with little time to design Knights of the Old Republic 2, followed BioWare’s lead and produced an interesting hybrid between the first game and Planescape: Torment. This left the question of where Obsidian would go next – if, along with BioWare and Bethesda, these pioneers of RPG design would make an RPG for 2006. They didn’t. I realise that not everyone enjoys “the new direction,” but Neverwinter Nights 2 is an argument for nothing. It doesn’t tell me why this structure is necessary for a good game. It is not just an anachronistic RPG; it is a weak one.

Installing this game in January 2008, the auto-patcher needed to run for over an hour. Official patches are still being compiled. This game must have shipped in a horrifying state. It’s still faulty. AI is bad. Path-finding is bad. Loading times are bad. The camera can be manipulated into a reasonable state, but it takes too much work to master (i.e. any work.) I cut Obsidian some slack for their tight deadline on Knights of the Old Republic 2, but eventually you guys will have to get it together.

In response to the Peckham review, lead designer J.E. Sawyer said something dry about what brilliant journalism it was to criticise something for being exactly what it set out to be. Really?

The aim of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake was to match shot-for-shot Hitchcock’s original. That’s what it did, and no-one liked it. It was too much like Psycho. It couldn’t breathe. Even Van Sant admitted it didn’t work. Alien vs. Predator exists to have an alien and a predator and have them fight. They do. It’s terrible. Alien is considerably better, because Alien is more than just an alien being scary. It’s not the 1900s anymore. Don’t expect anyone to be thrilled with the prosaic reportage of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.

I don’t understand why Sawyer and Obsidian are happy to set their sights that low. This isn’t just the genre that gave us Fallout and Torment, it’s some of the same people. I’m not denying Neverwinter Nights 2’s relative accomplishment. Yes, it’s Dungeons & Dragons. Does it have dungeons? Check. Does it have dragons? Check. Ten out of ten. Congratulations, you’ve adapted some D&D rulebook. Now what are you going to do? Oh. I see. As if the rules are the fun part. The design of this game reminds me of things I didn’t like about the old games and the things I did like are notable only by their absence.

I understand D&D is the license. It’s supposed to be “the point.” I understand that people like to play these for the rules, as if this is a genre of sports games forever to be built on the same principles—and I understand that these people love this game; it’s the best RPG they’ve played since Baldur’s Gate 2. That’s because of “the rules”, and Neverwinter Nights 2 for me has turned “rules” into a dirty word. It’s like not seeing the forest for the trees. The RPG has made so much progress in so many directions since Baldur’s Gate 1 that the genre by now has more to offer than acting as a calculator.

Adapting a ruleset. It’s like “adapting” Grand Theft Auto in so far as you release a game where all you do is drive cars in a large open environment. It doesn’t exactly cut it anymore. We know you can do it. We’ve played it. You’re giving us a Crazy Taxi knock-off when you could give us No More Heroes.

This is a genre that's shamed the rest of the industry with the quality of its writing, non-linearity and gameplay diversity. This genre has produced gaming milestones. Not D&D milestones, not RPG milestones. Then the rubber band snaps back to the absolute basics and it’s five guys at a card table rolling dice. Character builds and to-hit rolls and this, that and the other thing… and apparently the genre is only about this and if you miss the other stuff then you’re not a “fan.” What’s left when you remove everything but the basics? An entirely superficial and unfulfilling experience.

I’ve always seen D&D as equivalent to an engine, “lore” aside. It’s fine as a series of spreadsheets that govern the action but something needs to be built on it. Otherwise the only fascination it holds is to the hardcore. A game sold on pure mechanics and the distant memories of past successes; that’s Unreal Tournament 3. In an alternative universe we’d be riding out the internet tsunami over low UT3 scores. Who assigned the review to the guy who clearly doesn’t get multiplayer FPSs. He’s probably a Team Fortress 2 fan. There but for the grace of God.

Neverwinter Nights 2 had some good moments, ones I’ll remember. They absolutely were not when I levelled up a half-elf or enchanted a +3 longsword. That’s never been what I’ve taken from these games. What I did take were the moments when Neverwinter Nights 2 hinted at something else. From a narrative design perspective, the best-conceived party member in the game is Shandra Jerro, and the way she is utilised is not at all how party members are supposed to work. It does some very interesting things with the influence system— Obsidian’s invention, not D&D’s — especially at the end. But these moments are fleeting and merely tease at a relevant design. The game is not for people who enjoy that. It is for people who want to raid one orc-infested cave after another and you will not forget that.

I think I’m through with D&D games. It has nothing to do with the rules. It has everything to do with the games that use them being so content as to let that be all there is. Is that really it? Is that the best you can do? Find someone else.


Steve gaynor said...

Farewell, happy train man!

n0wak said...

Happy train not needed. This is awesome. And also a good writeup of why I hate anything and everything remotely D&D in its mechanics and archetypes.

Michael Abbott said...

There's a new Straight Talk Express and it's rumblin' down the tracks! Bad Duncan is back with a vengeance, baby!!

It's the humorlessness of so many among the hardcore set that ruins it. You put your finger right on it. Wasn't this all supposed to be fun at some point way back when?

Anonymous said...

What's doubly sad is if you go to the NWN2 forums, you'll find them full of Pen and Paper fans moaning about X isn't realistic or +4 weapons are too common or class Y shouldn't be allowed to have this alignment and best of all, when you die it should be game over.

When you look at those arguements, you realise how many concessions Obsidian actually made to gameplay at the expense of rule-based accuracy. I actually enjoyed the game, but I spent a fair few hours beforehand reading up on D&D 3.5 so I understood how all that stuff worked, as the game does an awful job at explaining it.

It's also worth noting that it was always advertised as a game + an engine for creating your own. And there are a large number of quality player-built adventures out there, which oftentimes offer something different.

Hassan said...

Comparing KotOR and PS:T... Srsly, WTF?