A lute-strumming Renaissance Faire greets my D&D 3.5 rulebook-compliant Paladin. The air is crisp, the sun is bright, and West Harbor's Harvest Festival is nigh underway. I traipse across the village green with the carefree bravado that a tutorial bestows, one of my companions flicking spells from a tome, the other deftly disarming traps, and all of us beating down some good ol' boys in a no-hard-feelings ring match afterward (a West Harbor favorite).
But already the small town gossip and back roads dishonesty filter into the day's events: A pig farmer casts an enchantment to secure a blue ribbon for himself and his super-sized hog; the current brawl cup holders don't step into the ring without a daggered word or two thrown my way; and plenty of if-looks-could-kill commentary lobs back and forth before the Harvest Cup winners are proudly announced at dusk. It appears that all is well within the 'realistic fantasy' land of Forgotten Realms.
But all hell will break loose before the next day begins.
Neverwinter Nights 2 gurneys this hallowed franchise into the operating room for an appreciative facelift. But instead of a nip here and a tuck there, the implants grant width and girth to an engine growing admittedly anorexic.
The two-person buddy system of the original NWN is beefed up to four-member parties (with non-player characters pushing the number up even higher during certain portions of the adventure), with players earning the ability to fully control the characters in their group, puppeteer-style, during every single round of micromanageable combat. Leave the artificial intelligence to its own devices and your amigos will operate with an average level of competence, but prepare to watch them fall victim to the same slapdash aggro issues that also get enemy AI killed.
The generous pause button, coupled with the scaleable AI (this scale ranging from pure marionettes that don't move a muscle unless you snap your fingers … all the way to overkill hell hounds practically screaming 'who let the dogs out?'), leaves no one at fault but yourself if your dungeon-crawling buddies are taken out of combat. The camera and movement schemes demand a splash of adjustment stirred into a tall glass of patience -- don't worry, you'll acquire the taste -- as the two are honestly doing their best to work for you, not against you.
Benefit of the doubt aside, you've just joined the Babysitter Club when it comes to working out your camera angles, especially in the claustrophobic dungeons that make up half of the D&D namesake. Your screen is going to be ravaged from end to end with hack n' slash sword arcs and boisterous symbol-happy spell effects, but the heavy strategic elements involved are never set on the backburner. The stutter-stop motion complements the turn-based tabletop action of the classic pen-and-paper design it derives from. And considering the insurmountable tables and charts and graphs and statistics (and, and) that calculate each and every onscreen moment -- not to mention a whole lotta 20-sided dice -- NWN2 sinks pretty much any other pseudo-military strategy simulator out there, in terms of armchair tactical warfare.
Again, don't be fooled by the rudimentary but delicately-detailed landscaping, the rivets in the shiny new armor, or the catwalk strides of your female avatars. When it comes to your personal preferences regarding complex or simplified, you can play this like checkers, or you can play this like chess.
The whole ball of wax comes down on you fairly early (read: on the character creation screen) where D&D virgins will find that bliss and ignorance indeed make likely bedfellows. Tired of the assembly line fighter/mage/thief choices other RPGs drop into your fantasy-weary lap? Well, as the old adage goes, beware what you wish for. NWN2 not only hands you the first Neverwinter's class choices, it superglues on the highly-coveted prestige classes that must be worked toward in skill and ability (kind of like creating a "force sensitive" character before you're able to attain full-fledged Jedi knighthood). There's likewise no end to the races you may choose from. Along with the usual suspects, fans of sun/wood/dark elves, gold dwarves, duergar, svirfneblins (svirfneblins?), tieflings, aasimars, and strongheart halflings can finally get their geek on. Don't say Obsidian Entertainment never gave ya nothin'.
Obsidian (KOTOR 2: The Sith Lords) also embedded a crafting system into the whole role playing jambalaya, just to see how many recipe books and craft components you'll lug around before throwing your hands up in the air, cursing the pantheon of 53 selectable deities, and wondering why so few windows can be opened at a time on the user interface. (Sidebar: Comparing and contrasting weapons, armor, spells, components, etc., is an exercise in anger management, since you aren't allowed to line up multiple item descriptions side by side.)
Despite such tedious nitpicking, the single-player quest is a truly worthy undertaking. With the momentum of events that thrust you from your childhood stomping grounds and into an adventure of (allow me to use a frequently abused term, except in this case) epic proportions, there's no denying or escaping the furious undertow of storytelling that sweeps your character across the venerable Forgotten Realms landscape
This isn't your average grocery list of fantasy adventure tropes to rummage through. This isn't just some been-there-slain-that-got-the-princess set of tasks, perpetuated by a traffic circle of hollow side quests. In your travels across the land you'll engage in morally perplexing scenarios: You'll encounter a misunderstood enemy, displaced from their own homelands and desperately seeking new roots; you'll mitigate or provoke police corruption within gray areas that make it hard to throw the first stone; and you'll struggle to keep your particular fellowship of the ring intact, as every decision you make will spur their loyalty, or spurn their trust -- and this is all just the warm up round in the game's opening chapter. Remember, these are the makers of KOTOR 2 that you're dealing with here. Sometimes, figuring out how to decisively tackle a chamber full of lizardkin is the least of your worries. And discovering more of who you are through your character's decisions become the meat and drink of the experience. They make no apology in forcing your to think your way through some too-close-to-call decisions.
Don't be afraid to enjoy the sights along the way, though. The textures are enthralling, but the art direction and overall architectural designs are disturbingly unimaginative and unwilling to take the "go big or go home" risks that have made other RPGs more of a visual feast. So while it doesn't fall victim to the siren's call of oversaturated graphics, it grants it a 'realistic fantasy' aesthetic that instills a sense of bland, but shines more limelight on character development and sharp, intelligent writing (two RPG fundamentals that are hardly ever brewed with this much vim and vigor). In a land where the "dungeons" can be the thug-ridden streets of Neverwinter, and the "dragons" can be the coin-extorting city watchmen, NWN2 is as much about ethics and integrity and it is about swords and sorcery (don’t worry, evil geniuses … there's plenty of opportunities to use the Force for the Dark Side, too).
If that's not enough, Obsidian hired on a cast of superlative voice actors that have worked on everything from Oz to Chappelle's Show. They particularly scoured the halls of Law & Order and NYPD Blue to fill up the casting couch, and then dog-eared another set of resumes with Red Dead Revolver and Grand Theft Auto to their credit. In what is doubtless an Oblivion tribute, NWN2's Lord Nasher is voiced by a bonafide Patrick Stewart impersonator; no harm, no foul, and the experience is only enriched from the decision.
Should the single-player campaign leave you jaded and unfulfilled -- in which case, eight to ten duergar will arrive on your doorstep and promptly revoke your D&D fan club card -- then the NWN2 toolkit comes prepackaged with an executive suite of options, ready to make you the next Dungeon Master extraordinaire of the D&D online set; or convince you of how utterly taxing it is to create a truly good game of this magnitude. Caveat emptor, it isn't as drag-and-drop simple as the ADHD-addled crowd might hope for, but the built-in NWN community has already proven their talent in acquiring and utilizing these tools effectively.
So in addition to the requisite two, possibly three, expansion packs coming within the next couple years, expect several free modules waiting to integrate themselves into your multiplayer campaigns. That is, after you've clocked-in several 8-hour days and 40-hour work weeks' worth of the single-player story.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is the final word when delving into the richest Dungeons & Dragons experience available on a hard drive today. The bugs will get mashed, the community will thrive, and Obsidian's reputation for challenging and meaningful narratives will live on. No self-respecting D&D fan should go this holiday season without it.