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.)
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