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SummaryThe very best in "hands-off" role-playing
The Good"Hands-off" type role-playing games are, of course, those belonging to the tried-and-true Black Isle and Bioware tradition, and the Wizardry tradition before that. They are based on an overtly restrictive mode of gameplay: dice-rolled, relatively passive tactical combat, no jumping, no crouching, no freedom of movement and no free map to explore. Environmental gadgets, objects on tables, cupboards etc. are not operable, they're just static parts of the scenery, as if behind a glass case. Rather poor and non-immersive approach really, especially since the advent of the Gothic series which should have changed everything in the genre. I for one much prefer the more realistic, deeper and open-ended Piranha Bytes / Bethesda / Reality Pump school of "hands-on" RPG's, but as far as the Bioware tradition is concerned, I regard NWN2 to be the pinnacle, even as late as 2011.
My beef with the newer Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises is that they take this restrictive approach to their logical, yawny extremes. There is never a feeling of freedom, maybe a poor illusory semblance of it, but never the feeling of even previous Black Isle / Bioware titles, or Obsidian's NWN2. This game embodies that final moment before the Bioware school submitted to this new trend of even more restrictive, handholding, console-y gameplay. (Obsidian's next RPG, Alpha Protocol, was already horribly hands-off.)
NWN2 actually feels more advanced and evolved in gameplay terms than the much-hyped Bioware blockbusters that came in its footsteps. Let's see:
- The conversations are alive, organic, inspired and often humorous. Just as importantly, they can branch off to all kinds of directions that are far from plot-relevant, but crucial in terms of building atmosphere. (Granted, this was the one strong point of Dragon Age: Origins). Take the trial scene in Castle Never: it's basically one epic, intriguing, tense, fully interactive conversation between 4-6 characters.
- The above brings us to the fact that the characters, even minor ones, are fleshed out and have some depth to them (as far as mainstream, PG-13 role-playing games go). For instance, whatever Neeshka says or remarks is never boring or trite, thanks to her well-rounded character.
- Some parts and tidbits are so creative, they are almost literary art. The Wendersnaven, Grobnar's invisible instrument, Guyven of the Road, Daerred's adventure troupe: you've gotta love them. The inclusion of these make NWN1 seem like a tired and phoned-in effort.
- The build-your-stronghold "subgame" is a breath of fresh air, and quite unexpected too. It lends a light strategic touch to the role-playing experience.
- Finally, optional side quests are not force-fed to us, but presented in a casual manner. Take for instance the Neverwinter crypt side quest. The little group that triggers it is standing almost out of sight, casually near the entrance. The game hopes that you show some interest in them, as it's a fairly substantial sidequest, but it's not forced on us.
The BadHere's a rich, evolved, delicate world -- called Toril and/or Forgotten Realms -- in development since the 1960's, way before D&D was even born, a world that always had the potential to be the be-all and end-all of computer RPG settings, and one that begs to be given the unrestricted, open-ended, free-roaming treatment.
But like Bioware's NWN1, Obsidian wouldn't get off their butts to treat it as deserved. They are doing a better job than Bioware, but they still take a relatively cheap way out, offering us little more than isolated, episodic glimpses into this vibrant world. They give us what amounts to self-enclosed "levels" that are still made up of cramped, conspicuously square-shaped and very 2D maps that remind me of those simplistic 1980's RPG's no one plays anymore.
The very engine is incapable of giving us more than glimpses into this universe, yet Obsidian seems content with their methods and their engine. Even Gothic 1 (released before NWN1) runs circles around this dated and lazy game design scheme.
The Bottom LineNeverwinter Nights 2 is a mixed bag, like a surprisingly tasty diet chicken soup. It goes to great lengths to try and keep us entertained for 50-odd hours in its restrictive, self-limiting micro-universe. Its dialogs and characters in particular are some of the best in computer role-playing ever.
But once you've tasted what the dynamic, open worlds of the Elder Scrolls, Two Worlds, Mount & Blade, and Gothic series have to offer, chances are that Obsidian's fancy diet soup won't impress your palate anymore.