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The GoodWhenever I talk about BioWare, one of my most favorite game developers, there is always one game I try not to mention, and that is Neverwinter Nights. You can jump straight to the "Bad" section to find out why; but for the sake of objectivity, the game's good sides should be listed as well.
Here and there you can find glimpses of genius that earned the company its stellar reputation. The writing is somewhat awkward, but some optional dialogue choices attempt to bring back the glory of the sprawling conversations and the moral decisions of Baldur's Gate. There is also humor to be found, if not in characterization, but in some of the dialogue lines. A few characters are promising and could have evolved into substantial figures if this side of the game were given any serious attention. In short, even what BioWare does without care and love is still not completely devoid of merits.
The graphics are technically good, with some impressive shadows and nice-looking spell animations. Even though you can't look up and down, at least they included the possibility to rotate the camera left and right, as well as zoom in and out. Generally, I welcome the transition to 3D, though I think it should mean more than just modeling everything in the new fashion, and perhaps include physical interactivity. Still, it is important that a non-Bethesda RPG tried to be a bit more modern in presentation.
The BadNeverwinter Nights reminded me of Quake. I nearly had a feeling of deja-vu when I fired up the game, saw the impressive graphics, played for a while, and felt more and more that I was playing a tech demo. Just like with Quake, the game was obviously created with multiplayer in mind; in this particular case, perhaps the toolkit was meant to be the main selling point. I know that many will disagree with me, saying it's not fair to criticize the weak single-player campaign since the game wasn't supposed to focus on that. To this I can only say that anyone who played BioWare's previous offerings may have expected anything but a game with such premise, and I can't blame fans (myself included) for being sorely disappointed.
Probably in an attempt to cater to those affected by the Diablo craze of the time, BioWare decided to reduce most of what made their previous RPGs enjoyable - exploration, side quests, moral decisions, etc. - and concentrated on combat. Everything in Neverwinter Nights is smaller, blander, and much more shallow than what we have seen in Baldur's Gate games. There is little sense of adventure, and surprisingly little to do in general. You basically follow the main quest in one prescribed fashion, and that's it. The complex world full of characters, quests and decisions has disappeared almost without trace.
The laziness in design is evident in everything, starting with the thin, straightforward main story and ending with the abundance of "twins" (same character portraits are liberally used for completely different people). Even in the graphical front, I consider Neverwinter Nights a letdown. The 3D of the game is purely cosmetic; it brings nothing substantial that would enhance the gameplay beyond the previous isometric experiences. While the graphics are technically good, they lack the artistry of the company's preceding creations. Textures tend to be repetitive, and brown-yellow color palette is overused (again, Quake comes to mind). There is something artificial, mechanical in the way the game looks - perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the fact it consists of tiles, presumably with the goal of making it easier for the players to design their own maps. In fact, the whole game does feel like a halfway competent, yet uninspired mod.
However, if you asked me to choose one flaw that contributes most to the game's downfall, I'd answer without hesitation: the absence of a party. This is a fatal error that ruins the game, making me wonder how could it happen that the very same company that revived party-based combat for modern RPGs could overlook it. You don't need to be a RPG expert to understand the simple fact: turn-based combat (whether in its pure form or in BioWare's trademark "real-time with pause" incarnation) doesn't work without a party. It turns into a snore-inducing experience devoid of strategy and satisfaction. I still cannot fathom how these experienced designers released a combat-oriented game in which combat lacks the basic ingredient that would make it enjoyable.
The new shiny third edition rules become useless when you realize they only apply to one single character. You can't replay a game twenty times just to try out every single class and ability combination for the protagonist; moreover, it is pointless because AD&D was designed with a party in mind, where coordinated attacks are the meet and potatoes of combat. What's the point of playing as a lonely fighter, cleric, or mage, if you cannot control anyone who would complement your skills? Yes, you can hire henchmen, but they are pitiful substitutes to real party members, both in characterization and from the gameplay point of view. Like in Fallout, they cannot be controlled; much worse is the fact you cannot have more than one at the same time. Needless to say it becomes impossible to draw any satisfaction from this crippled combat. Even the monotonous clicking of Diablo was more rewarding, since action-based battles sit well with the "no party" policy.