Arguably one of the definitive D&D role-playing games ever.
Back when it was released in 2002, Neverwinter Nights was highly acclaimed for its near perfect implementation of the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules and a multitude of online options making it easily the RPG of that year. But 5 years later, does it still hold up to games which have much better graphics and refinements of the same formula? The answer really depends on a lot of factors. If you only like the flashy graphics of games like Oblivion, then Neverwinter Nights will most probably not appeal to you but if you like deep, satisfying role-playing with lots of questing and looting plus a great story, then Neverwinter Nights is the game for you.
The game starts when the city of Neverwinter is hit by a terrible plague and has called for all adventurers to help protect the reagents that have been found to create a cure for the plague. In the Prelude, players start of in an academy where they learn to use the primary skills of their respective characters as well as meeting up with one of the game's main characters. The prelude serves as a tutorial and you get to learn most of the game's basic features like buying, selling, leveling up and so on and is a great way for players new to RPGs to learn some the tricks of the trade. At the end of the prelude, the academy is attacked by enemies of Neverwinter and all the reagents for the cure are lost and this kicks of the first chapter of the game.
Neverwinter Nights' main campaign is split up into 4 chapters each of which can be considered a smaller game in itself totaling to about 60-90 hours of gameplay. The first chapter has you hunting down each of the reagents for the cure and also tracking down the mastermind behind the group that attacked the academy. Though each of the chapters do play a nice part in the story it is not until the end of the second chapter that the story really opens up and the third and fourth chapters are really a pleasure to play through from a story point-of-view. The story is certainly not as complicated or epic as a game like Planescape Torment but is quite good with a good dosage of plot twists, betrayals and so on.
Bioware has really provided some good documentation to help new players get into Dungeons and Dragons. The game manual weighs in at about 200 pages and explains almost all the 3rd Edition rules as well as the different types of weapons, armor etc. and generally is the complete package for people really looking to get into D&D. However it is not required of casual players to put in such effort and things are made easier by NWN's character creation system which basically walks you through the whole process. As in any other RPG, players start by selecting a race (human, orc, elf etc.), gender, class (mage, wizard, fighter, rouge etc.) dividing points among the various attributes -- strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence and charisma -- choosing skill sets and finally by selecting an appearance and name for your character. NWN really makes it easy by giving this "recommended" button on each screen which suggests what class you should be and divides ability points based on your race, class and so on and this makes it a highly accessible game to people who have never played D&D based RPGs before. Of course, the complexity is there for people who wish and people can really tweak the system to create the character they want including multiclassing (creating a character with different classes) which is not offered in many RPGs.
Gameplay is pretty much similar to every other RPG and typically involves lots of questing, looting, returning the loot for gold, buying upgraded weapons with the obtained gold and so on. And as you complete these various actions you will learn experience points which you can use to level up your character to higher levels. Other than following the previously mentioned main quest you can also take up an infinite number of side quests some of which are even more interesting than the main quest and offer better rewards and some exotic items that may not necessarily be available in the main quest. Each quest you take is also recorded in your journal which keeps track of all accepted and completed quests. A handy map is also effective in pointing you in the right direction along with having notes for important buildings like shops, barracks etc. as well as allowing you to add notes of your own.
The main player interacts with other characters through a number dialogue choices which have to be carefully chosen since the game decides your alignment based on the dialogue choices you make which in turn affects how certain characters behave towards you. Since character interactivity is quite important in NWN it is sad that you get only one henchman on your travels. Previous games like Planescape Torment and even Bioware's own Baldur's Gate have supported an entire party of characters with up to 6 or 7 players at a time. That being said all of the henchmen in the game really have a personality and backstory of their own and it is important to choose a henchman that complements your class and abilities. Another disappointing aspect being you cannot equip your characters with weapons or spells of your choice or select abilities for them while leveling up -- all of this is done automatically.
Combat is generally quite good in NWN. You have a multitude of weapons to choose from including long swords, great swords, short swords, longbows, short bows, various types of axes, maces and generally every weapon conceived so far in the D&D world. And for wizards and mages, the game offers a healthy dose of spells including combat-oriented, mind-affecting, healing and so on. And with three quick bars at the bottom which can be accessed directly (or by pressing Ctrl or Shift for the second and third bars) you can pretty much place all your weapons, spells and special items and never run out of space since each bar has 12 empty slots. The other slick aspect is that clicking anywhere on the screen brings up a neat circle which has all the actions you can perform including attack, heal, cast spell etc. which is really intuitive and east to get into. In general the overall ease with which Neverwinter Nights plays will appeal to new players and the added complexity underneath will definitely appeal to hardcore RPG buffs.
Given the difficulty of RPGs like Planescape Torment, Baldur's Gate etc. it is natural for most players to expect Neverwinter Nights to be the same, but it is not. Neverwinter Nights is one of the easier RPGs and can be really enjoyed by even casual players. Much of this ease comes from a single item which players get at the beginning of the game which when used transports them to the nearest temple where they can rest up, heal (for free!) and return to the place where they used the item for a very small cost. And since you can use the item even in the middle of combat and generally there are very few places in the game where you cannot use it, it is generally easy to use the item and return to combat fully energized which takes out all the challenge from some bigger foes you meet later in the game. Unlike the previously mentioned RPGs, in Neverwinter Nights you can also pretty much rest wherever enemies are not in sight again owing to the game's easiness. Of course, none of this reduced difficulty deters the game from being enjoyable. Hardcore players can push the difficulty setting all up which full PvP and even friendly spells will damage you and this should be the setting of choice for most players.
Considering how good Neverwinter Nights plays it is disappointing that it is not brought to life using the graphics which are only slightly good-looking at best. Even when considering the game for its 2002 release (the same year the beautiful Morrowind was released), it does not fare well except for some of the lighting and shadowing. Only some of the textures look really good -- like the textures on armor, weapons etc. -- and most of them are a little bland especially the ones on the environments. Most of the spell effects look quite good especially the healing spells. Character models are good but not great although they move in a seemingly plausible manner and you will see them dodge attacks by sidestepping and parrying and these effects look really nice. The lighting and shadowing are really effective though and are easily the best aspect of Neverwinter Nights' graphics -- multiple light sources cast multiple shadows on an object, the lens flare from lamps and flaming plague-victim pyres look really good.
No such complaints can be made against the sound. Jeremy Soule has become of the best composers of game music and in this game he again proves why he's one of the best. The music is really orchestral and does a great job in conveying exactly the mood of the game. When you are walking through the forests not knowing what to expect it is really mild and will send a chill or two down your spine or when you are in combat it is really bombastic with heavy drums and percussion. Overall, the music adds another layer of immersion and polish to the game. The in-game sounds also don't lag behind either. The sound of clanking metals when one sword meets the other or the sound of footsteps when you are running or the sound of healing or other spells never get boring to hear. Many dialogues in the game are also voiced especially for the main characters and it is uniformly awesome throughout and feels like all of the actors put in their utmost effort to convey the right emotions.
Neverwinter Nights is essentially the complete RPG package. Though the multiplayer aspect holds no appeal anymore given the game's age, it is really the campaign that shines throughout. It is highly replayable given all the different combinations of classes, genders and attributes and the way dialogue choices affect your alignments not to include the sensitive element of multiclassing and the insane amount of side-quests, you can easily get more than 100 hours of gameplay. Certainly the game is not without its share of flaws including the graphics which are not up to par given the game's age and the relative easiness of the game, though that should not stop anyone from buying this game and experiencing what is one of the definitive RPGs in recent times.