Good. Bad. I'm the girl with the dice.
Neverwinter Nights was ahead of its time, and like most things ahead of its time, it took a while to fully appreciate some of its qualities. Its aspirations to be this great platform for digital D&D adventures was at the very least partially successful in that it has to this day a dedicated community of modders and creators, building upon the foundations set by Bioware back in 2002 with its Aurora engine.
I, at 18, having just started my Philosophy degree in London, was having none of it however. I wanted a story, a grand narrative full of great characters, relationships, romance and yet another chance to prove that there is no such thing as ‘neutral’ evil. But I didn’t get it, and so miffed was I at this outrage that I emailed my brother straight after to tell him as such. It was terrible; it was the one single thing you should never ever be, which is boring. Hours and hours of bland adventuring, all for a shit ending where the only vaguely interesting character is either dead or having their character arc put on an indefinite, infuriating hold.
However, looking on it now the main campaign isn’t so much of the focus, rather, it sits as a weighty if tediously generic showcase for the wider tool-set being advertised. Each chapter barring the last is composed of a hub area and has you travel in each cardinal direction to obtain X number of items to move the plot forward. This overt rigidity in both world structure and quest design felt like a considerable step down from Baldur’s Gate’s more open, if still compartmentalised world. Likewise the central story lacks imagination and at times feels like it belongs in an ARPG or an MMO, where narrative is typically less of a concern.
So the titular town of Neverwinter is in the grip of a plague and you are tasked with seeking a cure. You inevitably find it but of course this is merely the first plating at a far larger buffet of villainy. As you uncover this sinister plot you go on a number of smaller, more incidental adventures which in hindsight appears to presage much of Bioware’s latter work and much of current open world narrative design wherein the main plot is invariably a let down, there almost exclusively to give everything else structure rather than deliver its own emotional pay-off. Neverwinter Nights has a tale of betrayal that almost managed to get a response out of me, but otherwise there’s very little to the tale that wasn’t done better before or since.
Fortunately both official expansions; Shadows of Undrentide, and especially Hordes of the Underdark, put more life back into proceedings. Yet anyone looking at its community pages will see what the game is really about; making your own stories.
With the enhanced release you get the 3 initial premium modules (Kingmaker, ShadowGuard and Witch's Wake) and there are also a couple of new campaigns on sale developed more recently by an Ossian studios. Quality varies, but all of which reinforce the fact that Neverwinter Nights is not so much a game but a platform to create and expand, and in that regard it is a success in having produced no small amount of user-made content to enjoy.
Of course none of this would matter at all if the gameplay was lacking yet here Neverwinter Nights stands more equally with its more illustrious siblings. Now, I’m a massive nerd but not in the D20 sense, I tend more towards the ‘I will name my ranger elf Sylvanas Windrunner and add a custom portrait’ nerd. I don’t fully understand all the ins and outs of attack rolls, armour modifiers and THACOs but it’s to the system's credit that even I can create all sorts of viable and fun to use builds. The sheer variety of classes, weapons, armour and general loot is almost absurd and is one aspect that holds up very well against modernity’s compromising demands for ever fancier graphics.
So with that in mind let’s be honest; Neverwinter Nights isn't the prettiest game. Whatever enhancements there are (the shadows are a bit sharper I suppose) they can do little when faced with the existential horror that is early 3D modelling. Even on release it was hardly a looker and time has only been crueller on its awkward, papier-mâché figures. Suffice it to say that one’s imagination will have to make up for the somewhat limited visual appeal. Fortunately Jeremy Soule’s rich orchestral score is not so shackled by technology and is a perfect fit for all the game’s fantasy frolicking.
At the time of its release I could not have been more disappointed. I had loved Baldur’s Gate and it pained me to have to play something so lacking in the magic those games possessed. Yet at its core Neverwinter Nights had the superior gameplay and in hindsight its influence appears to have been far greater in shaping not only future Bioware games, but many other RPGs and beyond. So if you are willing to look past the rough visuals there is an awful lot to enjoy. It’s a rough experience at times, yet it is an experience which harkens back to a time when games could have the kinds of breadth and depth which many of today’s titles struggle to emulate, and has more than enough adventures to find one you’ll remember.