Role-playing games have always been frowned upon. When Gary Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons way back in 1973, people actually believed the game to be blasphemous because it mentioned words like witchcraft, resurrection, deity, demon and hell. Fundamentalist Christians accused the game of teaching demonology, voodoo, murder, rape, suicide, assassination, insanity, sexual perversion, homosexuality, prostitution and Satan worship.
Things finally came to a head when people called Martin and Neil started playing derivatives such as 2300AD, Marvel Super Heroes and Call Of Cthulhu in the school library. You may recall the scene: they'd scurry across to the far table, dig around in each other's satchels for Tupperware pots of odd-sided dice, then whisper excitedly over packed lunches of Bovril sandwiches and ready salted crisps. From that point on, every name of every role-playing game in the world was mud. Around ten years ago, things started to look up. When the world's largest Internet Service Provider began hosting a multiplayer fantasy game based around a pen and paper RPG called Forgotten Realms, the role-playing image had a buff and a polish. Called Neverwinter Nights, the game concept was developed by TSR (who, incidentally, were the same people responsible for Dungeons & Dragons). Five years later, and presumably because of people like Martin and Neil, AOL shut the whole thing down.
Earlier this year, developers Bioware, best known for Baldur's Gate, revived the Neverwinter Nights name with a grand plan for an online multiplayer environment. Not only would it capture all the magic of pen and paper role-playing, it would also cater for the 'must be like Half-Life or 1 won't play it' crowd with superb 3D graphics and a single-player mode. The game's major attraction would be the ability to go behind the scenes as Dungeon Master (DM) and control all manner of events. As DM, you'd be able to possess any creature you liked including dragons, wildlife and nonplayer characters.
And it's almost here. Set in and around the northernmost reaches of the Forgotten Realms game world, Neverwinter Nights has its foundations in TSR's new 3rd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule set, meaning it's a 'real' RPG first and foremost. A bundled editing suite enables you to create and populate whole new worlds in which any number of other players can go adventuring, just like D&D.
These 'modules' can also be wrapped around different play styles, including co-operative and deathmaich. All players are able to choose their own clothing and colours, select a portrait either from the included library or digital camera images, and even personalise the character with custom sounds. You can even import your existing profiles from Baldur's Gate.
The game allows you to play any combination of 7 races and 12 classes, including the powerful new half-ore as well as sorcerer, barbarian, monk and assassin classes. Other D&D 3rd Edition enhancements include second weapon combat skills and special abilities, such as the capacity to parry attacks, make called shots and disarm your attackers.
All in all, Neverwinter Nights looks like a contender for the online RPG crown. Coupled with no monthly bills, AD&D rules and a graphics engine to die for, it could even challenge the dominance of Ultima Online.
From BioWare, the developers of Baldur's Gate, comes the brand new AD&D role-playing game Neverwinter Nights. Not only has the game been designed specifically for the online multiplayer environment and the latest in 3D technology, it also enables you to experience all the magic of pen-and-paper 'Dungeon Mastering' from inside your PC.
Using Neverwinter Nights' powerful, user-friendly Solstice Toolset, you can create and populate entire new modular worlds and create your own stories for others to adventure in. Even better, enter a multiplayer module as a Dungeon Master and you can control characters, and manage combat from behind the scenes, all in real time.
Out of the box, Neverwinter Nights represents between 60-100 hours of playing time in single-player mode, with infinite possibilities in multiplayer. On top of that, it will be one of the first licensed AD&D computer games to utilise TSR's new third-edition rule set, which in itself puts the cat among the pigeons for most RPG purists.
Now dwarves and elves may not be your thing - even if you secretly get turned on by luscious fantasy-esque girlies wearing unfeasibly skimpy armour... but that's not the point. The point is that some games show huge potential, a bit like some of those girlies I mentioned, and Neverwinler Nights is one of those games. Neverwinter Nights is based around third-edition AD&D rules - exactly what that means is a bit irrelevant - if you played Baldur's Gate, then you know what the second edition was like - and this is an update to those. Having banished funny-sided dice from the AD&D table-top gaming with Baldur's Gate, Bioware is doing the same for the next generation via NWN - and adding a hell of a lot of knobs, bells and whistles.
Firstly, there are drop-dead gorgeous graphics - that's right, not just nice but gorgeous. Environmental shading, shadows, lighting, real 3D objects - lots of techie names that mean nothing, except that you go "Wow! Cool!" when you see them (or "Awesome!" if you're the excitable type). Powering the whole shebang is Bioware's Omen engine, successfully road-tested in the recent MDK2.
Neverwinter Nights is bringing with it not just a single-player game (which we'll look at in a future issue) and an online storyline, but the ability for you to create your own stories which is extremely cool. We aren't talking simple dungeon romps either - you could create hundreds of Modules (levels) and link them all into one huge world via portals. Alternatively, you can jump into other people's Modules, pre-prepared Bioware games or have a player vs player fight in a simple arena. Modules range from 25 acres downwards and there is no theoretical limit as to how many modules you can string together; you could even run it from a dedicated server to mimic a persistent world.
The bonus is that you aren't reliant on game servers - though there will be some - you can host a game directly off your own PC. Now this sort of peer-to-peer hosting has not been a big hit in the past, however. Bioware is building in a lot more controls than others have done. If one gamer is hitting major lag, the others won't notice it - so long as the "host" PC is fine. If you crash out, you can re-log and join straight back in where you left. If the host times out, the game has auto (or manual) save features so you can restart quickly.
Find a mate with a cable modem and 63 others can jump onto his system. If, however, you only have a 56K modem, then eight is your limit. Is the host always in charge? Far from it -anybody else can write and run the games. NWN will also provide a central matching service for gamers looking for modules to play (if you don't have any mates who like wearing tights and pointy ears) as well as tournaments and semi-persistent worlds.
Entering The Role Vault
What about characters - where are they stored and how can you hack them? Well, there are three options here: You can store your characters locally on your own machine where you can do what you like to them, you can store your characters on the DM or Hosts PC (so he can adjust them to suit the game), or you can store them in the Character Vault.
"We felt that there was a need for a central, standardised definition of fair character advancement," says Rob Bartel, lead designer on Neverwinter Nights. "If you want to take part in a tournament or travel a wide variety of modules, you can store your character in the Character Vault. The Vault acts like a library: you check your character out when you want to play and check it back in when you're done. It will be passed through a series of filters to ensure that your character hasn't advanced an unfair amount, acquired an unfair amount of treasure, or been unduly modified. If your character fails any of these filters, you have the option of either altering your character to conform to Vault standards or saving it as a Local Character, thereby foregoing your Vault status."
Make sense? Sort of - we'll have to see how this one pans out long term, but the idea appears sound at least. Now none of the above will be possible without an editor for creating your own stories. Bioware is designing what it likes to call a "granny proof' toolset. No complex 3D polygon alignment garbage, but a simple-to-use set of tools with tutorials, guidelines and examples all in the same box alongside the full game. Unless Carol Vorderman is their granny, we should all be able to use it.
So far, so good, there's plenty of extensibility and it can be played on lowly 56K modems what about PCs? Bioware has not released a minimum spec as yet, but they're going to allow as much customisation as possible, so that low-spec systems can still play the game. It's a nice idea, but when you realise that the number of characters, NPCs and objects are handled by available RAM don't expect much out of a PC with 16Mb.
As for the rules of the game and the style of gameplay, simply look at BG or grab a copy of the AD&D third-edition rules. As all the rules are followed, you will know what to expect from the game in terms of characters, the 200-odd spells and how it all gels together. In theory you could start writing your own storylines right now.
If you liked Baldur's Gate, if EverQuest lacks the RPG element you desire, if Ultima Online looks too dated or if you're a real AD&D nut. then Neverwinter Nights will have you salivating already. And if you get freaked out by people saying "Hail Stranger! Nice cod-piece", then you still might get a kick from the arenas and tournaments.
So will Neverwinter Nights live up to its already huge hype? It certainly has the potential, but it wouldn't be the first game to fall short of expectations - mind you, Bioware and Black Isle have a proven track record, but we won't get the real answer until well into next year. It'll be a long empty winter after all.
This is one of the most promising titles in our roundup. not least because it comes from Bioware, the team who conceived and produced the original Haidar's Cate. And, at first glance, the influences from that title are readily apparent. Neverwmter Nights is a traditional role-playing game in every sense, and it uses the new Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons rule-set at its heart, as did Baldur's Gate I and 2 and the all conquering Plcinescape: Torment. Bioware has stated clearly that it intends to make the single player version of Neverwinter Nights as immersive and addictive as the original Baldur's Gate, but it is obvious it's hoping the multiplayer version of the game takes off and spawns a thriving community on the Internet. The online side of Neverwinter Nights will put you. and several other players, inside a fantasy scenario that is controlled from start to finish by a Dungeon Master (DM). The DM will act as storyteller and will control the number of enemies, traps and obstacles that players have to face. The DM can also take control of any of the characters in the game and interact with the adventurers, giving the impression of spontaneity in what is effectively a predefined and static game environment. While the boxed version of the game will contain several modules, which players can use to play the online game, it is hoped that players will make their own scenarios and encourage others to put them to the test online. Whatever the case, given the pedigree of the development team, it's obvious that the singleplayer game will be enough to satisfy most players, and if the online side of things lakes off it will be something of a bonus. Check back next month for our world-exclusive, in-depth preview when we talk to the team about their plans for the game.
If you are reading this, it is reasonably safe to make a few assumptions. Firstly, you are interested in the pursuit of playing what are known as role-playing games on your personal computer. Secondly, assuming we are correct in assumption numero uno, it is fairly safe to assume you have heard of lialdur's Gate I and II. Given that both of these titles represent the very best in RPG entertainment on your PC, it is fairly safe to make our last assumption, that you are obviously interested in hearing about the latest title in development by the creators of the aforementioned classics. You are not alone. It's no exaggeration to say that Neverwinter Nights is very, very high on the PC wish-list for this year, and it's difficult to see how Bioware can possibly fail with this one. We know the singleplayer game will be deep, complex, rich in storyline, and immensely absorbing. We know this, because they've already shown us what they can do. With the addition of an online multiplayer environment which has the potential to spawn a massive community online, Neverwinter Nights could well be the RPG that literally has everything. Of course, we believe nothing until we see it with our own eyes. We travelled to Bioware to take a look at one of the most ambitious RPGs ever made.
Lights, Cameras, Action
The scene is set. A huge projector screen covers the wall at the back of the Bioware boardroom. We are seated at the front, not so far from the two Bioware bods who are manning the twin PCs which are poised to present Neverwinter Nights on the big screen. Meanwhile Trent Oster, producer of Neverwinter Nights, explains how the game came into existence in the first place.
"We wanted a story-based, multiplayer role-playing game in which you could play through the game either by yourself or with a group, but always with a purpose. You've always got the story driving you along. Another part of the concept was the idea of the Toolset. The Toolset grew out of parallels between pen-and-paper D&D and Neverwinter as we planned it out".
For those of you who are not familiar with pen-and-paper D&D, don't worry, we're not going to get all beardy on you and explain it. Instead, we will explain how it applies to Neverwinter Nights, which is a lot easier to understand.
Imagine a dungeon created by a player from the ground up. Imagine a team of'real' players entering the dungeon and playing through the adventure while the dungeon's creator (the dungeon master) follows their every move, changing things within the game world according to what the players do in the game environment. Imagine the enormous potential to totally screw them up at every turn (if you're that way inclined) or to help them along if they get stuck in a certain part of the dungeon. You may think creating a detailed environment with a realistic landscape, puzzles and challenging monsters would take an absolute age and a degree in programming. Not so. We watch the Bioware team put a perfectly playable and detailed dungeon together before our very eyes in approximately ten minutes. It quickly becomes apparent that this Toolset is way more than a simple tool for making a landscape and plonking lots of goblins on it. As Trent explains: "We wanted people to be able to make a Baldur's Gate II-quality story using this Toolset, so it had to be very powerful. We also wanted it to be very easy to use, so we could ship it with the game and people could start using it straight away and make interesting little adventures."
While he talks, we watch the team as they lay down terrain and drop fire beetles and giant spiders onto the map. With the help of the 3D engine, they are zooming around the map and up close on the creatures so we can get a better look at them, before finally placing a transition point on the map to another area (also known in beardy-speak as a portal). We watch them plant a huge horde of goblins in one room, and an end-of-level beastie in another, with higher stats and better weapons. The 'guardian' monster is a Balor, he's 15th level and comes equipped with a Lightning Sword. We watch as the Bioware team bring up a script which dictates how the Baler attacks people when they enter the room. With one single line of scripting, the Balor can find out who's attacking him, where they are, plot a path to them, go to where they are, and then begin attacking them with his most powerful set of attacks. We begin to wonder if they can create something like this in ten minutes, what would they come up with in ten hours?
It all sounds too good to be true: a hugely powerful Toolset with which you can create fantastic environments and dungeons for other players to adventure in. Up to 60 players can play on any one server, and once they are inside your game, they play by your rules. You decide whether or not they can attack other players, whether or not they can attack players outside their group but not inside (this option is sort of similar to Counter-Strike) and even what happens to players when they die. Do they lose experience points? Do you kick them out of the game? Or even - in worst case scenarios - do you want to ban them from your server upon death? With so many different ways to play, and given that each adventure will have its own unique storyline, it's easy to see how playing one player's pre-set adventure could turn out to be wildly different from playing another's. There are, however, a number of things that occurred to us with this approach to online multiplay. If, for example, your adventure has a moderate amount of enemies and is suited to say, a group of six players, what happens if you end up with 40 people all trying to kill the same enemies at once, thus making your adventure a cinch to get through? We put this question to Trent.
"This is the problem with trying to balance any multiplayer game. How do you balance it for one sixth-level character, as opposed to ten sixth-level characters? To combat this, what we came up with was the idea of the encounter system. Instead of placing a set amount of monsters in one area, you place a single encounter. The encounter has an activation radius, and when you hit that radius, it scans the nearby area to see how many hostile characters there are in your party. Let's say there are four. The encounter spawns in sufficient creatures to challenge those four players."
This sounds great in theory, but what if the player party is comprised of high-level and low-level characters? Surely the lower levels will be wiped out by the monsters spawned to deal with the higher levels? Bioware has thought of this too: "The encounter will evaluate for all the people there, and spawn enemies that will amount to a moderate encounter for the higher levels, and a really hard encounter for the lower levels. For this reason we want to encourage people to stick together with players close to their level in order to get the most out of their adventures. Otherwise, low-level characters will get slaughtered fairly quickly if they are playing with higher level characters."
One of the biggest problems with online gaming has been the influx of the Net community's many cheaters. Ultima Online banned cheating, but players still found ways around it and wrote programs which changed their characters' stats and gave them unfair advantages in battle. Diablo (the online version) suffered a similar fate with many people leaving the game because of online cheaters. With Neverwinter Nights, apart from the hackers changing character stats, there is an additional danger which, somewhat ironically, is built into the game itself. Characters from the singleplayer version of the game can be taken into another player's adventure. Of course, while your character is 'aboard', he/she will gain experience points and levels, meaning that when you bring your character back to the single-player game they will be higher level, thus creating an imbalance which makes the single-player game a lot easier. While this is not exactly cheating (this is the way the game is designed after all), it certainly gives an opportunity for players to power-level their characters outside the main game if they want to make life easy for themselves. We put this poser to Trent, who had this to say: "We built the modules chapters in the game for specific level ranges, so all the modules in the first environment for example would be for first to seventh level. If you leave the single-player at level seven, and come back to it at level 11, you couldn't resume the game at the point that you left off, but you could continue it at a later point in a module that's more suited to your new level. If you wanted to cheat, you could build a dungeon of your own, take your level-one character into it, and walk him onto a trigger that gives him 10,000 experience points. There wouldn't be much point in doing that, but that's the basic flaw with this kind of game".
It seemed to us at that point that it would make more sense to perhaps make a rule that you had to create a separate character for multiplayer, and could only bring your character from the singleplayer game into other player's modules once you had completed the single-player game. Trent disagrees: "We talked about this, but
I was always against the idea of a single-player game and a multiplayer game being two separate things. 1 really like the idea of building a character and playing through the first part of the story, and then going out to play with my group, my friend who I've played D&D with for a long time, and playing the next part of the story through with them. If they play a session without me, I can just go in and play on my own and catch up. I really like the idea of having the flow in and out of the single- and multiplayer games."
Despite this, in the interest of balance (and keeping the singleplayer alive for players who level too high outside the main game), Bioware is working on a system that adapts automatically to higher level players re-entering the single-player game at a point that is too low for them. If Bioware can pull it off (and it's confident it can), a level-20 player rejoining the game in a chapter meant for level sevens will be greeted with monsters that spawn around his level. This is a great compromise, though it would mean key NPCs will keep the same stats. In this way, battles with a named NPC that would normally be the greatest challenge in a particular chapter will now be a walkover for the level 20, who is now effectively fighting a level-seven NPC, but regular battles will still be a challenge. It's a good trade-off for those of you who want to wander in and out of single and multiplayer, but for us, we'll be playing the whole game in singleplayer mode before taldng our characters into the outside world for some player-versus-player action. We intend to play the game how it was designed to be played, since classic games don't come along too often and when they do, they should be savoured.
We'll be following Neverwinter Nights all the way through its development cycle as well as keeping an eye on how people take to the multiplayer side of the game after release. While nothing in life is guaranteed, we can almost guarantee that this game will be absolutely huge when it's released at the beginning of next year. We can't wait. No, honestly.
Your World, Your Rules
A game that lasts forever...
Hie Neverwinter Nights Toolset is a wondrous toy indeed. So sophisticated is this Toolset that you can create a world that is limited only by your own imagination. You want to create your own version of Baldur's Gate with your own storyline? You can do it. Or how about an entire dungeon dedicated to player-versus-player combat, where you drop two opposing sides in at opposite ends and watch them go at it Of course, you don't just have to watch. As a dungeon master you can enter the action at anytime and possess a creature to interact with unwary players. The possibilities for creativity with this thing are literally endless, and you can be sure we'll be creating our own personal nightmare when the game comes in for review this winter.
Prefer playing on your own?
You may have noticed this preview deals mainly with the multiplayer side of Neverwinter Nights. That does not mean there is no single-player game. There is a very strong single-player game on the way which should match or exceed Baldur's Cate II for highly addictive gameplay. Bioware has stressed that the single-player game is just as important as the multiplayer game, and all the modules have been designed to work in both modes. They accept the fact that many players will never even see the game online and, because of this, the designers are
going out of their way to make a single-player experience that stands up in its own right The single-player game will not give you the ability to recruit NPCs into your party, so in this respect you will basically be playing a sort of single-player equivalent of Baldur's Gate II. But the NPCs you meet in cities and villages who converse with you and develop the storyline will all remain present and correct. We will be revisiting Neverwinter Nights in a forthcoming issue and taking a much closer look at the single-player side of the game.
Most gamers remember some darker days in the past, where unemployment saw them sitting with claw-hands at a keyboard for hours and days on end. The chosen poison these days is World Of Warcraft, but my own method of frittering away the precious life granted to me was Neverwinter Nights. In 2002, set free from a job that consisted solely of cleaning flies from light fittings, by day I was a shiftless rogue on the streets of Luskan and by night I was dreaming about lock-picking and evermore powerful sets of arrows. And no, I hadn't had sex (nor indeed would I) for a long time.
But what of today? Can BioWare's supremely customisable Forgotten Realms RPG still hack it in a gaming world that's soon to be hit by the narrative might of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the supreme nerd-tweakery afforded by its own progeny, Neverwinter Nights 2?
Time To Fade Away?
In the box you've got vanilla NWN packaged with its expansions Shadows Of Undrentide and Hordes Of The Underdcirk - and a few extra goodies in the form of three of the excellent smaller-scale adventures sold from the BioWare website: Kingmaker, Witch's Wake and Shadow Guard. This clocks in at a rough estimate of 140 hours worth of game - if played at 'noob-speed' - which would make it the sale of the century without even looking at the dungeons upon lairs upon dungeons waiting online.
Here's the thing though - Neverwinter is looking dated. Endlessly boxy environments, in the vanilla game specifically, could perhaps have been forgiven at the time - but in this new age of WOW, a definite feeling of nonwonderment with Neverwinter's environs becomes palpable. The whiffy henchman system meanwhile, only mildly fixed by the fact that you could gain two uncommunicative friends in Underdark rather than the rudimentary one, has also become even more of a gut-wrench in these post-KOTOR days. Yes, Neverwinter is and was the most community-friendly toolbox and best friend of all budding dungeon masters - but cruel Father Time has certainly stuck his fingers firmly into its more pudgy areas and squeezed.
If I were to direct someone to an RPG in the long wait until Oblivion and NWN2, I'd probably point in the direction of either a classic like Bcilclur's Gate II or the superb NWN: Pirates Of The Sword Coast downloadable premium module (yarr!) that this Deluxe Edition is obstinately bereft of. However, if you want a massive, wide-ranging and life-sapping roleplay experience (although I'd not bother with the vanilla game and leap right into the expansions myself), the sheer gumption of the product lives through. If you've got the time, then this will waste it.
Download Neverwinter Nights
PC compatible, P-100
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode
Neverwinter Nights Screenshots and Media
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