To say that the expectations are high for Neverwinter Nights 2 would be a massive understatement. Not only is it the sequel to one of the best role-playing games ever to bear the Dungeons & Dragons license, but it's also been developed by some of the creative talent behind such other revered role-playing games as Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale. The good news is that Neverwinter Nights 2 lives up to its pedigree by delivering a captivating story full of exciting twists and characters who you'll grow attached to out of fondness or, perhaps even better, complete loathing. It's not without a few frustrating technical shortcomings, but overall Neverwinter Nights 2 is a great role-playing adventure that just about anyone can enjoy.
Treasure box? Check. Shield? Check. Pointy ears? Check. Neverwinter Nights 2 has all the trappings of a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure, but it doesn't come off the least bit hokey or clich'.
As great as the story is in Neverwinter Nights 2, it's difficult to convey without spoiling the plot; but suffice it to say that it will keep your interest throughout the entire campaign--which, at around 50 hours long, is no small feat. You begin the game by creating a character. You can choose a race, subrace, appearance, class, moral alignment, and even a voice for your hero. After you create your character, you are taken on a journey that will see you rise from your beginnings as a humble peasant to become one of the most respected and elite heroes of Neverwinter. It's a long journey that involves the awakening of an arcane and unstable evil power that only a chosen savior (guess who?) can banish. As clich' as it sounds, the story reaches far beyond the usual good-versus-evil plot. You'll get a heavy dose of political treachery; shattered, shifting, and solidified alliances; ethereal mysticism; dark secrets; and much, much more. In addition to the main story, the world is full of side stories that you can explore or ignore as you see fit. It all adds up to make this feel like a real world with real history and very real inhabitants, but beyond even that, the game does a great job of making you feel like an integral part of that world, rather than some insular hero who comes out of nowhere to save the day and then disappears.
A large part of what makes the story so interesting is that you play an active role in the way it unfolds. As you talk to all of the characters in the world, you're given several choices in how to respond, and your responses often have a very apparent effect on the progression of the story. When speaking to someone, you might be given the choice to lie, intimidate, or simply ask questions to get the information or response you're looking for. The choices aren't black-and-white, though, and you'll often come across some difficult moral dilemmas that make your part in the conversation much more interesting. Your responses have both immediate and delayed effects. If you tell a goblin chieftain that you're sick of hearing him talk and would rather paint the walls with his blood, you can expect that you'll have an immediate fight on your hands. But sometimes the effects are more subtle. If you are forced to make a decision and one of your party members tries to convince you to take a certain course of action, you can comply or simply tell her to keep quiet. Either way, your influence over that person will be affected. It isn't much of an issue at first, but repeatedly going against an ally's wishes can eventually turn him or her against you. The interactive dialogue is well written and so engaging that you'll probably want to save your game often, so you can reload and repeat conversations just to see what will happen if you choose your words differently.
Even though you create a character who serves as the central hero for the tale, there's a great and varied cast of supporting characters who will join you along the way. You can have up to three supporting characters in your party, in addition to the occasional non-player or special character who will tag along with you. With a quick click you can take direct control over any of your party members at any time (as long as they're conscious), which adds some welcome variety to the single-player experience because you aren't pigeonholed into playing a single class for the entire game. By creating a well-rounded party of casters, fighters, rogues, and rangers, you'll have access to a huge array of skills and abilities.
For the most part you'll use those skills and abilities to combat all kinds of monsters, people, spirits, and animals that always seem to get in your way. The combat takes place in real time, but you have the option to pause the game and assign up to five successive actions to each of your characters. Then it's just a matter of hitting the space bar to unpause the game and watching your characters go to work. The most frequent battles don't usually require that level of management, though, because you'll almost always come out on top by just rushing into a mob of enemies and letting the artificial intelligence do the work. If you do happen to lose all your health you'll be temporarily knocked out (despite the cobwebbed corpse icon that replaces your character portrait). As long as one of your characters survives the battle your party will revive, and then you can use the rest function to fully replenish your health in just a few seconds.
Unfortunately, the AI in Neverwinter Nights 2 isn't always reliable. If you're in an open area you can usually count on your companions to stick by you and back you up in a fight, but when you're exploring the narrow hallways and labyrinthine corridors of the games' numerous, sprawling dungeons, your characters will sometimes get lost or stuck, or will just freeze up for no apparent reason. Needless to say, it's extremely frustrating when you're in the middle of a heated battle and your supporting characters are just standing there watching you get trounced. At least if that happens you can pause the game and assign actions to spur your lifeless cohorts to action, but when you have to struggle just to get your characters to follow you, you'll find your patience wearing thin.
The artificial intelligence is usually passable, but it can be downright stupid sometimes.
Don't worry, though--all that work fighting mob after mob of nefarious foes does pay off. Primarily you'll be vanquishing evil for the sake of completing quests. There are a ton of quests in the game, most of which you aren't actually required to complete in order to beat the game. The quest design is interesting and usually fits well within the context of the story. There are some quests that just require you to find or deliver a certain item, but the required quests are usually much more involved than that. You'll be asked to do everything from saving damsels in distress to answering riddles and even acting as a trial attorney. By completing quests you earn experience points, and when you have enough experience points your characters will gain a level. By gaining levels you develop basic skills like strength, dexterity, and intelligence, and you also learn new feats and spells. You also gain experience points for defeating enemies, but the vast majority of your experience comes from finishing quests, and all of your characters earn experience simultaneously, whether they're actively in your party or not.
In addition to experience points, you'll collect copious amounts of treasure that you can use or sell for gold. Since your weapons and armor greatly affect your stats and performance in battle, you'll always be on the lookout for new and exotic treasures that will help you squeeze a little bit more damage out of each blow you land on your enemies. There's also an item synthesis system in Neverwinter Nights 2 that lets you collect ingredients and recipes and use them to create new, useful items, as long as your character is at the required skill level to do so. Still, you'll probably end up selling the vast majority of the loot you collect, rather than actually using it.