You might think that a game like Neverwinter Nights probably isn't very healthy for the gaming industry. After all, this is the sort of game you could easily play for months or even longer. Simply put, once you get into Neverwinter Nights, you'll likely have no need or desire to play another role-playing game for a long time--or any other game for that matter. And while that's unfortunate for any game trying to compete, it's certainly a good thing as far as most gamers should be concerned. They'll find that Neverwinter Nights is indeed the end-all, be-all Dungeons & Dragons RPG that it's been touted to be for the last several years.
A plague befalls the city of Neverwinter, and you must investigate.
They might also be surprised to find that Neverwinter Nights is actually very accessible, much more so than most RPGs, making it equally recommendable to new players and to hard-core role-playing fans. Yet the latter group especially will appreciate Neverwinter Nights, since it includes not just an excellent stand-alone RPG, but also BioWare's powerful Aurora toolset, which effectively lets aspiring dungeon masters create their very own adventures. They can then get their friends together to play these modules and manipulate them--DM them--in real time. So here it is at last: the pen-and-paper D&D experience on your PC. In short, Neverwinter Nights was definitely worth the wait. But it's not necessarily what you might have expected, particularly in its campaign and multiplayer features.
To set the record straight, Neverwinter Nights basically contains four different elements: the campaign, the toolset, the DM client, and the multiplayer mode. The first of these is the brunt of the game, and it's by all means a lengthy, highly entertaining D&D campaign. It's comparable with and in many ways superior to BioWare's previous RPGs--or any other top-notch RPG to date for that matter. If Neverwinter Nights offered nothing other than this campaign, it would still be one of the best RPGs to come out in years. If you're looking to buy Neverwinter Nights for a traditional role-playing experience, then this highly replayable 60-to-80-hour campaign, with its great story and countless optional side quests, won't disappoint you, despite having a few minor problems.
But then there's also the Aurora toolset, a separate utility for creating your own campaign modules. This is an impressive program that's reasonably user-friendly, considering how much it lets you do. In the Aurora toolset, you basically get the license to use the Neverwinter Nights game engine to make just about any type of fantasy adventure you can imagine. Some technical aptitude is required, and some programming knowledge will help if you wish to script your own events, making the toolset's learning curve not at all comparable with the learning curve of a typical game. Coming to grips with the toolset is rather more like trying to learn programs like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. That is, you can figure a lot of it out on your own, you can learn a lot of it through instruction, and what you can do with it is limited only mostly by your own skill and talent. The game doesn't ship with a complete set of documentation for the toolset, but because of the community appeal of Neverwinter Nights, the answers to any questions you might have about it are just waiting to be read on the game's official message boards.
3rd Edition D&D lets you make some very powerful characters.
In addition to the campaign and the toolset, Neverwinter Nights includes a DM client, which lets you play the game using the godlike powers of a pen-and-paper D&D dungeon master, able to manipulate the proceedings of any module in real time and at your whim. You can take control over any character, you can give players items and experience, and do much more. Like the Aurora toolset, this isn't easy--especially because you're something of a performance artist in your role as DM, and your audience's enjoyment depends largely on your actions. But the DM client has an efficient interface and is one of the key differences that can separate a Neverwinter Nights module from a player-generated map for some other game. After all, though you can use the toolset to create a fun-filled stand-alone dungeon hack of some sort, in conjunction with the DM client, you can truly create a unique role-playing experience for someone--and for yourself. If you've ever played a pen-and-paper RPG, especially as the DM, then you probably have an idea of the Neverwinter Nights DM client's potential.
Regardless of whether or not you wish to be DM, the multiplayer option of Neverwinter Nights basically lets you host your own module over the Internet or join in on someone else's game. Neverwinter Nights doesn't ship with a built-in multiplayer content, but the campaign can be played through by groups of players that can cooperate or try to foil one another along the way. Beyond that, the game's multiplayer mode is completely community-driven. Essentially, in making Neverwinter Nights, BioWare created a powerful toolset and then used it to build a superb role-playing game that should be inspiring for any would-be module maker, and now, it has opened the floodgates for user-created content.
It's really just a matter of time before great things emerge from Neverwinter Nights' already huge player community. So even if you want nothing to do with the Aurora toolset or the DM client, at the very least, you'll still have access to the fruits of other people's labors. The game has been available for less than a week, and already a number of original modules are being hosted in the game's multiplayer lobby. File sizes are small, which means download times are minuscule, though we've consistently encountered lag issues when actually playing with others online. A lot of this depends on the host computer as well as on one's own Internet connection, but at any rate, we were never able to experience online gameplay as smooth as the single-player mode. It also bears mention that, for various reasons, multiplayer Neverwinter Nights is much better suited to being played with friends than with strangers. It's D&D, after all, and just as it wouldn't make much sense to invite a bunch of strangers over for a pen-and-paper D&D session, having a bunch of strangers in an online game of Neverwinter Nights also doesn't really work. But if you manage to get together and play with some friends, you'll likely have a very good time. You'll appreciate that the game has lots of role-playing provisions built into it, including all the sorts of "emote" animations (laughing, pointing, cheering, and so on) that you'd sooner find in an online-only game like EverQuest.
You can hire a henchman to do your bidding.
Neverwinter Nights isn't the first Dungeons & Dragons game for the computer to make use of the pen-and-paper game's 3rd Edition rules, but it's the first to implement them so well. The standard gameplay of Neverwinter Nights is roughly comparable with BioWare's previous role-playing games in the Baldur's Gate series in that the game runs in real time and is viewed from an isometric perspective. However, with Neverwinter Nights, BioWare has finally put to rest its long-lasting Infinity engine seen in those games, opting instead for a fully 3D engine that lets you zoom and rotate your view to your liking. It also allows for some detailed, well-animated characters and good-looking environments. The transition from Baldur's Gate-style 2D graphics to 3D graphics is mostly cosmetic, but the changes from 2nd Edition to 3rd Edition D&D have a significant impact on gameplay. Probably the best thing about 3rd Edition D&D is how much freedom it gives you in creating your character. In previous editions of D&D, if you wanted to be a paladin, you needed to play as a human character and roll up some extremely high stats--otherwise, that character class was unavailable. Now there are no inherent limitations on anything, and any race can be any class. Want to be a half-orc sorceress or a gnome monk? How about an elf barbarian? It's all possible, and playing the campaign of Neverwinter Nights will be quite different depending on which sort of character you create.
Interestingly, unlike in most role-playing systems in which character classes become more specialized as they gain experience levels, under 3rd Edition rules, high-level characters can start to seem pretty similar. That's because character classes in 3rd Edition determine the sorts of special abilities that your character will start with, but most any character can gain these abilities later on. For example, a fighter starts with the ability to wear heavy armor and use shields. A wizard doesn't but eventually could. Yes, you can eventually have a wizard decked out in full plate armor and carrying a sword and shield. The heavy armor will negatively impact his or her spellcasting ability, but the choice is yours. You're also not stuck with the character class you initially select and can opt to gain a level in most any other character class whenever you've gained enough experience. Some penalties may apply, but if you want to make a dwarven druid bard or a half-elven ranger cleric, you can.
The combat is a lot of fun, and it looks good too.
There are seemingly countless options available, and Dungeons & Dragons is certainly a complex system-- nevertheless, the game does a fantastic job of getting you started. A bunch of pregenerated characters are available from the get-go; or if you opt to make your own, you can click on a "recommended" button that will suggest what you should do next, every step of the way. This gives good advice on how you should apply your ability scores depending on your class, which starting spells and special feats your character should take, and so on. The campaign's prelude starts you off in an adventurers' academy where, in context, you'll learn how to control the game and learn about your character's primary skills, depending on which character class you chose. You can skip most of this tutorial if you don't want to deal with it, but it's a great way for new players to get into the game.