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Back to Forgotten Realms butchery

Well, now that I've said my tearful temporary goodbyes to City of Heroes (history has shown that I'll be back) I'm currently in the default position of "every MMORPG sucks." Yet, I need to play something, if only to stave off the gasoline price related melancholy that is sweeping the nation.

At first, I thought perhaps I'd give Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion another run with intent of getting some heavy plugin work done on it. That's certainly easier than writing a game from scratch (learning Torque, Flash, or Java) and would create a working model of my game design genius - albeit carved from the screaming innards of a Bethesda design. (Lately, I've been considering the stark reality that, without some kind of produced end product, brains don't impress anyone.)

Maybe later. Instead, I decided to turn my attention to Neverwinter Nights 2, a game I got pretty far in the main campaign before (almost to the beginning of chapter 3 of 3) but never quite finished.

Neverwinter Nights 2

To an extent, my previous stint in NWN2 was sabotaged by the same fellow who sabotaged Age of Conan: he didn't want to play it alone, so I helped by playing it with him... and was rushed along through the campaign at multiplayer pace, totally ruining any attempt to savor it while exposing content I couldn't enjoy a second time. (I should cut him some slack - he didn't eat my face off when I bored of it that time.)

For whatever reason, Neverwinter Nights 2 was completely uninstalled, I didn't even have a save game to show for it. I reinstalled it, including the Mask of the Betrayer which I never played before, and rolled up a Monk. As I forged through the starting tutorial looking to earn my Harvest Cup and Cloak once again, one thought coursed through my mind:

"Wow, I had forgotten just how awkwardly realized this game is."

Part of my problems are technical in nature. Even fully patched up, the NWN2 engine doesn't like my quad core processor or possibly my dual monitor setup, because I warp when I rotate the camera, even after playing with the involved sliders. My ATI X1600XT is still a barely acceptable card by 2005 standards, and so NWN2 (a late 2006 game) can only really play in low quality... but at least it's smooth enough there and many of the old technical glitches have been patched over.

However, the majority of the problems are because the underlying game is poorly designed for what's expected of it.

The GUI, the heart of the game, still need work:
  • The inventory is a cluttered mess of potions, throwable items, crafting items, books, rods, medical kits, quest items, weapons, armor, other junk, and additional bags to lose it all in.
  • Hit the "sort" button and this is all piled from the first screen onwards, defeating the purpose of having four screens of inventory.
  • The quick casting interface is better than sticking the spells on hotkeys, but really, the hotkeys themselves are an awkward MMORPG invention at best.
  • The characters move around either by click or WASD movement that is so kludgy that you're pausing constantly to overcome an infallible tendency of the pathing to get you stuck on rocks and other terrain.
I've noticed that the AI of your companion NPCs are still in constant need of babysitting as well.
  • They lag behind so far that two or three rounds of fighting may occur before they catch up... sometimes, they get stuck in a loop where they stop following entirely.
  • They run needlessly between live enemy targets, triggering unnecessary attacks of opportunity.
  • If there's a trap between you and the enemy, they run straight through the trap as though triggering it is some kind of macho battle cry.
  • About the only thing they do well is consume any potions or other usable items you gave them like some kind of mana-dependent junkie.
These idiosyncrasies can be worked around in time, mostly by turning on "puppet mode" and denying them the ability to act on their own at all, but I wonder why (one and a half years after release) the developers never got around to fixing these problems.

Not that I'm much of a D20 fan...

That this game is based on the D20 system is really enough for it to have problems. I've said it before: the trouble with the D20 RPG system is that it's too random. No matter how good of a player you are or how pimped out your character and his/her equipment/spells are, if the enemy rolls much better than you, then you lose.

For example, a 10d6 fireball could do the full 60 points of damage, annihilating you as you sit there fully healed with 55 hitpoints. As a Wizard, it's a continual vexation when your spells are resisted or you roll for 10 damage on said 10d6 fireball. In melee, a one hitdie kobold who rolls a string of crits could annihilate the toughest armored warrior who continues to roll 1s. Not to mention the critical fumble table, thankfully omitted from NWN2. As unlikely as these events are, they happen: Murphy's Law doesn't just undermine this system; It knocks this system down and kicks it until it stops moving.

In practice, you play around the D20 system if you want to enjoy it. In the pencil and paper version, a conscientious DM compensates by fudging rolls behind their screen (so long as the players did nothing deserving of instant death from a poor roll). In computer form, you save and reload... constantly. The NWN2 campaign itself is designed to mitigate reloading, providing your player with magical shards of uberness that grant you an edge which would make a tabletop GM break down and cry. Further, you can rest every 5 feet to regain memorized spells and hitpoints, suggesting that the D20 system is only good for one encounter at a time.

Suddenly, I realize why The Witcher got such good reviews. Neverwinter Nights 2 lowered the PC RPG gamer's expectations.

Despite my problems with this poorly-realized D20-based game, I forge ahead...

The class choice of a Monk helps. Like the Buddhist Shaolin Monks of the ages, my Monk regards the sea of jagged bad design with such serenity that it may as well be a bed of cherry blossoms. His incredible monk bonuses allow him to plow through bad guys while ignoring the pointless blunderings of his companions. He uses or sells items quickly, preventing them from cluttering his inventory long, as he's certainly not that reliant them. Traps don't bother him, his incredible trap evasion mitigates the majority of their damage potential. I've even taken to bashing chests, piously ignoring the broken riches I leave in the splintered pile.

By the end of the day, I did discover a nice AI HakPack that took pretty good care of much of the AI's initial incompetence as well as making the foes behave more interestingly. I was also able to bring the camera panning rate to an acceptable speed by scrolling the appropriate bars entirely to the left. A little experimentation revealed that my video card can handle better than the lowest detail (though some effects (such as bloom) still floor it).

That's probably all the respite I'm going to get, as no amount of GUI mods can change that there's simply too many items glutting the inventory pages. Neither will any mod change that NWN 2 was, after all, based on a randomness-crippled D20 game.

Maybe I'll stick with NWN2 long enough to complete the campaign this time. I doubt it - I probably won't even make it as far as I was before since the story (the main draw) is mostly known to me - but maybe.
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