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Play Obsidian Entertainment's latest role-playing game, and if you can look past the distinctly up-to-the-minute graphics, you might be forgiven for thinking the golden age of computer fantasy role-playing games like Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment had returned. Neverwinter Nights 2 bears far more resemblance to these greats of the genre than it does to its predecessor, and that's entirely to its credit.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is based closely on the Dungeons & Dragons v3.5 ruleset. Yes, that might conjure up pictures of crowds of nerds sitting around someone's mother's dining-room table rolling 20-sided dice for hours. But one of Neverwinter Nights' great successes is the way it insulates you from much of the complexity of the underlying system. Assuming that's the way you want it, of course.
You start the game by creating a character, and here, if you're used to lesser RPGs, you'll probably be stuck for a while. The list of races and classes is exhaustive, each with its own pros and cons, and when you consider that most characters will be able to pick up to three more classes as they gain experience, the possibilities are overwhelming at first. New players -- and doubtless some more experienced ones -- will appreciate the handy "Recommended" button that makes sensible picks for you.
During the game you'll typically be joined by three other characters, each with their own persona and sense of morality. No, there's nothing on Planescape: Torment's level of character development, but on the other hand NWN2's inhabitants are a considerable step forward over the disposable "henchmen" of the first Neverwinter game. Each has stories to tell, and comes with plenty of dialogue that's both solidly written and convincingly acted. Although your group is perhaps a little small by traditional genre standards, this is still definitely a party-based RPG - you almost always have complete control over the actions and character development of your pals.
Mind you, the plot doesn't exactly get off to an auspicious start. You begin the game competing in a village fair with three of your buddies, in a sequence that serves as an extended tutorial. No sooner are you done with the competition when, shock, horror, it's attacked by hordes of demonspawn, wiping out most of your buddies. Oh well, better retrieve some random, mysterious artifact and head for the bright lights of Neverwinter for some answers. But wait! The part of the town you really needed to reach has been blocked off by the city watch! How's that for bad luck?
Such criticisms aren't entirely fair. At least Neverwinter Nights 2 shows some flair in how it implements these admittedly cliched plot twists. You're cast as a mainstay of the town's defense in a huge battle and given creative options to resolve the blockade. It improves considerably as you go further. Before you finish up you'll have your pick of the best for your companions, and a hulking castle (complete with its own army) to call your own.
So how does it look? If this year's RPG smash Oblivion wasn't enough to convince you, NWN2 will leave you in no doubt: the days of staid-looking role-playing games are deader than flared armor with pockets in the knees. Neverwinter Nights 2 is every bit as good looking as Oblivion, although certainly not in the same outdoorsy, free-roaming kind of way. You can't run anywhere near as far without hitting a wall or a loading point, for one thing. Neverwinter's streets, swamps, and catacombs more than make up for it in variety, however, and the character animations are far better.
You can more or less configure the camera to suit you, whether you prefer an RTS-style rotatable view, an old-school top-down perspective, or an action game-like over-the-shoulder angle. Once you do get down to ground level, you'll see all kinds of details - and yes, unlike the first Neverwinter game, the rooms do have ceilings now. It has much more of the feel of the old-school Infinity Engine and that's surely a good thing.