The original Neverwinter Nights is held aloft as the best translation of the beloved Dungeons and Dragons tabletop role-playing experience of all time. And not necessarily for the core game, either - but for the dungeon-building tools that came alongside the original adventure. In true D&D fashion, would-be Dungeon Masters everywhere used that opportunity to modify the existing content or create all-new "modules" of their own. This continual stream of fresh content has kept Neverwinter alive to this very day - easily making it the biggest value in PC gaming in recent memory.
The sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2, contains a staggering bonanza of improved visuals that grant both indoor and outdoor environments complete, high-tech makeovers. This, in addition to an influx of new skills, feats, spells and character classes thanks to the introduction of the new D&D 3.5 ruleset (the original used the 3.0 rules). Significantly, these new rules break down levels into smaller chunks - you'll see new abilities much more often during your adventures. This makes the game harder to put down at the end of the day - or in the wee hours of the morning.
Like the original Neverwinter, the adventure itself is a complex web that has simple beginnings. You start as a nobody in a small town - a humble start that is a nod to believability but also cute and relaxed enough that it will certainly draw the Japanese RPG crowd. After the opening vignette, however, things get rolling quickly and you are caught up in a desperate fight for survival in your tiny hometown of West Harbor.
The skilled role-playing gamesmiths at developer Obsidian have taken their spotless pedigree (Planetscape Torment, Fallout 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II) and extended it even further in NWN2. Compelling and often hilarious dialogue choices actually have a great effect on both the loyalty of your traveling companions and the eventual outcome of the game (40 - 60 hours later).
The developers have clearly asserted that NWN2 - like D&D itself - is a party game. So this time around you'll have direct control over four additional party members besides your own central character - a huge improvement over the original. We couldn't help but reminisce fondly on our traditional D&D upbringings while running through the single player campaign with an actual group.
Complete control of additional characters is also very satisfying because it allows you to fully sculpt multiple players simultaneously - or simply click on the recommended upgrades instead. With a number of very finicky requirements for some of the more esoteric "Prestige Classes", it would be impossible to see very many if only your main character was controllable. So, in addition to giving you complete tactical flexibility in battle, having a full-blown party scratches many itches at the same time on the role-playing side.
Putting you in complete control of the camera is also an improvement that puts this sequel leaps and bounds ahead of the original. In addition to the traditional isometric top-down view, you'll be able to sweep into an over-the-shoulder view with a flick of the mouse wheel, and rotate the camera around in any direction you choose. While the somewhat tricky and (at times slow) camera takes a little getting used to, it sets you inside a much more immersive environment, showing off the magnificent visual changes that are on offer with the sequel. NWN2 boasts full day/night cycles and a robust light engine which deftly creates shadows that actually effect gameplay - especially for sneaky types.
Is Neverwinter Nights 2 the perfect RPG? The good and bad news is that the answer to that question hasn't actually been written yet. Like the original Neverwinter, we are bracing for an avalanche of user-created content that will become freely available for co-operative multiplayer adventures everywhere. NWN2 ships with the same incredibly powerful toolset that the game designers used to create the core game. A legion of fans is ready to port over the content they created for the original game into NWN2's new engine - and an incredible amount of grade A content will soon await.
But even for now, the amazing single player installation improves on the original game in nearly every way imaginable - without breaking anything what has gone before. Even for players who have never hurled a 20-sided die in anger, Neverwinter Nights 2 is not to be missed.