Those who read me regularly will know that while I support goblins, elves, magi and whatnot and uphold them fully, there's little record of the words 'Dungeons' and 'Dragons' ever being thrust firmly enough together that I've been gaily trapped in their midst for any length of time. I dabbled in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, but that's about the extent of it, and not exactly a badge of honour in the dark recesses of the Internet to which this link's likely to propagate. What in the name of all the dice that have more than six sides, then, you're wondering, am I doing writing about Neverwinter Nights 2?
Good question - glad you asked it.
I never experienced Bioware's Neverwinter Nights in its full splendour - I was probably busy jumping on the heads of turtles. But, sitting in a rather plain office at the back end of Atari's Lyon headquarters, watching Obsidian Entertainment's Ferret Baudoin go from playing a very pretty, fully 3d PC RPG, to an interface that allowed him to toss houses around, blend them together, insert demons and then spawn them 300-foot high, piqued my interest. Whereas NWN always sounded clever to me but a bit clunky, witnessing the NWN2 toolset first-hand pumps elixir into that little bit of my heart reserved for things like TrackMania, RollerCoaster Tycoon, and Far Cry Instincts' level editor. Making your own 3d environments is often hard; NWN2 can't boil it down to child's play, exactly, but it certainly looks like I could figure it out. And it's a 3d world that it's promising. Far more than a level.
Before I kick on with that though, let's cover some basics. NWN2 is built on the D&D 3.5 rules, and players will be able to bring along up to three NPC companions, and switch to them to queue up actions - Baudoin tells me these are the basic changes to the dynamic. This being more of a toolset tour, I didn't get to explore that side of it fully - but what was apparent was the detail of the environment, through worlds of trolls, bone spiders, demonic, normal-mapped pit fiends and, more importantly, a next generation vision of Neverwinter. The player's character is finely detailed, caught by dynamic lights and shadow as he stalks, branches clawing the air as they sway, mist churning over the surface of a stream bridged by creaking timber; where NWN's tilesets were largely pre-set, NWN2 will allow you to place individual objects on the tiles - as have the designers, and then some.
Obsidian, charged with building on Bioware's success, talks about the importance of impact. The world won't change substantially around you, but the game's reaction to you will owe a lot to your alignment. There'll be a divergence at some point, and it'll have a significant bearing on what happens later. Obsidian's thinking hard about all this, Baudoin says - some classes like the Paladin, for example, will see their power greatly diminished if they slope off to the dark side. Meanwhile, the devs' fastidiousness on the issue of alignment even goes as far as the livestock. Chickens, deer and other harmless animals roam around - is it specifically evil to kill them? Baudoin laughs and says they're talking about it, and one of the biggest questions in that tiny area of the game is whether it's "evil" to kill a dying pet? For love, or hate? Probably sounds daft, but it's easy to see where all this attention to detail comes from when we reload into the toolset.
The Neverwinter Nights 2 editor is a complicated-looking tool, but a quick demonstration suggests it won't be off-limits to anybody who's ever dabbled in MS Access or any other multi-paned utility - and it has the same kind of layout flexibility as Photoshop, allowing you to position panes where you want them. Navigation's tabbed between areas, conversations and scripts, so you can edit them simultaneously instead of, for example, having to remember a lot of specifics from one when it comes to sorting out another. Selecting a simple building, Baudoin demonstrates how easily it can be rotated at any angle on the terrain, and actually overlapped with other similar buildings to form unusual layouts. Placing curbs, crates, barrels and benches is point-and-click, and the same goes for things like creatures and trees.
Most of everything can be modified to a certain extent on the right side of the screen. Spawn a pit fiend for example and you can alter his height and hitpoints. I wanted a tall one, obviously, because I'm childish. It's also possible to select multiple buildings of the same type at the same time and tweak their values collectively - tweaking the colour scheme and trimming, for example. This'll be particularly useful if you want to build up forests, actually. Baudoin talks of "speed trees". By changing their seed values you can spawn incredibly varied foliage, sprinkling them around with the left mouse button. One of the great things about a project like this, Baudoin confirmed, is that all the work that the artists do can be made available, even if it's not used in the main game - so in other words, they made too many trees. As well as numbers and variety, it's possible to make things a lot taller - there'll be elevation changes on externals this time.
More interesting than simply making villages and forests though is the prospect of shaping them. The terrain tools look excellent - allowing you create hills and valleys, painting them with grass and other flora of your own selection, even blending the textures together for realistic transitions. Within the world-viewer, the grass waves in the wind - just as the clouds swirl around in the sky. At your command, obviously - you can even speed up the day and night cycle. Head indoors and you can position everything where you want it rather than having to rely on pre-fabricated areas, and wherever you go you have a lot of control over the lighting. Light and shadow is largely dynamic, but you can play with light sources and indeed the way they affect things. Once you're all done, you can test how things look by heading straight into the game itself to have a go.
Easily my favourite aspect, however, is the story side of things. I expected branching conversations and such, and that's there, but particularly fun is the idea of using a cinematic camera ala Knights of the Old Republic. Facial close-ups look good - and while only the single-player will enjoy the benefit of lip-synching, the whole game world will be able to stare at your socks if that's where you point the camera. I don't recall there being much Neverwinter Nights machinima - that might not be the case for long.
Certainly it's the director in me that's most intrigued.
And, just to clarify, there is no director in me. I have about as much artistic talent as a blind, quadriplegic rat trapped in a sales job. But I like Lego, I like TrackMania, I like tinkering with things, and that side of me is drawn to Neverwinter Nights 2 like the aforementioned rat would be to self-serving cheese. I may not know the first thing about Dungeons & Dragons, but I want to play with Neverwinter Nights 2. Who knows - maybe playing with it will make me want to play it too. Either way, it's now on my list. Roll the dice, guys.
Neverwinter Nights 2 is due out on PC in spring 2006. Screenshots on Monday.