Canadian developer Bioware Corp have been making something of a name for themselves over the last couple of years as purveyors of quality role-playing games. Their breakthrough title "Baldurs Gate" helped to rejuvenate the entire genre, and its recently released sequel proved equally popular with critics and role-players alike.
But while Baldurs Gate is certainly an intricate and enjoyable game which helped to revive what was a dying genre just a few years ago, it is still a very traditional computer role-playing game. Bioware's next big release, on the other hand, looks set to be a truly revolutionary step forward for the genre...
For a start, "Neverwinter Nights" will be one of the first computer games to be released based on the brand new 3rd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules. This gives you the choice of seven races and eleven player classes, which can be used in any combination, giving you more freedom than in the Baldurs Gate games.
Almost the whole of the 3rd Edition rule set is being built into the game, which means you will have access to literally hundreds of different spells depending on the class you choose, as well as a whole host of weapons and equipment. And once you have created and kitted out your character, there will be somewhere in the region of 200 different monsters for you to battle. Many of these are simply variations on a theme, but there will be around 60 individually animated creature models in the game, with different skins and abilities seperating the sub-types.
The game will also feature the kind of epic story-driven single player campaign which we have come to expect from Bioware. This will take you back to the familiar Sword Coast region seen in Baldurs Gate, which is itself part of the popular Forgotten Realms AD&D campaign setting. Completing the single player game will take you anything up to a hundred hours apparently...
But although the game features a strong single player component, it is the multiplayer features which really make it stand out from the crowd, with a mixture of both competitive and co-operative modes. Gladiator-style arena combat between players is a strong possibility for those of you looking for a simple deathmatch environment, while treasure hunts and castle sieges are apparently on the cards if you want something a little more interesting.
What is really getting hardcore role-players excited though is the return of the dungeon master. In traditional pen and paper games the dungeon master plays the role of guide, storyteller and judge, interpreting the rules and the storyline as he sees fit and explaining what is happening to the players. Usually this job falls to the computer, but now Bioware are planning to bring human dungeon masters to computer role-playing games, hopefully producing a more interesting and immersive story-based multiplayer experience.
Dungeon masters can add and remove creatures and non-player characters from the game, control the way in which they behave, and even speak through their mouths, allowing the game to be far more flexible than if a pre-programmed AI was controlling everything. Teams of dungeon masters can even work together to create whole quests on the fly from within the game, controlling multiple characters as they interact with the players. Combined with the wide variety of server options, which enable dungeon masters to control everything from which characters can enter their game and what equipment they can bring with them, to how death is treated and whether player vs player combat is allowed, Neverwinter Nights should offer an almost infinite range of experiences for online role-players.
Roll Your Own
The game will ship with a massive single player campaign and a number of dedicated multiplayer modules, but it doesn't end there. Bioware are planning to support the game after its release with additional monsters, modules and maps, although whether these will appear as a full sequel, mission packs, or free downloadable add-ons is still to be determined.
The game also comes with an easy-to-use editor, which allows you to create your own settings using the various tile sets included in the game, ranging from towns, forests and dungeons to castles, crypts and caverns. Creating a map is a simple case of deciding how big you want it to be, dropping preset tiles such as temples and houses on to the grid, clicking and dragging to create corridors and tunnels, and painting in scenery like woodland and graveyards.
Setting up a basic map is a quick and easy process, with the computer doing most of the hard work for you. For example, if you mark an area as woodland the editor will automatically place individual trees and beams of sunlight filtering down through the branches for you. A simple scripting system then allows you to add in characters and create dialog and quests for your little adventure, or you can simply do this on the fly as the dungeon master.
And if the possibility of downloading hundreds of user-made scenarios isn't enough to get you excited, how about persistent characters which can be taken from server to server? Or the ability to link multiple servers with portals, allowing characters to hop back and forth between different locations within a vast user-created online world? The possibilities are almost endless.
The game is powered by the Aurora engine, which is partly based on the Omen engine which was used to great effect in the colourful third person action game MDK2 earlier this year.
Aurora uses fully 3D characters and environments, unlike previous Bioware games, and sports some impressive real-time lighting effects as torches send flickering shadows across the walls, and characters carrying lanterns light up the world around them. Settings can be anything up to four times as large as those found in Baldurs Gate, and crossing them will take you several minutes, giving plenty of room for players to stretch their legs. Which is lucky, because as many as 64 players at a time are expected to be able to join a multiplayer server running on a decent ADSL or cable modem connection, and it's possible that dedicated servers on faster links will be able to hold even more.
The characters and creatures which inhabit this world are all impressively detailed, with smooth life-like animations and high resolution skins, while reflections dance across polished metal armour. Spell effects are stunning, and even casting a simple "Cure Light Wounds" will result in a spectacular light show which would make Jean Michel Jarre green with envy.
Currently due for release some time during the summer, Neverwinter Nights is already shaping up to be one of the most ground-breaking role-playing games of 2001, combining the best parts of massively multiplayer and story-based role-playing games, as well as the ability to create and control your own online worlds as designer and dungeon master.
And with a massive single player campaign along with innovative multiplayer options and a powerful but user-friendly editor, plus the promise of further content from Bioware after the game's release, Neverwinter Nights should also provide an almost unlimited amount of gameplay.