Living up to the legacy
Dungeons & Dragons video games have been around almost as long as IBM-compatible computers have been in homes. The 'Gold Box' series, produced by SSI, included 11 amazing games from 1987 through 1993. Dungeons & Dragons games went through a stale period after that, lasting until the Bioware blockbuster Baldur's Gate. This breath of new life spawned two of the most widely hailed RPGs ever made, Baldur's Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment. This is the legacy from which Neverwinter Nights 2 draws, a legacy to which it pays proper homage.
As a sequel, Neverwinter Nights 2 has both the dubious honor and distinct responsibility of living up to its predecessor. Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, while an excellent toolset responsible for many terabytes of player-made content, had a decidedly weak single player campaign with uninteresting NPCs. This was a marked departure for Bioware, who is highly regarded for their memorable characters such as Minsc and HK-47. Developer Obsidian attempted to address this issue in Neverwinter Nights 2 by providing a robust, interesting campaign while not neglecting the toolset. From my personal experience, I believe Obsidian has done an excellent job of accomplishing these goals.
Building your character
First and foremost, Neverwinter Nights 2 is based around Dungeons & Dragons v3.5. If you're not familiar with the rule set, the US manual provides some insight into how the game works, but it is still rather anemic if you are looking to fully understand the rules. Luckily, most of the information is available on-line through sources such as The d20 SRD.
Once you know the rules, character creation is straightforward. The 'recommended' settings tend to be fairly accurate, as are descriptions of race, classes, skills, and feats. New to Neverwinter Nights 2 are the Warlock base class along with several Prestige classes (which are basically classes that have additional requirements). Notably absent from Neverwinter Nights 2 are truly striking faces and eye-pleasing hair styles. While there tends to be one or two acceptable faces per race, most of the hair styles are the same across all races. This isn't a big deal as the variety and quality of helmets and hats in the game are rather stunning but it is a little disappointing.
How it begins
The story begins in the small farming town of West Harbor, nestled in a swamp not far from the Sword Coast. The sleepy town is rudely awakened when an unexpected battle begins to rage in the streets. From here the plot is born. Neverwinter Nights 2 is separated into three chapters, and the first one is fairly slow - giving new players a chance to adjust to the game. Chapter 2 is nothing short of amazing. The pacing is nearly perfect, the plot begins to rapidly unfold, and there is no lack of action. The game concludes in the comparatively short Chapter 3, but what that chapter lacks in length it makes up for in setting and tone. All told, Neverwinter Nights 2 will probably require about 40 hours to complete, and has enough extra content, including a different path for completing the main plot, to allow for at least two completions.
Along this path you are joined by several colorful and interesting companions, drawing from a variety of alignments (Dungeons & Dragon's system of describing general attitude) and classes. While none quite achieve the memorability of Minsc or HK-47, they all have enough personality to keep them from being static, closed-mouthed decorations. They make various comments (both positive and negative) on your actions and dialog choices, which in turn influence them. Your actions either alienate or endear them, which has various effects on the game - from opening open new dialog topics with them, to whether or not they will stand by you when the going gets rough. This system is similar in nature to Obsidian's last game, Knights of the Old Republic 2, but greatly expanded upon.
Most of the sounds haven't gone through any improvements - in fact, much of it sounds directly taken from the first game in the series. There are some new PC voices, and there is an astounding amount of spoken dialog, but I found myself wishing for new tracks from acclaimed composer Jeremy Soule. The graphics have undergone a serious upgrade - so serious, in fact, that no computer I know of can run the game with all options enabled. This is a bit of a point of contention, as the engine wasn't well optimized at launch. Since then, the 1.03 Beta patch has done much to address these concerns.
It is incredibly difficult to explain why this game is so great without spoiling it. Sweeping, dramatic encounters later in the game are burned into my memory; Chapters 2 and 3 contain some of the best game material I have ever had the privilege to play. The actions of party members, guided by how you treat them, are even sweeter when they stand beside you - or bitter when they betray you. Only two things keep Neverwinter Nights 2 from being a 'perfect' RPG in my mind - pacing issues with the first Chapter, and some technical bugs and difficulties (many of which have already been addressed in patches). There is also a minor issue with a few artistic images being displayed instead of cut-scenes, but that is perhaps personal preference. To further illustrate how much I enjoyed this game, let me share with you this one little tidbit: Xfire has recorded me playing the game for 83 hours, and I have only played the campaign portion. From what I have experienced of the toolset, it is even more powerful than the one included with the original Neverwinter Nights - I fully expect to see at least as much player-made content for Neverwinter Nights 2.
Beyond its triumph as a game, Neverwinter Nights 2 also represents a triumph to two companies - Atari and Obsidian. Atari and Obsidian have a somewhat checkered past from past games they have published and developed. The Temple of Elemental Evil, a turn-based Dungeons & Dragons RPG, was released in an unfinished format - with many quests broken due to the removal of certain elements from the game. As the publisher, Atari was somewhat to blame (as was the now-defunct Troika). Obsidian suffered from a similar problem with Knights of the Old Republic 2. While overall it was a very strong offering, the entire game broke down into an ending that felt rushed and incomplete. Together, there was some speculation as to whether Atari and Obsidian could pull off a complete game. As you have read, I believe Neverwinter Nights 2 to be a masterpiece - in my mind, both companies have proved themselves to me. I fervently hope to see an expansion in the near future.
No Pros and Cons at this time