Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask Of The Betrayer - Review

Obsidian’s first expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2, itself the sequel to one of the most beloved RPGs of the decade is entitled Mask Of The Betrayer. The expansion adds on about 20 hours or so to the 40 hour strong original campaign both continuing and bringing a closure to your main character’s adventure. Now I had high hopes for this as I had not played Bioware’s expansions for the original Neverwinter Nights and as I had never experienced playing a character beyond level 20 [even in PnP D&D], this was a somewhat exciting departure.

The story and progression were for the most part, the usual standard. The main quest is to determine the nature of a curse you were inflicted with. Two areas of Faerûn's "Unapproachable East" are the setting for the game, inhabited by many spirits and feature many tears in the veils between the material plane and that of the shadow-realm. Rashemen and Thay are areas oft cited in D&D lore but never visited in a video game before. All I really knew of Rashemen was that the Baldur’s Gate character Minsc hailed from within it’s borders and Thay was the realm of the Red Wizards. As such, this became a refreshing change of pace from the Sword Coast, which has been the subject of practically all the D&D based RPG games I've played.

You can play the same character you played in the original campaign or create a new one for MOTB. Playing the same character does have a few benefits, obviously you are well used to your abilities and feats but also you bring whatever you were wearing when you export your original character [right before you kill the King Of Shadows at the end of the original campaign] so any rings, amulets, cloaks, helmets, footwear, robes or armour remain part of your character from the outset of your new adventure. You loose all weapons as well as all the crap in your inventory, but that's a good thing in my opinion as after 40 hours you've collected far to much shite, that you really don't need. In fairness you’ll obtain items that make those former possessions seem like child’s toys soon enough as the level cap is now 30 [up from 20] and you’ll gain equipment commensurate with this level or perhaps fashion your own epic items before long. While it will affect only the most immersed players of this RPG, the crafting system has been completely overhauled. One good thing is that you can now craft on the fly without needing a specific workbench. However the magical components of the equipment you can create are “essences” dropped by fallen foes, so you have to collect dozens of essences of Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, Power or Spirit to imbue your equipment with any worthwhile power and this can often turn the joy of crafting into a tedious chore, but it is worth it to have an in-game crafted weapon like “Karadon’s +5 Burning Frost Sword of Justice.”

It’s important to note that this expansion is significantly darker in tone than the original. There is little comedy relief and the story is deeply personal and introspective, concerning mainly only you and your place in the word as opposed to your influence upon the world as a greater whole and so is quite different to what has come before in that regard. What’s more distressing is that before long you’ll become afflicted with “The Curse of the Betrayer” [which would have been a far more apt title for this expansion. This curse is a frustratingly annoying “enhancement” to your character but it’s an integral part of the story, so I don’t want to spoil it for you. However the way it was implemented was ridiculous. I don’t mind telling you that I hacked the game to eliminate the negative effects of this additional ability because if I didn’t or couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t have bothered to continue playing. On a level that wouldn’t affect everyone: whatever about other characters, a supremely heroic, selfless, holy Paladin would not have used this ability as the game intended. Had this happened in a P&P game, I’d have sacrificed myself for the first noble cause I’d have found, even a charity cake-sale, rather than be subjected to performing the curse's "acts". However, the curse is part of the storyline so it does have a place and once you understand what has to be done in the game word it all comes together, but there has been other ways where an “affliction” had been implemented if they studied Baldur’s Gate 2’s Throne of Bhall expansion more closely.

As this was an expansion developed by the same folks as the original, albeit a different creative team, I was expecting to have companions as entertaining, vibrant, resourceful and worthy as those of the original campaign like Khelgar and Sand, but the cretins you’re landed with here are appallingly dull by comparison. Okku, a large fey bear-spirit proving the most interesting with regards to both personal development and ability to aid you. Should you play “darkside” you won’t have Okku for long but One Of Many - needless to say I never met him in my adventure. From the beginning you’re teamed up with Safiya a Red Wizard of Thay who is integral to the plot [or at least my choices] and an epic-level magic user came in always handy when you’re a magically deficient Paladin. Safiya has an almost permanently summoned Mephit[?] who acts as your rogue, and he is capable enough to pick most locks and disarm traps until the high more difficult obstacles but both are uninteresting and I doubt I’d have mourned their loss if suitable replacements were available unlike the attachments and bonds between the original campaign characters like Elanee and Neeshka. That said the companions now contain a sense of accountability with players as if you treated them well and if the agree with your actions, the will bestow certain benefits, such as bonuses in combat. On the flip side, treat them like shit and I understand they will become uncooperative and may even abandon you.

The game engine has been tweaked and it now allows two new camera angles. The first is a "3rd Person" over-the-shoulder camera where the mouse and keyboard control movement and the camera follows the view point of the controlled character. The second is an RTS style camera view, which allows you to zoom out and control the characters as though they were units (using shift-click, dragging boxes, etc). The game suffered from it’s ability to “forget” what view it was using every now and again but it wasn’t too hard to control once you got the hang of it. There has been quite a few graphical enhancements but the frame rate holds up, even during graphically intense battles where spell effects are everywhere on the screen. Many of the amazing spell effects of the original have been made even more spectacular. What is problematic with his however is that dozens of spells may be thrown around on screen at once with explosively bright coloured effects that can all but obscure everything on screen making it tremendously difficult to ascertain who is who or where your enemy is unless you manage to select them before the fireworks. But that’s a minor niggle.

In addition to patching the original game, the features of MotB will integrate themselves into the character creation and progression tables allowing you to create characters benefiting from the additional races [e.g. Half Drow, or Genasi], classes like spirit shamen and new feats and spells while playing the original Neverwinter Nights 2. I will also say the ante has been upped in the sound department too especially in the music department with a dark, haunting and magnificently thematic score by Alexander Brandon.

All in all Mask Of The Betrayer is extremely impressive for an mere expansion pack offering twice as much gameplay as you'd find in most full games out there. I felt my took a step forwards into the unknown, became an epic hero and my character is well on his way to becoming a god. Something that is unlikely to be realised in game terms but it's nice to know he will continue on in spirit. While initially upset that, being somewhat materialistic, that I lost my land, fortress, possessions, woman and money [not necessarily in that order] from the original campaign and so was no longer in complete control of my life or administrating the “big picture” of the character’s influence upon the game world; I did on the other hand get “noticed” by the Gods - So maybe that’s the ultimate progression here.

Final Verdict: Very polished with some impressive engine and welcome control enhancements, interesting and suitably epic plot but saddled with woeful characterisation of companions and annoying “curse.” You'll feel like a legendary hero all the way through beating enemies and obstacles you once would have ran from, the battles are a lot tougher, and there are also challenging puzzles to solve but the rewards are greater, not least of which is some mighty fine gaming.

Colonel Creedon Rating: ****

1 comment:

Former Grunt said...

Didn't this come out in '07? Aren't you a bit behind?