Neverwinter Nights 2 Interview

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A lot of recent gaming hype has centered around the Xbox 360 and upcoming releases of the Playstation 3 and Revolution. But let's not forget that there are some really cool PC games coming out in 2006 as well. Armed with a revamped single player mode, an even more expansive toolset, and a multiplayer mode that's looking just as addicting as the original's, Neverwinter Nights 2 is one such title. I had a chance to talk with Ferret Baudoin, Lead Designer at Obsidian Entertainment, about the sequel's new features as well as returning tried-and-true characteristics, so read on to find out how the game is shaping up.

Shack: Given that this is an RPG, story is a bigger factor than in other genres. Any spoiler-free tidbits you can give us?

Ferret Baudoin: When Obsidian Entertainment got the project we had the Aurora Engine to work off of, so it put us in a great position to craft an ambitious single-player experience – because we could begin work almost immediately. We wanted to make a story which really made you feel like you are on the journey to become a hero. To really accomplish that we focused on creating more depth, more consistency, and more story realism than people may be used to. There are set-backs, there are triumphs, and there are plenty of complications on the way. We've made our game a bit more hard-hitting because that makes the accomplishments more satisfying. We've treated Neverwinter Nights 2's story with as much attention as we would a Baldur's Gate or a Fallout.

Shack: With Bioware working on the game's engine, a lot more time can be spent focusing on the game play. What are some of the new additions we can look forward to?

Baudoin: We started with the Aurora engine as a base, but many parts of it have been rewritten completely. But having Aurora has freed us up to do a great deal. We've got new spells, new feats and a new ruleset we're using. The AI has also been taught a few new tricks which should make dungeon romping a tad more exciting. (Insert DM cackling when those fun little tricks are revealed!)

Shack: Though the game will still focus on the city of Neverwinter, it's obviously inadvisable to simply "port" the city from the original game to the sequel. What changes can we expect to see to the recreated city of Neverwinter?

Baudoin: One of the big map-making changes in Neverwinter Nights 2 is we're no longer tile-based, so that opened up whole new vistas for Neverwinter city herself. Hills, winding roads, parks, etc. are now all doable. So the city may not look much like the first game. You visit some of the same districts (like Blacklake and the Docks). [As far as storyline is concerned,] The reason it's so different is the construction after the war in the original game.

Shack: Can heroes from the first game be used in this installment?

Baudoin: In almost every arena our game has had a lot of changes and improvements. The reason why I'm going to say "no" to this isn't a bummer, it's because Neverwinter Nights 2 uses Wizard of the Coast's new 3.5 edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons. There are a lot of tweaks, improvements, and fixes that Wizards made for 3.5 - and as much as possible our game has them. The rules have changed enough that importing characters really isn't feasible - character creation and level-up hinges on tough choices. And in 3.5 the choices are different, and in my opinion, better.

Shack: Will the player's avatar have to work his/her way up the hierarchy, (e.g., can we go and get quests from the King right away) or do we have to earn our stripes first? If so, how?

Baudoin: You start off as a villager in West Harbor. Not very aptly named because it's in the middle of a dangerous monster-ridden swamp. Harbormen are hearty folk - they have to be with all the lizardfolk running about. So you start from a humble beginning.

Early on you have a goal - to find answers to what's threatening your village and your own skin. And that leads to adventure. As you do noteworthy deeds people start recognizing that you aren't just a face in the crowd, but someone who is growing more and more formidable. Which leads to complications of its own. If you get an audience with Lord Nasher Alagondar it's not because he's a bored ruler with nothing better to do than greet a random passerby and give them some quest ("Our streets are unclean - clean them, for the sake of the kingdom let no bubblegum wrapper go unpicked up!"), but it's because the lord of a mighty city has a reason to meet you in particular.

Shack: So really, the game will focus more on the player's personal journey. Given this, will there be game play mechanics that can be used to give each play through a unique feel? After all, two different gamers are two unique people, and wouldn't expect to have the exact same adventure.

Baudoin: There are a lot of decisions the player makes, and cumulatively those can add up to different experiences. The choice in which companions you bring with you, can also add flavor, spice, and occasionally open up whole new things. There's definitely re-playability.

Shack: What improvements have been made to returning classes?

Baudoin: Most of the improvements come from adopting D&D 3.5. Many classes got significant rebalancing – generally if you're curious what, just look inside a 3.5 Player's Handbook. Rangers have had a lot of changes in particular, now having their advantages spread over many levels and also being able to specialize in the bow instead of fighting flortentine. One class internally we've paid some attention to are Bards. The Bard is a great class in PnP, but in CRPG they've had a hard life. They now get more songs, more options, and they should find they're valued a lot more in groups.

Shack: What can you tell us about the Warlock class?

Baudoin: The Warlock is a brand-new base class - their shtick is they're born with power, it runs in their supernatural veins. They scoff at Wizards who must memorize their spells each day and also sorcerers who can run out of spells they can cast once a day. Warlocks are always ready for action - anything they can do, they can do all the time. This works great in a computer game setting. One of their stand-bys is the eldritch bolt - which is a magical bolt of energy which they can fling every round. As Warlocks gain more invocations they can choose cool spell-like invocations or change what their eldritch bolt does. So they can make it so it has a chance to frighten their target as well as blast them (like Frightful Blast) or modify who it affects (like chaining between targets with Eldritch Chain). And you can mix and match some of these attributes. Unlike many spell casters they start off as a solidly useful class. Add that all up and you get a really fun new class featured in our game.

Shack: The henchmen from the original NWN were very useful, but you could only have one at a time. Will this be the case in NWN2?

Baudoin: We're staying close to D&D on this one and allowing 3 companions. Added to yourself that's a party of 4, which is what D&D is balanced for because you can have all the major archetypes represented – those who fight, those who heal, those who nuke with spells, and those who sneak (and get into things they really shouldn't). _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Tell us more about the companions: do they have different reasons for fighting alongside the player; will traveling w/ different henchmen affect the path the player takes through the game; etc.

Baudoin: All of the companions have their own personality, stories, and motivations. And which companions you take with you can definitely impact the way the game goes, and potentially open up some options. Sometimes a companion is required for certain sections of the game. The whole goal is to make sure that they are deep and involved characters that sometimes interact with the story similar to the way you do.

Shack: Is there a way to give your companion a nudge in a direction you'd prefer them to take? Or do they fight exclusively for their own interests? If you can guide them, how is this accomplished?

Baudoin: Although it would be potentially realistic for companions to balk at certain tasks or go off to pursue their own interests, we go with a more Infinity Engine convention. They'll chime in and offer their two cents and you can get them so mad that they may not take it any more – but in combat you're the leader and they'll follow you. And if you want, you have the option at any time to directly take control of your companions and give them orders. That opens the door for more complex tactics and strategies through the course of your adventures.

Shack: Seems the conversation system has been affected by the winds of change. Tell us about this completely revamped system.

Baudoin: Yes and no. We still use the original conversation style for some things. But we do make extensive use of our cinematic dialog system – similar to what people saw in the Knights of the Old Republic series. It allows us designers to craft scenes and convey emotion similar to a director in a movie. It gives us plenty of opportunity to make for a more involved story.

Shack: The game's graphics look stunning. Tell us about the graphics engine that is being used for NWN2, and why it will enhance our gaming experience.

Baudoin: The graphics engine has been built from scratch - it's called Electron. Electron supports many of the latest graphics technology - normal mapping, dynamic lighting, and shader tech. We want Neverwinter Nights 2 to have good graphics not only for an RPG (traditionally a lower bar) but also compared to other games in 2006. Some of the environments the artists have worked on - wow. It's hard to believe it's our game at times. And the way lighting is done it is easy to use the same area and just by changing the time of day it looks different and breath-taking. The Dock District at dusk especially blows me away.

Shack: One of the main attractions of the original NWN was the fantastic toolset it included. Will experienced designers be able to dive right in?

Baudoin: The tool has been rebuilt to be faster, stronger, and it absolutely feels no pity... err... I mean, it's an advanced toolset that has no chance at all to take over the military industrial complex and rain devastation from the skies above. Yup, it's perfectly safe. Designers use the tools day in and day out, and we wanted a lot of improvements to the tool. It started off great - now it's great. For experienced designers it should take a few minutes of adjustment before you feel right at home and then start spotting some of the new capabilities. Some of the people we've hired for the project come from the Neverwinter Nights community - and they've been stunned. I expect it'll be the same for the community at large.

Shack: Map editing has always been an interest of mine, but everything is so darn complicated. What steps are being taken to entice budding map creators to give NWN2's tools a whirl?

Baudoin: As much as we want the experienced users to jump right in, we're taking pains to [help the] new modders can get into the swing of things. We're going to have a wide range of wizards to help new users make something quickly, including the ability to quickly generate outdoor areas. Interiors are still tile-based, so those will be much easier to jump right in and tweak (like the original game). It should be easy for new users to make something for their friends, with a ton of depth available to them if they want to use it.

Shack: What additions have been added to the toolset?

Baudoin: The dialog system has had so many improvements that typically time-consuming tasks are a breeze. You can pass parameters with script calls, which means instead of dozen scripts to handle very specific situations (e.g. "Does the speaker have a 3 Intelligence?") instead you can do it with one script. You can also do some Boolean logic on the script level, making it so you can spend less time scripting and more time designing. The toolset also allows tons of things to be tinted, so instead of one Merchant House that always looks a certain way - you can make it black, neon green, or plum. There's so much you can do.

Shack: Can modules from the first game be converted for use in NWN2?

Baudoin: Not wholesale, no. The way levels have been put together is completely different and it just wouldn't work. But wherever possible we've tried to make it so that previous work can be imported in. The good news is that dialogs and scripts can be imported into NWN2 remarkably well. We've taken great care to make sure that scripting commands from the first game are not modified so that they break in our game. If we need too many changes we make up a new command and put a note in the old one pointing you to the new and improved function. Seeing that dialog and scripting can be a huge chunk of work, it should allow people to hit the ground running. You can also import items and objects from the first game pretty easily, although you'll have to update their appearance to something from NWN2. A lot of the new magic items were created earlier in the NWN1 toolset and we just imported them straight into NWN2. You have to change a few things, but it works really well.

Shack: Multiplayer was lots of fun in the original game. Tell us how this aspect of NWN2 is shaping up so far.

Baudoin: The single-player campaign can be played in multiplayer with some friends, so out of the box you can have D&D fun with your pals – and we've made some additions to multiplayer to make partying easier and friendlier. But most of multiplayer in the original game came from the fans who've produced a staggering number of modules and demonstrated a remarkable amount of talent. So we're giving them more powerful tools, a next-gen engine, and the ability to do their work quicker. There are a lot more possibilities in NWN2 and once the community jumps in the possibilities are... well, endless.

Shack: The game's looking mighty fine! When will we be able to play it?

Baudoin: Thanks for the interview, and for fans who want to know more checkout our forums at http://nwn2forums.bioware.com/forums/. Many of us at Obsidian post on occasion, so it's a good place to hear the latest goop and get more information about our game. If you want to see what else Obsidian has coming up or make suggestions, you're also welcome to check out our website at www.obsidianent.com.

Ferret sidestepped the release question like a real pro there, and that's because Atari has no hard release date set for the game. But look for the PC RPG sequel to be released this year.

Long Reads Editor

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