<span class="bold">Neverwinter Nights 2</span>
It has been a while since I last played a D&D videogame, and NWN2 was certainly a pleasant return to Faerun!
The Complete Pack can guarantee lots and lots of hours of entertainment with its four classic roleplaying campaigns (maybe too much for your own safety, actually), and it is probably one of the most thick of content titles you can find on GOG.
Despite being divided in four different parts (the original campaign, Mask of the Betrayer, Storms of Zehir and Mysteries of Westgate), the basic structure is always the same, so I can describe the entire gameplay aspect in one shot.
The game is a heavily combat-centered RPG, and being a game based on the 3.5 D&D rueset you already know what to expect in that department: at the beginning, you can create your character by choosing one among the many races (including Planetouched, Orcs and Yuan-ti), each one having its owns strengths and weaknesses, aptitudes and handicaps; then, you will have to choose one among the even more numerous classes -save the possibility to multiclass later, either with a “normal” class or a “prestige” one- and decide which abilities and features to take.
The possibilities are so many that you could literally create thousands of perfectly balanced characters, and a good part of the fun comes from there, as well.
Where the game really differs from its pen and paper father is in the real-time-with-pause nature of its combat; once again, the developers (Obsidian) decided to adopt the style first deployed by Baldur's Gate, without straying from a formula that has always proven to be successful.
Though definitely not immune to the usual consistent presence of trash mobs, each fight is very well balanced and cannot be faced without deploying at least a little bit of strategy, and in many “serious” battles you will have to carefully plan ahead your moves and meticulously organize both the position of your fighters and your magic books, using the right spells at the right time in the right situation.
There is only one problem, in my opinion: the game allows you to rest almost everywhere, reanimating your knocked out allies (there is no permanent death, except in Storms of Zehir) and fully restoring both your spells and your health, thus making your resources basically unlimited. In any case, this aspect is rebalanced by the increased might of your opponents; you will notice that unlike in the IE games, this time your party will tend to die a lot more quickly.
The game uses a modified version of Bioware's Aurora engine; while the graphic improvements over the first installment are enormous and immediately evident, allowing for much more detailed and complex landscapes and character models, all the problems of the engine have unfortunately not being addressed – the most annoying being the sporadic stuttering and framerate loss in certain areas regardless of the hardware's power, something I have experienced in every title built with Aurora, and particularly evident in The Witcher.
Despite this, it is undeniable that NWN2 still looks very good and plays even better; the few real complains I have with the technical aspect of the game is that after all those years many bugs have not been fixed, and they will probably never be. Most of them are just minor and rare errors, like your character teleporting directly where you pointed rather than walk there, the party staying still rather than following you until you give them the order -again, and the companions autonomously “changing their mind”, ignoring the orders you specifically issued to them to follow the general AI behavior you can set from the dedicated menu. General instructions should never override special ones, regardless of what we are talking about.
Unfortunately, aside from those minor problems I found two game-breaking bugs in the main campaign that prevented two story related events to trigger, leaving me stuck in an area with no possibility to leave; while it's true that forcing said events by using the console is very easy, that is not something you should leave in your game.
Now, let me get more specific on the plot and setting side of each campaign, the only real elements that set them apart:
-the original campaign does not really try to set itself apart from its predecessors, adopting all of their clichès, yet it has the strong point of being significantly better written than your average “Biowarian” game; if you liked games like Baldur's Gate you will surely love this one, too, as it will allow you embark on your epic journey in the lands around Neverwinter and Luskan to discover why you are being object of assault of extraplanar beings and their thralls, saving the population's collective bacon and building your own fame (and stronghold, too) in the process.
I especially liked the companions and their interaction, both with you and with each other, and be assured that the choices you will make during the main plot will make a huge difference for them, potentially leading to very pleasing or very nasty surprises; most of the choice and consequence systems revolves around them.
I must criticize the different treatment some of them received, though: while a few characters are awesomely written and develop their personality throughout the entire course of the game (like Neeshka and Khelgar), others shown a lot of promise during their early appearances but ended up being almost ignored after they made their part (like Casavir and Elanee).
-where the game really shines is in Mask of the Betrayer
, the direct sequel of the original campaign.
I won't talk much about it to avoid any potential spoiler, but know that it probably presents one of the the best narrative departments in any RPG I have ever played, being second only to Planescape: Torment, revolving around very mature themes and allowing you a wide freedom of choice with dramatically different consequences.
The adventure takes place in Rashemen, a strange land of mysticism, superstitions, spirits, curses and forgotten gods, and it gives a whole new perspective to the concept of “antagonist”. Along with your unconventional companions (a Red Wizard of Thay, a Hagspawn dreamwalker, a Half-Celestial and a bear god or a wraith) you will have to discover what has really happened to you after your last battle, and try to put a stop to an horrifying curse that threatens to consume both your soul and those of everyone you come in contact with.
Many moments touch absolute brilliance, some of them being also quite distressing. Whoever thought about THAT wall... well...
My one and only complaint with MotB is the fact that, despite being a game heavily based on the narrative, while you can recruit four companions that can always add meaningful dialogues and actions in any situation you are forced to bring only three with you at each given time, losing a lot of unique interactions.
My suggestion is to mod the game to allow all of them to follow you at the same time, after having increased the difficulty level accordingly.
-Storms of Zehir
, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired plot-wise, concentrating instead on the gameplay side by expanding the trade system and allowing you to freely move around the map, taking advantage of some of your characters' abilities.
While it does feel indeed much more dull -especially after MotB- the mechanics should be praised as a good update over NWN2 standards.
-Mysteries of Westgate
is a small additional module developed by Ossian.
The setting -the same city mentioned in the title- is interesting for its unconventionality, yet the plot is so thick of characters and faction trying to mess with each other to make the plot quite hard to follow, especially near the ending. Also, the writing is quite cheesy (with lines like “Wait till you see how deep into the backside of evil I insert my boot in the name of justice"!) and the amount of voice acting minimal, presenting dalougue scenes where the characters talk one time each three lines and stare you in silence during the others.
Also, the lack of a mage companion could be troubling at higher difficulties, if you are not one yourself. All in all, NWN2 is a very enjoyable game; my recommendation is to play at least both the good main campaign and the absolutely awesome expansion Mask of the Betrayer – if you like RPGs, missing them would be a crime!