Neverwinter Nights Platinum: Some Thoughts on CRPGs

Matt Barton's picture

Although I greatly enjoy playing adventure games and the occasional strategy game (Civilization IV being one of my favorites), the genre I always find myself returning to is the computer role-playing game. My fixation with the genre began at the tender age of 12 (or maybe 13), when I started playing the Bard's Tale series on the Commodore 64. If you remember, the first Bard's Tale is extremely difficult starting out. Fortunately, the cracked copy we had still had a saved game from whoever copied it, so I was able to play with high-level characters and thus get a better feel for what the game had to offer. However, it wasn't really until I got Pool of Radiance (the original SSI "gold box" game) that I really fell in love with the genre.

I ended up buying not only the game, but also the hint guide, and even the novelization! I was obsessed. Pool of Radiance is a fairly involved game for a youngster, but I was determined to beat it. Even with the hint book, the game takes plenty of patience and strategy to complete. Never before had a game enthralled me to such a high degree. I would literally wake up in the morning, begin playing, take small breaks for meals, and continue playing until the sun was coming up (thank God, this was during summer!) When I finished PoR, I immediately begged and pleaded for Curse of the Azure Bonds, the next entry in the series--and the hint guide, and the novel.

My enthusiasm only began to wane with the third game, Secret of the Silver Blades. That game had some rather lengthy and boring segments that lulled me away for while. Eventually, though, I finished it and then moved on to the Krynn games and later the Savage Frontier. At some point during all this, I read the Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends, and soon took Raistlin Majere as my role model. (Yeah, I know, twisted!) All along the way, I became more interested in paper-based RPGs, and bought AD&D books like the Dungeon Master's handbook, Player's Guide, Monsters Compendium, and so on. One of my worst memories in college was coming home to the dorm one night and discovering all my AD&D books had been stolen. Alas. I never had the funds to replace them!

Might & Magic 6: Fantasy art at its best.Might & Magic 6: Fantasy art at its best.When I got my first IBM-compatible PC, the first RPGs I played were the Might and Magic games. I started with the sixth game, The Mandate of Heaven, mostly because the cover art was reminiscent of the gold box games (probably intentionally so!). At first I didn't care for the first-person interface, and did feel this was series was roughly polished at times, but I nevertheless managed to get immersed in the series, playing all the way through to the eighth game. At that point, the games were just feeling like shoddy, sloppy money-grabs rather than anything worth investing so much time and money in.

For the longest time, I was reluctant to play Baldur's Gate. Why? Well, I didn't like the idea of playing only a single character after so much CRPG experience building and playing parties. The idea of creating only a single character seemed stifling and limiting. Indeed, the one Gold Box game I never played was "Hillsfar," which was an early attempt at something like Baldur's Gate. So, I avoided Baldur's Gate and went for Icewind Dale. Unfortunately, that game isn't the best, really, and even though I played it through, I found the game rather dull and plodding at times. Icewind Dale II turned out to be much more fun, and at that point I was finally willing to try Bioware's second Baldur's Gate game.

I really loved Baldur's Gate II. It's a tremendous game with wheelbarrows full of personality and character. In a word, it's Fun, with a capital F. Even though I couldn't create my own party, I could at least control who was in the party, and that helped a bit. After I finished II, I went back to play the first game, and found it was also quite enjoyable (though I still prefer the second!)

What then? Well, I bought Neverwinter Nights when it came out and played through the original campaign. Unfortunately, that campaign isn't perhaps the most interesting, mostly because it feels so small. The difficulty level defaults to what I consider too easy, so I was able to rumble through the game without really thinking too much about it. After I finished it, I sold it through Amazon and got Dungeon Siege, which I considered a better game at the time.

Anyway, a few months ago I noticed that I could get two copies of Neverwinter Nights Diamond for only $20, so a thought occurred to me: Would this game be more fun to play on a LAN with my dearly beloved as a companion? I wasn't sure, and I also wasn't sure she'd like the game, but for $20 I was willing to take the chance. The Diamond version comes with the original game plus two expansions, Shadows of Undrentide (sucks) and Hordes of the Underdark (still playing), so it felt like a solid investment.

Well, the good news is that we did have fun sloughing through the first game. It became pretty obvious to me at an early stage, though, that Elizabeth wasn't nearly as "into" the game as I was, and didn't care to play with the kind of intensity and, er, "What the heck? It's 4 AM already!!??" state of oblivion I tended to find myself in during these games. She'd play just to make me happy, I guess, but I kept catching myself wishing I had a younger brother on hand! (One of my brothers is just as obsessed with this kind of thing as I am). I guess there's just a certain type of person who enjoys CRPGs, but I'm not sure what that factor (or factors) may be.

At any rate, playing the game on a LAN opened up a new dimension for the otherwise placid campaign. Although you can recruit henchmen of all different classes to accompany your character, their severely limited AI keeps them from being very useful (or enjoyable to have along). Usually, they merely become liabilities that you spend more time protecting and rescuing than anything else. A fellow human can be a major asset. Fortunately, for the first campaign, Elizabeth chose a paladin, which turned out to be a great beginner class because of the relative simplicity of combat, advancement, and abilities. In the NWN campaign, the fighter is actually a bit more complex, since good fighters will have to make very long-term plans about their character development--specializing in a weapon, choosing appropriate feats, etc. In other words, it's pretty easy to screw up a fighter pretty badly and end up with a virtually unplayable character.

Unfortunately, she picked a bard for the Shadows campaign, and that proved to be much more frustrating. The bard is probably one of the most complex characters to get right, and she discovered very quickly that her new character was extremely vulnerable in combat (and not very helpful otherwise). This undoubtedly led to great frustration, but, thankfully, the expansions offer a prestige class called "Red Dragon Disciple" that has helped make a difference in the Hordes campaign.
Pool of Radiance: Ah...What sweet memories of youth.Pool of Radiance: Ah...What sweet memories of youth.Anyway, the reason I wanted to post something about NWN and LAN was to offer some advice for other guys who might be thinking of bringing their "CRPG virgin" family or friends into the game. My primary advice would be to strongly discourage them from choosing to play one of the more complex characters, such as a mage, bard, cleric, or thief. It'd undoubtedly be easier for them to begin with a paladin or barbarian, or perhaps a ranger or sorcerer (though you'll end up explaining a lot). Rangers would be great for many women because of the emphasis on caring for animals (they get to summon an "animal companion"). Furthermore, the game seems to favor paladins, and there are no shortage of great items for the class. Plus, the powerful lay-on hands and turn undead features will prove a great asset. Probably the best aspect is that all you really need to do to play a paladin is click on the bad guys and keep an eye on your HP. This is infinitely more intuitive than the constant mode-switching you need to effectively play a fighter, to say nothing of magic strategy. Thieves and bards seem like difficult characters to play even for experienced gamers. They're pathetic in combat, and their special skills don't come as handy as you'd think. The few times I've tried playing a thief, I always multi-classed as a fighter, just to make the character more playable.

I suppose it'd be an impossible dream to find a whole party of folks (say, three?) who'd be willing to sit down on a regular basis at a LAN and play through these games as a group. I suppose at this point, the obvious solution is the internet, and perhaps a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. Perhaps. But I can't help but think that playing with a perfect stranger, who I'll more than likely never meet, would be as fun as playing with people I know (particularly family). I suppose I would be an ideal candidate for a game like WoW, since I love CRPGs and spent hundreds of hours in college sloughing through MUDs. However, I still cringe when I see the sort of "role playing" so many players on those systems engage in (i.e., straying far from character, cheating, and just being a punk). I also appreciate a good story in a CPRG, and the idea of doing random quests and playing a game with no ending doesn't seem to satisfy. Yes, I know there is a "social dimension" here that's supposedly more fulfilling than a good narrative, but I'm not sold on it yet.

However, I'd love to hear from folks who have a similar background to mine in CRPGs and who have made the transition into the MMORPG games (whether it be Everquest, WoW, or whatever). Was it a "Why didn't I do this sooner?" kind of thing? Be sure to let me know!

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
To me, it's a style

To me, it's a style preference as well. I'm on record as being VERY tired of the anime style of art that permeates seemingly everything these days. I find little balance anymore. It's why at Myth Core I requested a mandate that none of the art have any anime' influences. That wasn't entirely possible due to the resources at hand at the time, but it was a strong feeling of mine.

I vastly prefer the fantasy art style on the covers of the classic Avalon Hill and SSI game boxes - a more Western, more D&D style (rich detail, "realism") - to anything anime'. Yes, Western art falls into the trap of physical specimens both male and female (perhaps going back to the classic Conan cover art), while anime' falls into more of the androgynous slight of build characters with occasional exagerations, such as hair or weaponry. Everything from expressions to reactions tend to be more over-the-top. I'm more into the subdued, the more serious style.

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Ed Salisbury
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Joined: 07/23/2006
Cut scenes and MMORPGs

I've never been one to play console RPGs, mainly because of the cutscenes that are so prevalent. My favorites back in the day were games like Ultima IV and Dungeon Master -- no cutscenes, pure action. The best thing for me was the fact that I could create my own character and play the game how I liked. This aspect carried over to MMORPGs pretty nicely. It was a bit rough at first, mainly because I was expecting the game to handhold me through, make things super easy at the beginning, and get progressively harder. I was in for a shock - The first month of playing Everquest I died several times and became very disheartened. I then started playing with a RL friend, and the game was reborn for me.

After MMORPGs, single player RPGs felt so empty -- I didn't feel like there was much point in playing them any more without having other people to play with. I've since moved on to other games like City of Heroes, WoW, and now EVE Online. EVE has a lot of the same feel that Elite / Elite 2 had, but in a multiplayer environment. The game mechanics don't go as far as I'd like them too, but it's a fun casual game to play.

Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Yes to a large extent it is also style and presentation....

I agree that in Japanese games the use of Anime is very prevalent and even games of a western origin end up looking like Anime. I do think style and cultural differences in appreciating arts might also be something to take into consideration. Storytelling is a thing shared in many cultures but is also very different among cultures. So perhaps the way the stories are told and experienced in Western and Asian RPG's reflects this. Esthetics and functionality might also be perceived differently in other cultures. There’s not too much of an international group participating in this particular thread but I wouldn’t be surprised if Eurpeans, Asians and Americans voicing their opinion in this thread each voice very similar preferences within each group.

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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Matt Barton
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Joined: 01/16/2006
Power Up and Kawaisa

You know, one great book on this subject is Chris Kohler's Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. I read the book and felt like I learned a lot about the Japanese game scene, though I will frankly admit that I've never visited the country--and while I've had several Chinese friends, never got to know anyone from Japan. In other words, I probably have a very naive conception of what it's like over there. But I'd like to learn. ;-)

Kohler spends some time in his book talking about "kawaisa", the term for "cuteness" that seems to have penetrated into the deepest recesses of the Japanese pscyhe. Here's a little quote:

Kawaisa came into vogue with the ultra-popular Hello Kitty products that swept Japan in the 1970s, and, nowadays, cute characters are 'omnipresent in the landscape of urban, millennial Japan,' appearing on t-shirts, book bags, lunch boxes, pencils, hair ribbons, hand towels, rice bowls, cooking pans, calendars, and erasers."

A culture obsessed with Hello Kitty? It's no wonder that we see such a striking difference between Western and Eastern RPGs!!

Mat, you've recently been to Japan. Did you note a cultural obsession with Hello Kitty-style "kawaisa" there?

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Mark Vergeer
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Joined: 01/16/2006
some more ponderings on cultural differences.....

posted a comment in the other thread on Cuteness in Japanese games/culture....

-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-

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