Sunday, June 01


Zombie Werespiders Are Go!

Dungeons and Dragons players, start your engines: Shadows of Undrentide, the first expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights, has gone gold. Development is underway on the second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark. No details can be found here.

I have to admit I was disappointed with NWN. The bundled campaign was, frankly, dumb. Compared with the brilliance of recent D&D titles (other than the execrable Pool of Radiance II), NWN was a drab little story of no great interest. Torment, by comparison, was simply amazing; both Baldur's Gate games had strong storylines; and both the Icewind Dale games, while targeted primarily at the hack-'n'-slash crowd, were full of delightful touches. NWN was just blah.

But that didn't worry me too much, since what I really wanted was the NWN tools (the Aurora Toolset) for designing my own adventures, and the NWN engine for playing them. Unfortunately, they have problems too. The toolset I can live with, since it's the end result that matters. The game engine, in and of itself, isn't too bad, though I will always prefer isometric perspective for this sort of game. (Until you get fluid realtime photorealistic rendering working, anyway, and that's some years off yet.)

The problem is the tiles. When you want to build an area, you are given a choice of tilesets: Forest, City, Sewers, and so on. Once you've made your choice, you're stuck with it: you can only use one tileset for a given area. This wouldn't be so bad if the tilesets had more variety in them. But when your players can open a door and say at once "Oh yes, a #4 castle room, the only searchable location is the desk drawer.", you have a problem.

You can't pick an empty room and fill it with furniture manually, either. You don't have empty rooms - they generally come prefurnished - and even when you do, you just don't have the furniture.

The forests look nice. The water effects are great. The falling leaves, the ambience of the sunlight through the treetops, are wonderfully rendered. So why didn't they take a little time to produce a stream that can bend at something other than a right-angle? A road that can run in a direction other than precisely North-to-South or exactly East-to-West?

As for the indoor settings: why is everything so darn big? I want some nice claustrophobic effects in my tombs. I want my players bumping into each other and tripping over sarcophagi when they're in a desparate battle against the advancing horde of kill-crazed zombie werespiders. What I definitely don't want is a room the size of baseball stadium. Any fool can tell you that zombies are hockey fans, and don't care for baseball at all.

I wish the designers had taken a look at The Sims. Its design tools are nothing amazing; houses in The Sims aren't likely to win any architectural awards. But in terms of flexibility it's miles ahead of what Neverwinter Nights offers.

And so I put NWN to bed about six months ago, and went back to playing Nethack.

Now the first expansion pack is about to hit the shelves, and my interest has resurfaced. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, I like Dungeons and Dragons. I like it lots. I've been playing D&D in its many incarnations for twenty years now, and in that time it has gathered a richness of material that no other game can match. As an example, I went shopping recently and bought seven new hardcover official D&D rule books. That's entirely ignoring the softcovers, the adventures, and the huge amount of semi-official and unofficial material.

For another thing, Bioware seem keen to do the right thing with NWN. Though the tileset model is flawed, they are open about the file formats involved, and the result is a suprising number of fan-created tilesets becoming available for download. Fan-created monsters too, and armour and statues and all sorts of things. They're known as Hakpacks, and here you can see a listing of what's been created just in the past week. Check out this example of an underwater setting. That seaweed looks a bit odd because it's just modified trees: this was originally the forest tileset. And here are some really amazing monsters: myconids (mushroom men), familiar to Icewind Dale fans.

Bioware recognise the value of fan content, and are working to make NWN automatically download hakpacks as needed. The problem is, you see, that if you want to play an adventure that needs a particularly hakpack, and you don't already have that hakpack, the whole thing goes splat in an unpleasant way.

Apart from the tileset problem, and the dire lack of furniture that you can place on your own problem, NWN is amazingly flexible. It includes a full programming language which can change anything in the game (apart from those pesky tiles, of course). Bioware are working to add a database to it. (Hint: Use Berkeley DB; it's free even for commercial use, and it works.)

Maybe I need to wait for Neverwinter Nights II to see a proper fix for the tileset problem, but in the meantime I think I'll buy Shadows of Undrentide, download myself a few hakpacks, and give Neverwinter Nights I another try.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at 07:16 AM | No Comments | Add Comment | Trackbacks (Suck)
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