A weasel with a waraxe? The Forgotten Realms may be weird and wonderful, but this is just plain wrong...
On the subject of lack of freedom, the map areas feel small (more like KotOR in scale than the original Neverwinter Nights) and the overall level of interactivity is disappointingly low. This is exacerbated by the camera's viewpoint, which now shows the action from much closer in, giving a claustrophobic feel, especially when in buildings or dungeons. Rather than enhance the visuals, it simply demonstrates that the Aurora engine is starting to show its age rather badly - despite a whole host of new special effects and revamped textures. The whole game feels rough around the edges, and characters look like they've had too much plastic surgery in cutscenes, with unnaturally shiny, tautly stretched skin. The vast majority of sound effects, player character voiceovers and music are reused from the original game too, which is a tad disappointing.
Perhaps most disconcerting, however, is what Obsidian has done to the game's interface. The intuitive and elegant radial pop-up menu from the prequel has been replaced by a cumbersome context-sensitive menu that actually makes it harder to assign spells or abilities to your character's taskbar and is a definite backwards step. Needing to drag the mouse while right-clicking to get the menu to appear at all is counter-intuitive and an annoyingly needless complication.
The more creatively-minded of you will probably be wondering about the bundled Aurora toolset. Like the game, these too have been "enhanced" - which is to say I found them even more unintuitive and hard to use than those supplied with the original version... So while you can make a complete game with these tools, given the struggle I had with the simplest of tasks such as choosing a tileset, setting area sizes and placing objects, I suspect very few people will. Not that this is a failing of the game; more a recognition of the fact that unless you're a professional level designer these tools probably won't be much use to you.
'What is pleasing is the implementation of the AD&D 3.5 Edition ruleset, which is as near flawless as you would expect.'
All this isn't sounding too promising, but take heart, stoic adventurer. It's not all bad. What is pleasing is the implementation of the AD&D 3.5 Edition ruleset, which is as near flawless as you would expect; though some of the differences in the game rules to 3.0 Edition will take some getting used to, particularly if you've ploughed your way through the prequel and its two expansion packs. A read of the manual is well advised before you spend 100,000 gold on a Belt of Agility +4 and realise with annoyance that its dexterity bonus will not stack with your Bracers of Dexterity +2... Another welcome addition is the wider range of playable races. The most notable additions are the Planetouched classes - Aasimar and Tiefling - but undoubtedly a more popular change with players will be that you can now play as an Elven sub-race with the correct attribute modifiers.
Before you all rush off to play as a Drow (and I know you will) bear in mind that the more powerful races require more experience to gain levels. The Drow level adjustment of +2 (i.e. a Drow Elf will reach Level 2 when a Human would reach Level 4) is quite an impediment at the beginning of the game - particularly when you remember their -2 penalty to Constitution... So don't be afraid to nudge the difficulty down if you're finding yourself short on hit points in the first few hours of the game. Playing as a Drow in particular will cause a few strong reactions from NPCs, particularly the dwarven weaponsmith in Port Llast. Having dialogue tailored to illicit reactions according to your race or your previous actions in the game is especially gratifying and helps give you a greater sense of immersion and continuity. Choices need to be made with consideration, as sometimes decisions may come back to haunt you; though sometimes having a shady reputation can actually smooth relations when dealing with the criminal underclasses.
So while the story takes an inordinate amount of time to get going, the skill with which the subsequent tale is woven and the first-rate characterisation of your companions and the major plot characters almost makes up for it. I say "almost", because there's one final thing that, when added to the interface issues and other niggles, really takes the edge off the game: quality control. Unfortunately, it's not up to standard. I suffered some horrific bugs in Neverwinter Docks area, turning a routine "around the area" quest into a test of patience and endurance as misfiring script triggers caused repeated crashes to desktop and replays from save games that hadn't been corrupted - sometimes losing up to an hour of playing time.
Also typical are bugs ranging from the amusing - such as the soles missing from boots (allowing you to see up inside your character's leg) - to the downright infuriating; such as previously assigned spells randomly disappearing from a character's spellbook. Worst of all was a bug during an area transition that replaced one of my companion NPCs with another's familiar - meaning I no longer had a decent warrior in my party. This again could only be fixed by returning to a previous save game, meaning I had to repeat another hour's worth of play. Bugs like this would test the patience of Gandhi, let alone that of a sweary Glaswegian like me. Like KotOR 2 before it, Neverwinter Nights 2 promises much without quite delivering its full potential. It's a shame, as it could have been the Elminster of computerised AD&D games. Instead, it turned out to be Volo...