It has been observed that I am, quite possibly, the most impatient man in the entire universe. If some poor hapless driver in front of me at a set of traffic lights takes five seconds too long to drop the clutch, such abuse will stream from my mouth that even on a rain-sodden, foggy day the air will turn decidedly blue. And pray that you never take a small trolley through a "basket only" queue in a supermarket in my presence. There is no defence against the torrent of bile that will be unleashed against you, and old age, infirmity or only having five items is not a sufficient excuse. So you can imagine my consternation while playing an RPG such as Neverwinter Nights 2, when it dares to make me wait over half a dozen hours before something really interesting happens.
Think about it: eight or ten hours is a longer time investment than you'd put into a lot of first-person shooters. Yet because Neverwinter Nights 2 is an RPG, and because RPG players expect a campaign game of forty hours or more, somehow making you wait a quarter of that time for things to really get interesting is somehow considered (by developers) to be acceptable. Well, it's not. Though given Obsidian's track record - both in their current guise and their previous incarnation as Black Isle - perhaps it's not really a surprise that Neverwinter Nights 2 is a slow starter. Both KotOR 2 and Planescape: Torment took a good eight hours or so to build any real sense of intrigue and immersion. Here, though, there's a real risk that the player may simply lose patience and go off to play something else; and that would be unfortunate, because once the story takes off, it really starts to soar. As game crimes go, keeping the player waiting ages for the story to kick off isn't quite a capital offence, but it does smack of taking the expectations of your audience for granted, even if you are touting your game as an "action RPG" (i.e. where the story takes a back seat to the hacking and slashing).
The story (when it finally begins to tie together plot threads) is relatively straightforward, but nonetheless interesting for it. Your character is thrust (from a predictably humble origin) into the centre of a decades-old intrigue of magic, ambition, revenge and even extra-planar travel. The story revolves around silver shards - fragments of a Githyanki silver sword - shattered in a battle between a powerful wizard and the King of Shadows, long ago. After a mercifully short (and genuinely instructive) tutorial, the game starts with an all-out attack on your character's village by gray dwarves, bladelings and a Githyanki wizard, intent on retrieving one of these lost shards. Once you have helped successfully repel the attack, you are tasked by your tight-lipped (and equally uptight) foster father to travel to the city of Neverwinter for aid. Once reaching Neverwinter, you then proceed (in true adventurer-style) to stick your nose into every single nook and cranny, doing anything and everything from shaking down the local merchants in Neverwinter Docks to fighting orcs in the mountains. But it's only when the dastardly Luskans turn up (with a horde of demons in tow) that the story really starts building momentum.
'When the dastardly Luskans turn up (with a horde of demons in tow) the story really starts building momentum.'
In many ways, Neverwinter Nights 2 is a return to the traditional party-based RPG. While the prequel only allowed you to take on one henchman (and later a pair in the Hordes of the Underdark expansion), here you are allowed a maximum of three; plus animal companions, familiars and summoned creatures. Other (non-controllable) NPCs may join your party as well, so at times it can feel like you're leading an army, rather than a cosy cohort. Your fellow party members are all well fleshed out as characters and some may even take dislikes to others: the Paladin Casavir, for example, will not take to Bishop, an evil Ranger, and pretty much everyone will hate the Gnome Bard Grobnar, for reasons best left for you to find out for yourself.
Area effect spells like Fireball now have a natty runed cursor to allow you to target them with greatest effect
Each NPC has their own sub-quest, which can either be pursued or ignored at your own discretion. Though as these quests will yield valuable experience and allow you to gain influence over your companions (much like the system first seen in Obsidian's KotOR 2), they're definitely worth completing. The only real problem with the NPCs is that there are simply too many of them. Depending upon the class you take for your main character, you will quickly find the best combination of NPCs for you to party with, whereupon the rest simply become superfluous; other than on the rare occasions where you must take a certain NPC in your party. The game also restricts your access to certain areas according to how far you have progressed with the main plot, meaning that you never really feel that you have the time or the freedom to wander off on a tangent and tie up the sub-plots before returning to the campaign's story thread (compared to a game like Baldur's Gate, say).