Neverwinter Nights is more than a game, actually: It's a gaming system to be built on.
PC, $59.99 With more than 160 man-years of development under its belt, and five real years, Neverwinter Nights is the most highly anticipated RPG release to date. Backed by Atari, game sales went gold two weeks before it even shipped. Having followed developments on BioWare's Web site for a year plus, I admit I've never been more excited about a computer game. It's more than a game, actually: Neverwinter Nights is a gaming system to be built on. For the first time ever, non-programmers have a tool with which they can build complicated Dungeons & Dragons scenarios -- and an online community eager to try them out: It is in this respect that Neverwinter Nights is a revolutionary RPG.
As with all things revolutionary in the gaming world, you can pretty much count on wanting the latest and greatest hardware to play the latest and greatest game. The minimum requirements call for a 450 MHz processor and 16 MB video RAM, and though the game will run with that setup, it won't be nearly as exciting as it can be. Consider this the excuse you need to get that new Athlon and GeForce card. NWN's graphics are gorgeous, and the interface is intuitive, efficient, and swift. BioWare continues to employ the most gifted fantasy artists around, and their attention to detail can produce exceedingly cool effects. NPCs in a pub pull drinks up to their mouths every so often, and rock back and forth as they chat. Characters reading scrolls actually pull a parchment from their backpack and look at it before the spell is cast. Water splashes and fires smolder with dazzling realism, and battle sequences actually show swords clashing, bows pulling, and blood splattering. The sound is so good at times it'll send chills down your spine -- just turn it up in the haunted forest and dim the lights.
Though the plot of the included single player campaign is not unlike those of many D&D campaigns, it is engrossing, if a little slow to take off. If I had a complaint with NWN, it would be that sometimes gameplay seems a little too commodified -- perhaps its modularity is also a kind of limitation? Solving a NWN riddle by clicking the right options in the right order yields less of a rush than the old-school way of compiling notes and executing a complex dialogue or action. Of course, BioWare's answer to this slight complaint is now, "Well, then build one your way and see if people like it."
By opening up the tool set to gamers, Neverwinter Nights is ripe for future development -- both by BioWare's team, and by players all over the world. In a year, no doubt, there will be some real gems out there (and, no doubt, a ton of crap, too). The player-vs.-player module allows you to pit your character against other online gamers' characters, and is already exceedingly popular. Though a few of my attempts at playing the multiplayer client online have resulted in frustrating crashes, BioWare's developers seem dedicated to releasing patches and ensuring that this game has a long and fruitful future.