Monday, September 01, 2003

PC Games Review: "Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide"

I have always been a fan of computer games from the very first time I knew about computers. As a child, I was an active member of the computer club at my primary school and was not only exposed to how to operate the computer but also it opened the world of computer gaming to me. Some of the titles I was into back then that I remember fondly to this day are “Prince of Persia”, “Karateka” and of course “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”. Of course back then we didn’t have the fancy graphics and sound capabilities that many computer gamers today take for granted so a lot of it was left to our own imagination which makes these games, while quaint by today’s standards, quite memorable and nostalgic for us who first found out about computers in the early 80’s.

I am actually partial to the computer role paying games (CRPG) and simulation games when I do get the time to invest my resources to game playing. While many may like the idea of blasting everything they see on the computer screen as they often do in action adventure games, I much rather prefer taking the time to act out my fantasies in the computer generated world as a fantasy character in some imaginary and magical kingdom. Some may find it hard to understand how I could actually spend 20 hours in one sitting to complete a chapter of exploring dungeons and fighting dragons on the computer but sometimes the plot of the game is so engaging that I hardly notice the time pass by.

This was what happened to me this past National Day weekend. I had recently purchased the “Shadows of Undrentide” (SoU) expansion pack to the popular “Neverwinter Nights” (NWN) CRPG from my local computer shop a few weeks ago. I enjoyed the first installment on the game immensely although it took me many months to complete it since I was playing it a bit at a time. I found the storylines from NWN deeply engaging and hoped to learn more about the universe created in that game. The opportunity came to me when they finally released SoU earlier this year. The new expansion pack co-developed by the people at BioWare Corp and Floodgate Entertainments was set in the same game setting of the first game and the story expanded to include places that were mentioned in passing in the first installment.

The game story itself is not a continuation from the previous installment so players would need to create a new character for themselves. For this game as well as the one that came before, my favorite character class to play is a monk with one level of ranger class selected. I found this character class well rounded for most of the in game quests and in fact seems a lot more helpful in some of the quests in SoU compared to NWN. All the character classes from the original game are included as well as new Prestige character classes. I have not tried these new classes yet but from what I can see they seem interesting to try out once I completed the game with my current character. While the graphics, user interface and sound design remains the same exceptional quality as in the previous installment, the developers have taken them to the maximum by using them in new exotic locales such as Deserted Ruins, Desert Oasis and Snowy Rural Countryside newly added to the game.

Since I don’t really have a lot of time to spend on playing computer games, I actually appreciate that I could adjust the game difficulty level while the game is in progress instead of having it preset in the beginning. This feature allowed me to quickly complete some of the more difficult encounters in the game and progress the story. I also found that the game play is well balanced as a whole and that the Level 1 character that you first start off as with has ample opportunities to gather enough experience points in order to advance to the next level. There are many side quests that your fantasy persona can complete and most of them are in a way very much connected with the main quest so finding out about them are not that difficult.

As part of the draw of CRPG gaming, game characters try to collect items that would make them better combatants or at least let them survive longer in the game world. In SoU, many new items not see in the previous installments have been added to help the gamer to build their characters. Those I have seen to date are quite balanced in terms of the pros and cons of using the equipment which makes the inventory management portion of the game quite challenging. One additional new feature of the SoU is that the gamer now has more control of the main character’s quest companion. As in NVN, the player could choose to travel with a sidekick that if well chosen complements the main characters. In SoU, this idea is taken further by allowing to player to manage the companion’s inventory and equipped items to make it a more effective force in dealing with the multitude of new monsters included in the game. Another interesting change is that the companions offered in this expansion pack are all multi-classed which solved the problem of selecting the best traveling companion to bring to the quest that gamers had in NWN.

I’ve only completed the 1st and Interlude chapters of SoU to date but I’m sure that I will be engaged in the game for many weeks if not months to come. With the same quality of engaging game story, graphics and sound designs, SoU is a well crafted addition to the NVN series. Most of the new additions first seen in this installment are welcomed and adds to the enjoyment of the game play. The character development in the game is well balanced that I’m surprised that my game character managed to get up to a 9th level Monk/1st level Ranger by the beginning of Chapter 2 of this game. While I am not sure if there is an experience cap as they had in the first game, this signals to me that the monsters to come would be more challenging and game play would be more interesting in the next 3 chapters. As a whole, “Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide” is a good addition to the CRPG genre and a worthwhile diversion into the fantasy gaming world.

I just hope that I would have enough time to play my monk/ranger character before the release the next installment of the game.

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