New Heights of Mediocrity: NWN 2

As I predicted in 2006, I finally gave in and bought Neverwinter Nights 2. But I have an excuse: I was able to expense it to write a review.

I had one major complaint with the original Neverwinter Nights, which was that the camera management was intrusive. As far as I was concerned, to have a decent launch for NWN 2, Obsidian needed to do two things:

1. Add new campaigns to basically the same game. 2. Make the camera less annoying.

Instead, Obsidian added new campaigns to a slower, crashier version of the same game and made the camera the worst to ever appear in a game.

For now, let’s set aside the bugs and the crashes and the performance problems (although I’ll return to this later). Let’s just talk about the game that producers at Obsidian, who apparently hate America, intended to make. Let’s talk about the camera.

The camera in NWN 2 is so bad that it may indirectly cause the downfall of Western Civilization. If you set out to design a video game with the worst camera possible, you could not design one as bad as the camera in Neverwinter Nights 2. To put this into perspective, if you designed a game where the camera was forced to point at a brick wall in some city and stay there while your party went off and adventured through the countryside several hundred miles away, that camera would be better than the one in Neverwinter Nights 2.

The camera is completely uncontrollable. The most sensitive mouse movement will send the camera spinning off into Neverland. Each camera adjustment has to be approached carefully, like a weasel to which a snake’s poison fangs have been added via horrible, unspeakable surgery. “Hmm,” you tell yourself. “I want to make the camera point to the east.” So you move the mouse around, and the camera swings to the south, then the north, then the southeast, then the northeast, and eventually it is pointing south-southeast and the thing you want to look at is half on screen and you decide that you’re going to leave well enough alone and live with it. So you let go of the mouse, which causes it to shake by half a millimeter, and the camera moves again so that your entire field of view is blocked by a wall.

Ironically, all of this forced fiddliness is enough to distract you from the realization that, likely as not, the camera can’t point at what you want it to point at. There are three separate camera modes, each of which changes the meanings of every possible mouse gesture, and changes the rules by which the camera can be moved. In one mode, for example, you can rotate the camera but not translate it, so any attempt to look forward trains the camera primarily on your character’s bald spot. In another mode, you can’t rotate via the mouse at all, but you can translate a small (read: useless) number of feet in any direction. In the third mode, you can both rotate and translate, which you accomplish by throwing your mouse through the goddamned computer screen and shouting obscenities at it until you die.

Now here’s the real punch line: remember what I said before about performance problems? Apparently this is one of the complaints many players have had about the game (it runs fine for me, if I ignore the crashes, on my Windows box). Presumably the game performs poorly because of the expense of rendering the more detailed player and monster models. Models which you can’t appreciate, because the only way to make the game even remotely playable is to zoom the camera out to Diablo 2 distances or beyond. So as near as I can tell, Obsidian has made the game literally unplayable on some people’s systems in the interest of rendering graphics that no one can actually see.

What makes this even more poignant is that each additional expansion pack for NWN 2 has introduced completely new major gameplay features, but not (in my opinion) substantially fixed the camera problems. (I’m told they’re “better” now, but I presume this is some “Here we are in Chernobyl drinking radioactive water — at least we’re not in a forced labor camp in the Gulag!” definition of “better”). I’m imagining a world where every year car manufacturers introduce a newer, bigger Pinto with leather seats and GPS that still, every so often, bursts into flame. (Consider this wiki’s explanation of how to “improve” the camera. And you thought you escaped from this sort of thing when you stopped running X Windows).

What’s mystifying is that this isn’t a failure of some unimportant, peripheral aspect of the game. This is part of the game’s core user interaction model, and it’s an abject failure. Fans of the game will argue that the game is full of well-scripted, dramatic moments, interesting plot twists, and lovingly modeled RPG mechanics. I have no doubt that these fans are right. But none of that can change the fact that, at least as I’ve played it, 80% of my time is spent managing the part of the game that is, quite simply, completely broken. And that’s more tragic than anything in the game’s plot.

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