Neverwinter Nights 2: Mysteries of Westgate Review
A funny thing happened on the way to releasing the first official add-on content for Neverwinter Nights 2, which was to be an 'adventure pack' called 'Mysteries of Westgate' by Ossian Studios: Atari, the publisher of the add-on, couldn't figure out how to properly protect the content from piracy, which began a series of issues leading to more than a year and a half of delays. During that time we have seen the release of the sublime Mask of the Betrayer and the innovative Storm of Zehir. Finally, after yet another delay that took the entire month of April to figure out international distribution details, we get to play Mysteries of Westgate. So was it worth the wait? Let's take a look.
A few things: first, because this is a $10 'adventure pack', I'll look at it in much the same way as I did the DLC packs for Fallout 3. Next, because this is an add-on pack I will not knock it for things that are inherent parts of the NWN2 infrastructure, such as long load times and camera / path-finding issues. Finally, I cannot avoid discussing the DRM (digital rights management) system Atari implemented for Mysteries of Westgate.
While the game doesn't require an internet connection at startup as the 'Premium Modules' for the original Neverwinter Nights did, Atari needed to figure out some way to protect 'non exe' installations such as these adventure packs. They opted for an online authentication system tied to a serial number. The controversy, of course, is around the installation limits - you are allowed three 'activations' across different PC's. That has become fairly standard at this point, but the contention for many is the fact that there are no options to revoke an activation. Once you use them up, you need to go crawling to Atari to get another one (presuming they are still in business at that point), and there are some definite gray areas around what sorts of hardware changes will and will not trigger the need for a new activation. I'll discuss this more when addressing the value proposition later in the review.
I was very interested in this module from the outset, and felt confident it would be worth the money, play time and ultimately the tremendous delays. Why the confidence? Back in 2005 I wrote an article for GamerDad on the Neverwinter Nights Premium Modules (I updated it in 2006 after the final releases in the series, you can read it here). In the article I highlighted each of the six modules. Six? But there are only five official modules! That is true - the sixth was called Darkness Over Daggerford, which was canceled when Atari pulled the plug on the program ... only to reinstate it to release Wyvern Crown of Cormyr some months later. There are three ironies around Daggerford - first, it was developed by none other than Ossian Studios. Second, as I said in the article "It is perhaps ironic that my favorite of the Premium Modules is the one that was canceled and released for free." The third irony is that the company who was negatively impacted by Atari's waffling decisions on the Premium Module program is the same one impacted by their issues with figuring out security for these adventure packs.
And, unlike the Fallout 3 DLC, I'm not making any effort to keep to a word count - but there is a lot to talk about, so let's get right to it!
What's It All About
The plot summary reads: "Set in the infamous Forgotten Realms city of Westgate, players find themselves in possession of a powerful but cursed treasure that threatens to destroy them. Linked to the underworld organization known as the Night Masks, the treasure will draw players into a city-spanning clash between warring factions. Players must choose their allegiance in order to break the curse and ultimately uncover a plot that threatens Westgate itself".
The 'powerful but cursed treasure' is a domino mask that belongs to the Night Masks. There have been references to this infamous group in previous games, but their real fame comes from their part in R. A. Salvatore's Cleric Quintet novels released in the early 1990s. This is a feared and dangerous band of assassins who were sent to kill Cadderly in their titular book of that series, and they are painted as a dark and extremely efficient group of killers who never (well, aside from the whole 'killing Cadderly' thing) fail to get their mark. So for anyone familiar with the background lore, this sets up a compelling tale that is sure to be dark and deadly and full of twists and moral conflicts.
The opening divulges the core of your main quest - the mask was found in with other treasure in the depth of a dungeon, and it won't let you get rid of it. Nightmares have been plaguing you since you discovered it, and at the advice of a Sage of Cormyr you travel to Westgate where the Night Masks have their home in order to learn how to get rid of this troubling artifact. The game consists of a relatively small area - it all happens in the town of Westgate, where you arrive by boat at the beginning. There are three main sections - Harbor District, Market District and Arena District. Given that Ossian talked about a 8 - 15 hour play time, it is clear there is much more going on within each area.
How Does It Play?
Let me be very clear up front: if you didn't like NWN2 or either of the expansions you are unlikely to enjoy this. I say that first because between the three releases we have seen the introduction of a new AD&D game system with plenty of new features and a fairly interesting story (NWN2), an expansion with some of the best writing in recent years (Mask of the Betrayer) and an expansion with loads of innovative features, plenty of combat, but a fairly thin plot (Storm of Zehir). I also mention it because NWN2 has caused loads of heated discussion on both sides in just about every forum I frequent. So if you haven't found a hook, chances are it is related to the underlying system and that dislike will ruin this adventure for you.
For everyone else, I found the scope to fall somewhere in between all of these: there is a strong emphasis on making solid use of the core systems of the original game, there is some top-notch writing and an emphasis on role-playing, and there is plenty of combat including some very challenging fights. As with most add-ons of this type, it is more in line with what one would expect from console DLC than from a full-blown expansion in terms of changes made to the underlying systems. So, for those who were looking for break-out features like the stronghold or overland map found in Darkness Over Daggerford, that sort of thing isn't here. What you get instead is a wonderfully crafted adventure with loads of side-trips and interesting characters that remind me of something else I said in my Daggerford review "the game offers tremendous gameplay ... that make it hard to believe this is just a 'module'".
In terms of writing, you will find something interesting at every turn. The main plot is interesting and full of twists and turns, some of which are fairly predictable and others are surprising. The characters you encounter are fully drawn and provide both insight and color into the world around you. There are sixteen side quests aside from all of the quests associated with completing the main story. Some of these quests are pretty straightforward, but others will stay with you for much of the game, at times making you wonder if they will tie into the main quest. There is a great mix of humor and pathos, of witty party banter and more serious over-arching exposition.
The role-playing aspects are also done very well done and nicely integrated. Mysteries of Westgate continues the trend of Darkness Over Daggerford by taking alignment very seriously, and also making full use of the NWN2 party influence system. You are set up with a party of three other characters, but don't always have to take all of them with you - in fact, you will sometimes find that having everyone hampers your ability to make certain choices without feeling the consequences. Personally I kept the party together at all times, feeling that removing someone who would oppose a decision (and with whom I would therefore lose influence) was 'gaming the system'.
The side quests and party banter and little choices along the way combine with some larger choices in the main quest to make you feel in control of your destiny. Even better, the choices are not all the typical 'Take my money and I'll still do your quest / I'll do your quest for good amounts of gold / I'll kill you, take your gold and then complete the quest to get more gold' variety. There are options throughout to make use of your dialog skills, and even the non-skill choices are nuanced enough to be satisfying. You even get to choose when and how to assert yourself - there are times when you can just stand by and listen as your party decides how to proceed.
All of these things figure in to how your party thinks of you - there are times when you gain favor with all party members, but those are very rare. More often a situation impacts your standing with one or two characters. There was one particularly tricky exchange where I had a hard time choosing a course of action, as your dialog skills all fail - the one I chose ended up neutral with the whole party but I got a couple of remarks positive and negative. When I went back to my last save and took a different route I got improved influence with one member but diminished influence with the other two.
When it comes to combat, Mysteries of Westgate has a little something for everyone. There are plenty of options to avoid battles using skills, plenty of fights that are fairly simple, and more than a few fights that will probably have you reloading your last save and thinking of a better strategy to attack the next time. I remember having played for nearly an hour and not having gotten into any major battles despite being fully engaged in the story, then entering an area that landed me in a major battle that took out my entire party ... twice. Apparently my NWN2 skills were a bit rusty, so I went back to my save again, made sure everything was set in my inventory and spell slots, buffed everyone up and made it through. It was certainly not the only time that happened: there is an opportunity to fight against a series of opponents, with one battle presenting an awesome challenge that took me two tries - and even then I only escaped with the main character standing with about 10% health remaining!
But as I said, the game isn't just about fighting, nor is it just about the storytelling. I was constantly impressed how well paced and balanced the game was - for every time you needed to clear a house of some pests, there was a light exchange with a protestor or drunken begger on the street. For every massive battle, there was challenging puzzle; and for every bit of backtracking through Westgate there was also some deep and engaging dialogue. And while there were plenty of 'good guys' and 'bad guys', there were many more folks who were conflicted and flawed - indeed your whole party is filled with characters seeking answers and guidance and fulfillment of things from their past.
Technically the game is definitely a mixed bag. I would say it is more polished than Daggerford, as I never ran into any significant quest issues. There were two minor problems I ran into - one time I needed to find a specific location in a tavern which resulted in a frustrating amount of extraneous clicking to determine where 'over there' actually was. Another time, a poem was given which is critical to the completion of a puzzle, but a quest update removes it from your journal right before you are going to need it. I went back to a previous save without losing much time, but it clearly could have been handled better.
The graphics and sound are handled very similarly to the core game, with rudimentary animations during conversations and partially voiced conversations. The background music is beautiful and there has clearly been new stuff added and it helps with the atmosphere. What detracts from the immersion is the fact that very little of the dialogue is voiced, and that it isn't always consistent. Looking back it felt as though the development team decided where they absolutely needed voice-acting, and after completing that recorded as much as they could to fill in other areas. There were times I was surprised to hear voice acting, and other times I was surprised by not hearing anything. However, since I tend to depend much more on reading the written lines in games like this, it was never immersion breaking or distraction.
Finally, performance and camera control have always been issues with Neverwinter Nights 2. The initial release was a resource pig that performed poorly for many gamers, and while subsequent patches have greatly improved that situation, it is still a game that requires more resources than one would expect based on the graphics, sound and size of areas. In general I experienced flawless performance with a couple of odd slowdown moments immediately after loading the game. I restarted and things worked perfectly. As for the camera, I finally feel like they have gotten the view control handled properly. While there are more options than in the original NWN, I had a hard time finding that 'just right' setting. And I would still occasionally send the camera flying high or low on occasion, but in general I was pleased with how the 'chase cam' worked in the Westgate setting.
What is the value proposition?
My first instinct on the value proposition is this: you get a game that is bigger, better, deeper and more fun than the majority of new AAA releases, and you get it for $10? So I would say buy it, Buy It, BUY IT ALREADY! But there is one little caveat - DRM.
When the discussion of limited activations comes up, someone invariably asks 'how many time do you REALLY need to activate it?' with the insinuation that it is more about being anti-DRM than actually looking for a sensible solution. When that comes up specific to the Neverwinter Nights franchise, I mention that I have installed the NWN Premium Modules up to 8 or 9 times since initial release on different computers. I know I go through computers quicker than the average person - something I chalk up to my choice to game on laptops - but the point is this: I would have been unable to play Mysteries of Westgate anymore over a year ago after I traded off the last computer I had from 2007 in order to buy a sweet new unibody Macbook Pro. And really - should it matter? Should gamers have to justify themselves if they like to reformat their computers monthly, change video cards and hard disks quarterly, or get entirely new computer twice a year?
The flip side of that is the amount of content: between the main quest and the sixteen optional side-quests I estimate I spent over 20 hours playing through, plus a few more with a second character (a Cleric named Cadderly ... go figure!).
But given the price for this module - 10 pounds / dollars / euros - and that you are looking at about twenty hours of gaming, the cost for a single run through is about 0.5 dollars per gaming hour, which is not a bad value. Add to that the replayability due to different classes, alignment, influence, choices and consequences, and you have quite a bit of value to extract from this little module. My final thought on value is just a reminder that this module costs the same as the two Fallout 3 DLC modules, yet offers more in every way - more play time, better writing, ideas and characters, and infinitely more replayability.
So in terms of the final value proposition, I would rate this as a 'must have' module in spite of the activation limitations. There is too much quality writing and questing and role-playing available here to get hung up on the activation issues. And while I can hardly believe I just wrote that sentence, the truth is that while we hold some influence over how things proceed, the influence is ambiguous: not buying could mean that we are protesting DRM, tired of D&D games, bored with round-based combat, or abandoning PC gaming. Buying the module and sending a letter to Atari protesting the DRM, however, would show that you are a paying customer who is tired of being treated like a potential criminal.
Mysteries of Westgate is priced like a little module but performs like a full expansion - once again Ossian Studios has delivered in a big way for the Neverwinter Nights franchise! From the engaging story to the well thought out characters and side quests to the challenging combat, I was sorry when I knew I was getting to the end. There are clear boundaries to the amount of content, but that never makes the game feel small. There is plenty to do throughout and the developers did a great job at blurring the distinction between main quests and side quests by wrapping optional content in the vested interests of members of your party. It is a small thing, but just another way Ossian showed once again that they are very skilled at delivering a solid gaming experience for role-playing fans.
Information aboutNeverwinter Nights 2: Mysteries of Westgate
Developer: Ossian Studios
Combat: Pausable Real-time
Play-time: 10-20 hours
Voice-acting: Partially voiced
Regions & platforms
· Platform: PC
· Released at 2009-04-29
· Publisher: Atari