Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review - Neverwinter Nights 2

Neverwinter Nights 2 is the second game to be developed by Obsidian Entertainment, a group with a highly reputable flair for roleplaying games. Much like Knights of the Old Republic 2 (Obsidian's first game), Neverwinter Nights 2 is a sequel to a highly successful Bioware game of the same name (you know, without the 2 after it). For the most part, Obsidian does a good job of making a game that lives up to its predecessor's caliber, but technical issues and a confusing story blemish what could have been a spectacular roleplaying experience.

If you've played the original Neverwinter Nights, everything should be pretty familiar here. The game is based on Dungeons and Dragons' 3.5 edition, which incorporates some new rules or whatnot. What matters is the game makes the pen and paper dynamic transition smoothly into a semi-realtime computer game. Neverwinter Nights 2 features updated graphics, updated party and influence system, and an all new epic tale with which you use as an excuse to get super powerful and beat everybody else up. Oh, and don't forget the roleplaying. Every choice you make has consequences.

Gameplay - 4/5

For the most part, Neverwinter Nights 2 was great fun to play. If you're at all familiar with the Dungeons and Dragons system, it's pretty much fully implemented in all its glory here. Choose a gender, race, and class to start off with from over a dozen possibilities for each option (except gender, that would just be weird). Gain levels by completing quests and defeating monsters, and once you're powerful enough, new prestige classes open up to you. Find and purchase powerful equipment, blast down your foes with powerful spells, learn specialized feats that give you new fighting tricks...just about everything a good RPG needs is here.

NWN2 seamlessly transitions the pen and paper rules to the computer screen, much as the original did. Combat is in semi-realtime as the computer rolls hidden dice behind the screen to determine your success and failure in everything from basic attacks to the success of your spells. While this might sound dull, it ends up being a pretty exciting experience, especially once you hit the later levels when you get 3+ attacks every six seconds or five enemies are swarming on your position just as you get off that defensive spell.

Graphics & Sound - 3.5/5

Here's where things start to disappoint a little. Neverwinter Nights wasn't known for its revolutionary graphics, and neither will Neverwinter Nights 2 be. While the environments are nice enough to look at, they're certainly nothing special - not even close to Oblivion's quality. Further, all of the character models are pretty much just downright UGLY. Maybe it's my shallowness, but playing an ugly character just makes me sad. I'm ugly enough in real life, I'd like to think the people I play in games could be a tad nicer-looking. The in-game cinematics (of which there are maybe one or two) are also rather sloppy-looking. While the introduction movie was impressive to watch, the actual in-game movies are basically powerpoint presentations with narration. Spell effects were probably the only thing that was satisfying visually in the game.

The sound in NWN2 was disappointing. I was expecting an all-new epic score for the game, but instead I found that the developers had decided to just reuse the old soundtrack. Frankly, I'm pretty sick of hearing that music (which, in my opinion, is some of Jeremy Soule's less inspiring work). There are a few new tracks here and there which overall are pretty good, but the fact that most of the music was recycled...

Perhaps the only thing redeeming about the sound would be the great voice-actors for the game. Every line spoken by major characters is fully-voiced over and most characters have an effective and competent voice actor to bring new life to their personalities.

Story - 3.5/5

...and then there's the story. You can tell that the developers tried real hard to make a good just doesn't flow as well as it should have. Obsidian really seems to have trouble making a coherent and complete story in its games (KotOR 2 was similarly plagued by a confusing and rushed storyline). Basically, an ancient evil is awakening (guh, not again), and you are destined to stop it (guh!). The storyline sounds generic enough, but one of Obsidian's few successes is to manage to make this foundation expand into something much, much more interesting. Along the way of saving the world, you'll tango with dangerous assassins, stand trial, discover ancient secrets, and so much more. Where these things all connect is where the game kind of falls apart, but that doesn't mean the individual parts weren't good.

The character interaction in the game is truly the shining point here. Your party will eventually consist of around ten companions, each with a distinct personality, and each unafraid to speak their mind - and they may even betray or abandon you if they don't like the way you're treating them. Your interaction with your companions is really one of the best parts of the game, as you get closer to them, they'll spill their life secrets, and new side-quests will open up for you. Not only that, but your companions will interact amongst themselves. One of the most memorable scenes is a tavern scene where your companions start trading insults at one another. It's a hilarious and well-scripted event, and it's things like this that give Neverwinter Nights 2 its own unique touch.

Unfortunately, the story as a whole is weak in comparison, especially towards the end. Going through main quest felt very...deja-vu. Often times you will be forced to ask the same questions to different plot-important characters, even if you don't care or already know what they're going to say. Further, the entire treatment of the story is confusing and hard to follow at times. While the main story arcs are satisfying in themselves, it's hard to see how it all comes together - rather, it feels more like you're using the same character to play through random events strung together with yarn.

The ending was abysmal. I don't want to ruin anything, but it was a complete cop-out. Not only that, but the ending narration sounded like they had a random executive producer come out of his hole in the dirt and start reading. Hugely disappointing, especially considering the high quality of the voice-acting in the rest of the game.

Still, overall Neverwinter Nights 2 was a great gaming experience. I know I had a lot of criticism for the game, but it's only because I had such high hopes for it. After all, it is the sequel to a fantastic game, and was developed by a reputable game developer. But don't get me wrong - NWN2 has its shortcomings, but I can not deny that I didn't enjoy it while it lasted.

Overall Score: 4/5

Monday, January 15, 2007


Oh my god.

That is about all that I can say about 24's latest season. The first four episodes...oh my god. Oh my god.

Oh my god.

Suffice it to say that 24 has not lost its touch. Its predisposition for almost unbelievable plot twists and tense, pounding dramatic action is still there. And so is Jack, in all his holy glory.

But oh my god.

I knew I should have started to suspect something when things were going a little too swimmingly. And then the last 5 minutes of the 4th episode happened. My mind was completely blown. I could not believe that what happened had just happened.

That is the best part of 24, of course. The show isn't afraid to set off bombs, depict gruesome torture, or kill off main characters. It's not afraid to make huge world-changing gestures for story. And that's what makes it so compelling, and riveting, and sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat-pee-all-over-yourself good.

Not that I did that of course.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Review - Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI

First, a shout out to Concord who has started his very own movie/tv/games review blog. Visit his blog at:

Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI (San Guo Zhi 11) is Koei's latest installment of its long-running and highly successful historical simulation turn-based strategy games. Combining a revamped graphics engine and all-new tactical gameplay, San Guo 11 is by far the best in the series (that I have played - I didn't actually manage to find copies of 9 or 10). Set in historical China, the game follows the epic story of the Three Kingdoms era. Players can choose to conquer China from the perspectives of various warlords, play specific scenarios and famous historical battles, or even create their own generals and officers to introduce into the dramatic saga.

If you've played any of these games before, however, you'll know that those features I just listed are pretty much staples of the San Guo series. What sets San Guo 11 apart from its predecessors is its stylized graphics engine, and the introduction of new units, tactics, and general strategy. Add that to streamlined gameplay and engaging tactical battles, and Koei has really created the best San Guo game in a decade.

Gameplay - 4.5/5

Like its predecessors, San Guo 11 has gameplay that is basically separated into two parts: managing one's cities and managing battlefields. City Management this time around is now much more similar to Age of Empires, where specific buildings need to be constructed in order to provide cities with various resources. For example, markets are needed to provide cities with income, while farms are needed to supply food and rations. Build a barracks to recruit troops, build a blacksmith to forge various weapons, and build a shipyard to allow for sea travel. This new take on city management is much more appealing than in the previous versions of the game, where you basically assigned officers to improve "invisible" aspects of each city. Amidst all the construction, you also have to take into consideration the level of unrest in your city, train your troops, and manage your officers' loyalty. All these factors really force you to plan out your strategy for defeating enemies - Are you going to spend that last reserve of gold for more troops? Or will you spend it on building more markets to increase income in the future?

San Guo's turn-based battles have been hit and miss in the past. 11 is definitely a hit. There are three main types of troops you can deploy, who share a rock-paper-scissors relationship. Spearmen defeat Cavalry, while Cavalry defeat Axemen, and Axemen defeat Spearmen. Further, there are various other units including archers, battering rams, trebuchets, all of which have their own set of unique tactics that can be used on the battlefield. Not only that, but each unit type can eventually be upgraded to have even more abilities. For example, Cavalry can be upgraded to be able to equip bows, making for a deadly combination of speed and range. Spearmen can learn to steal enemy rations when attacking, decreasing morale. Add to that the option of using subterfuge and the ability to have your generals duke it out in one-on-one duels, this game is littered with strategic options and depth. Well planned out strikes are extremely satisfying, as you watch your forces push back significantly larger armies with special tactics and carefully positioned strikes.

Graphics & Sound - 4/5

The series' greatest weakness has always been its graphics, but San Guo 11 has broken through the stereotype by having a very appealing and stylized presentation. The interface is easily accessible and bordered by chinese-style clouds and architecture. Further, the game uses a cel-shaded graphics engine that manages to suit the atmosphere very well. There really is a sense of ancient China as you watch hundreds of little cavalry and spearman units charging at each other. Duels and Debates in the game are similarly impressive-looking. Rather than the static sprites or bland art from the previous series, San Guo 11 opted to flesh out its cel-designs to have very detailed armor and animations for these specific battles. The end result is impressive and almost cinematic.

Sound is standard. The music is fitting, with sweeping orchestral melodies during times of peace that switch to pounding and tense drums during war. As the player conquers more and more of China, the overland tune becomes more and more dramatic and invigorating.

Story - 4/5

Of course, the main core of the story is taken from the actual San Guo novels, but the execution here is very well done. Each scenario is preceded by a nice cinematic, and players have the option of watching actual events in the novels unfold during gameplay. Stand back and watch as the tyrannical Dong Zhuo is betrayed by his most powerful general, the insidious Lu Bu. Watch as the blood-brothers Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei court the most revered of tacticians, Zhuge Liang. Regardless of which warlord you play as, events unfold as you begin to establish a major foothold in China. Choose to either support the last of the Han Dynasty, or to crush it and establish a new empire of your own. Form alliances with like-minded warlords, or break them to seize new territory. However you choose to conquer China - As the people's liberator or the merciless dictator - your name will be forever etched in the minds of all its citizens.

Overall Score: 4.5/5

San Guo 11 has exceeded my expectations for the series by a huge leap. Its one weakness is inherent to all San Guo games - the length. It takes a long time to conquer China, and if you don't have the patience to sit down and spend a good chunk of your life to do it, you probably shouldn't waste your time trying. This is not for the casual player. But for those of you who enjoy deep and engrossing tactical gameplay, I can not recommend this enough to you. English players, expect a port to the PS2 in early February 2007!

...Oh, and did I mention if you beat the game you can unlock special abilities for your generals? There's nothing quite like raining down lightning from the sky to smite your enemies. :)