Can I skip to the dessert?

The culprit: Neverwinter Nights (PC, Mac)

Boob attack!Neverwinter Nights, released in 2002, was BioWare’s follow-up to the hugely popular Baldur’s Gate series, and the question was whether they could replicate their success. While the game is also based on Dungeons & Dragons rules – 3rdEdition this time – the focus is very different, emphasising the multiplayer aspect, as well as encouraging players to create their own content via the Aurora toolset (shipped with the game). The latter was probably a result of all the mods that flourished for BG, ensuring a robust following for the game over the years and a lot of fan-made content. Three official expansion packs were released, of which only the first two – Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark (2003) – constitute a whole with the original game. The third one, Kingmaker (2004), consists of three standalone stories, or premium modules, that BioWare released as a way to milk more cash get more mileage out of the game.

So what’s the verdict? Well, despite its popularity, NWN was a disappointment for me, partly because I’m not interested in multiplayer, but mostly because I just found it boring. It was the first WRPG I tried, but it didn’t spark my interest in the genre. Good thing I gave Mass Effect and Dragon Age a try a few years later, or I might have missed out on WRPGs completely. NWN is unique in two ways in my eyes: it’s the only game I know where the original campaign (OC) and the expansions deliberately star two distinct protagonists, and the only one where the expansions are more interesting than the OC. In fact, I have a hard time remembering the OC’s storyline or characters, who cut a poor figure by comparison with BG (with a small handful of exceptions).

There are several other significant steps back from BG, such as a dramatically reduced party size, minimal control over companions or a clunky inventory system. Moreover, She really likes swordsdespite the effort to up the ante on graphics, I would much rather have kept the tiny character models from BG than the deformed bunches of polygons on display here. Voice acting is generally poor, and both protagonists are even more of a blank slate than in BG. And then there’s Aribeth, who, while not being a step back per se, is just incredibly annoying. Clearly a pet character designed by one of the developers–complete with over-sexualised armour and lascivious poses–, she’s presented as such a big deal that it becomes aggravating. Everybody loves her and pities her when trouble comes calling. She even monopolises the game’s promotional artwork.

So why should you play NWN? Well, perhaps you value combat or multiplayer above storyline and character development, in which case you will likely enjoy it a lot more than I did. Or maybe you’re curious about player-created content. Or perhaps you’ll genuinely like Aribeth and sympathise with her issues. More importantly, the game just gets better in the expansions: while SoU is a bit pedestrian, it does introduce chattier companions, including the lovable dork known as Deekin. HotU finishes things off with a bang, as you finally get the ability to form an actual party and proper interaction with interesting characters (Valen and Nathyrra), including romances that amount to more than just “I like you, but we’ve got more important stuff to sort out right now”. You also get interesting options for dealing with the final boss. All in all, think of it as a dinner with a lacklustre main course, a tolerable cheese platter and a tasty dessert. This isn’t BioWare’s strongest effort, and it shows, but it does have some redeeming qualities.

A remake entitled Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition was released by Beamdog in 2018. It includes both expansions, as well as all of the premium modules released over the years, as well as the usual bug fixes and graphical improvements. It also makes multiplayer easier, as the old servers have now been shut down. So if you’re interested in the multiplayer aspects of the game and want as much content as possible, this is the version to go for.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate II (PC, Mac)

Empty heartReleased in 2000, two years after its predecessor wowed the gaming community, Baldur’s Gate II faced the difficult task of being a direct sequel to a massive hit. And while some of the choices it makes are questionable (notably in terms of reducing exploration and a weaker villain), the end result is still largely successful, and the game has, nowadays, become more popular than Baldur’s Gate. The basics still apply: the setting is the same, the mechanics are the same, and the storyline picks up right where the first game ended, albeit on a significantly darker note. The game is still vast and involved, and contains extensive dialogue that may make modern-day players hesitate. However, the interface has been updated and the class system refined, with three new additions and kits for every other existing class. Combat has been made more strategic and more difficult. Moreover, the cast has been streamlined, even though some characters make a comeback from the first game. This is, however, a case of favouring quality over quantity, as the existing characters have a lot more interaction with each other and are more fleshed out. What’s more, this is the first BioWare game to introduce romances, which add more depth to interaction and have become one of the company’s trademarks. Although, I’d say that the most charismatic members of the cast are still returning characters from BG.

Other than that, the game has both a grander scope and a tighter focus: instead of roaming about countless outdoor areas with little to differentiate them and next to no motivation to do so besides curiosity–although this may be the very definition of adventure for some–, the action is now set in several large locations and seldom wanders outside of them. The plot also involves greater stakes, since the protagonist has been revealed as none other than an offspring of the defunct God of Murder, Bhaal, and must now deal with said heritage and those who would prey on it. An expansion titled Throne of Bhaal was released a year later, in 2001, in order to conclusively address the question of the protagonist’s divine ambitions or lack thereof.

Due to its greater overall popularity, the game has also spawned a LOT of mods–in other words, player-created content–thus allowing you to customise your gaming experience even more. Just as with the first game, some of the available stuff is either indispensable from a technical point of view (bug fixing, ease-of-use) or, when it’s additional content, extremely well written, to the extent that I couldn’t imagine playing without it. All this content is still actively supported by an enthusiastic and committed player community, which, for a 15-year old game, is damn impressive and a testimony to its quality. Of course, it’s not perfect and has its share of annoyances and aggravations, even after being modded, and, to a modern-day player, it may feel dated and somewhat clunky. But don’t let superficial concerns keep you from one the best WRPGs ever created, especially if you enjoyed the first one. This is BioWare in top form, and it shows.

"Hey, y'all, this is a great game!"

A remake called Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was released in 2013 by Beamdog studios, incorporating both Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal. It includes many of the fixes and tweaks that previously required mods, but also brings back the three new characters that were added by the Enhanced Edition of BG, as well as adding three more. The main problem is that not all the mods it hasn’t rendered obsolete are compatible with it. However, the modding community has been hard at work, and that problem has been almost entirely addressed. Emphasis on the “almost”, but it’s only a matter of time.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

A hard nut to crack

The culprit: Baldur’s Gate + Tales of the Sword Coast (PC, Mac)

Under a blood-red skyIf you’re a fan of RPGs in general, and WRPGs in particular, you will have heard of Baldur’s Gate. Even more than a decade after its release, this game is still considered a milestone for the genre, despite the dated graphics, the perfunctory voice acting and the staggeringly complex combat system. There’s even an Enhanced Edition currently in the works. Baldur’s Gate was also responsible for propelling its developer, the Canadian studio BioWare, to fame, establishing it as one of the most successful WRPG creators for years to come. And while they’ve recently suffered a massive decline in quality, this game was made back in their glory days.I won’t lie: it takes some getting used to. It has quite a few flaws and kinks, some very annoying, some only mildly aggravating, and a modern-day player, used to shiny graphics, fully-voiced dialogue, speed and streamlined combat mechanics, might find it difficult to like. Still, if you can get past its shortcomings, there’s also a lot of great stuff, particularly if you consider the saga as a whole. Kind of like a nut: you have to crack the shell first to get to the good part, but that good part is what you remember afterwards. The game is vast, detailed, involved and Verbosenot afraid to take its time (sometimes excessively). It features extensive dialogue, a very large cast of characters which includes some truly memorable individuals (something BioWare is renowned for and still does well) and a compelling storyline. It’s biased towards male players, as all games used to be back in the day, but that’s hardly a shocker and doesn’t really prevent it from being enjoyable.

The main difference between JRPGs and WRPGs is the latter’s emphasis on choice, which is abundantly present here. The protagonist is essentially a blank slate for you, All hail Tolkienthe player, to customise to your heart’s content, and, for someone used to JRPGs as I was, this kind of freedom is genuinely a breath of fresh air. Baldur’s Gate is as typical as WRPGs get, being based on a pre-existing high fantasy setting (i.e. a medieval environment, abundant borrowing from Tolkien–elves, dwarves, halflings, the whole nine yards–, and a pantheon of deities who actively influence the lives of their worshippers), the Forgotten Realms, which had previously been featured in tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games and several books. While it creates some continuity issues with the latter, they are not necessary to understand the game’s premise, and you can perfectly well head into it without ever having heard of the Realms before. The one big hurdle to leap is understanding the combat system, but you don’t necessarily need to master all its intricacies to have a working grasp on things.

PC games have this advantage over their console counterparts that they are much more open to player involvement. By that, I mean modding: various and sundry additions, written and implemented by players themselves. This can range from bug fixing, to restoring cut content, tweaking the combat system, adding customised weapons and armour, or even creating entirely new quests and characters. As luck would have it, the Baldur’s Gate modding community is still very active, even after all this time, and the game is thus blessed with an extensive array of goodies to pick from to improve your experience. Some of them–specifically, the ones that fix bugs and rebalance the game–are pretty much indispensable. Others are so well-written that I couldn’t imagine playing the game without them. This isn’t to disparage the original developers’ efforts–which, after all, have resulted in a game that people still want to play after more than ten years–, but many dedicated modders have produced amazing things. In the end, this makes Baldur’s Gate an impressive collaborative venture: a game which is only further enriched by its audience. And that is an undeniable quality.

Detailed review available! Read more here.