With all the great console games coming out this holiday season, it’s easy to overlook two small releases from Atari which haven’t received much face time on ad banners compared to some of the big games. Due to my extreme admiration for PC gaming, I have been following both these titles since they were first reported. Finally within the last month, both of them found their way onto my PC. Mask of the Betrayer requires the original Neverwinter Nights 2 game to play while The Witcher is its own game. While they are both excellent games, they are also very different from each other while using the same engine. It’ll make more sense as you read on.
Like I mentioned above, both games are published by Atari and they use some form of Bioware’s Aurora Engine to create the visuals. They are both RPGs with complex story-driven plots and isometic cameras. However for enthusiasts of a more down-to-earth camera, they both over an OTS (over the shoulder) camera mode to be more close to the action. So why did I mention both of these games? It’s because they’re different, and they both try to shift the focus of modern RPGs from being a happy-go-lucky good guy to one of moral ambiguity.
Before I start to talk about either game, I’d like to mention that since they both use the Aurora Engine or a variation thereof, they both have fairly long load times even for a PC game. Many RPGs have horrendously long and frequent load times (more on this at a later date) compared to other genres such as sports, FPS and puzzles. While you can disable autosave in NWN2, there is currently no way to do it in The Witcher save for a future patch. This load time is especially prevalent in outdoor settings where there’s many NPCs and visual detail to cache. Anyhow, let’s talk about the individual games now.
Another thing I have against the (new) Aurora Engine is the way conversations are held. Instead of the old pop-up dialog box where your character still had free movement, a cut-scene style conversation like in Knights of the Old Republic appears. Like KOTOR, this conversation style was most likely adopted for use on consoles, and thus taints the later PC variants using the same engine. While this puts more focus on the conversation and who is speaking, it also takes away from some of the freedom the player has. For example, one of my favorite things to do was to backstab someone if I felt the conversation was going sour. Now, I have no choice but to stand by and watch as the evil mage of doom summons a massive army of deathly evisceration and makes his getaway. Well darn, I guess there’s no point in being a rogue then.
First up is Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. I actually finished this game a while ago and was looking to write something up about it. Coincidentally, The Witcher had arrived and I got back into the habit of playing. Mask of the Betrayer does for Neverwinter Nights 2 what Hordes of the Underdark did for the original Neverwinter Nights. In other words, it greatly improved upon the game and made it more epic, not just in levels. Gone are the days of training a would-be hero on diseased rats. You immediately start off the game fighting ancestral spirits and a bear god. Mask of the Betrayer also did away with the freedom for the player to rest anywhere at anytime. Now the player has a spirit energy level which they are required to keep up or else suffer various debilitating effects. Gaining spirit energy is a rather rare opportunity and have consequences on the character’s alignment and story. This forces to player to prioritize between resting and preserving their spirit energy.
Another remarkable thing about Mask of the Betrayer is the exceptional storytelling. The tone of the game is completely different from the original campaign. This game breaks the stereotype that good guys are “holy warriors” and gain incredible powers. In fact, lawful good players will struggle through the entire game as they barely survive encounters with powerful enemies. On the other hand, chaotic and/or evil players can gain tremendous powers by devouring the spirits of gods, liches and forces of nature and transcend their mortal shell. Also, this game introduces unforeseen consequences. A minor decision the character makes near the beginning of the game could make a huge impact much later. As a small example, if you choose not to consume the bear god’s soul, a whole new quest line opens up later on which flushes out the story even more and grants access to certain areas. If the player did devour its soul, eventually they would come upon an evil companion who can change classes. In all, the game felt really interactive. It felt like the player was making an impact on the world. That makes for a much better game than running around fetching ingredients for some crazy mage.
While Mask of the Betrayer is more of a stop-n-go turn based RPG, The Witcher is much more of an action based RPG. As many people have found out (and complained about) on message boards, you can’t just run up to a monster and repeatedly mash the left click button. Combat is based on timed clicks to continue combos. If you click too early, it cancels your current attack and you stand still open to hits. If you click too late, your character is momentarily dazed and again open to hits. However, a perfectly timed click executes a devastating combo which usually destroys the enemies outright. There are two different sword types and three styles each. The steel sword is for use against humanoids and animals, while the silver sword is for striking supernatural enemies and mutated monsters. Each sword type has a strong style, a quick style and a group combat style. Enemies are usually only vulnerable to either strong or quick, although group combat works on everything. The downside of using group combat style is the pathetic damage it does. All of these combinations provide a very dynamic combat environment where the player cannot rely on one sword and style for too long before being overwhelmed.
The Witcher also had a very good crafting system and economy. It has been the only game where I actually spent money rather than waiting to find stuff in the wild. Money is also very tight and used for everything from paying for information to bribing your way into restricted areas. You must also buy recipes for alchemy to mix some of the higher level potions required. Items sell for very little money and quests aren’t very generous either. The player is forced to gamble and fistfight for extra cash to get by. This brings us to the alchemy system. Useful potions are sold nowhere in stores and found nowhere on remains. They must be crafted by the player using herbs and materials skinned from killed monsters. Crafting materials sharing the same ingredients are interchangeable. For example, an herb which contains vitriol can be substituted for a chemical flask containing vitriol when crafting a potion. There are no potions to instantly restore health. All health are restored through regeneration, with food barely improving the rate and certain potions greatly speeding up health regeneration. However, drinking potions introduces a certain amount of toxicity into the body and too much toxins will debilitate your character and degrade your health.
As you’ve seen (or maybe not) from the advertisements all over the internet, The Witcher is about choices and the consequences thereof. Take the image to the left. It seems like a harmless choice, but they do have an impact. Choosing to hear the story adds a location to your all-important journal; possibly to travel to at a later time. Choosing a rose nets you an item needed for a quest later on. You may not see the consequences of your choice for a long time, but they will eventually be evident. For example, the very first choice you make in the prologue will have consequences over half the game (and around 25-30 hours) later. What makes me worried is how a new player’s very first choice can greatly change gameplay later on and can feel rushed. They may not be familiar with the game to make such big choices, especially in the prologue of the game. Aside from that, the game offers many choices of moral ambiguity. The evil choices usually offer the most power and reward while the good choices usually just make you feel better about yourself. Many of these choices force you to side with the lesser evil. What seems like an insignificant choice can make an impact on the game later on, although most of the ones to greatly alter the story will have a little notice in the preceding text if players pay attention to them. All this makes the player pay much more attention to the game instead of casually skipping past the conversations and mindlessly kill things.
While the player is some sort of anti-hero in both these games, Mask of the Betrayer allows you to become a good aligned character and ignore all the evils of the world. The Witcher, however, will sometimes force the player to choose between two sides whom are equally guilty to advance the story. Another path is to not choose and become neutral, in which case both sides will hate you. Mask of the Betrayer has the trademarked D&D spell system which is a lot more refined and complex than the one in The Witcher. While the signs can be used in combat, it was much faster to make the broad swings of the group combat style than to cast spells. The Witcher also had much better graphics and NPC routines than Mask of the Betrayer. The NPCs in The Witcher will wake up and go about their various tasks, eat, sleep, play, converse with each other, work, attend church, shop at the market, fish and even run for cover when it rains. They had a very realistic feel to the game and – along with the great graphics – creates a very realistic and believable world for the player. These great mechanics come at a price though. The Witcher is a huge drain on system resources, with an idle game taking up 1 gigabyte (!) of system memory in the task manager. It is definitely not a game for people with mediocre or lower end computers.
So now that you’ve read my long post, I’d like to close out by saying that there are many great console games (and even some PC games) coming out this holiday season. Buried under all these high profile releases are two little gems from Atari called Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer and The Witcher. It has been a long time since I’ve played RPGs on the PC at the level these two games are. If you find yourself with some extra room in your budget, give one of them a try. You won’t regret it.