The city of Neverwinter, one of the last bastions of civilisation in northern Faerun, is in danger from within and without. The rival city of Luskan has allied with various shadowy forces to oppose the city from without, whilst within a deadly plague stalks the streets. The city's rulers call upon a stalwart hero (plus a henchman) to help combat the plague and expose the sinister conspiracy that threatens the city's very existence! Etc!
Neverwinter Nights was originally released in 2002 and was greeted enthusiastically by computer RPG fans, eagerly awaiting the next masterpiece from BioWare following their monumental success with the Baldur's Gate series of 2D RPGs. Neverwinter Nights was the company's first move into 3D gaming, as well as providing a platform for players to create their own adventures and act as the 'Dungeon Master', masterminding adventures for the benefit of their friends. As a result the single-player campaign feels like an afterthought, lacking the epic scale and polish of BioWare's earlier RPGs.
Which isn't to say that Neverwinter Nights is terrible. It's solid and certainly enjoyable enough to play to completion. Playing the campaign cooperatively with friends radically improves the gaming experience. The game is also of historical interest, being the the first game to use the Aurora Engine which would go on to power Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and, for other companies, Knights of the Old Republic II and The Witcher, as well as Neverwinter Nights' own sequel. It's fascinating tracing the DNA of those later and better games to their origins in Neverwinter Nights.
The engine has aged well, and looks great when viewed at high resolution (at least, until you zoom right in, when it starts to show its age). The art style has continuity with the Infinity Engine games, animation (particularly during combat) is fluid and the late-game appearances of larger creatures like dragons and demons are impressively tense. However, the game has only a small number of art assets (creating an object in 3D being a lot more work than simply drawing a 2D sprite) and these are re-used with increasingly tedious frequency over the course of the game. Every mansion looks like every other one, every cave is identical, you'll soon get sick of the forests and only the late-game introduction of a lave-filled dungeon complex breaks up the staleness. Normally I laud games for being long (Neverwinter Night clocks in at around the 30 hour mark), but both the over-use of graphical assets and a fairly thin storyline stretched to breaking point make Neverwinter Night too long. The game should probably have been a third shorter to break up the monotony of the last part of the game. Particularly puzzling is the absence of in-engine cut scenes (which the expansions and a lot of fan modules have) which would have made the game more cinematic and interesting.
The other major problem is that whilst it looks better graphically, the game is a huge step backwards from the 2D Infinity Engine RPGs in terms of story, dialogue and character. The story is predictable (a rather familiar BioWare twist aside), most of the NPCs are unmemorable, and Forgotten Realms fans will be rather unhappy at certain characters - most notably the orc king Obould - being depicted completely differently from the canon. In the game you also only control one player-created character and a single henchman, which is a far cry from the six-man parties of the Baldur's Gate series with their random (and often amusing) dialogue exchanges and complex party inter-relationships. Hours spent traipsing around in silence with a taciturn NPC fighting spiders is more than a bit dull, and seems to have been a deliberate attempt to get people to play co-op with other human players, which may not always be practical. Even when there are dialogue exchanges with other characters, the game keeps them short, perhaps aware that the small text box is not really suited to the long, well-written dialogue that BioWare was famous for at the time.
On the plus side, whilst the main quest is only moderately interesting, there are some genuinely impressive and atmospheric sub-quests. An attempt to save a village trapped in a time warp results in some morally complex decisions having to be made, whilst there's a few particularly nasty conundrums, such as telling a woman who's asked you to find her missing children that they're dead or letting her live on in happy ignorance. These exceptionally good quests are also well-spaced throughout the game, breaking up the monotony of the more standard 'delivery boy' and 'kill everything' quests.
Neverwinter Nights also has another problem: it's very straightforward to find and complete every quest, kill every monster and get every drop of EXP than can be wrung from the game (doing the same in Baldur's Gate II, for example, would probably take over 200 hours, and even then is impossible due to some quests only being possible with the right party/character/stronghold make-up). This will leave you a good 2-3 levels higher than the game seems to have been balanced for at the end, making the final part of the game pretty easy.
Neverwinter Nights (***½) is a solid RPG which starts to fall apart quite badly when you compare it to its predecessors and successors in the BioWare stable; it's probably BioWare's weakest RPG to date (note: I haven't played Dragon Age or its sequel, or Mass Effect 2). There's still much to enjoy, especially when played co-op, but compared to the other great titles from BioWare and their partner companies, it is a disappointment. However, it is well worth investigating for the excellent fan modules and mods for the game, as well as the notably superior expansions, Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark. The game is available with its expansions now in the UK and USA.