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Witch's Wake Part 1 Review

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Witch's Wake Part 1 Review

Review - posted by Mistress on Fri 10 January 2003, 00:53:00

Tags: BioWare; Neverwinter Nights: Witch's Wake

Our review of the Witch’s Wake Part 1: The Fields of Battle, the first module in the official series for Neverwinter Nights.

Many aspects of the Official Campaign have been modified and replaced in this module, through the incorporation of community developed modifications. This is really more of a credit to the efforts of the community than to Bioware, and demonstrates what can actually be achieved with time and attention to detail. While it’s nice to see that people have overcome many of the niggling issues with the game, through developing their own solutions, it’s still a great shame that some of the more obvious and poor implementations weren’t handled by Bioware themselves.

Witch’s Wake Part 1: The Fields of Battle is, as the name suggests, the first instalment in a planned series of modules for Bioware’s highly publicised CRPG, Neverwinter Nights. This module is the brainchild of NWN Live Team lead designer, Rob Bartel, and features a setting of his own creation, as opposed to more of the same from the highly popular and frequently yet narrowly represented Forgotten Realms. The module utilises a number of community developed systems in an effort to set itself apart from the Official Campaign, and further demonstrate the capabilities of the packaged toolset. How does it measure up? Let’s take a look:

Out with the old...

Many aspects of the Official Campaign have been modified and replaced in this module, through the incorporation of community developed modifications. This is really more of a credit to the efforts of the community than to Bioware, and demonstrates what can actually be achieved with time and attention to detail. While it’s nice to see that people have overcome many of the niggling issues with the game, through developing their own solutions, it’s still a great shame that some of the more obvious and poor implementations weren’t handled by Bioware themselves.

Most notably, "The Fields of Battle” uses an adapted version of the Hardcore Ruleset developed by community member Archageo. The Hardcore Ruleset is a fairly major ongoing project, and you can read the Bioware profile on this system here. The basic intention of the ruleset is to move towards bringing a more traditional pen and paper experience to the game. This ruleset has been modified to fit into the designer’s requirements for Witch’s Wake, and brings about a few significant changes from the one used in the Official Campaign.

One change which has sparked a great deal of heated debate is that relating to the experience system. There is no experience awarded for combat in the world of Witch’s Wake, it is instead awarded for exploration and plot advancement. The creators of the module are keen to point out that this module is not a hack and slash race to the finishing line, but a story driven role-playing adventure and the experience system reflects this. As far as I am concerned, this is still a fairly flawed approach. It would be preferable to see a quest related experience system, allowing the player to role-play their character as they wish, rather than according to the ideal of the designer. Of course, the story in "The Fields of Battle” is advanced principally through dialogue and NPC interaction, and the altered experience system has no doubt been applied to complement this. To me, as a player, this approach felt slightly awkward. Rather than seeing “You have role-played your character. 13 exp. points gained” or, “You have furthered the story. 20 exp. points gained”, I believe it would be far better to see experience received upon achieving something in the game, or reaching a certain point as a result of the knowledge attained through taking advantage of NPC interaction and dialogue options. As it is, it the “role-playing” feels very forced, and just a case of cycling through as many dialogue options as possible. The significance of the options you choose is just too obvious. I can appreciate the concept and intentions behind the use of this approach, I just don’t think it works all that well. Of course, I would rather see something completely different – such as the development of skills through use rather than general experience awards and the application of these to unrelated and unused skills.

Different rules are followed for resting – characters may only rest once every seven minutes, and to determine the hit points regained while resting, characters re-roll their total hit dice and divide by two. This, coupled with aspects of the module such as the new approach to death (which I will discuss later), goes towards providing a greater challenge and encourages a less careless and shallow approach on the part of the player.

If the paladin is your class of choice, you will no doubt be pleased to note that in the world of Witch’s Wake, your actions should actually have an effect on your position, which is nice. So, if you decide to rummage around in people’s drawers and chests, your alignment will shift and you will fall from grace. You will no longer be allowed to take levels in the paladin class until your alignment is Lawful Good once again, although of course, there is a cute little bug that gets around this.

Various other modifications have been incorporated, including; Sentur Signe’s Lootable Corpse System, a modification which improves the treatment of the fallen. It allows you access to the inventories of the deceased, and, a rather nice touch is that items in the hand of the individual prior to death, may now end up on the ground nearby. Hooray for realism! Pausania’s Henchman Inventory and Battle AI also makes an appearance in Witch’s Wake. The only bearing this has in the current instalment, is that it allows the player greater control of familiars, giving extra options to instruct the familiar to stay closer or fall further behind. There are plans to include henchmen in future modules, so the full benefit of this modification should become more apparent at a later stage.

Where Was I…?

The main plot device in "The Fields of Battle” is that of amnesia. The game commences with your character lying, barely conscious and near death, on the ground, while battle wages around you. You awake the next morning, to find yourself surrounded by the bodies of your fallen comrades, with an old woman attempting to remove your finger. All you remember is a message you have for the king. Not that you know who the king is of course, or to what the message relates. Only that you must take the message to the king, wherever he may be. To say that the game lost me at this point would be unfair, it never really had me. The story comes off as rather cheesy, and is poorly and clumsily introduced.

At this stage, I have no interest in finding anything out, or advancing the story, I just don’t care. Any motivation I have to continue really stems from a weak hope that perhaps some of my sneaking suspicions about the game might, with luck, turn out to be wrong. I doubt it though.

The journey through "The Fields of Battle” is a solo one, unless of course, you take a familiar along for the ride. You will either feel, as have others, that the lack of henchmen adds to the atmosphere and feeling of loneliness, or simply be overjoyed at not having a bumbling halfwit tag along to stumble over traps and attract undesired attention to you.

Comparisons have, of course, been drawn between this first foray into the world of Witch’s Wake, and PlaneScape: Torment. The only similarity I noted is the theme of amnesia, and really, to draw comparison between a complete game, and the first module in an open-ended series is fairly ridiculous. Thus far Witch’s Wake does not have any of the atmosphere or interest of PlaneScape: Torment and the NPCs aren’t as well developed. Not surprising really, given that PlaneScape: Torment is a fully developed game, and Witch’s Wake is an open ended series still very much in it’s infancy. In fact, any tentative connection between the two didn’t truly occur to me until I read some forum posts relating to it.

It’s good to talk

In order to advance the plot and make sense of the world around, your character will have to engage in plenty of dialogue. Social interaction is the name of the game here, and the more you talk, the more you’ll discover. The more you discover, the more experience points you’ll rack up, and the less daunting those rats will become.

There is a degree of improvement over the Official Campaign in this aspect. Although dialogue is still fairly obvious and weak at times, in certain situations the answers you give are final, and can permanently close doors to you. Pretty big doors. There is also rumour that your dialogue choices and decisions at this point will have lasting repercussions throughout the series. From a role-playing perspective, this is nice, and I hope that it pans out and improves throughout the series.

Death, it comes to us all.

Death was never a particularly worrying prospect in the Official Campaign, more of a trifling nuisance. No battle was too daunting with the reassuring presence of the Stone of Recall in your back pocket. In "The Fields of Battle”, this magical comforter has been roughly snatched from you, leaving you alone and vulnerable. Well, apart from your ever faithful quick save and reload buttons. Generally speaking though, death is a much more serious affair, and for me, this is one of the pluses of the module.

Upon dying, you are transported to the Plane of Sorrows, and should you have made the appropriate choices, you will be aided in returning from there a maximum of three times. After that you become a permanent resident, and you’ll be needing to return to a saved game. Saying this, there isn’t really much combat in "The Fields of Battle”, and given due care, you should be able to make it through the module without becoming overly acquainted with the Plane of Sorrows. Should you wish to explore the extra dialogue and story elements in this area, which require you to visit a couple of times, there are a couple of items in the game which will aid you in this process. Or you could just sit back and let rats take care of it for you – whatever turns you on.

Your return to the land of the living is facilitated by your making acquaintance with Ethereal Leaks as and when you happen upon them in the course of your journey. You will respawn through the last one you got friendly with, fighting fit and ready to continue on your not so merry way. They’re a little creepy, complete with black tendrils, and I have to admit that I think they’re a nice little addition, I just can’t quite fathom why the process of getting friendly with them lands you with an experience reward for “furthering the story”. Perhaps this is the mystery of which they speak in "The Fields of Battle”. Either that or it’s an excuse to work in more experience points in the absence of combat experience.

Bad news for munchkins

The main thing I think "The Fields of Battle” has going for it, is the total, and appropriate lack of power your character has. You start the module with a first level character, and not a penny to your name. This is in stark contrast to the Official Campaign, resplendent with gold and magical items as it was. You start with the bare essentials, and you won’t find much more on the way. There is a noticeable absence of chests and crates, and you certainly won’t come across anything in the way of phat lewt. “What?! No Great Sword +2” you cry, “No Armour of Comfort?!”, nope, you’ll make do with your basic armour and a plain, good old fashioned sword, and like it. In this respect, Rob Bartel has kept to the story, times are hard for your character, and this is reflected. It at least makes sense, which is more than can be said for the Official Campaign.

There are a number of items with special properties, and once you near the end of the module, you will have the opportunity to browse through some magical goodies, whether you will be able to obtain any of the goodies is questionable, given your rather unhealthy financial state. This raises the question of whether, once you have passed through to the next module, you will be able to revisit this area and make purchases at a later stage, or whether this is all just window dressing.

Looking to the future

Amusingly, after a discussion in the General RPG Discussion Forum regarding obvious game mechanics and their effect on immersion, a fairly stunning example reared its head in this module. Upon reaching the end of the module, you will be informed of this fact, and a character will give you the following speech:
“Congratulations! You have successfully completed “The Fields of Battle”, the first module in The Witch’s Wake, created by Rob Bartel.”

As if this weren’t enough, said character will then kindly save your game for you and take you to the next module, which at present is merely a placeholder file. Once there, you will be told that this is a placeholder, and provided with instructions on what to do once you download the next module. How considerate! The big laugh came when I spoke to this character again, and a new and exciting series of dialogue options popped up, containing questions such as:
“Where can I go to give Bioware feedback on this module”, and “Where can I download further modules in the Witch’s Wake series?”.

This really grates. I can’t say much more than that, because really, when I stop and consider it, I’m still a little amazed.

All things considered, I’m not at all impressed with this first look at Witch’s Wake. As starting points go, it’s fairly weak. One can only hope that, as the series progresses, it will grow and improve. For now, the story is at best, an improvement on the shallow transparency of the cobbled together Official Campaign, but that still leaves us with what is essentially, a clichéd and lacking foundation for the planned series. The modifications to the experience system, and various other little improvements, are a step in the right direction, and all credit to those people in the community that helped make that step. If nothing else, Witch’s Wake draws more attention to the fact that Neverwinter Nights is really, an unfinished title, an outline if you like, which the players are filling in.

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