NWN 2: Mysteries of Westgate Hands On

| 12 May 2008 07:00

JUNE 2008

It just doesn't get any more specific than that.

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Now that that's out of the way, we can move on to the meat of WarCry's recent visit to California to meet Ossian Studios developers. Ossian, in case you've been away from Neverwinter Nights 2 for awhile, is developing the first premium module, now called an 'adventure pack', for Neverwinter Nights 2. The module, entitled "Mysteries of Westgate" is a city adventure and takes place in the well-known D&D location of Westgate. Up to this point in time, most of the available media and information about MoW has come via the official forums and Ossian developers. This was a first chance to get a hands on look at Mysteries of Westgate.

The day began with a 'tour' of Mysteries of Westgate. Our small group spent 45 minutes or so being shown the highlights of Westgate and were given an opportunity to ask developers Alan Miranda and Russ Davis questions covering a wide variety of topics. After this we were turned loose on the game for 2+ hours of hands on "work".

WIZARDS OF THE COAST

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Wizards of the Coast, license holder for Dungeons & Dragons, worked with Ossian on the initial development of the story. Once tagged for the adventure pack, Miranda took the story proposal to WotC and was given the go-ahead to begin development. Along the way, Ossian submitted the module to WotC play-testers who made suggestions and presented feedback. One of the more important things WotC and Atari recommended was that Ossian stick to story development and not worry about creating new classes, races or spells. Other than that, Ossian was given fairly free rein to make the story they envisioned.

Using official WotC sourcebooks, Ossian chose Westgate for its exotic location and its nefarious variety of inhabitants. Included in the city are four 'official' sourcebook locations: The Black Eye Tavern, Mentassen's Mysteries, The Quivering Thumb Arena and The Bent Mermaid Inn. These, among many custom-created locations, are all found within the four main regions of Westgate: the Harbor Loop, the Market Triangle, the Arena District (not an official name but home to the Quivering Thumb) and Undergate.

CUSTOM ASSETS & TOOLSET IMPROVEMENTS

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Miranda told us that the team was held up slightly when it was determined that the Westgate setting required a sewer tileset for Undergate. He indicated that this was the most difficult period for the team during the development process as they had never created tilesets before. As a result, things were hit or miss for awhile and required innovation in the creation of toolset improvements that would facilitate the tileset's creation. The steep learning curve to create the sewer tileset also caused a slight delay in other aspects of the project such as scripting. The development of several toolset plug ins, however, including a power bar and a spell checker helped get things rolling along.

In addition to toolset improvements, Ossian created several new things specifically for Mysteries of Westgate including the sewer tileset (which IS gorgeous), 100+ placeables, custom sounds, four new monsters, three new companions, some custom load screens and over twenty-five minutes of tailor-made music by David John.

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Many of the main characters have custom voices and cut scenes are packed with voice overs and the two or so dozen custom sounds created by Ossian. MoW devs worked extensively with Canadian company Blackman Studios for the voice work. Actors at Blackman have worked on projects such as Jade Empire and Mass Effect.

When asked if all of the custom assets would be released to the community, Miranda answered that the creatures, the sewer tileset, voice sets and music will be released as well as the power bar plug in and spell checker. Whether they will be available on release of the module is unknown. It has been speculated that after the initial release of MoW, the assets will become available in a patch (http://nwn2forums.bioware.com/forums/viewtopic.html?topic=628711&forum=122)

HEADING OUT THE DOOR OR "HOW LONG IS THIS ADVENTURE?"

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Before launching into initial impressions of the starting area, there is one bone to pick: One of the few annoyances that was seen in the time playing MoW was the cutscene. The content of the cutscenes is terrific but the lighting issues in some of them made the characters look cartoonish and unnatural. This is not necessarily the fault of Ossian as much as it is a function of the way the engine works.

But back to the discussion at hand:

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One of the larger complaints about the original Neverwinter Nights 2 was the lack of side quests and the linear nature of the game. Ossian has addressed this and addressed it well. There are over sixteen side quests as well as the main quest. Quests range from pure hack-n-slash to roleplay. The entire adventure and some quests offer multiple paths and multiple endings. As a result, Mysteries of Westgate weighs in at 15+ hours of game play.

Characters begin at level eight. Players can choose all classes available in NWN 2 and Miranda indicated that MoW is a boon for players who like 'weaker' characters. All character classes -can- be successful in MoW.

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Starting equipment tailored to a level eight character is provided after the introductory sequence. Additionally, players will be happy to know that characters from NWN 2 or Mask of the Betrayer can be brought into Westgate. But while a level thirty multi-class, uber-equipped character can be brought into MoW, according to Russ Davis, there won't be much of a challenge or fun to be had.

The story arc begins with characters finding a 'Domino mask' in their equipment with no real knowledge of how it got there or why it can't be thrown out. All that is known about the mask is that it has to do with the shadiest of the shady Night Masks. Thieves, cutthroats and social miscreants, they wield nearly unprecedented power in Westgate, hence the player's journey to this anti-tourist spot.

Wearing the mask places characters with one foot in the real world and one in the ethereal. Leaving the mask on too long brings a wraith that quite literally sucks the life out. Yet there are bonuses to using the mask on occasion and leveling up brings new abilities and penalties.

The journey truly begins in Westgate's Harbor District and the area is alive with NPCs walking around and talking with one another. Most have something to say to adventurers and some have literally side-splitting stories to tell. Remember to look for Salty Jack and the hustler in the Arena District with a Minsc & Boo story to tell and, not coincidentally, a hamster to sell. Beware the shady hucksters who will "open their coats" and try to convince players to buy their wares. It's a form of gambling in that what is purchased may not be exactly what was promised. The appraise skill helps here according to Davis.

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Arriving at The Black Eye Tavern opens up at least one side quest ("Look for Dimples") and starts adventurers off on the main quest as well. There are all the sorts of seedy looking folk that one would expect in a dockside tavern. Be sure to listen in on conversations for some entertaining lore and important information.

Shady hucksters, annoying beggars, threatening folk and comic relief aside, walking around the city of Westgate is a treat in and of itself. There is lots of eye candy and the small touches truly bring the city to life. Plan to spend time doing this before launching into game play. In a very cool and innovative touch, Ossian has reached out to the "tourists" who will play MoW. Visiting such city locations such as the Dragon Statue will not only reveal lore about the city and past events, but, eventually, if one visits ALL of these monuments and locations, a reward is forthcoming. The city is highly interactive in this manner and Ossian has also given the 'door openers' something to do by allowing 30-40% of the city's buildings to be explored.

MAPS & MOVING ABOUT WESTGATE

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The Westgate areas are large and well appointed. It's easy to get lost in the environs as there are twisting alleyways and dead end streets. The shortest distance between two points isn't actually always a straight line in Westgate!

As a result, players will either love or hate the mini-map. The type of explorer one is determines the affection for the map system.

For those who prefer to have locations of importance marked, Ossian has done a great job making sure that what must be found can be and getting to/from places is quick and painless. Certain points are "warp zones" in that clicking on a map point will instantly take players to the closest entrance to an area such as the Temple, for instance. It's a nice touch and very convenient for solving quests efficiently.

However, purist players who need to uncover every inch of a map and who feel that travel between points of interest lend "realism" to their experience will hate this feature. One suggestion is to turn the mini-map off if it's too information-rich.

UNDERGATE

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While Miranda claimed that the creation of the Undergate sewer tileset was problematic for developers, it does not show. The sewers are gorgeous, if such a thing can be said of a sewer. The small touches, such as placeable pipe openings coming out of the walls, mean a lot in Undergate. It gives the location a dynamic and realistic appearance without the "repeat the texture" look that frequently occurred in NWN 1.

Level designers also showed care and talent in the placement of items in the world. There are nooks and crannies filled with all sorts of things to see and even a few hidden surprises. The 'randomness' of the trash is outstanding, again giving Undergate a very realistic look. The Temple of Shar is particularly impressive from the entrance all the way to the altar.

DELAYS & RELEASE

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We were told that the module is finished and has been for some time. Factors surrounding the secure authentication system have delayed the module's release. Atari representatives confirmed that the new secure authentication system is complete and will be released to NWN 2 players via the v1.13 patch. Similarly, it will be used for Mysteries of Westgate as well as other Atari titles. What specifically this means for players remains unknown as no details about the system were given at this meeting.

Ossian has, however, tweaked MoW with each patch and bug tested the module to make sure that it is in full compliance with official patches. When it does come, it will be compatible with the latest available NWN 2 version.

As said earlier, the adventure pack is set to be released in "June 2008" which is the closest to an official date as was given.

OSSIAN STUDIOS

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The Ossian Studios team is a diverse and worldwide group of individuals. Miranda and Davis, for instance, had never met in person before arriving in Los Angeles for this meeting. There are team members in Europe, South America and North America. Most communications are accomplished via Skype, email and instant messaging. Asked whether this was a factor in lengthening the module's development, Miranda emphatically stated that it was not.

Ossian has no plans to consolidate their workforce into a single location. They have found success with this development model and are working on, to quote, "other RPGs, NWN stuff and planning other projects." When pressed a bit harder, Miranda indicated that an announcement would be forthcoming in the fall.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Ossian Studios has produced a terrific looking module. The few things that were seen to be 'annoying' were not the fault of Ossian but may be functions of the game's engine. Even so, those things are easy to overlook in the overall scheme of the module. Mysteries of Westgate appears to be a finely polished piece of work. It will remain to be seen how well MoW performs on a wide variety of gaming systems but, if minimum specs are adhered to, it should be a pleasure for players.

Alan Miranda summed it up for himself, his co-workers and Ossian very well when asked what part of the process brought the most pride:

"We have finished a city adventure and we have done it well."

That is an accurate statement.

Special thanks to Allissa Bell of Atari, Jennifer Chong, Steven Khoo, and Laura Weir of fortyseven communications for such a great experience. It was short and truly sweet. And to my press compatriots: How terrific it was to put faces to names. I can't wait to meet you all again!

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