I'd Rather Be a one-legged leper with dandruff and a chronic bout of flatulence than an RPG developer right now. Everywhere you turn it's Oblivion this, Oblivion that: 'How is your game going to respond to the way Oblivion did such and such? It's enough to make even the most talented fantasy game development team slouch into their ergonomic claims with a hefty sigh and think about throwing in the towel.

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But behind the smug smog of euphoria that surrounds Bethesda's recent offering, there stirs a sleeping giant, one that's preparing to rise from the ashes of conquest that Oblivion's left in its wake and challenge it for the role-playing crown. That game is Neverwinter Nights 2.

Phoenix Rising

'Neverwinter Nights 2 and Oblivion arc really two very different games,' explains Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart when asked how his game can compete with the genre's top dog. 'Oblivion is alxnit exploring a wide open world and getting back to the main story of the game from time to time. We want to have a large and relative story that flows around the player and eventually puts the control of its outcome in their hands. After playing Oblivion. I rememljcr the little things that I was doing like getting my alchemy up. In Neverwinter Nights 2 players are going to remember the big choices they had to make, the companions that travelled with them and the key turning points in the story.

Before you embark on your apocalypse-thwarting quest - one that sees you travelling to the city of Neverwinter and becoming embroiled in a millennia-old conflict that takes you through the Sword Coast, ancient Illefarn ruins, deadly wizard sanctuaries and into battle with creatures from yond the land of Faerun - you'll first have to customise your character traits.

'You decide who you arc and what your childhood was like by choosing your own background traits at the start of the game - such as Bully, Flirt or Troublemaker,' explains Chris Avellone. Obsidian Entertainment's creative director. 'Not only do these traits give bonuses to your character, but toplc in your home village will react to them as well - sometimes favourably, sometimes not.'

Your choices and actions will also influence your ever-growing retinue, over which you'll have far greater control this time around (for more on this see 'Having A Hencli', right). 'Your choices will often influence your companions, who may enthusiastically agree with them or have violent objections to them,' reveals Avellone. Sounds intriguing... And possibly bloody.

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Rock And Bone

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So far, so impressive, but what's really moistening our lips is the game's all-new Stronghold System. Starting off with just a smallholding, you'll soon find yourself presiding over a burgeoning fortress that can be upgraded in a variety of aesthetic and military ways. You'll also be able to bolster its defensive capabilities by recruiting new warriors to your cause, which is just as well given that your stronghold will become Neverwinter's last line of defence against the tide of darkness that threatens the city's very existence. 'Who you meet, how you treat them and how you solve their problems determines what recruits you can gather to help defend your stronghold, remarks Avellone. 'You can also have miners, farmers and architects join your ranks to improve your home base.

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New Realms

Also new to the Neverwinter fold will be several new races and classes from the Forgotten Realms, including the Drow sub-race and the spell-spewing Warlock character class. 'The Warlock is different to other spellcasters in that he uses his magic as abilities rather than spells,' comments Urquhart. 'While he has fewer magical things he can do, he can do them over and over without having to rest or learn things from spellbooks. Well lucky him, the damn beardy show-off.

With over 100 different locations to explore and around 40 hours of playing time, Neverwinter Nights 2 is looking like it might just, but only just, be able to stack up to Oblivion in the epic scope stakes. However, throw in a powerful, branching plot, a revamped henchman system, revised combat and the mouthwatering prospect of building up your own fortress and suddenly - dare we say it? - the idea of a viable competitor to Oblivion doesn't seem like such a ludicrous proposition. One thing's for sure: when these two giants clash, sparks are gonna fly. Bring it on - let battle commence.

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