Reviewed: January 22, 2004
Released: : December 2, 2003
Neverwinter Nights arrived in the summer of 2002 amidst nearly unprecedented hype. The visionary project was in development for almost five years, and with preorders hovering in excess of one million, developer BioWare pushed it out the door a little early. Riddled with bugs and shackled by a dull campaign that failed to live up to Baldur's Gate II, the RPG got off to a bumpy start, and there was a lot of grumbling.
But as the months rolled by, the nifty Canucks at BioWare managed to right the ship. Patches were released on a regular basis, and all the major bugs were squashed. Perhaps of greater note, the community took full advantage of the powerful Aurora toolset. The streamlined editor was put to good use by builders, and before long, modules were being churned out by the dozens. The ambitious vision of Neverwinter Nights was fulfilled.
Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, the second expansion pack in the series and the first to be developed entirely by BioWare, is a roaring epic that fills in many of the gaps and picks up where the first expansion pack, Shadows of Undrentide, left off.
Hordes of the Underdark features:
By comparison, Shadows of Undrentide seems somehow flimsy and lightweight. I don't say that to undermine Undrentide, because it's a fine expansion that delighted many Neverwinter fans. Rather, I say it to emphasize the tremendous scope and quality of the second installment.
While my primary gripes with the series remain unchanged (too much focus on hack n' slash, too little emphasis on role-playing), Hordes of the Underdark is sure to please. It meets specific requests made by the BioWare community and delivers ferocious, furious action.
The Underdark. You won't find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy in all of Faerun. It is a lightless world of savagery and endless danger. And it is home to the murderous dark elves.
Conniving and traitorous, dark elves are unflinching in their devotion to the "Spider Queen," the goddess Lolth. Their society is steeped in mistrust, with each house hell-bent on ascension and power. You have unwittingly drawn the ire of the Valsharess, a cunning drow priestess with a formidable army at her disposal. The drow maiden's advisors have prophesied that you, just back from the Plane of Shadow, are the one who will destroy her.
Your character begins at 15th level, already a figure of fame and repute. Waterdeep, City of Splendors, is under siege by denizens of the Underdark. You heed the call for a hero, setting into motion an inevitable collision with the drow.
The main draw for those who purchase Hordes of the Underdark (other than the new campaign) is the revised level cap, which BioWare has doubled to 40. The level 20 cap was a sore point for most who played Neverwinter Nights. While the feature will be applauded by the vast majority of Neverwinter fans, I must admit that I bristle at the thought of epic levels. I played pen and paper D&D for over a decade. It was an obsession. And throughout all those gaming sessions, the peak of power the members of our gaming group attained was level nine. To us, this was a moment of pride, an achievement of great magnitude. We fought every step of the way to reach that pinnacle, and cheated death more times than I can recall. So it makes me queasy to think of the consequences of setting the cap so high. I worry that BioWare might be drifting into Diablo "power gaming" territory.
To put it in perspective: Drizzt Do'Urden, dark elf hero, arguably the most famous character in the Forgotten Realms and subject of over a dozen best-selling novels, is "only" level 16.
Perhaps I'm old school (no, that doesn't mean I'm playing with first-edition rules or that I have a poster of Gary Gygax on my wall) but I'm convinced that D&D is at its best when magic items are few and far between, levelling up is slow and any opponent -- even the lowliest orc -- presents a genuine threat.
That said, I'll stow my bitterness. To each his own, right? After all, there's nothing to prevent me from playing the more conventional form of D&D I grew up with, and there's certainly nothing wrong with BioWare appeasing a loyal fan base. Hardline purists such as myself will still be able to carve out a niche and hide from the level 40 demigods mucking about online.
The new prestige classes are a lot of fun. Dwarven Defenders, for example, serve a deity and are skilled in the art of defense, making them as tough as the mountain stone they mine. The Red Dragon Disciple eventually sprouts wings, and gains the ability to breathe fire. But the coolest of all is the Shifter, a sort of epic druid. The Shifter can assume the form of more than a dozen creatures (including wyrmlings, mind flayers and driders) and gains some of the innate abilities that come with it. You have to see it to believe it.
You can now hire up to two henchmen, though pathfinding remains woeful. Your henchmen will tear off on you from time to time and engage opponents or trigger traps when you're trying to be stealthy, so you will have to keep them on a tight leash. But at least this way you have a semblance of a party, with more flexibility and a wider range of skills.
Alien Illithid brain-suckers, ghastly Beholders, and a pair of virtually indestructible golems are among the 16 new types of enemies who would like nothing more than to cave your face in. Pack a lunch and come out swinging.
The game also features over 50 new feats, 40 new spells and new skills for crafting weapons, armor and traps. You'll need to salvage the requisite components and make a successful skill check, but fashioning your own items is a blast. (You can't craft magical items, though.) Feats are too numerous to list here, but for my money, I'll take "Improved Whirlwind Attack" versus a band of ogres any day. And for you sorcerers out there, some looney at BioWare came up with a spell called "hellball." This demented spell inflicts sonic, electrical, acid and fire damage to all targets caught in the blast. Insane!
You'll need to familiarize yourself with every one of these new abilities as you make your way through the Underdark. Combat is exhausting, with extremely high-level quests and enemies. The good news is that you still have the Relic of the Reaper with you, a mysterious artifact acquired by your character in Shadows of Undrentide. The relic allows you to teleport back to safety and heal up whenever things get too hairy.
When you're not busting heads, puzzles offer a change of pace. They come in a variety of styles, from brain-benders to brain-teasers. They can be a bit tedious, but they're challenging and will force you to do something other than lop off limbs and quaff potions. Keep a pen and pad handy -- you'll need it.
Role-playing opportunities in the campaign are limited to the familiar BioWare formula of dialogue choices. You "role-play" your character by making critical decisions at key plot points. This isn't a bad thing, really. It's just nothing new. If you're looking for a more authentic role-playing route, you'll want to break out the old source material and 20-sided dice.
Online play can yield some chaotic fun, provided you can meet up with a group of like-minded players. Almost half of the servers I surveyed were compatible with Hordes of the Underdark, which is outstanding. There's an annoying amount of power gamers online, just off the Diablo II boat, presumably, who want nothing but to hoard treasure and kill, kill, kill. So a good DM is essential if you want to maintain a brisk pace and see miscreants put in their place.
It's worth noting that BioWare did a magnificent job recreating the treacherous drow. Anyone who's familiar with R.A. Salvatore's novels will be pleased with how they're portrayed: wicked, malicious, and fanatical in their desire to destroy surface dwellers. Watch your step.
The new monster models are leaner and meaner. (Not that you'll spend much time ogling the refined visuals or counting polygons when a mind flayer has its sickly purple tentacles wrapped around your face, probing your cranium for chewy brain matter. But still....) A few minor touch-ups, a new coat of paint, perhaps, but nothing that will win over users who've denounced the RPG as "ugly."
Animations are still clunky and unnatural. Movements lack fluidity; characters are rigid and blocky, and have more in common with Lego men than anything else. There's no lip-synching of any kind, so cinematic cut scenes can be a bit odd and lifeless.
But there are some worthwhile additions. Robes, conspicuously absent from the original game, are now available, providing mages with a more traditional form of clothing. And skies have also been added, though you won't see much of them in this campaign. Look for the new skyboxes to be put to good use by module makers in the future. It's much more engrossing to look up and see the sun and stars and clouds than it is to see...nothing.
It's an improvement, for sure, but for the most part, Hordes of the Underdark is a fat girl with a great personality; no one is sticking around because the game looks pretty. The meat of Neverwinter is the interaction with the world and players around you and the relentless combat sequences. Mom was right: it's what's underneath that counts.
There's still something goofy and camp about the voice acting -- to be fair though, D&D isn't exactly the easiest material for an actor to deliver. The inherent geekiness is a roadblock. The new voice sets are middle of the road, with no real standouts. (The Valsharess does earn a dishonorable mention, however, for sounding like a spoiled cheerleader from a teen movie.) I am pleased to report that none of the new voice sets is remotely as offensive or grating as the "high-strung evangelist" set that shipped with the original game.
Most of the ambient sounds have been recycled. The clang of steel on steel, bloody gurgles, spell incantations...I couldn't detect anything new, really.
The most noteworthy addition to the audio department comes in the form of 14 new pieces of music by Jeremy Soule. Soule is a familiar name to RPG enthusiasts. His award-winning work has previously appeared in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Icewind Dale and Dungeon Siege, to mention but a few. His Hordes of the Underdark score is appropriately grim and brooding. Builders will be able to put his contribution to use in future modules as well.
At $29.99, HotU's campaign should provide 20-25 hours of dungeon crawling bliss, perhaps a little more if you exhaust every side trek and leave no stone unturned. Epic level feats, spells and new skills add to an online community that's bustling like a virtual city. The new tilesets, monsters and skyboxes will be a boon for the module makers out there. There are over 5,000 modules available for download, and a small galaxy of game mods, scripts, utilities, pre-generated characters, weapons and just about any other resource you could fathom.
The downside is that you will have to sift through a mountain of garbage to find modules which match your personal tastes and playing style -- but that seems a minor hurdle, taking into account the hundreds of hours you will spend playing gems by brilliant module makers. (I've played a handful of modules created by community geeks which I felt were superior to the official BioWare campaigns.)
There are many developers out there who could learn a thing or two about fan appreciation from the sweethearts at BioWare; you won't find a more vibrant, active gaming community. Official BioWare personnel frequently post on the message boards and maintain dialogue with gamers. They willingly accept constructive feedback, assist with tech support and provide news on patch updates. They even stick their heads in from time to time to scold message board trolls who have nothing worthwhile to contribute the community. Outstanding.
And for the uninitiated, there's the Neverwinter Nights Gold Edition. The bundle features the original Neverwinter Nights and both the Shadows of Undrentide and Hordes of the Underdark expansion packs for a paltry $39.99. No RPG fan should miss out on a title that's destined to become a classic.
The revised level cap will be a slam dunk hit, and the new resources will give builders plenty to play with. The campaign alone is worth the price of admission, and when you're done, you can look forward to a whole new generation of modules and downloadable content featuring Underdark goodies.
Hordes of the Underdark is a worthy add-on to the best role-playing game ever made, and crushes the first expansion pack in terms of sheer content. If BioWare releases a third expansion pack, I haven't a clue how they'll manage to top this effort. Three cheers for this one.