I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I'll say that Shadows of the Undrentide was a disappointing expansion to the Neverwinter Nights saga. If you played all the way through Neverwinter Nights you’d probably have a pretty good character, maybe somewhere close to level 20. A good expansion should challenge new and old players, but since the level 20 cap was still in there, and you began with all your (great?) equipment, the game could be finished in two days. The storyline was somewhat interesting, but short, and ultimately not very satisfying.
Hordes of the Underdark is the expansion I think a lot of adventure hungry Neverwinter Nights fans have been looking for. This time the campaign isn’t finished in two days, the gameplay is improved, and the content is new and relatively cool.
The storyline takes place where you may have played in the original game; the vicinity of Waterdeep. A lot of things have happened since the end of Shadows of the Undrentide, and you’re now older, and widely recognized as a hero. Your little weird friend Deekin spent his time wisely, and did what he said he would – he wrote a book about you. However, all is not well in the gameworld, and guess who’s called for to put a stop to it...
Attacks have been made against the heart of Waterdeep by some mysterious dark elves that live far below Waterdeep. In fact, during the game you’ll travel quiet far below Waterdeep, since it consists of several levels if you will – much like hell itself. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but as you would expect you’ll run into a multitude of races - some friendly, some not so friendly. You’ll bump into familiar faces and fight a huge variety of brand new foes, ultimately ending in a confrontation with the Ã¼ber-boss.
Neverwinter Nights is thought of as a role-playing game, but even though you do role-play you’ll spend the majority of the time hacking and slashing monsters. Neverwinter Nights may not be an RPG to the same extent as some of Bioware’s other games, like Baldur’s Gate, but I don’t think they ever intended it to be. Neverwinter Nights fits snuggly between the extremes of Baldur’s Gate and Diablo 2, and it’s done well. You will of course not spend all the time fighting, as you’ll also have to face a number of puzzles and quests that don’t involve combat. The game is still relatively non-linear in terms of gameplay, so you can solve many of the challenges in different ways depending on your profession and style of gameplay, but there is definitely a red line that everyone follows. Hordes of the Underdark consists of three chapters this time, as opposed to only two in the first expansion. During the first two you investigate the attacks, save people, stop nasty villains, help protect a fortress, and more. I won’t say what the last chapter involves, but suffice to say it wasn’t what I expected.
Now that the level cap is set to 40 you can finally build upon what you've worked on in the previous games. 6 new classes, over 50 new feats, and over 40 new spells have been added, so you’ll have plenty to work towards regardless of how powerful you may have been in the previous games. The new classes are called prestige classes, and are basically classes that the masters of the original classes go for. Warriors for instance may choose to become a weapon master, but doing so requires a set of feats, skills, and so on. You can also become a pale master (necromancy), a Dwarven Defender, a Red Dragon Disciple, a Champion of Torm, or a Shifter. These prestige classes give very nice boosts to your statistics, and some may even change the way you play the game entirely.
What attracted me a lot was the fact that the story unfolds in a really interesting way. For example the conversations unfold depending on what kind of a player you are, what henchmen you have with you, and how you play your cards. I should also note that Hordes of the Underdark is considerably funnier than the previous games. Deekin, whom you may have met in the first expansion, can be a great asset to your little gang - and not just because of the boost spells he provides, but also because of the witty banter between him and other members, or his rather strange monologues.
New to this expansion is that you can keep two henchmen with you at all times, provided they stay alive of course. Reviving is easier this time around, which is fortunate, because the game can be very hard at times. I must say, neither of the two previous games were insanely difficult, and Hordes of the Underdark isn’t for the most part, but it can be during the last chapter. These especially difficult fights have been rather heavily discussed on message boards, but I also think the puzzles have become viable challenges too. You could pretty much run through Shadows of the Undrentide if you had a fairly good character, but you can forget about it this time around.
Fortunately for loot hunters like me there are plenty of new and really cool items to acquire. Shadows of the Undrentide had a rather pathetic number of new items, in particular those that could replace the better ones of the original game. Lvl 20’ish characters will have to play for a few hours to reach “the good part” in terms of loot, but once you get there it’s a lot of fun. There aren’t just new swords, shields, and so on, but also brand new stuff that varies in usefulness, but spices up the selection a bit.
In terms of graphics it does look fresher than Shadows of Undrentide did. There are new tilesets that look pretty nice, but stay true to the Neverwinter Nights’ style of textures. The new spell effects are probably the most impressive addition, but if you choose maximum texture and shadow quality, and a reasonable resolution I can assure you the game itself isn’t an eyesore. Unfortunately there isn’t any lip-movement during the cinematic sequences that are shown, which is somewhat of a shame in 2003. The characters are nicely animated and make appropriate gestures, so it doesn’t look too unrealistic, but in terms of facial expressions it’s pretty far off the ideal. The game ran very well on my PC for the most part, but during the last chapter when you’re in really big fights the framerate does bog down a bit. On the other hand you can customize a reasonable amount of video related options to suit your hardware, so there’s no reason why you can’t run the game properly.
Another nice graphical feature is that you can alter the style of your armor, and even craft things. While crafting is more or less worthless, it can be nice to change your appearance to suit your picture of an ideal character. When modifying you can choose parts of the armor, such as maybe the right shoulder pad, and then browse the different styles.
Jeremy Soule, my favorite game musician, recorded about thirty minutes of new music for Hordes of the Underdark. To be honest I had a hard time hearing what’s new and what’s not, but the overall quality is very high regardless. There is a whole lot of dialogue in Hordes of the Underdark, and a fairly impressive amount of it is voiced. It doesn’t come close to Bioware’s other recent game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but keeping in mind that this is just an expansion pack, it’s all good. Most of the voice talents did a good job, so while some of the elder characters in the game are voiced by what’s obviously relatively young men, it’s still overall quite well done.
Multiplayer is of course still a lot of fun. There are some really nice modules out there if you look, and the level cap when playing modules is as high as 60, so you could in theory be playing this game for an insanely long time.
Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark is in most aspects the expansion I was waiting for. The storyline is reasonably interesting, there’s plenty of new stuff to check out, and it looks pretty good. It’s not an amazing expansion, but it's better than Shadows of the Undrentide in every way. If you’ve played through Neverwinter Nights, and maybe even the first expansion, then you owe it to yourself to finish the story.