After Neverwinter Night's year-long reign as one of the top RPGs available on the PC, Bioware has released the first of two announced expansions under the name, Shadows of Undrentide. Already, the popularity of the expansion is enormous, having risen to the rank of Most Popular PC Game, a title it held for several weeks. While the success of Neverwinter Nights may have granted Shadows of Undrentide its immediate popularity, it would have to stand on its own when finally out of the box. Living up to the fame of its older brother would prove to be a difficult task for the young expansion, but it is my determination that Shadows of Undrentide has succeeded in carrying the series' banner of excellence throughout its roughly twenty hours of gameplay.
You're really <insert alignment>, you <insert race> <insert class>!
The story of Shadows of Undrentide bears no resemblance to the one found in the original Neverwinter Nights. In fact, the expansion recommends that you start fresh with a level 1 character rather than trying to transfer one over from the first official campaign. The connection between this module and the first is marginal. It begins shortly after the onset of the plague in Neverwinter and does not cross-over with its story in any way. The plot instead focuses on the apprentices of a dwarven sorcerer named Drogan. His star pupil, you, is entrusted to find a set of artifacts that were stolen after an attack on your master's house. This journey leads you to many different discoveries which eventually culminate into the standard "save the world" climax.
Shadows of Undrentide possesses a story that is much more engulfing and interesting than found in the first Neverwinter Nights. While the original official campaign featured plot elements that fell somewhere between irrelevant and over-the-top, Shadows of Undrentide manages to maintain a level of pertinence that left me constantly anxious to advance the story. I am usually more than happy to take a break and enjoy the many sidequests that are available, but SoU kept me constantly curious for what plot twist might be thrown my way.
In addition to having an overall better storyline, the expansion also explores better methods of storytelling. Neverwinter Nights is one of the few games that tries to emulate the feel of real Dungeons and Dragons play with a live Dungeon Master. While the first did a wonderful job in this respect, Shadows of Undrentide takes this to the next level. The idea of unrelated sidequests is non-existent as almost every action you take in the game will somehow alter a future encounter. The decision between killing a creature or allowing it to live may resurface later as you stumble across that creature's family. Fortunately, there are no game-ending decisions, as Neverwinter Nights embraces the idea of freewill and individual choice. By allowing a player to proceed though any given situation in the manner that most appeals to him, Bioware enables it so that your character's previous decisions and alignment will come into play a lot more often. Therefore, even the smallest sidequest will feel somehow connected to the grand scheme of things. In this repsect, the expansion tells a much more interesting and all-encompassing story than found in the first campaign.
Shadows of Undrentide seems to pay more attention to the small details that help to enhance a game's atmosphere. This time, your companion will talk and often interject either humorous or helpful comments during a discussion. Creatures make frequent references to your race, class, and alignment, and often treat you differently as a result. Druids and Rangers can now talk to animals, Elves will find greater recognition in the Elven catacombs, and evil creatures may be approached by an evil deity for a partnership. These subtle additions make roleplaying a much greater element of Shadows of Undrentide. Instead of making a character choice for the sole purpose of gaining certain powers or strengths, a player may select his or her race and class on the basis of wanting to experience the game in an entirely different fashion. The abundance of race or class specific quests and side stories alone make the replay value of the game quite high.
A face-to-face pen-and-paper without the faces, pens, or papers
Another significant improvement to be found is in the area of gameplay. While the majority of features have remained the same, there are a number of additions that make the expansion worth your money. Spot, search, and listen skills have become more important with an increase in secret doors and other hidden amenities that could be found. Hiding, laying traps, and other roguish skills now give a shadowy player the ability to solve quests without direct combat. Sorcerers and bards will find special dialogue options that make use of their spellcasting or singing skills rather than having to resort to making a persuade or insight check. In short, every encounter has a variety of solutions, any one of which will appeal to a player's special talents. Gone are the days where the easiest road is that of a pure fighter, as even the lowly bard will find certain situations simpler when relying on performance rather than strength.
In addition to allowing players to further explore their already existing talents, Bioware also included many extra goodies for each class. A plethora of new spells are available to each of the spellcasting classes. A variety of new feats and skills have become available, in addition to the very cool craft trap skill which allows players to create a trap out of core components that they possess. Classes using pets will likely be happy with the addition of new familiars and animals companions as well. And of course, Shadows of Undrentide also increases the weapon variety by making available more exotic weapons. This is especially good news to hybrid fighting classes like the Druid, who is quite crippled when it comes to weapon selection, and is further penalized by the severe lack of magical weapons usable by this class. The newly added appraise feature also allows characters with significant skill in this area to receive and spend more or less gold when making a transaction with a shopkeeper. Alternatively, a low appraisal skill will cause inflated prices and poor returns. And of course, we all praise the addition of smarter henchmen who now allow you to manage their inventory, command their use of spells, and even identify items for you. All in all, the modifications and additions made to Neverwinter Night's core rules are a vast improvement over what has already existed.
Perhaps the most exciting of new additions comes in the form of prestige classes. Characters who develop themselves in certain ways to meet the prerequisites of these new classes will be treated with an additional multiclass option. Unlike multiclassing with the base classes, the prestige classes do not cause an experience penalty. While it takes a while to grow your character to the stage where he or she could take a level of prestige -- often not until about level eight -- these new classes are both a fun and interesting addition that should allow players the ability to further customize their characters.
Now featuring the hot, the cold, and the undead
Graphically, Shadows of Undrentide looks almost identical to its first incarnation. While there have been no graphical improvements, Bioware did include three new tilesets that should be a joy to module builders and diversity lovers alike. With the addition of the new rural winter tileset, desert tileset, and ruins tileset, players will encounter a much larger degree of variety in level design in both the official campaign and player-built modules. Of course, graphical features like kicking up sand in the desert and making footprints in the snow have all been added. There are also new placeables that can be used to add atmosphere to an otherwise stale room. While the graphics did not receive a major overhaul, these few additions did wonders to make the game seem much more eye pleasing and diverse.
Attack! I saaaaay attack!
Shadows of Undrentide has the same music and sound effects available that were found in the first official campaign, albeit with a few additions. The first of which is a greater variety of voice sets available to the main character. I have to say that, while the high-strung evangelist is a great one, these new voices are certainly a welcome addition. Voice acting for other characters is present as well, and while it does not seem as abundant as in the first campaign, it is still quite well-done and wonderfully applicable to the characters they represent. A certain dragon that makes an appearance during Chapter 1 most definitely has the most alluring voice and personality in the game. And while the new scores have a tendency to seem a bit overdramatic this time, their appearance was a wonderful surprise that was a treat for my ears. Neverwinter Nights is certainly not missing much aurally.
Worthy of the name?
Neverwinter Nights was one of my favorite RPGs of 2002. In order to please me and secure my purchase of the next expansion, Hordes of the Underdark coming this November, Bioware would have to prove itself through Shadows of Undrentide. The two major areas that are different in this expansion from the first campaign is the story and the new gameplay additions. I am quite happy to report that the game shone beautifully in both these areas. While I did enjoy the first official campaign, it did not quite have all the flair that I would have liked. This plot, however, strikes me as a work of art. It is not quite up-to-par with many of the epic, story-driven RPGs that have appeared as of late, but it can certainly hold its own against the plot juggernauts. And in the event that Shadows of Undrentide fails to stand up to the story of other modern RPGs, it can certainly defeat them in the fields of gameplay. The sheer diversity, replayablility, and fun factor of SoU far exceeded my expectations. If Bioware can promise that the upcoming Hordes of the Underdark can impress me even half as much as Shadows of Undrentide, I can guarantee that I will be among the first in line to purchase it. While it may be a bit too early in the year to tell, Neverwinter Nights' first expansion may prove to be my pick for Game of the Year.
© 2003 Bioware