Last July when I played Shadows of Undrentide, the first expansion to BioWare’s PC RPG Neverwinter Nights, I was left salivating over both the sheer level of enjoyment I derived from the game as well as the promise of the second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark, which would be released later that year. At the time, I vowed that if, “BioWare can promise that the upcoming Hordes of the Underdark can impress me even half as much as Shadows of Undrentide [has], I can guarantee that I will be among the first in line to purchase it.” I am proud to say that I held true to that vow and have not regretted it for a single moment.
Hordes of the Underdark is a direct continuation of the story left unclosed in Shadows of Undrentide. While you are encouraged to import your old character from the first expansion, owning the game is not a prerequisite. This is because you may alternatively create a new character which will automatically be raised to level 15 upon the start of the adventure. You may opt for this route even if you have played the first expansion in order to experience the broader array of character options present with Hordes of the Underdark. But whether new or old, your character will begin the game after having just woken up from a disturbing dream. To your horror, you discover a Drow woman searching through your belongings.
Left naked by the assassin that wished to render you helpless before dispatching you, you are forced to begin to remake your inventory with a set of new weapons and armor available in the very next room. Those fearing the loss of their beloved Holy Longsword +5 will be relieved to discover that all of the stolen items can be found later in the first chapter. Others, like me, will be relived to note that there is plenty of magical loot along the way to compensate for a lack of super items at the beginning if your character is not imported.
With these not-so-very-humble beginnings, your newest quest begins. Unlike many other adventures where your character progresses in the typical ‘rags to riches’ fashion, you begin the game already being considered a hero due to the events of Shadows of Undrentide. There is still plenty of room for growth, though, as you battle your way through the treacherous Underdark to find epic glory on the other side. And now is an important time to mention that while a major selling point of Hordes of the Underdark has been the promise of epic levels — a topic that will be covered later — the epic storytelling of the game is also of note. Role-playing games make a habit of creating a setting in which you are the hero in a struggle of massive proportions. But the campaign of Hordes of the Underdark takes this formula a step further. I truly felt the immense magnitude and importance of my journey, an element which was key to creating the sought-after epic feel of the game.
It may have been true in the past that Neverwinter Nights was more well-known for its ability to function as an excellent multiplayer experience — something that still holds true as the devoted fan community continues to grow — but with Hordes of the Underdark, the game can now be known for its wonderful single-player escapades as well. Far exceeding the stories of the first two incarnations of the title, this second expansion tells a truly marvelous tale wrought with twists and turns that will keep even the most seasoned role-player guessing.
But a rollercoaster of a story is not the only thing this game features. Along with massive improvements to the storyline come incredible advances in gameplay, as well. With the addition of six new prestige classes, epic levels, and sixteen epic creatures, Hordes of the Underdark certainly features a challenge never before found in Neverwinter Nights. Unlike as with the first expansion, the prestige classes are much more than just a novelty. While I did find the quintet of Shadows of the Undrentide enjoyable, I felt that their applicability was severely hampered by various weaknesses. The prestige classes of the second expansion, however, are far more intriguing. I actually restarted the game three times before I chose a character with which to finish the game simply because I could not choose which of the new classes to play. From the mysterious Shifters and Palemasters to the combat-ready Dwarven Defenders and Red Dragon Disciples, all the new classes provide for a unique gaming experience that urges the player to experiment with every character possibility available.
Plus, to enhance the customization of your character, Hordes of the Underdark allows for epic leveling all the way up to level 40, as opposed to the previous cap at 20. Epic levels, which are any level taken above 20, unlock your class’s most powerful skills. Many of the game’s 50 new feats and 40 new spells appear at this echelon and are all a great deal more powerful than what would be found at earlier levels. They each carry stiff requirements, as well. For example, one of the Shifter’s more powerful forms, the dragon, requires that the caster have a wisdom of 30 or more. This means that specialization and focus becomes increasingly more important if you want to unlock your class’s hidden potential.
With all this new strength, though, come many more strong creatures to challenge you. Even with all my newfound powers, I still found Hordes of the Underdark to be on the whole more challenging than the previous two campaigns. To help accommodate for this greater difficulty is the fact that now two companions can journey with you at the same time rather than just one. This allows for a much, much broader range of strategies, as no longer do mages have to worry about taking the only meat shield of the group and losing the ability to disable traps and pick locks. It should also be expected that, because you begin the game at roughly level 15, the action will begin right away in lieu of the typically easy encounters prevalent in the beginnings of most games. Starting exciting and ending exciting, Hordes of the Underdark gives plenty difficult obstacles to overcome yet provides you with enough strength and diversity to overcome all with the right planning and a bit of luck.
As expected, the expansion does not introduce any sort of immense graphical improvement. While this may be a turn off for those who view Neverwinter Nights as still utilizing outdated visuals, those who can look past the simplicity will enjoy the inner beauty of the game. And while it may be true that Hordes of the Underdark does not feature the mind-blowing 3-D power of other recently released titles, it still does a wonderful job with its tile method of area presentation. Locations are still brilliantly designed and the mood is always captured perfectly by the surroundings. The cold, relentless terror of the Underdark is reflected in its construction, and the subtle albeit natural beauty of its twisted architecture sets the perfect ambiance. Spells and other actions still animate as they did in previous incarnations, which can be good news or bad depending on your opinions of the earlier games. Despite the lack of improvements, I am still sufficiently happy with the visual aspect of Hordes of the Underdark and can find no real complaints other than to point out the enduring simplicity which, in my opinion, actually gives charm to the game.
With a new setting come new scores to fill the dark caverns of the Underdark with moody music. Richly applicable to every situation, the soundtrack of this expansion still carries the same level of excellence present in both previous games. And although I dislike the new voices given to the henchmen that have returned from the first Neverwinter Nights — as well as, for that matter, their new portraits — the voice acting present still did a nice job conveying emotion. For those still without a good vocal set for their character, the game also adds several new ones to choose from. Yet, despite the additions of new voices and musical tracks, it should be expected that Hordes of the Underdark will sound much the same as did all previous forms of Neverwinter Nights.
Typically when I finish a game, I am filled with a sense of accomplishment. At the same time, however, there is also a bit of emptiness and sadness, as if I am saying goodbye to a good friend after experiencing so much together. At the conclusion of Shadows of Undrentide, I had this reoccurring feeling. However, I could take comfort in the fact that a second expansion would soon be out to once again fill my heart with the world of Neverwinter Nights. Now the second expansion lies beneath my belt, as well. But at the conclusion of Hordes of the Underdark, I was able to feel no such comfort in knowing what would lie ahead. The journey present in this campaign was simply extraordinary and it is somewhat disappointing that I must now depart from it. I can only hope that BioWare has more up its sleeves and that it will not be too long before I can satisfy my appetite once more. Fans of Neverwinter Nights, and even those that thought they might not enjoy any of the expansions would do well to take a look at Hordes of the Underdark. Even as a great fan of the original game, my expectations were more than fulfilled. Kudos to BioWare for having such an excellent year in game creation.