Continuing an ancient gaming tradition.
Though ostracized for much of the 20th century, nerdy gamers have a long and noble history. Don't believe me? Earlier this month, an ancient Roman 20-sided die sold at Christies for $17,925.00 - definitive proof that we can trace our geek lineage back 2000 years. I hope Gary Gygax was the winning bidder.
While I can't trace my own gaming back quite that long, I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons or one of its computer variants almost constantly for twenty years. Most recently, after I beat the single player Neverwinter Nights campaign, I quickly became addicted to the online play for several months.
So as a fan, I've been eagerly anticipating Hordes of the Underdark, the second NWN expansion behind Shadows of Undrentide, and now that it has arrived, I'm not disappointed. While not perfect (what is?), Underdark offers a little somethin' for everyone and is another must-have expansion pack for NWN fans.
Fans of classic dungeon-crawls like Dungeon Siege will be especially pleased by Hordes, as there's more linear progression to much higher power levels than the other NWN titles. The simple plot seems to be inspired by Dungeon Keeper…
The city of Waterdeep has always been a magnet for adventurers. They come from far and wide to test themselves against the traps and creatures in the Undermountain, a dungeon directly under the city. Undermountain, conceived and maintained by the mad wizard Halaster, is constantly changing, restocked with new monsters, fiendish traps, bewildering puzzles, and precious treasure to tempt bold warriors to unlock its secrets…or die trying. Why would Halaster do all this? No idea. I guess that's why everyone thinks he's crazy.
Normally, Undermountain has simply lurked under Waterdeep, waiting for people to adventure downwards. However, recently things from the Undermountain have been coming to the surface, and it turns out there's stuff even deeper down than Undermountain... in the Underdark. You have been warned.
The campaign will take you about 15-20 hours to complete and will take you from level 15 to about level 25. That's right - your characters are no longer limited to level 20; "epic levels" have been added to let you buff up all the way to level 40, if you like. You can also have up to two henchmen instead of just one, bringing it closer to a party-based game. Add to that about 50 new feats, about 40 new spells, 6 cool new prestige classes, 4 new tilesets, and some new music and you've got a robust expansion.
But what really impresses me about Hordes is the inspiration the developers took from the online community. One of the best parts of NWN is that they spent as much time on the toolset as on the game, giving the users incredible freedom to create their own worlds. And what better way to find out what people want than to watch what they make?
The graphics, for example, are largely unchanged except for some more detailed texture, especially for characters faces. But the developers added something that's been available to players as a very popular hack for ages: you can now unlock the camera, look over you character's shoulder and view the world from a new perspective. You can at last check out the sky (although you wont see much sky in the well-named Underdark) or peer down at that suspicious treasure chest.
The new epic levels are also great, and again imitate what the community has been doing for years. Many online servers scripted in their own epic levels a year ago, awarding permanent bonuses to players for experience at certain points over level 20.
Another popular online mod was the addition of a crafting system so players could use resources to make armor, weapons, jewelry, clothing, and even magic items. ATS and CNR were two competing free tradeskill mods that you could add to your server. Again, Bioware took their cue from the fans and added new trade skills and support for crafting in Hordes. They also added items that allow you to customize some of the look and color of your items.
The love for the multiplayer game that I thought was missing from Shadows of Undrentide is definitely here in Hordes. It's great stuff that's clearly for the online crowd, because looking at the sky and crafting your own items is pretty much useless in single-player Hordes; when you're a level 21 demi-god, who cares if you can make a large shield? Instead, just go online and you can show off your new purple monk's robes.
But some of that love is missing from the single player. I prefer more open-ended gameplay than the linear story of Underdark, and it seems like all of Bioware's best storywriters were busy working on Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic, because the dialogue options are more limited, choices seldom effect your alignment, and someone seems to have confused being evil with being a jerk.
So the best part of Hordes of the Underdark turns out not to be the new campaign, but the extensive online support and terrific response to its dedicated fan base. After anticipating the game and getting to play a new adventure, I get to anticipate all over again what the fans are going to do with all the new tools provided to them. Plus, I don't have to wait 2000 years.