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Developer:
Bioware
Publisher: Atari
Platform: Personal Computer
Release Date: December 2, 2003

by Ronald Wartow




Preface

Neverwinter Nights Hordes of the Underdark (Hordes) continues the gameplay of Neverwinter Nights and its first expansion, Shadows of Undrentide. This apparent final expansion, installed atop Neverwinter Nights and single player only, thrusts the player into fresh surroundings, all the while injecting inventive and exciting features into the already rock-solid gameplay over the 25+ hours of the campaign. The player will experience a profusion of new spells, abilities, feats. New Prestige or Epic character classes of immense power and complexity face off against the toughest, cleverest monsters ever for the series.


The core game and first expansion earned richly deserved lofty marks from Just RPG reviewers. To recap, those games provided scores of hours of RPG juiciness –- absorbing single-player campaigns, programming toolset to create personal adventures called modules (Over 3000 are now available gratis!), dungeon master capacity, and multiplayer, online play. (Please refer to the Reviews Section of this site.)


Story

Hordes happens in a confined world, essentially 3 locations that are all firsts for Neverwinter Nights. Waterdeep, once a prosperous city, is now besieged by evil denizens from below. (If memory serves, Waterdeep was the location of the D&D landmark Pool of Radiance in the renowned first PC Gold Box game of the same name many years ago.) Undermountain, beneath Waterdeep, is a sinister, elaborate labyrinth, created by a mad-wizard, ever-changing, and an adventurer’s nightmare and frequent burial ground. Underdark, below Undermountain, is the Drow stronghold and complex dungeon. The monstrous multitudes rising from this lowest of bastions spawned the title of this expansion.


The player’s character is required to rid Waterdeep of the foul menace emanating from underneath. Careful not to spoil, I’ll just say that Hordes begins with a gripping triumph of an opening scene, and quickly inspires player urgency with a surprise development. These events make you want to leap through your monitor into the darkness below the relatively safe confines of Waterdeep. Thus starts a story even more stimulating than those found in the prior games. Be prepared for plenty of surprises as the plot develops.


Gameplay

The new, playable features accompanying the adventure will whet and satisfy the RPG gamers’ appetites for flexibility and utter command. Everything new elevates gameplay to a grand or heroic scale. The scorecard of new features reads as follows: higher level boundary, 20 character portraits, 6 Prestige or Epic classes, 16 monsters, over 60 feats, 40 spells, rousing score, voicesets, 4 tilesets, and the ability to construct weapons and armor. There is so much new “stuff” that the manual is a whopping 160 pages long.


Like the prior games, you may select a pregenerated character. These characters, or ones the player creates from scratch, begin at Level 15. (Neophytes need not apply here.) Any character brought over from either of the previous games below Level 15 is automatically elevated to that level. Alternative, you may level raise a below-Level-15 character manually. The time to raise a Level 1 character to Level 15 can be onerous, but those who enjoy molding a character will have a blast doing this. Prime yourself for some serious leveling, as your character can multi-class and zoom past the prior Level 20 limit, all the way to Level 40! Though that level is doable, in actual fact, completing Hordes can be accomplished by characters in the 25-30 level range


The new Prestige and so-called Epic classes are multitalented and can do things unimaginable before. Such impressive figures as Pale Master and Dwarven Defender can be played. And, the new Red Dragon even sprouts wings!


The game’s authors know when to carry on a good thing. Despite plenty of new content, Hordes plays and feels like the prior games. There are no departures from the familiar movement, combat, treasure retrieval, magic system to the character advancement and attendant skills and feats engines.


Tons of taxing puzzles await solution by the player. Solving the plot is far more difficult prior the prior series quests. The combat system remains the same. Without doubt, the monsters are out-and-out tougher, and seem to know how to counter my tried-and-true combat techniques.


Henchmen, many carried forward from the core game, are yet again available to travel with the hero, with one gigantic and welcome exception. This time, the hero can take along 2 henchmen, rather than the one permitted in the earlier campaigns. With this added party member, and the abilities of certain classes to conjure familiars and summon creatures, playing Neverwinter Nights, at last, feels like my adventure is with a bona fide party. There’s more interplay between the henchmen and the hero and NPC’s. Some of the conversations are downright hysterical, and others present helpful hints on what to do next.


What’s more, you now have 2 henchmen inventories to manipulate, and a couple of handy torsos to lug all that booty back to a merchant for sale. As a result, excessive encumbrance loads rarely are a problem in Hordes. The player can still order henchmen to level in specific classes, even multi-class, just like the main character. This makes it easy to create a henchman that is a true counterpart to your character.


Inept henchmen tactics still plague the series. Combat is where this causes the most problems. Henchmen, too often, exhibit fruitless battle patterns, despite your orders to the contrary.


Hordes employs a refreshing adaptable, innovative camera viewpoint and control. You can now play the game practically on the characters’ backs with an over-the-shoulder outlook or examine lofty altitudes. Close-in combat is particularly fun to watch from the new angle, and practically makes you feel the weapon swipes.


Yet again, the dialogue engine exasperatingly persists in requiring the player to click constantly a separate screen solely stating “End Dialog”, even though the prior screen clearly ended the interchange.


A Personal Moan

Since its recent release, Hordes has garnered wonderful reviews from reputable gaming websites. Every review drools over the engrossing story, and all the new “stuff” that propel D&D character-building gamers to RPG nirvana. I completely agree with these opinions. Online buzz has followed suit. What’s more, I am an up-front admirer of Neverwinter Nights and the first expansion. In my review for this site, I graded the expansion 90% (A). If I had reviewed Neverwinter Nights, I would have given it the same A+ as the reviewer did here.


So, why was I, at the end of the day, disappointed in Hordes? How come, for me, Hordes sucked all the excitement out of the essence of why I take pleasure in playing RPG’s -- character building and discovery?


Before I begin, what follows did not cause me to downgrade the expansion. I felt that my views are probably shared by, perhaps, 12 people in the game-playing universe. I recognize that Hordes offers striking new features, and a fabulous long-play story and quest, and for that reason I give it high marks.


Like many RPG’s before, Neverwinter Nights and Shadows of Undrentide shoved me into the world as a Level 1 tyro, barely able to lift a sword. My first combats against weak goblins and rats were well-balanced, and required planning and strategy just to survive. As the game progressed, and my character leveled higher, the hero was rewarded with more powerful equipment, abilities, and items after defeating newer and tougher monsters. Being rewarded with a Longsword +3 or Amulet of Fortification +2, for example, was greeted by tremendous personal exhilaration at having defeated a dangerous monster or solving a thorny quest. Furthermore, this constant and gradual level progression, matched by the hero’s foes, is what make RPG’s so entertaining to play. Is there any difference between how you play a Level 15 Barbarian and a Level 30 Barbarian? There sure is between a Level 1 Barbarian and a Level 5 Barbarian, or the first time you can perform Cleave.


In contrast, my Level 15 “Superman”, with heady equipment, and powerful abilities and feats, right away faced off against tough Drow clerics, mages and guards, something that, while playing the prior games, was anticipated for hours before such an event occurred. Why, my hero even discovered a Longsword +3 at the very outset of the game just lying in some remains.


Even the game creators recognize this point. On their website, they kick off a Hordes forum with the following: “BioWare is pleased to present this expansion pack for those who need so much power at their fingertips that peasants would explode at the mere thought of how ridiculously epic you are.”

To sum up this admittedly long-winded dialogue, I enjoy RPG’s to take a fledgling character I created and achieve superstar status. I do not want that status handed to me on a silver platter at the game’s beginning.


Worse yet, D&D’s newer rules valiantly attempt to differentiate between classes available for creation and questing, but fail in my opinion. The level loftiness of Hordes characters reflects this, and practically eliminates any real distinctions between classes. With all the potent feats, skills, and magic available to multi-classing characters, some achieving epic and super classes, practically from the start, they all seem to blend together in a mass of unconstrained clout and wizardry.


Bottom Line

I heartily recommend Hordes. In the end, Shadows provides a long, beefy road to the final boss battle. Plenty of new features abound, and even module builders have some exciting new toys with which to play. Anyone who enjoyed Neverwinter Nights and Shadows will be tickled with Hordes. For those so inclined, replaying the game with radically different characters is certainly an option.


In my Shadows review, I noted that “Though the new campaign is first rate, some of the modules created by the gaming community are clearly professional in nature, and, might be viewed as comparable in quality to Shadows.” Without meaning to offend the many proficient module builders, I cannot say the same about Hordes, which rises to a lofty new level, unmatched in my module-playing experiences.


Final Grade: 90%




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