Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark

Developer:  Bioware Corp
Publisher:  Atari
Year Released:  2003

Review by Rosemary Young (February, 2004)
The land of Faerun is, indeed, a lucky land. It's lucky because of you. On your first adventure in this series, Neverwinter Nights, you saved the City of Neverwinter from a fate worse than death; then in NWN: Shadows of Undrentide the northern wildlands and the town of Hilltop were your beneficiaries when you came to the rescue again. Now in this latest episode NWN: Hordes of the Underdark you have another opportunity to prove yourself.

Thus this is the third game or campaign in the Neverwinter Nights story. Although you don't need to have played the first two games to join in because each story is a tale on its own, you do need to have the original Neverwinter Nights game installed on your computer. Indeed, to get the full range of character choices it's advisable to have Shadows of Undrentide installed as well, so bear this in mind. If you haven't played a Neverwinter game, and want to join in the journey at this point, then there is a game package available, Neverwinter Nights Gold, that includes the first two games. So with this Gold package installed you are ready to load up for this latest trip, or you can take the challenges in whatever order you like.

"This one smells like dark elf, yes? No? Maybe?"
Well, the Underdark in this adventure is a dire place, deep within the earth where live the despicable dark elves known as the Drow, along with all sorts of other twisted and fearsome beasts. As it is your task to descend and confront the creatures of this terrible place there's not a lot of sunshine in Hordes of the Underdark. In fact, all the action is underground so there are a lot of subterranean structures and landscapes to scour. A torch will come in handy on this trip, or a light spell, or some other source of illumination.

You start your adventure above ground, however, in the City of Waterdeep and just beneath its surface is the famed dungeon of Undermountain, a world fashioned by the mad wizard, Halasten. Halasten is master of this world, which acts as a barrier between Waterdeep and the horrors of the Underdark below. He not only keeps the horrors in their place, but he also tests any adventurers who dare to enter the murky depths of Undermountain ... and few come out alive. Hence nothing crosses Halasten's domain. Well that was the situation until now! But, much to the alarm of the Waterdeep dwellers, Undermountain is no longer a watertight barrier between them and the Underdark. Evil is arising. So what has happened to Halasten? It's your task to find out!

"Break time now, yes? Yes? Maybe? No. Back to work"
As an Expansion Pack of the original Neverwinter Nights there is no need to discuss the intricacies of the interface here as that information is in my original Neverwinter Nights review. Not too much has changed in this respect except that there is more camera control. As with the first two games you can move your character by pointing and clicking or with the keyboard, and you can pan around using both methods. You can play from an overhead view or descend almost down to ground level in this game and you can zoom in even closer to your characters and count the buttons on their robes or watch the finer points of their interactions.

Hordes of the Underdark has the same playing choices as the previous games, including a range of difficulty levels as well as a multiplayer option; the ability to host your own game, plus the option to build and fashion your very own campaigns. Some of us, however, have to make do with the single player game so once again this review covers that official campaign only.

"You must fall for the greater good!"
Hordes of the Underdark is a better game in many respects. In fact I'm not sure where to start here so I'll begin with the Henchmen, the characters that you can invite to join your party. It was the Henchmen that I thought were the weakest aspect of Neverwinter Nights because of their poor AI and the lack of control provided, and although they improved in Undrentide, they were still a problem and too often bent on committing suicide.

So I'm happy to say that they are much improved in Underdark, and on this journey you can take two companions along rather than one. As well as a couple of new faces (I'll leave you to discover who) once again you will meet up with Tomi, Linu, Sharwyn, Daelin, Aribeth and Deekin and not only do they have better AI, and more versatility but they also have more personality so they come much more to life. Because they are more intelligent they are less likely to die and they will change weapons to suit the combat situation and spontaneously chat to you or to each other. This latter addition really worked for me. Deekin's ponderings over what to call his next tale, or Linu's expectations that songs would be written about her exploits, really add to their characters. And so did Linu and Daelin's discussion of Orcish hygiene. All these little 'incidental' conversations make the characters feel like 'real' companions and invite you to care a lot more about them than you do in the previous games.

Another really good aspect of this game is that it's a journey for the experienced adventurer. You don't start off as a mere novice but can increase your combined character levels up to 15 at the start of the game, and the ceiling, I believe, is a whopping 40. I never did climb that high but there is likely scope in the multiplayer game. For me this increased potential for higher levels meant that I could build my wizard up enough to contend with 9th level spells, very satisfying. Usually in such games the 8th and 9th level spell slots stay empty because my Wizard isn't sufficiently experienced, but in this game you get to learn Time Stop, Weird, Wail of the Banshee, and more.

For this very reason I kept my Wizard character and gave her some Arcane Archer experience although I was tempted to try a couple of the 6 new character classes included in Underdark. Most tempting were the Red Dragon Disciple who is rumored to have dragon blood and grows wings at level 9, and the Pale Master, a super, though not so angelic, spellcaster. Other new classes include a Weapon Master, a Shifter, Dwarven Defender, and a Champion of Torm.

Also Underdark has more spells and more feats to choose from to craft just the character you want, and there is some new stirring music from Jeremy Soule. It also boasts a collection of new monsters including some very hardy mithral golems, beholders, harpies, and a demilich who is one of the toughest adversaries in the game.

"Taste my savage fury!"
All in all this is an exceptionally good addition to the Neverwinter Nights saga. As well as detailed graphics, a lot of exploration, and an abundance of treasures and magic items to find, it offers plenty of combat with some really tough fights. Of course you can turn down the difficulty level if you meet a seriously deadly opponent and, although the combat is in real time, you can halt the action as often as you like to re-think your tactics.

It is divided into three chapters, and each one has a dominant theme. The first Chapter takes place in the Dungeon of Undermountain and is trap oriented, courtesy of Halasten, with lots of secret doors. So brush up on your trap finding and disarming skills for this one, or get someone to help, or you'll take a lot of damage. The second chapter moves down to the Underdark and has more story elements and various quests to take care of. The decisions you make will have repercussions for the concluding battle at the end of this section. Finally the last chapter is riddled with puzzles and will have you pulling leavers or working out other problems to get through the various areas. If you have the skills you can even make your very own golem companion and there's some romance too if you have the inclination to dally.

At the very end the final confrontation is a treat. It can be one almighty battle that will test you to the limit, or it can be easier, or perfectly simple. It all depends on what has happened before. Not to spoil it here, but there are different actions you can take leading up to this battle and they are expensive so it's worth reserving a bit (a lot) of cash so that you can experiment and try different things. The pen (or should I say the word) is, indeed, mightier than the sword. rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2004. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Processor Pentium? III 800 MHz** Pentium? 4 1.3 GHz**
Operating System Windows? 98/ME/2000/XP
RAM (Windows 98/ME/2000) 128 MB** 256 MB**
RAM (Windows XP) 256 MB** 512 MB**
Hard Disk Installation 1.5 GB***
DirectX? DirectX? version 8.1b or higher
Video Card 32 MB video card with Hardware T&L support* ** 64 MB video card with Hardware T&L support* **
Sound Card DirectX? certified sound card*
Multiplayer Local area network with TCP/IP protocol
Multiplayer via Modem 56Kbps (2 players max) broadband
* Indicates device should be compatible with DirectX? version 8.1b or higher.
** This requirement has changed from that of Neverwinter Nights.
*** A full installation of Neverwinter Nights (2.0 GB) is required.