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Title: Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark
Developer: BioWare Corp.
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: December 3, 2003 (USA)
Platform: PC (Linux/Microsoft Windows) (BioWare Aurora Engine 1.59, pre-patch)
ESRB Rating: T (teen) for blood and violence

Premise (minor spoilers ahead)

Hordes of the Underdark is the second expansion pack for the PC game Neverwinter Nights, which was released in mid-2002. Like the first expansion pack, Shadows of Undrentide, this one does not pick up where the original NWN campaign left off; instead it continues the story of SoU, albeit an indeterminate number of years afterwards. In the meantime, the kobold bard Deekin Scalesinger has had his epic about your travels published, which lends a bit of name recognition directed at you by various NPCs. You actually start out the game with a copy of Deekin's book in your inventory. In the intervening years between the end of SoU and the beginning of HotU, your fame has slackened a bit after the story fades from the public's collective consciousness. A user-created module called Shadohaunt was released (and approved by BioWare) to bridge the gap in between the two storylines. In fact, there are 11 total user-created modules that BioWare approved as official canon for the time between the official expansion packs, though Shadohaunt is regarded by many as the best of the bunch. (You can find all of them in the Downloads section of the NWN website.)

As the game begins, you learn that your character has answered a summons for heroes put forth by the government of the city of Waterdeep. It seems that Waterdeep has recently been the target of a number of seemingly random attacks on its citizens and structures by drow elves, who have been coming up out of Undermountain, the legendary dungeon created by the archmage Halaster, which has lain underneath Waterdeep since time immemorial. Your job is to put a stop to the drow insurgence. The only way you can do that is to venture into Undermountain itself, and possibly even the dreaded Underdark, an entire subterrainian realm located beneath Undermountain -- home to the evil drow and numerous other even nastier creatures. After cleaning out Undermountain, you find yourself in the Underdark city of Lith Myathar, in the camp of a powerful seer, who needs your help to defeat a drow matriarch and her summoned arch-devil. The Underdark is huge, and you must traverse every part of it to destroy the aforementioned matriarch's allies and find allies of your own to fight her. Finally, you end up in Cania, the Eighth Hell of Baator, with more quests and an area nearly as large as the Underdark, and then finally you get back to Waterdeep to face the final boss.

Game Control (minor spoilers ahead)

The game is controlled in largely the same way as in previous NWN titles, including the additions made to henchmen control that were introduced in SoU. As is typical for an NWN title, there is a recall/teleport device that you start out with. In HotU, this device is knows as the Relic of the Reaper. You can use it for infinite recalls to the central point of whatever chapter you're in, and you can also use it to create "jump points" from one area to another by invoking a gem known as a Rogue Stone. Rogue Stones are very rare in the game (I've been able to find a maximum of 11), so use of the Relic doesn't necessarily detract from how challenging the game is. When the Rogue Stone and Relic are used together, your character (and any henchpersons you have in your party) will be transported to the Gatehouse, a neutral dimension outside the world of Toril, which contains a number of doors to a number of different worlds, all governed by The Reaper. A benevolent, if mysterious humanoid creature, he looks just like the stereotypical renderings of the Grim Reaper -- hooded cowl, bony fingers, monotone voice, etc. He's there to help you, however, since you carry his Relic.

Further additions include the ability to have up to two henchmen in your party. This is was added to HotU after BioWare received an overwhelming number of feature requests for multiple henchmen, as you were only allowed one at a time in NWN and SoU. There are, all told, seven different henchmen to choose from as you progress through the game. The first one you encounter is a familiar face -- Deekin, the bard you rescued and had the option of teaming up with in SoU. If you can put up with his meager combat skills, mostly pithy spell selection, and frequently annoying dialogue, you have the option to take him along with you before you enter Undermountain for the first time. (He multiclasses as a bard and a Red Dragon Disciple as your own levels progress, and I must admit, he does look pretty cool with dragon wings once he gets into the upper RDD levels.) Four of the five original henchmen from NWN are available as well, although you're forced to rescue each one before you can add them to your party (and you can convince them to go along with you only if your Persuade skill is high enough). Daelen Red Tiger (half-orc warrior), Linu Li'neral (elven priestess), Tomi Undergallows (halfling rogue), and Sharwyn (human bard) all appear, though Grimgnaw and Boddyknock Glinkle are suspiciously absent. (Grimgnaw appears later on, though: as a boss!) One of the big letdowns (IMO) in HotU is that none of them recognize you as the Hero of Neverwinter from the original NWN campaign. BioWare's rationale for this was that your adventures in SoU were happening at the same point in time as your adventures in NWN, even if you took the same character through both the original campaign and the first expansion pack's campaign. The dialogue obliquely alludes to "The Hero of Neverwinter" at times when you talk to the henchmen, but it's nothing that directly names you as that hero. Henchmen that appear later in the game include a drow assassin called Nathyrra and a tiefling fighter named Valen Shadowbreath. Wizards and sorcerers also have the option of getting an iron golem servant/henchman if one particular quest is done a certain way. Also appearing is Aribeth de Tylmarande, or rather, her spirit, but this time she's a henchman available only in the last chapter. She's one of the game's more complex characters, and as far as I can tell, there's only a couple of ways to fully utilise her as a henchman. She's still a paladin/blackguard and has all the skills and spells of those classes, but she's also ethereal, not corporeal, which gives her some elemental immunities.

Another big addition is the inclusion of Epic Characters. While the original campaign and the first expansion pack allowed you to level up no higher than level 20, HotU allows you to get to level 40, and any level over 20 is considered Epic, even if you're multiclassing. (i.e., gain level 10 in two separate classes simultaneously, and you're considered Epic.) Basically, this means that as you level up past 20, you get Epic spells, feats, and skills. These are what follows the Improved Skill and Greater Spell sets -- souped up versions of the stronger stuff available in the upper teen levels.

There are also six new prestige classes, in addition to the five that came with SoU. They include:

  • Champion of Torm
    • Kind of a combination between the paladin and cleric classes. Most of the feats they acquire as they level up are paladin feats, like Lay On Hands and Smite Evil. As they reach Epic levels, they get some truly awesome combat and spell casting bonuses. They are, however, a fairly boring class to level up.
  • Dwarven Defender
    • Basically a barbarian with a defensive focus. Almost all of the defender's bonus feats are defensive. Even the Epic stuff for this class has to do with defense and damage reduction. A fitting analogy could perhaps be a cross between a barbarian and a monk, although this class is open only to dwarves.
  • Pale Master
    • An arcane spellcaster with a heavy focus on necromancy. The ideal evil cleric/sorcerer combination. The pale master can be played only by neutral or evil-aligned characters. The "deathless mastery touch" feat is rather unique, as it enchants one of the character's arms with the "finger of death" spell, the power of which increases as the pale master levels up. Fairly standard Epic arcane bonuses.
  • Red Dragon Disciple
    • RDDs are said to have dragon blood running through them due to, perhaps, a draconic ancestor. This gives them various breath attacks, a pair of dragon wings, permanent darkvision, and increasing strength and armor class bonuses as they level up, just like an actual red wyrm. A buffed-up RDD is an excellent character to have as your tank during battle because of the natural AC bonuses, as well as the total fire immunity that the RDD acquires at level 10. At Epic levels, the breath weapon becomes more frightening, gaining 1d10 of fire damage per three levels, up to 6d10 per go.
  • Shifter
    • The shifter is the most restrictive prestige class -- only a druid can multiclass as a shifter. Generally a fairly weak class, especially when combined with being a druid. At their best, shifters can polymorph into a medusa, a giant dire tiger, or an Illithid, once they reach level 10 (with lesser polymorph creatures in previous levels), but after that, it doesn't get too much better, although Epic feats allow more powerful new forms to polymorph into.
  • Weapon Master
    • The weapon master concentrates most bonuses and feats toward single melee weapons, with the standards being better versions of Greater Strike, Greater Critical, and a number of specialized Greater feats, like Greater Initiative. Definitely a good character to have around when fighting demons, golems, dragons, or anything with a lot of hit points or magic immunities. Fighters and barbarians generally make the best weapon masters.

Problems

The initial release of HotU (1.59) contains a number of bugs, mostly dealing with Unique Self-Power Only items, and a few bad sections of various tilesets found in various parts of the game, which won't let you move once you tread on them. Minor bugs include some script initialization flaws, which cause teleporter devices to fail or certain mobs not to load also cause problems for the player, but won't crash the game. Only a couple of the bugs will crash the game, though those bugs have been denoted "rare" by BioWare developers, as they haven't had many reports of them occurring. A patch to version 1.60 was released a few weeks following the retail release, and it fixes all of these bugs.

Conclusion

Overall, an excellent expansion pack. Head and shoulders above SoU, to be sure. My first time through I played as the character I took through the first two campaigns, although that most certainly did not make it any easier. The final boss is almost impossibly difficult to defeat with certain classes -- it took me about 20 tries to finally get it past the "Injured" stage of being wounded, many more to actually defeat it. A lot of the weapons and equipment you find or receive throughout the game are pretty strong, and very expensive. There are a lot of plot twists and the character development for the NPCs is beautifully done. Of course, the whole game still consists of a lot of hack and slash, but the story here is probably the best of the three released so far. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes RPGs.

The best part, in my opinion, is the sheer number of possible outcomes to each task. More often than not, there's at least one option for each alignment, and sometimes more than one. For example, there are about 15 different ways the game can end, all dependent upon alignment and how you handled certain tasks during the game. I've completed the game in all of the "good" and "neutral" alignments, and greatly enjoyed their endings.


Afterthoughts (years later)

I recently replayed this game after playing World of Warcraft for a few years, and hoo boy, the differences are huge. Coming back to this game after WoW's smooth interface and controls was a nightmare; experiencing NWN's preposterous and ineptly-designed interface and near-total disregard for the mouse wheel and arrow keys (both of which function only to zoom in or out), its rampant predictability and its limited replay value is like going back and playing Pac Man on the Atari 2600. The NWN franchise has not aged well, particularly not with the rise of MMORPGs and virtual worlds.

However, if you're big into AD&D 3.0 (now two versions out of date following the releases of 3.5 and 4.0) and you're not a stickler for quality, this game may entertain you, which it failed to do for me after I was exposed to something better.

The only thing I will concede is better here is the voice acting. The Seer, in particular, has a husky, sexy voice that reminds me of Cate Blanchett.

Neverwinter Nights 2 was an improvement, but it still doesn't hold a candle to WoW or newer games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.


References

http://nwn.bioware.com/underdark/
The 10 days (first run)/5 days (second run) it took me to finish the game.

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