Summary: BioWare's one-man epic, Neverwinter Nights didn't have quite the best singleplayer. The expansion, however, with prestige classes and improved control over henchmen, promises glory glory glory. Does it deliver? Brett tells all in his new auto-biography: Dammit, give me back my Baldur's Laser Squad Gate!
Shadows of Underwear
Since it was first announced, the Shadows of Undrentide expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights has taken a lot of heat for its goofy name. Yes, it is vulnerable to fratboy tags like “Shadows of Underwear.” Yes, it is impossible to properly spell “Undrentide” without access to Google. But the name is also suitable. You may be amazed that the FloodGate Entertainment-developed game got past the front door of publisher Atari with those words on the box, yet it still fits right in with old Dungeons & Dragons modules like Tomb of Horrors and Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Gary Gygax probably would have approved.
Acceptance of the add-on probably won’t be universal, though. Look past the name and you see a solo adventure with a cliché-packed plot, some engine enhancements like new character class options and spells, and a few new toys for the Aurora toolset. The campaign will hold your interest for a while, as the story is professionally told and features a nice balance between roleplaying and fighting. The rule and toolset tweaks will soon become must-haves for anyone who wants to design or download fan-developed mods and modules for Neverwinter Nights. But nothing addresses the faults of the original game. If you didn’t like the single-player limit, the annoying henchman stuff, or the fixed camera angles that cut off too much screen, you won’t like SoU. We’re still a long way from the epic tale and real-time battles that characterize the Baldur’s Gate series.
Conan saves the world
That’s both good and bad, as each franchise has its strengths. SoU plays up to its strengths with a plot that, like its name, evokes memories of first-edition D&D modules that old-timers like myself remember playing in high school. Although it lacks the “gotta save the world” stuff of Baldur’s Gate, the adventure features a script that could have been published in pen-and-paper format in the early 80s. You play a student of Master Drogan, a dwarf asked to hang onto four dangerous magical artifacts by the organization of Forgotten Realms do-gooders called the Harpers. Sooner than you can say “Robert E. Howard,” the lich’s hand, dragon’s tooth, tower statue, and mask of an evil high priest are stolen and Master Drogan nearly killed, leaving you as the only one capable of playing hero.
Predictable? Oh yeah. Regaining lost or stolen magical devices have been a hallmark of fantasy gaming since the first Conan adventures, and of D&D since the White Plume Mountain module in 1980. Still, a thrice-told story can be entertaining, and this one is, for the most part. You get to visit a number of new lands, spread across the Forgotten Realms from the frozen north around a village called Hilltop to the Anauroch Desert (the latter terrain is new to Neverwinter Nights, so expect to see a lot of sandy homebrewed modules in the next little while). There are a few twists and turns, although everything is telegraphed. You know right away that somebody is behind the kobold invasion of Hilltop, that the gnolls didn’t attack the kobolds for kicks, that somebody reeeeallly evil waits in the desert at the end of a long line of evil string-pullers.
SIDEBAR: For the scoop on how playing D&D will send you to Hell, check out Jack Chick’s fun-filled comic.
All mixed up
Still, it doesn’t get dull, even though it stretches over at least 30 hours of play. This is in large part due to solid design that features a lot of varied quests and locales, and doesn’t get too heavy on any one core element of roleplaying. There’s a fair bit of combat, often against interesting new enemies like gnolls, slaads, basilisks, and medusae, but lengthy breaks between battles make sure that fighting never gets monotonous. There’s a fair bit of puzzle solving, but the puzzles aren’t particularly difficult and are in the tradition of roleplaying epics stretching back to riddles poised in the Gold Box D&D games. And there’s a fair bit of exposition, but it’s not drawn out to adventure-game lengths, nor is it as tedious as the conversations in the original Neverwinter Nights campaign.
Everything has been mixed up, mostly for the better. Combat is typically interrupted by conversation, which is in turn interrupted with choices to use character skills. Often, you can avoid a fight entirely by using your Persuade ability to convince a potential enemy to see things your way. You can intimidate others, lie, or simply try and weasel your way out of tough spots. This lends more importance to conversations, makes you tune in rather than zone out and click “Continue” until you can unsheath the broadsword again, and follow what seems to be an open-ended pathway through the game. Even the key encounters, including one with a White Dragon and another with an evil sorceress, can be successfully concluded without bloodshed if you do a good job navigating the conversation trees and pull off skill checks. Puzzles further remove you from hack’n’slash land. Quests generally feature aspects of all of the above, livening up even the usual Fed Ex fetch-and-grabs.
Snidely Whiplash summons a skeleton
Character development has also been boosted, both naturally with the inclusion of many situations designed to test your roleplaying abilities and alignment and artificially with rule tweaks and additions. The former refers to almost everything you do during play. Loot a crypt and your Paladin might emerge not so committed to Lawful Good. Fulfil a quest to save a child and your duty to Chaotic Evil will be tested. You can’t pick and choose, or try to accomplish everything that the game offers, as there are some objectives designed for good and some for evil. Best of all, you get the chance to play either extreme to the fullest, or come down safely in the middle, with a wide range of choices in each conversation tree. You can offer help to everyone you see, no questions asked, and even toss money to victims of hardship as a parting gift. You can demand reward money for even the slightest task and attack everyone you meet on the road (and it’s a lot of fun to go the evil route, since you get fantastic dialogue choices, including hilarious options like asking a babe in distress how “grateful” she’ll be for the life-saving). You can play it neutral and do a little of both.
Prestige classes are probably the gaudiest of the artificial features. They alter character development by giving you the option to branch into a new class once you reach a number of milestones. There are selections here for every character type. Elves and half-elves have the Arcane Archer, those with evil intentions have Assassin and Blackguard, and everyone else has Harper Scout and Shadowdancer. Each has real strengths—although the best in terms of sheer coolness factor have to be the undead-creating Blackguard (something of a Snidely Whiplash ne’er-do-well) and the death-dealing Assassin—and provides variety to the monotony of controlling just a single character, especially when you get bored with your chosen profession right about the time the new ones become available.
SIDEBAR: Alfred Molina played Snidely Whiplash in the 1999 movie version of Dudley Do-RightM. He’s getting back to comic characters by playing Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2.
Know your limitations
It doesn’t fully make up for this limitation, however. As with Neverwinter Nights, in SoU you’re stuck with just a single character and a lone henchman to help with the heavy lifting. This remains just as annoying as it was in the original campaign, although at least this time the developers have softened the annoyance factor somewhat by giving you the ability to order changes in tactics, how they level up, and inventory. So you still can’t take direct control of your ally, but at least now you can tell him or her what weapon to use in combat, to only take levels as a Cleric, to guard you or attack enemies on sight, and so on. Thankfully, the artificial intelligence is solid aside from a couple of minor sticking points. The only incident that really bothered me was a visit to a kobold lair where my dwarven Thief/Cleric pal refused to sheath her weapon even after an agreement had been made to do exactly that (I had to go into her inventory and manually unequip her warhammer).
Lack of control and such a small party size create problems beside boredom. Having just a pair of mail-clad adventurers to boss around pretty much kills the strategic elements of combat. Unless you’re a Mage, your options are limited. Until you get to higher levels, you’ll go through the motions over and over in each battle. It’s a good thing that the game isn’t combat-intensive. If it were, repetition would be overwhelming players before killing the last kobold in Hilltop.
Getting in the way
You’re also given few choices in the beginning of the game as to who to employ as a henchman. By “few,” I actually mean “two,” and neither is all that great in the early stages unless you play a Fighter. Dorma Trapspringer is a handy Cleric/Thief combo if you choose a Paladin, as I did in my first run-through of SoU, but damn near useless if you pick a Mage, as I tried in my second. Sorcerer/Barbarian Xanos Messarmos isn’t much better, as he’s not much of a fighter or a spellcaster, and his choices in battle are less than inspired (he’s a half-orc, so maybe he’s supposed to be this stupid). Seeing as the story opens in a school for warriors, it would have been easy for FloodGate to provide a wider range of choices in the beginning. Perhaps issues with play-balancing got in the way. You get an interesting option later in a kobold Bard called Deekin Scalesinger. He’s hilarious, at times as funny as Minsc from the Baldur’s Gate games, though not very useful to a Fighter in need of a companion with strong healing abilities.
These problems are really pretty minor when you take into consideration the strong scripting and design, though it was still sort of hard for me to get into SoU. While I loved the old-school D&D atmosphere, the feeling like I was playing a solo pen-and-paper game with the computer serving as DM, it seemed like something was missing. Actually, it seemed like about four somethings were missing—namely, the rest of my party. This is more a problem that I have with the Neverwinter Nights style and engine than this expansion in particular, though the problem remains and I can’t separate the two for obvious reasons. Those without such issues will probably be able to better appreciate this expansion.
SIDEBAR: Does anyone ever bother with spells like Bane and Flare? Who the hell cares about -1 penalties to attack and saving throw rolls?
It’s Not Baldur’s Gate III
SIDEBAR: As of July 22, there are 2,626 user-designed modules at the Neverwinter Nights community site (http://nwn.bioware.com/). An unscientific survey conducted by me reveals that every single one of them contains grammatical errors.
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