Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark Hands-On Preview

We try out the second expansion pack for BioWare's Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game Neverwinter Nights.

Canadian studio BioWare has an impressive track record when it comes to role-playing games. After all, the developer is responsible for the landmark game Baldur's Gate and its highly acclaimed sequel Baldur's Gate II, in addition to the epic Xbox and PC role-playing game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Last year, BioWare finally shipped its long-awaited Dungeons & Dragons game Neverwinter Nights, a 3D role-playing game that included a single-player adventure plus a toolset for creating your own game modules. The game was later supplemented by an expansion pack, Shadows of Undrentide, and the company is currently getting ready to release its second expansion, Hordes of the Underdark.

There's a lot of action during battles as you tackle one high-powered group of opponents after another.

The new expansion pack has a number of different features, including a new single-player adventure of 15-to-20 hours in length, like the previous expansion's single-player game. Hordes will also feature brand-new enhancements, like six new prestige classes that include the champion of Torm, a beefed-up paladin, and the palecaster, a magician who specializes in necromancy. These classes can be used in the earlier campaigns, as can the more than 50 new feats and 40 new spells. Hordes also gives players greater control for personalizing their characters, as there are new portraits, voice sets, and character models available. Additionally, there's even a way to dye your equipment now so that you can coordinate your armor's colors, which is a must for today's fashion-conscious adventurer.

As the expansion's name implies, the campaign is set mostly in the Underdark, the subterranean world that lies deep beneath the Forgotten Realms. Inhabited by powerful beholders and mind flayers, it's also the home of the drow, those evil dark elves whose interests include war, big spiders, and cruelty. BioWare previously ventured into the Underdark in Baldur's Gate II, but the drow are a perennial favorite among Dungeons & Dragons fans, so they're back again. This time, however, the drow are pouring up to the surface and are attacking the city of Waterdeep. So it's up to you to descend into the Underdark and save the day once again.

BioWare figures that most Neverwinter players have high-level characters by now, and Hordes is designed to be played with characters of 15th level and above. If you don't have an existing character, you can create a 15th-level character at the beginning of the campaign. Several familiar faces from Neverwinter Nights make an appearance, including Tomi and Sharwyn, but the big news is that Deekin, the kobold bard from the Undrentide expansion, is back, and he's looking for another hero to worship.

You need to have a pretty tough character to go up against a Balor lord.

Since you start with such a powerful character, Hordes quickly throws you into the action. The battles have an epic feel to them, and we can't recall seeing battles as large as these in the earlier campaigns. The lighting effects are really spectacular when high-powered magic users crank out the combat spells. As in the Undrentide campaign, the gameplay is streamlined, so it's more about adventuring and monster-fighting and less about errand-boy quests, crate bashing, and chest-looting. There's also an emphasis on puzzles as well, especially in the dungeon of Undermountain. As in other BioWare games, there's a strong undercurrent of humor, from the wry in-jokes to the humorous conversations between you and your followers--especially Deekin.

With the new single-player campaign and all the features that can be used in custom-made modules, it seems safe to say that Neverwinter Nights fans will enjoy this new expansion pack. They won't have long to wait for it either, since it hits store shelves next week.

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