Last year's Neverwinter Nights was BioWare's ambitious attempt to capture the open-ended nature of pen-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons on the PC. While the game's lengthy single-player campaign was hardly an afterthought, Neverwinter Nights' 3D engine and toolset got a lot of attention, because they were intended to allow fans to create and host their very own D&D adventures. Indeed, now there are countless free fan-made Neverwinter Nights modules available for download, but as you'd expect, their quality and size can vary wildly. Meanwhile, the first retail expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights offers much the same level of quality that fans have come to expect from BioWare's role-playing games over the years. While Shadows of Undrentide doesn't fix the shortcomings of Neverwinter Nights' Aurora engine (which isn't aging as well as BioWare's Infinity engine, which was used for five years' worth of great RPGs), this expansion features a good-sized original campaign and makes a few noteworthy additions to the gameplay of the original.
Shadows of Undrentide isn't a conventional expansion pack, because it's not a continuation of the previous game. Essentially it's a brand-new campaign using the same engine, so although you're required to install it on top of Neverwinter Nights, the stories of the games are completely separate. Undrentide's campaign is shorter than that of Neverwinter Nights, but that doesn't mean it's short--it will probably last you 25 to 30 hours, and there's some good replay value to boot. The expansion retains the same excellent mechanics of Neverwinter Nights, so you can easily control your character and access a variety of useful in-game information using the mouse and a few keystrokes.
Much like Neverwinter Nights' campaign, Undrentide's campaign does a good job of actually letting you role-play your character, mostly by giving you both good-natured and evil-natured dialogue options and quest solutions. There's a lot of dialogue to read through, but it's good enough if you're interested, and it can be skimmed through easily if you'd rather just hack and slash your way to the end. The expansion takes you through several new types of environments not found in Neverwinter Nights, including a snowy wilderness, a desert, and some ancient ruins. The plot of the game isn't remarkable, but it does a decent job of setting up the sorts of adventures and challenges you'd expect from a fantasy RPG. Four powerful artifacts have been stolen, and you need to recover them for your master. This series of quests, in turn, leads to bigger problems for your increasingly experienced character, as you find yourself at odds with a number of powerful villains and their appropriately sinister schemes. There are some fairly clever puzzles you'll need to solve along the way, and an appropriately skilled character can often talk his way out of potentially dangerous situations instead of having to fight.
Since you start out as an inexperienced character in the campaign, you'll appreciate that Shadows of Undrentide adds five new prestige classes to the numerous character classes already available. These are high-level classes that aren't available from the get-go--they can only be selected once your character has met certain requirements--but they do give you something to aspire to. The prestige classes are powerful and versatile. To name a few, the blackguard is an evil equivalent of the paladin and proficient at slaying good-aligned creatures, the arcane archer imbues his arrows with special enchantments, and the shadowdancer is even stealthier than a master rogue and can vanish from plain sight. Like Neverwinter Nights' campaign, Shadows of Undrentide's campaign is focused on your character, though you're encouraged to travel alongside a computer-controlled henchman. Between the multitalented prestige classes you can choose and the several multiclassed would-be henchmen you'll meet, you'll be well equipped to deal with a variety of encounters.
Nevertheless, those who were disappointed by the fact that Neverwinter Nights was primarily a single-character campaign will likewise wish that Undrentide's campaign had lifted this restriction. Because you'll almost always have no more than two characters to worry about, battles in Undrentide are easy to manage and aren't nearly as tactical as those found in Infinity-engine games like Baldur's Gate II or Icewind Dale II. You can pause the real-time combat and issue orders as necessary, but it often isn't necessary.
But that's not to say the combat isn't entertaining. 3rd Edition D&D gives characters lots of different options and special abilities to choose from in battle. The Aurora engine does a good job of making D&D combat look dynamic, and it gets the pacing just right. You'll still see your character and his or her foes dodging or deflecting their opponents' strikes and reloading their ranged weapons between shots, among other things. Besides that, Shadows of Undrentide's new environments and variety of new enemies (including some popular fantasy mainstays such as gnolls, basilisks, and manticores) fit right in with the rest of Neverwinter Nights' visuals, but don't really exceed the graphical standards of the original game. By now, the level of detail seen in the characters, creatures, and environments leaves something to be desired when you zoom in for a closer look. The game looks good overall, but the Aurora engine isn't as visually impressive as it was a year ago. Shadows of Undrentide recycles much of Neverwinter Nights' audio, including its music and sound effects, though it does add new music, sounds, and voices. The voice acting is fine but only comes up once in a while to give a major character more of a personality. The new music is mostly very good, and fits the new environments well, though some of it seems overly dramatic.
Shadows of Undrentide adds a few other trimmings to Neverwinter Nights. You have more control over your henchmen now, most notably by being able to access their inventories and equip them as you see fit. You can also order them to focus their training in a certain way--so if you want Dorna Trapspringer, the dwarven rogue cleric, to only gain cleric levels, you can have her do that. The game has a few new portraits and voices for you to choose from when first creating your character, and it adds a number of new feats, skills, spells, and magic items, among other things. These add to Neverwinter Nights' already large variety of play options, and they give Shadows of Undrentide considerable replay value. The new character options and prestige classes can be used outside of Undrentide's campaign, too. The expansion also improves on the Aurora toolset by including relatively easy-to-use "wizards" for creating plots, setting up shops, and generating waypoints for non-player characters.
It seems unlikely that BioWare's Aurora engine will enjoy as much staying power as the Infinity engine before it. But no one could have expected the Infinity engine to be around for five years, so who's to say? In any event, Shadows of Undrentide proves that the Aurora engine remains very capable of delivering some fun and exciting role-playing experiences. If you enjoyed Neverwinter Nights' campaign and core gameplay, then you'll find more of what you liked in this expansion, along with a number of bonuses that help make having to level up all over again an enticing prospect. At the same time, those well versed with the Aurora toolset should appreciate the new toolset improvements, tilesets, monsters, spells, and items afforded by this expansion. Ultimately, Shadows of Undrentide isn't the most epic or memorable RPG with BioWare's name on it, but it has plenty of good, new content to satisfy most any Neverwinter Nights fan.