Shadows of Undrentide Preview
We take an exclusive hands-on look at BioWare's upcoming single-player expansion for Neverwinter Nights.
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Neverwinter Nights was an excellent role-playing game that showcased the new 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules while still offering the story and action we had come to expect from the Baldur's Gate series. It was critically acclaimed not only for its content but also for its incredibly robust and flexible toolset, which has allowed fans to create role-playing game modules of their own. But while there have been numerous user-made modules of varying quality available for download, the game's fans have really been waiting for some new adventures from the developers at BioWare. Next month, fans will get what they've been waiting for: BioWare and Floodgate Entertainment will deliver the first official expansion for Neverwinter Nights, Shadows of Undrentide, this June.
The Shadows of Undrentide expansion takes place in the snowy village of Hilltop, far away from the bustling city of Neverwinter. So far away, in fact, that the Harpers--the Forgotten Realms' version of a global police force--have decided that it's a safe place to hide dangerous evil artifacts of immense power. Of course, the Harpers were silly to expect that storing these vile instruments of destruction in a remote town was enough to keep them out of the hands of the forces of evil. You begin the game as the top apprentice of the dwarven wizard Dorgan, and on the eve of the final test, you find that your master's redoubt has been invaded by kobold commandos. They poison your master and make off with the four artifacts that the Harpers were trying to keep secret in the town. Obviously, as Hilltop's top hero, it falls to you to recover these artifacts for the Harpers, save your master, and stop the evil brewing on the doorstep of the town.
You'll start the game watching the ambush of your master and then have to hurry out the door in hot pursuit of the kobolds. Your main quest is to find the four artifacts stolen by the kobolds and find out who was behind the theft. It soon becomes apparent that a great white dragon in the north is the culprit, but there are also other evil forces that threaten Hilltop. Gnolls under a mysterious leadership have waylaid the kobolds and stolen the artifacts, which suggests that at least two major evil forces are at work. Even the dreaded Red Wizards of Thay, the supreme villains of the Forgotten Realms, are getting into the act.
As you may expect from the creator of the Baldur's Gate series, BioWare will include plenty of side quests and related quests to give you more options and freedom to explore as you wish. These quests are varied and fun and have the same variety and open-ended nature of the quests in the original Neverwinter Nights. You can help the aforementioned Red Wizards set up a magic shop in the town (and possibly benefit from the new wares they bring in), rescue a dwarven woman who has been mistaken for a baby giant and forced to be the wife of a dim-witted hill giant, find a snow-white teleporting magic stag for an elven ranger who needs the creature's horns to cure his wife's disease, secure the freedom of a helpful but sniveling kobold, and so forth. And if you are a ranger or druid, you can use your animal empathy to help a wounded bear in the wilderness. Rangers and druids will find more animals to talk to and more quests resulting from their unique ability to communicate with wildlife. But these are just a few of the quests that the expansion will offer.
Neverwinter Nights offered the first implementation of the 3rd Edition D&D rules, including that system's open-ended character development, heroic feats, skills, and lots of spells. In Shadows of Undrentide, the rules have been expanded to include more 3rd Edition goodies, such as prestige classes and more feats, spells, and monsters. Prestige classes are special classes that you have to work your way into. Many have prerequisites you must meet before you can enter them, but they offer lots of intriguing special abilities you won't find in the core classes of fighter, barbarian, wizard, cleric, and so forth. The expansion will offer five new prestige classes: the arcane archer, the assassin, the blackguard, the shadow dancer, and the Harper scout.
Each prestige class has 10 or fewer levels in it, rather than the 20 levels of a regular class. All of them have exceedingly powerful abilities that you get as you gain experience levels; obviously, you'll acquire the most impressive ones in the later levels.
The arcane archer is a master bowman who combines superior archery with magic. It has the base attack bonus of a fighter and uses a D8 for hit dice. To get into the prestige class, you need to be an elf or half-elf, have a +6 base attack bonus, have the point-blank shot and weapon focus: longbow or weapon focus: shortbow feats, and the ability to cast first-level arcane spells. That means you have to multiclass before you can be an arcane archer, which leaves this path open to fighter-wizards or fighter-sorcerers of around seventh or eighth level. Once you join this prestige class, you'll get incredible ranged-attack abilities. For every two levels in this class, every arrow you fire gets a +1 enchantment bonus, so at level 10, every arrow you fire is treated as a +5 enchanted weapon. At that point, you won't need to buy any more magic arrows. Arcane archers can also shoot fireball arrows that explode for extra damage, seeker arrows that never miss, a hail of arrows that hit every target onscreen once, and even an arrow of death that instantly kills what it hits. Most of these abilities can be used only once or twice per day, but they make the arcane archer a killing machine from afar.
The assassin is a favorite among classic Dungeons & Dragons players. It has a rogue's base attack bonus and D6 hit dice and gets six skill points per level. This prestige class has a prerequisite of any evil alignment and eight ranks in the hide and move-silently skills, so fifth-level monks, rogues, rangers, and bards can enter this class. Once you've joined this class, you get some impressive attack capabilities. For instance, assassins can perform a death attack--a sneak attack that does extra damage and also paralyzes your target. They also receive the uncanny dodge skill, which gives you a bonus to your reflex saving throws, and they can cast a small assortment of spells, such as ghostly visage, darkness, invisibility, and improved invisibility.
The blackguard is an antipaladin, an unholy warrior that can smite good, summon undead, and sneak-attack his foes. He has the base attack bonus of a fighter and D10 hit dice. He can also wear the heaviest armor and use all weapons. To get into this class, you need to be evil, have a base attack bonus of +6, five ranks in the hide skill, and the cleave feat. It's actually easy for rangers to qualify for this class at sixth level, and multiclass fighters and rogues can as well. The abilities of this prestige class are suitably evil. You can smite good (an ability that improves your attacks against good-aligned enemies), which adds your charisma bonus to your attacks; gain a dark blessing, which adds your charisma bonus to your saving throws; turn undead; summon fiendish allies to fight for you; cast a few spells like bull's strength, contagion, and inflict serious wounds; and get a sneak attack, although it progresses as quickly as the rogue's or assassin's sneak attack abilities. The blackguard seems like the perfect class for those who like to wade into the thick of a fight but still wish to have some nasty abilities.
The shadow dancer is a master of stealth. Although this class has the same base attack bonus as a rogue, it has surprisingly good hit points (D8 hit dice) and six skill points per level. To join this profession, you need to have 10 ranks in hide, eight ranks in move silently, five ranks in tumble, and the dodge and mobility feats. The prerequisites mean that usually rogues, rangers, and bards will join this class, and not until around seventh or eighth level. Shadow dancers have some great powers, such as being able to hide in plain sight (usually, if a monster is looking at you, you can't hide) and to summon shadows to fight on their behalf. Shadow dancers also have some great defensive abilities, such as evasion and improved evasion, which let you avoid damage from spells and breath weapons completely or partially; defensive roll, which, with a successful reflex save lets you negate damage from an attack that would normally knock you unconscious or kill you; shadow evade, which gives you armor class, concealment, and damage reduction bonuses; slippery mind, which lets you reroll a failed will saving throw; and uncanny dodge, which helps you avoid traps and flat-footed penalties.
The Harper scout is a stealthy agent for the secretive and ubiquitous Harper society of Faerun. These heroes use their abilities and their extensive network of contacts to fight evil everywhere across the world. The Harper scout has the base attack bonus of a rogue, a D6 hit dice, and four skill points per level. To get in, your character must be any nonevil alignment, have four ranks in discipline and search, six ranks in lore, eight ranks in persuade, and the alertness and iron-will feats. Bards make good candidates for the Harper class and can do so around fifth level. The Harper scout gains a bardic knowledge ability to better identify items; can cast spells like cat's grace, sleep, and invisibility; gets some bonuses to saving throws; and also gets two favored enemies.
Feats were one of the best aspects of character customization in Neverwinter Nights, and there are a lot more of them in Shadows of Undrentide--more than 30 new ones, in fact, though many of them are available only when you first create a new character. These first-level feats generally give you modest bonuses to skill checks or saving throws. For example, the thug feat gives you a +2 bonus to initiative and persuade, while the luck-of-heroes feat gives you a +1 bonus to all your saving throws. Other first-level feats include blooded (+2 to initiative and spot checks), bullheaded (+1 to will saves and +2 to resist taunts), courteous magocracy (+2 to lore and spellcraft checks), silver palm (+2 to appraise and persuade checks), snake blood (+1 to reflex saves and +2 to saves against poison), stealthy (+2 to hide and move-silently checks), and strong soul (+1 to fortitude and will saves and +1 to saves against death magic).
The expansion will also feature non-level-dependent feats, such as great cleave, zen archery, divine might, circle kick, and greater spell penetration. These feats are spread across all classes and will help strengthen and further customize your characters. Great cleave, for instance, is like cleave, but it lets you attack additional enemies when you down one--a terrific option for close-combat fighters. Zen archery lets you add your wisdom bonus to a ranged attack--a good bonus for clerics or rangers. Divine might lets you use one of your turn-undead attempts to imbue your attacks with a damage bonus equal to your charisma, while divine shield lets you do the same to imbue your shield with an enhancement bonus--both are ideal feats for clerics and paladins. Circle kick is a special attack for monks. And greater spell penetration makes it easier for wizards and sorcerers to bypass the spell resistance of powerful monsters like fiends and dragons.
Shadows of Undrentide also features more than 50 new spells for all spellcasters. One of the spells you'll see right away but be unable to use is Bigby's crushing hand, a wizard spell that sends out a translucent giant hand that seizes an enemy and deals massive damage to it. Master Dorgan uses it to repel the kobold invaders in the beginning of the game. Other Bigby spells in the game include Bigby's interposing hand, which gives wizards and sorcerers defensive bonuses, and Bigby's clenched fist, which bashes enemies from afar. The Bigby spells are fairly high level, but there are also other spells of lower level being added to the expansion, such as expeditious retreat, a first-level wizard spell that boosts your speed and armor class; true strike, another first-level spell that gives you a +20 on your next melee attack; divine favor, a first-level cleric spell that boosts attack and damage rolls; and entropic shield, a first-level cleric spell that makes ranged attacks miss you. There are many others that will give all spellcasters even more options when choosing spells.
In addition to all the new content, there are also some enhancements to the game. While the pathfinding doesn't seem to have improved, NPCs seem to get out of the way better when you try to move past them. And you should be able to access and adjust the inventory of your henchmen, something you couldn't do in Neverwinter Nights, though we were unable to try out this new addition in the version we played. Other new features you'll find in the expansion are new tilesets, such as the snowy landscape of Hilltop, and ruins. The expansion adds 16 new monsters, including the pesky kobolds, and new voices as well.
BioWare estimates that the expansion will offer about 20 new hours of gameplay. That's definitely much less than the 60-plus hours of playtime you could get with the original, but it's a sizable new adventure nonetheless. It definitely starts off much faster, which should help you feel as though you're getting more adventuring done, right from the start, than in the original game. Though you'll begin the game by pursuing those evil, evil kobolds to avenge your mentor, once you get started on your journey, you'll discover a host of side quests and new characters. And considering that the starting quest in the original Neverwinter Nights--finding a cure for a plague--led into a much larger quest to defeat an evil empire, it's entirely possible that both your starting quest and your quest to recover the stolen artifacts may lead to a much more epic quest later on. We'll just have to wait until June to see what twists and turns await us in the latest chapter of the Neverwinter Nights saga. From what we've experienced with the version we played, it seems safe to say that another great adventure is just around the corner.