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NWN: Shadows of Undrentide Review
Jeff 'EverythingXen' Layne, 2003-07-24

Like greeting an old friend
It's been a year since I reviewed Neverwinter Nights, and about six months since I played it seriously. Don't get me wrong: I love the game, but with new shiny toys begging to be played it had to take a back seat. It hasn't left my hard drive yet, and I don't think it will any time soon. It's still hard for me to imagine a D&D game better than Neverwinter Nights... we'll see soon if Temple of Elemental Evil can pull it off.

For not playing for six months it was really easy to slip back into Neverwinter mode and give Shadows of Undrentide a thorough thrashing. The graphic engine wasn't upgraded as far as I can tell, and I truly don't think there was a need to. The armor and weapon models and lighting effects are still as nice as I thought they were a year ago. It's no Morrowind or Gothic (let alone Gothic 2), but there's an upside to that. After suffering through 9 to 20 FPS in Gothic 2 it was nice to play a game that actually ran smoothly on my system. One thing of note: The new monster models are fantastic looking... top notch all around.

The controls remain my favourite controls in a game ever. Hot banks abound to cover any situation, pausing lets you get to them if you're like me and hit F5 instead of F6 on a regular basis, and the radial dial makes interacting with the environment and the characters a breeze. There was no improvement made here and again I don't see how they could have improved it.

There likewise was little improvement in the sound department but again it didn't really need it. Sound effects matched what was happening well enough. My complaint sound wise is with the combat music. I liked it in NWN. I didn't like it in SoU. I don't know why... music is one of the things I notice least when I review a game, but something about the combat music really bothered me. Not enough to make me reach for the volume but enough to get my attention from time to time.

The game recommends you start from level one, as many of the new feats can only be taken at level one and many of the prestige classes require some effort and feat management to get into in a reasonable amount of time. I agree with that assessment (plus this module is no challenge for a level 12+ character of any class).

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Stimpy!!! You Eeeediot!!!

My first real complaint towards the Shadows of Undrentide add-on (it's not much of an expansion, really: it doesn't expand or revise the original classes or rules in any way, or expand the original campaign setting at all) is also my biggest complaint. The NPCs.

There are two to choose from at the beginning of the game. The first is a dwarven rogue/cleric named Dorna (who I'll call Arthur) and the second is a half-orc sorcerer/barbarian named Xanos (Stimpy... definitely Stimpy).

I'll note right here the improvements to henchmen control within the Undrentide module: You can control their inventory, give them support items, and give them charged items like wands (if you have a deathwish: see below). Not to mention use them as pathetically weak pack-mules. You can completely control what classes they get when they level up as well. This is certainly a nice touch. Through dialogue you can roughly tell them what to do, just like NWN. Roughly. One command I desperately would have loved to see on that list was 'Do not cast spells until I say so!'.

Just like NWN either of them will drop everything and cast an inane spell at the most inopportune times... inopportune for you, anyways. It's very opportunistic for the enemies, all of who take great pleasure in critically hitting the NPCs with an attack of opportunity when they do so. I don't know how often I heard Xanos scream "Now taste true power!" followed immediately by a death scream. I guess nothing is more powerful than a dirt nap.

Overall I preferred Dorna. She didn't kill me very often. There was one instance involving being a little (lot) trigger happy with a wand of lightning I passed her, but my singed Paladin politely took it away from her after the fight. Considering I took away her ability to level as a cleric and made sure she had plenty of arrows she was a nice bit of extra damage in sneak attacks. More importantly she has a LOT of hit points and is an ace with traps (of which there is a nearly ludicrous amount in the game). She did have a bad habit of running back and forth aimlessly between foes without attacking but it was hardly fatal.

Xanos... Stimpy. Stimpy. STIMPY! In the second part of the module I took great pleasure in letting monsters rip him to pieces. Repeatedly. I put him on sorcerer only level up because early on he displayed an amazing knack to barbarian rage, charge into a horde of enemies, and, instead of hitting them with a greatsword for 2d6+5 or so, drop everything and cast a level 0 spell (ray of frost... 1d3). Woo. Ha. I figured if he was going to be an idiot I would make sure he had plenty of spells and little inclination to charge.

After the third fireball in a row I sucked up (fighting skeletons that were hardly fireball required hard targets) I use improved knockdown and hacked him to pieces. NPCs are indestructible after the first chapter, though, so he just whined at me as I swung. It was ok though... I was a Blackguard. I made my own friends, and the succubus ally I summoned was infinitely more reliable.

The overall incompetence of the henchman brings me to my second complaint.

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Ok, You cover me while I cast this... ah... uh oh

The module was written with your character to be a melee combatant of some sort in mind. Definitely. Even on the straight 'barbarian only' level scheme Xanos is no Red Tiger. He has a 12 strength and doesn't go nuts with a double axe of doom. Starting at level one I faced nothing but endless reloads with the archer I tried to play, and the rogue I played didn't fare much better. There are times when you need to get into the thick of things because the NPCs certainly won't. This isn't healthy for a full 50% of all classes. Druids are the exception to this caster/support character death trap. Not only are they favored by the game (they get a lot of new offensive spells) but their animal companions make them excellent characters for Shadows overall. I'll take that panther over Xanos any day in a fight.

This is decidedly odd and unfortunate as most of the prestige classes that came with the expansion are for rogues, bards, and archers. I ended up giving those characters maximum experience with the console commands to see how the prestige classes looked at least, and I hated doing it.

I suspect starting with a character higher level than one would have changed that somewhat. In fact, I know it would because after my failed archer attempt I fielded good old Xen Maximus, who jumped into the module as a level 10 paladin/2 fighter. Needless to say the module didn't stand a chance. I completed the game in eight or 10 hours with him before going back to my Blackguard, who had started at level one and was getting stomped into goo (goo with evil intent, but goo none the less) on a regular basis.

On a lark I fielded the wizard I used to break the game when I wrote the review last year. Being a wizard works when you're level 18 and can destroy entire cities at a whim, it turns out. At level three getting butchered by gnolls or kobolds that elusive 'bow before me, mortals!' seems very, very far off.

You get a tattered cloak... oh, and Bob gets the head of Vecna

There was a side effect to blitzing through the module as a paladin, it turns out. The game designers love them. I won't spoil anything but it becomes evident pretty much in the first dungeon you do that being a paladin is a very good thing. This only gets reinforced later in the game in a MASSIVE way.

My blackguard felt more than a little ripped off, hacking and dying using a weapon that couldn't even hurt some demonic foes while Mr Goody Two Shoes ended up with... well... something that could. In a big way.

Not that there was a shortage of cool stuff for evil characters. The blackguard armor and helmet you can get look fantastic. I've always wanted to resemble Darth Vader in a D&D game. I think there's something for every class, though understandably I only had a chance to play through completely with two characters. I definitely think that some things are better than others, though.

So... what did you like about the game?

It may sound like I hated this expansion: the truth is I liked it. If I didn't I certainly wouldn't have finished it especially with all the hair pulling over the NPCs. The story was enjoyable (if brief and predictable) and the characters had a lot of personality. The voice acting was as good as it was in NWN and more importantly people didn't scream at you to come listen to them at the top of their lungs incessantly (I'm looking at you Aribeth).

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The new spells looked spectacular when I fielded my wizard for a second in chapter two and bought them all from the vendor. Bigby's Interposing hand is actually comical to cast. And Bigby's crushing hand is... um... messy on maximum gore. Poor, poor test spawned kobold. The new feats add flavor to a character, if not any practical power. Still, you never know when a +4 to save versus poison will come in handy (hint: Never. You find a set item/ can buy an item that makes you immune fairly early). The exceptions to this are the paladin feats of divine might and divine shield. They rock in tabletop D&D and they rock in SoU. Oh, and Great Cleave is fun if you have a half-orc with a maxed out strength and a big, big weapon. Nothing like seeing 10 skeletons explode into bone shards with a mighty whirl.

The new prestige classes were well converted. It's unfortunate that they grabbed a few of the weakest prestige classes in D&D to put into the game. Alright, Shadowdancer and Blackguard are excellent and Arcane Archer is good for unlimited +5 arrows (and is great in multiplayer where people can actually effectively prevent monsters from jumping all over you while you fire your bow) but Assassin just plain is terrible and Harper Scout will get you killed.

The new tilesets are a boon to anyone with an artistic knack for module construction, and a friend of mine who actually is competent with the editor said the new wizards included in the editor were very useful to him. I confess total ignorance when it comes to using the editor, which is why I'm not including it in my review as more than this note. I still believe the editor is the heart of the game's appeal, though, and I've played dozens of excellent modules made by people who seemingly agree.

In conclusion

In conclusion I would have to say that if you liked NWN single-player you'll probably like SoU single-player. The strength remains in multi-player, however: it's pretty much the only way I can see using a lot of the new spells, feats, and prestige classes to their most advantage. Are these new features enough to spend money? If you're already a NWN fan I believe so. One thing I liked best was how almost every decision had an effect on your alignment (and there were some brutal things you could do as an evil character). Unfortunately this didn't change the end movie in the slightest: chapter two plays out the same for absolutely everyone, as NPC interaction drops to basically none.

One last thing I should say. Everyone knows there are a lot of great free fan-made modules out there... definitely some that are as good or better than the original campaign. I don't think any are as technically sound as SoU is though some are certainly more fun. As technically sound as Shadows was the insane amount of traps (especially in chapter 2) and poor quality henchmen really REALLY dropped the fun-factor on this one for me. I can't help feeling that with a greater selection of henchmen (which would in turn have made it easier to play a non-melee combatant from level one) this game would have been very enjoyable. As it stands every death I suffered in the game was from critical hits, dazed status, or henchman stupidity. Critical hits and unfortunate will save spells I can deal with.

Oh yes: the third henchman is Deekin the Kobold bard. Yes he's as worthless as that combination sounds. I didn't forget about him... I just didn't feel he was worth the space in my NPC rant.

The Verdict
Graphics (15%) 85%
Sound (15%) 85%
Control (25%) 95%
Fun (45%) 70%
Overall 81%

The ups and downs:
Prestige classes!Useless NPC party members
New FeatsSingle Ending
Upgraded Tool SetHeavy Class Favoritism

Reviewer's System
Version: 1.30
CPU: Pentium III 1000 MHz
Graphics GeForce 2 MX (32MB)
Sound SB Live
OS: Windows ME, DX 9.0

Average Reader Ratings: 7.58 (19 votes)
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