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NWN: Hordes of the Underdark Review
Jeff 'EverythingXen' Layne, 2004-01-29

Hordes of the Underdark is the second official expansion to Neverwinter Nights. While it is the sequel to Shadows of Undrentide, in storyline, having completed Shadows is completely optional to the enjoyment of this module. Hordes of the Underdark promised challenging fast paced story driven epic level play... but did they deliver?

This is the same graphic engine?

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I think it's safe to say the graphic quality of Hordes of the Underdark easily surpasses its predecessors. The character models appear to be more detailed, the new monster models are excellent, and the addition of a sky does much to increase the immersion of a player in the world of Faerun.

Additonal features include the inclusion of robes (and they look great. Now, if only they'd add cape models for that cape slot...) as well as the ability to customize your equipment's color schemes by use of dyes that you get in game. Not content with the color of some wicked armor I found in chapter 3 with my blackguard, for example, I gleefully changed its color to be as black as his soul. The end result was cool enough for me -- especially when I further discovered through experimentation that you could use the dyes on helmets as well. I did two complete play throughs with my trusty-rusty GeForce 2 MX (32 MB) and I noticed the graphic increases with Old Faithful. Halfway through my third completion of the module for this review I upgraded to a Radeon 9600 (if it impresses me my next upgrade will be to a 9800 Pro or XT once the prices drop). Immediately the game became totally unplayable. Sigh. I had to break one of my rules of reviewing and hit the official tech support forums looking for an answer to what turned out to be a rather common problem. I had to DOWNGRADE the Catalyst drivers that came with my card to 3.10 and turn off hardware mouse acceleration. Lovely. Ok, the driver thing I would have tried myself eventually but I never would have thought to check for something as innocent looking as a mouse setting. Once I got it working I was able to crank every graphic setting to and through the roof and blink in amazement as the graphics, which I've always thought were PERFECT for a D&D game, became even better looking.

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Mainly, NWN's graphics balance game play with beauty. Even on my 32 Meg card it was more than pretty enough to immerse me in the setting (in a cartoonish style that I love so much and that some people hate) without pulling a Gothic 2 (hit autorun and go make a sandwich as my character jogs through the capital city heading for a gate). The ability to zoom in and watch your characters fight in third person has always been my favorite feature of NWN... and now you can get the camera right into the mix of things.

Three cheers for Soule

I love the new music put into Hordes. I really do. I let the main theme play for two hours while I was running a D&D game the first night I installed HoTU. My favorite piece though is the new battle music as I think it sounds suitably impressive for an epic level character. All hail fanfares.

Music aside, the new ambiant sounds and the creature sounds are top notch. I noticed a lot of skipping in the music and some of the new sounds but that turned out to be my Soundblaster Live! Value screaming for mercy. Once I turned the bias towards 2D it stopped complaining for a bit... though it's still top on my list of 'components to set fire to when I upgrade'.

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The new voice-sets and the voice acting are enjoyable overall... I like the 'good wizard' and 'stealthy warrior' sets myself and all the principle characters have good voice acting - even squeaky Deekin or angsty Valen. My favorite voice was hands down the Big M's... the sheer contempt it carried was awesome and more than appropriate for what he is.

There's one voice set that registers on my annoy-o-meter, however: It's that of some of the male drow warriors. They sound like they like dying ... well... a little too much and in a vaugely sexual way. One of my female friends pointed that out. I just sort of shrugged and said "Well, they are drow males. It's probably what they're used to and you're probably doing them a favor by killing them."

If it ain't broke...

There is nothing new about the control system for your character. Frankly, with 36 hotkeys and the option to put whatever you want in them and a radial dial to access everything else it's hard to improve on your control scheme. Combine with the pause button and you're a function key away from anything you could want to do in combat. Some of the old kinks in the system still persist... modes like power attack and expertise tend to turn themselves off without warning and sometimes command stacks simply fail to execute. They haven't fixed it yet and it's why they haven't gotten 100% from me yet in controls (and probably never will, unfortunately).

...and if it is broke

Henchmen. They're actually intelligent in this game. Oh sure you give them and inch and an evocation spell and they'll happily still set fire to you ... but they are infinitely more controllable in Hordes than they've ever been. You can tell them to cast spells or not to cast spells... you can ask them to cast spells through dialogue options. You can set just about every faucet of their behavior now. Like Shadows you can control their inventory and level up schemes (for the most part. There are two multiclass NPCs that you can't tell what to level up.).

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I actually saw the Henchmen as assets instead of liabilities in this game. Actually, with a 30 strength, more than 400 hit points, and a +10 heavy flail with haste and acid attack ... calling Valen an asset is like calling a gatling gun in a fortified bunker handy to defend an open field with.

I can't stress enough how much more comprehensive the henchman control is for this game. There are odd occassions when in a PVP zone if you wing a henchman who is going nuts on an enemy with an offensive spell they'll run over and kill you, true, but I think that's a flaw in the PVP zone settings and their self-preservation scripts. Or maybe it's accidental realism.. if someone I barely knew hit me in the back with a fireball and I lived I'd be pretty ticked off, too. The funny thing was it was mostly the NPC who had declared their love for me that did it most. You always horrifically splatter the ones you love?

We're talking Baldur's Gate 2 levels of fun here

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As you all know, fun is 45% of a games rating on RPGDot. Graphics can suck and the sound can rot and a game can still get a 70 if it was for some reason the funnest game a reviewer has ever played and had a flawless control scheme.

Well, Hordes is easily one of the funnest D&D games I've ever played. Easily. Bioware finally pushed its engines potential to the limits and sat down and wrote a good story in addition to a showcase of 'look what kinds of cool things you can do with our toolset'. They implemented all of the things that appealed to gamers in the Baldur's Gate series: Romances (more flushed out than NWN original campaign), a cool 'end boss' (very cool), a combat heavy yet story driven plot with some really cool features, phat lewt enough to satiate anyone, and the most popular feature: NPCs having opinions and minds of their own. They're always striking up conversations with each other, with you, upon entering rooms, upon exiting dungeon levels, during dialogue... you name it and they'll comment on it. They're not just pack mules... they're flushed out characters. Even if Valen is a sissy (but since he's an 80 damage a hit, four hits a round, whirlwind and destroy entire drow legions sissy he's allowed to be a whiny git).

The story is simple on the outside and has enough twists in it to be fun to replay. Evil gets to have a field day, for example. Your actions affect the end of the game, which has several endings. I love multiple endings and Hordes were quite rewarding in my opinion. Especially the evil endings. I love well done evil endings.

Crashes are standard for NWN... illegal operations for no apparant reason and my scythe weapon master quite often crashes the game when moving while hasted and firing whirlwind attack (and critting everything for 100+ damage). Irritating to say the least, as I was having FUN splattering everything with that scythe. I'm beginning to suspect my sound card for that one, as it's turned out to be the culprit behind almost every other repeatable crash I've ever experienced in NWN.

The Good, the Bad and the Fugly (and the Mediocre)

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The new skills aren't really detractions to this fun... nor are they particularly spectacular additions. Craft weapon and craft armor are for those with an abundance of skill points who want to spend a million gold making their favorite set of armor look JUST SO. Normally I'm all for that... style is everything... but it's too expensive by far. 55,000 to change the breastplate style on my red dragon armor? Urgh. No thanks... I think I'll buy greater amulet of health for immunity to poison, disease, level and ability drain, and the ability to regenerate. Priorities and all.

Even the ability to make wands, scrolls, and potions can't make these skills useful (if for no other reason that one rank is all you need to harvest components and the intelligence driven skill check to make a wand (craft weapon) is DC 13.).

Definately the mediocre.

The play balance is HEAVILY slanted towards fighting classes, again, as can be evidenced by the fact that all of the new prestige classes are for fighters or fighter hyrbids. It's much better for it than Shadows of Undrentide was, however. Being spotted to level 15 makes just about any class playable. In fact, I was able to complete it with the three core class types... fighter type, primary caster type, and sneaky type. Sneaky gets a little bogged down in certain places ... and utterly erradicates other parts. There's very little in between... though it should be warned that rogues are largely useless in the higher level 'boss' fights. Pack the largest belt of giant strength and con enhancement item you can find for said occassions.

Throw in some new spells to keep wizards and clerics giggling maniacally as they watch the world burn and play balance falls into The Good. There is one late game glaring exception to the Good for the wizard, though. Learn acid spells. That's all I'm going to say.

There was only one class that repeatedly got owned when I tried it: Shifter. Good and fun idea but ultimately... turning into monsters that the other classes splatter en masse isn't a particularly effective way to win the game. The epic forms are pretty neat but they're so hard to qualify for that the only successful way to play a Shifter is to be a high level druid first... and never transform (as you can't cast spells while transformed). Which defeats the purpose of shifter nicely -- especially since anything the shifter can get epic wise the druid can too.

Definitely the Bad.

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The Fugly, sadly, is the epic component of the game. The epic progression is fine... they translated it from the pen and paper nearly flawlessly from what I can tell. Everyone gets the same attack and saving throws after 20 levels of class, which is as it should be. Each class gets bonus feats when they should. No, that part is fine... what's fugly about the matter are the insane pre-requisites for feats.

Ok, in the pen and paper these feats require stats in the 25 or 30 range as well. That's reasonable and fair. The difference is that in pen and paper epic rules you can use your enhancement items to meet these insane pre-requisites. NWN decided that it must be your natural unmodified attribute. ARGH.

As an example, let's take Mighty Rage... nominally a level 21 barbarian feat. It requires a 21 con and a 21 strength. Well, neither of those are unreasonable to attain with boosting items. A barbarian probably has a 16 in each of those anyways and has had 5 attribute boosts, probably making his strength a 19 and con an 18. That means he has to find a pair of gauntlets of ogre power and some item that gives him a +4 con in regular D&D. Pretty much given items at that level.

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Now, remove the enhancement possibility. With 30 points to spend on attributes you may make Mr Braindead ... a human with an 18 strength, 17 con, and everything else is 8. He's the type of guy who might make a good stereotypical 'obnoxious and dumb' professional wrestler, as it would come naturally to him. To get his 21 strength and con by level 21... he ... well... let's see... three points to strength and four to con. Five points to distribute. Oops. Level 21 is right out. Unless he decides to take 7 levels of dragon disciple, which makes him a level 12 barbarian, 1 sorcerer, 7 dragon disiciple. It also puts his base stats to 22 strength and 19 con. Two level boosts into con and he's good to go. He even has three points left to put into strength and hit the 25 strength he needs for most of the other barbarian feats.

But.. wait. He needs greater rage, which is a level 16 barbarian power. Doh. Level 25 it is. He might as well have gone straight barbarian and bought great constitution twice (which also makes him level 25). Though at least he does have that 25 strength to qualify for other epic feats.

But all his other stats are 8 so he's dimwitted, unassertive, has been beaten by the ugly stick, trips fairly often, and believes that kicking the door down and screaming surprise is the 'ultimate bestest' idea in the world. Mind flayers love this guy.. easy to dominate, good at moving furniture.

A game loading screen states that many of the epic feats you will not be able to access within the course of the campaign, which takes you to level 25 (I got two level 26 and a level 27 myself). This is fair and consistant with the epic rules of D&D... but really: feats like Overwhelming Critical and Mighty Rage are STAPLE feats for a high level fighter or barbarian. It's like their way of saying "Hey, look I'm epic. Only I can take this." as much as a wizards ability to cast epic spells is. If you play a balanced (read: playable) character you won't see half the fighter or barbarian feats before level 30 (and only if you spend a lot of feats on Great Strength and Great Constitution).

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Let's not even look at the 30 wisdom a shifter needs to get Dragon Wildshape. It brings great pain. Please, Bioware... please allow enhancement bonuses to affect feats... it's not that hard to code in 'insufficient ' flags if you equip an item to get the feat and then take it off thinking you've outsmarted the system. It's also more in line with the real 3rd edition rules.

So to conclude

Despite the slight dissappointment with the unfortunate epic feat pre-reqs (I've been drawing up min/max schemes all morning to get a few of the better epic feats without sacrificing everything else a character is. Red Dragon Disciple is the min/max monster... but we all knew that) I would have to say that Hordes stands tall over its predecessors. Everything finally has fallen together and I can't wait to see what the community does with the new powerful scripts introduced. The expansions just keep getting better and better. I'd love to see an expansion module for the original campaign someday but I suspect that will never happen.

The story flows well, the voice acting is well done, the graphical enhancements are beautiful. (As an unrelated aside responding to 'dated' graphics: I think the graphics are better than Morrowind and I always have. Especially the character models which, while no supermodels, are much more appealing than the fugly, fugly faces and bodies of, say, Morrowind (disclaimer: I know you can, and should, download fan content which addresses this aspect of Morrowind.. but I'm comparing original versions of games, not mods.)).

I had as much fun with this game as I did with Temple of Elemental Evil for exactly the opposite reasons: Fully realized and interesting NPCs as opposed to using my imagination, fast paced combat to turn based, strong story over - er - classic story. After I send this review off I'll probably be back into Hordes for another rampage through the depths of the world. I rarely complete a game more than twice, traditionally, and I completed both Temple and Hordes three times. Either my patience is increasing (not likely) or recent games are increasing in quality of replayability. I hope it's the latter ... though my crash-inducing soundcard hopes its the former, I'm sure.

The Verdict
Graphics (15%) 92%
Sound (15%) 90%
Control (25%) 95%
Fun (45%) 95%
Overall 94%

The ups and downs:
A hoarde of new contentRadeon meltdown
NPC interactionRepeated crashes with...
Incredibly fun combat...scythe-master
Insane epic feat...
..requirements for non-casters

Reviewer's System
Version: 1.61
CPU: Pentium III 1000 MHz
Graphics GeForce 2 MX (32MB) / Radeon 9600 (256 MB)
Sound SB Live! Value
OS: Windows ME, DX 9.0b

Average Reader Ratings: 7.68 (22 votes)
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