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PC Review - 'Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide'

by GreyOoze on July 5, 2003 @ 12:49 a.m. PDT

With a virtual treasure chest of awards and accolades to its credit, Bioware’s 2002 role playing magnum opus Neverwinter Nights finally gets its first expansion pack, complete with a brand new, original module, new tile sets, prestige classes, and several new monsters. But does the new addition enhance an already great game, or simply deliver more of the same? Read more to find out for yourself.

Genre: RPG
Developer: Bioware/Floodgate
Publisher: Atari
Release Date: June 18, 2003

Buy 'NEVERWINTER NIGHTS: Shadows of Undrentide': PC

Released about a year ago, Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights brought some new ideas to the role playing community. Built around Dungeons and Dragons 3rd addition rules, the game featured the kind of dedication and craftsmanship that players have come to expect from the makers of such great titles as the Baldur’s Gate series. There was a full fledged, in depth story, amazing areas to explore, and a host of quests, sub quests, and moral dilemmas for the player to consider. What set Neverwinter Nights apart from the pack even more however, was its included Dungeon Master client, that would allow for one player to Dungeon Master an adventure online, as well as the Aurora toolset, which was designed from the ground up to be accessible enough so that even users with little or no programming experience could create their own adventures, complete with dialogue, scripted events, and plot. The overall concept was to bring the feel of pen and paper role playing to the PC. The game has sold in the millions, won practically every award you can think of, and has been hailed by many as being one of the best RPG’s ever released.

Still, many are also quick to point out that, while Neverwinter Nights is a good game, it does have its faults. One main issue with a lot of players was that, where previous Bioware games focused on party based role playing with several characters, Neverwinter Nights focuses primarily on one character. While there is usually the availability of a henchman, someone employed by the main character to assist them, the lack of a true party seriously reduces the amount of tactical nuance past games have delivered. What’s more, the henchmen previously mentioned operated largely of their own accord, with the player having very little control over their actions and the way they implemented themselves within a given situation. In many ways, henchmen were more of a problem than they were worth. Another ding with many was the fact that, while the aforementioned toolset was easier to use than most, and featured several wizards that simplified some of the more complicated tasks associated with creating a module, it still required a fair level of scripting knowledge in order to create something interesting. I for one must admit that, even with some programming experience under my belt, I was a little disappointed when I first realized the level of scripting involvement that would be necessary in order to create my masterpiece. Lastly, while I myself don’t consider it a problem, many feel that the graphics haven’t held up to time as well as they should have, lacking a lot of the detail and intricacy that other games in this genre feature.

With all of that said about the original game, it’s easy to see the kind of impact an expansion pack could have. Shadows of Undrentide, developed by both Bioware and Floodgate entertainment, is the first such offering, and features a new module, complete with original story, characters, and areas. Also featured are new tiles, placeables, an improved henchmen system, 5 new prestige classes, several new monsters, and some new scripting commands designed to make creating markets, way points, and in game movies a little easier.

First off, the new module is well done. The story is based around 4 artifacts of immense magical power that have been stolen from a small adventurers school located in the north. Your character is a pupil within that school and, upon the theft of the artifacts, and subsequent poisoning of the school master, is delegated to seek out these artifacts, find out who stole them, and what they intend to do with them. The story takes you from the frozen north, to the hot desert, exploring every manner of cave, crypt, and ruin along the way. While it’s true the new module will last you only 20 or 30 hours tops, it’s generally time well spent. There are, however, some spots where the challenge level skyrockets, and gets quite difficult. While the majority of the module was fairly straight forward, there were occurrences when a difficult situation would arise, such as a tough monster, and progress would suddenly grind to a halt.

I also have a slight beef with the final showdown. I don’t want to ruin it for everybody, but suffice it to say that, in order to finish the game, you have to do something that the dialogue leads you to believe you don’t want to do, or at least that’s the way I interpreted it. For the large part however, the module was a lot of fun. It makes excellent use of scripted sequences where you have no control over your character, and things play out as they will, leaving you to deal with the consequences. Some may not like this, but I felt these sequences were well done, and created a sense of accomplishment later on. None of the consequences were totally unacceptable. They were more like major turns in the story, taking things down a new path.

The story itself is pretty deep, and is told very well. Bioware once again displays their uncanny knack for telling a complex story without a massive amount of dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, the module contains a surprising amount of well done conversation. It’s simply that the information gleaned from those conversations is spread out just right, pacing things perfectly. Another use I have found with the new module is that it is a good test bed for different types of characters. One reason I haven’t involved myself too much in module creation is because I have yet to learn some of the new, more specific character types the 3rd addition rules allow you to create. I prefer to play the simple fighter. I understand that type of characters good and bad points. But I’m not as knowledgeable of other characters, such as Bards, and the more specific sub classes. This new module is perfect for playing around with the various characters the game allows you to create, and experiencing some of their pro’s and con’s. This in turn makes it easier to balance out any modules I might create later on, making them more accessible to a greater variety of characters.

Unfortunately, there are a few issues to contend with, and some of those issues are leftover from the original game. As I alluded to earlier, one of the main issues with the original game was its primary focus on solo adventuring, and the lack of any ability to create a larger party. Unfortunately, the expansion doesn’t change this, as many had hoped. What the expansion at least attempts to do is enhance the henchmen AI, and make them more accessible. The primary change here is that now the player can view the henchmen’s inventory, and make specific changes to the characters armor and weapon. You can also use the henchmen to carry your stuff now, which helps quite a bit. Another new convention allows you to control the way your henchmen level up. For example, one of the main henchmen in Shadows is a dwarf by the name of Dora Trapspringer, who is a dual class rogue cleric. Should you decide upon her services, you can choose to have Dora level up only as a rogue, as a cleric, or as both. While these are all welcome enhancements, the changes don’t really do a whole lot.

Controlling your henchmen is still an issue. Too many times, upon entering a new vestibule or chamber, Dora would suddenly go on this crazed spree, chasing after all of the monsters in the area, alerting them to our presence, springing traps all over the place, and ultimately getting us into a battle that we simply couldn’t win. There is a line of dialogue where you can tell Dora not to attack anything that isn’t attacking you, but this doesn’t always work. She would routinely go running off, attacking things, getting herself killed, and making life difficult. You can use the issue orders command to tell her to come back and follow along with you, but normally all she would do was return and then run right back at the monsters again. This became a real problem at times, so bad in fact, that towards the end of the module, when the going got rough, I would leave Dora in a safe place, while I alone went and handled things. Suffice it to say then that, for the large part, nothing has really changed with respect to controlling your henchmen. At times, they can still be more of a hindrance than a help.

Some of the more unique new monsters are hobgoblins, basilisks, stingers, formians, and one of the more enduring of all mythical creatures, medusa. The models all fit in well with the game, and generally look good. None of them stick out in any negative way that would make them appear out of place. They are all well done, able to dispense with the evil in a variety of different ways, and add to the overall environment.

There are 5 new prestige classes, which are the Arcane Archer, Assassin, Black Guard (the evil version of the paladin), Harper Scout, and Shadowdancer. Essentially these new classes allow for more diversity in character creation, and each has their own specific abilities, some of which are really cool. I fully admit to not involving myself with them too much, as I tend to stick with the simple fighter type character, eschewing the more specific roles. Be aware the requirements for some of these classes can be high, although my first level fighter was offered a shot at being a harper scout early in the first chapter of the module. I declined however, figuring I had enough to contend with. Still, these new classes will be welcomed additions for those looking for something different when they develop their characters.

Along the way, 3 new tiles present themselves. They are rural winter, desert, and ruins. All of the new tiles, particularly rural winter, are used to great effect in the included module, and will be welcomed additions to module builders as well. Equally useful are the new placeables. I’ve seen new items such as cushions, furniture, and even chandeliers. Ivy is another new item that really gives your foreboding temple or crypt that personal touch, and there’s quite a bit more new placeables as well. The new tile sets also offer a few new style houses, a much needed addition. All of this new content only ensures that the builders out there will deliver more works of greatness for our downloading pleasure.

So what does all of this mean to you? With the understanding that this expansion pack doesn’t really change anything major, my answer is, it depends on where your interests lie with the original game. Those of you that are really into downloading the single player modules, enjoy the multiplayer, or use the toolset, you will all benefit greatly from this expansion pack. From my point of view, that should include the bulk of you, in one way or another. Conversely, for those of you who are only interested in playing original, professionally done material, and don’t have time for multiplayer or the toolset, your biggest issue is going to be the $30 price tag, which is a little more expensive then your average expansion pack. For those of you in this category, you’ll probably be hard pressed to shell out that kind of cash for what is essentially a 20-30 hour module, and based on your interest level, I couldn’t blame you. Some decent, full fledged games cost that much. My advice, for those of you that fall into this latter category, would be to wait for the price to go down, and weigh your options from there. It’s a necessary addition if you’re really into at least one of the core features of the game, but it probably won’t change your mind if your not.

Quickly, I will also add that, at the same time Shadows of Undrentide was announced, Bioware also mentioned a second expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights, which was being developed internally. Recently, Bioware announced that this second expansion will be entitled Hordes of the Underdark. Now, it is important to note that, up to this point, Bioware has been extremely tight lipped about this project, and nothing official has been said regarding what it will contain, but the rumor is that this second offering will include some major changes and additions. Some of these rumor mills specify certain areas of the game that will receive these changes and additions, but I’m not going to go that far with it. I feel a little cheap espousing the virtues of a planned future expansion pack while reviewing a current one, but I felt I should mention it for the sake of those of you still on the fence. Waiting to see what the next expansion has in store for the game might influence your decision with Shadows of Undrentide.

Score : 8.2/10

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