Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide

There’s been some hot air lately over Shadows of Undrentide. The expansion has been awaited by Neverwinter Nights fans, usually for various reasons, for a long while. After I bought the CD, I played through the thing, and as always I’ll offer my views as a free public service. I think that reviewers always should play an entire game before reviewing, not that I always do it, but in this case I am sure glad I did. Read on to find out more.

Shadows of Undrentide adds various new material to Neverwinter Nights. A large number of spells for all spellcasting classes; five so-called prestige classes, a dozen new monsters, three new tilesets, a large number of new placeable objects, new scripting functions and of course a two-chapter module.

Let’s tackle these step-by-step.

## The Expansion ##

**New Material:** The new material should go a long way to enable mod-makers. They’ll add a lot of bvariety to any game. Many of the placeables should really have been in the basic game, notoriously sparse as it was. The new tilesets are a-okay; The Rural Winter tileset is nice, the desert tileset is so-so (it somehow looks…wrong. Nothing I can put my finger on, I just do not have a very deserty feeling about it), and the ruins tileset is really sweet.

The five **new classes** – so called prestige classes – are: Assassin, Balchguard, Harper Scout, Shadowdancer and Arcane Archer. I didn’t yet try any of these as my character lacked the necessary requirements. Very disappointing is the lack of ANY prestige class for spell-casting characters. Accordsing to Bioware this is due to limitations in the basic code that makes up Neverwinter Nights, so we’re unlikely to ever see any spellcasting prestige classes. My hope is that they will fix this bug (yes, I consider it a bug) for the second expansion set, because it’d be quite unfair to those of us who prefer magic over muscles. I don’t really like the categorization of the Assassin as an “evil” character, a case could be made for assassins being chaotic rather than evil, but this I guess is a minor issue.

**The new skills:** There are several new skills in the game: Craft Traps (didn’t try it, doesn’t sound useful at all – why not a generic Craft skill instead? Then module builders could have scripted the use); Appraissal (to get better deals in stores) and Tumble (to await Attacks of Opportunity). Appraisal looks moderately useful; anything that allows more role-playing options is a good thing in my book. Tumble looks overrated, – I cannot remember my rogue character ever getting hit by an AoO during the entire expansion. I am sure he did, but still Tumble all but eleminated AoOs for me.

**New Feats:** These must have been really easy to add because Bioware added a cartful of them. There are some really nice ones and some really crappy ones. The good news here is that the large amount of feats allows various “paths” or “sets” of feats that look useful, so you will probably see fewer fighters taking all the same feats because there’s really more useful stuff in there now than you could take up before you hit 20th level. Again, real spell-caster feats, especially wizardly feats, are absent. No spellcaster prodigy for example, and of course no item creation feats.

## The Game ##

With that, let’s get on to the story. **Shadows of Undrentide** itself is a story divided in two chapters and an interlude. You are the student of a powerful wizard, aspiring to become a great adventurer (in a school? uh, whatever). You are near the end of your training when a horde of Kobolds attacks the school, poisoning your teacher and making off with various magical artefacts. Naturally it’s your job to get them back.

**Chapter One** deals with your hunt for the kobolds and subsequent events. You will explore Hilltop and surrounding areas and get back those four items of great power. There are various side-quests, naturally, so things don’t become too monotone. The layout of the areas is very beautiful – the snowy forrests really feel like they are, in fact, forrests in winter, there’s some nice scripting and some really clever ideas. Combats are balanced for the most part, as are the rewards. You will be happy when you get your first magic weapons – no monty haul here. In short, Chaper One is a great module and will greatly entertain you. The only criticism I can find is that a few of the battles need work to balance them out. The gnoll cave and the tomb behind it are very tough when you first stumble across them; and the combat against the evil sorcererss is damn near impossible. It reeks of bad playtesting if anything.

Once you have retrieved the artefacts, it is revealed that problems aren’t over. One of the items turns out to be more than met the eyes and you are sent off to find out more about it.

The second part of the game, the **Interlude**, tells the story of your caravan trip eastwards, across the great desert. At various points your caravan stops and problems arise, and guess who gets to fix them? In these loosely connected areas you get to fight formians, stingers and undead. Especially the “level” at the oasis is very nicely done: The layout of the dungeons is very cool and there’s some nice scripting and design work in here. Some of the combats are very tough, but you can solve all problems with the right tactic and just a bit of luck. No complaints about the Interlude from me, it was fun.

However, and very unfortunately, there is also **Chapter Two**, exploration of an ancient city to find and confront the ultimate villain of the Expansion. And I really don’t know where to start. Yes, the areas are again nicely laid out. There are some nicely scripted “trap” levels. The combats are balanced for the most part – there is one with an undead carrying a scythe that proved utterly impossible. But that’s about where the good news ends. An ancient city doesn’t really have inhabitants, so forget about dialogue or role-playing, this one is a hack-and-slash, cash-and-carry, monty-haul chapter. Yes, monty haul. I found so many stuff I had to unload it frequently at the only talkable character, and the only store, in the chapter. There’s a lot, LOT of magic in there, right up to items +5 and various other bonusses added to them. Everybody who gets out of Chapter two should be equipped for the rest of their lives, and wealthy beyond any reasonable limit from selling the unused loot. Yes, one could argue that it goes with the setting of a ruined high-magic city. It’s still bad design. Chapter two has some highlights, but overall I found it to be very disappointing.

## Conclusion ##

So, what’s the verdict on Shadows of Undrentide? Well for starters, I am glad I didn’t spend any money on it. There are many goodies in there, and if I ever break down and shell out some € € € cash for it, it’ll be for the possibities it adds for module builders. The new official module ios a nice bonus, but it doesn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe I’d just have expected more of Looking Glass aka Floodgate? Still, I do have to admit that the design work was a lot nicer than for the original Official Campaign. It does provide you with about four or five days of fun – which is about right for the price tag – so you pretty much have to decide for yourself if that is worth your dough.

I really hope Bioware can address some of the balance issues in the game, and fix some of the annoying stuff. Like the no-prestige-spellcaster-classes or the fact that you still cannot edit all the items’ properties in the toolset, and you still cannot assign all feats, for example, to a magic item. And there’s still no toolset for Mac/Linux. Be warned that SoU and patch 1.30 seems to break the old OC in minor ways, and it’ll break various fan-made modules too.

**Bottom line**: I enjoyed this expansion, but it didn’t really knock me off my socks. It’s so-so, decide on a case-by-case basis. If you are not a true fan you might want to wait until the expansion is available for a bargain price. This will probably be around the time when the better module builders in the community have released a few good modules which take advantage of the SoU content.

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