Blog 850: Shadows of Undrentide

Yes, I know what you’re about to say. “You hated Neverwinter Nights, so why are you playing its expansion pack Shadows of Undrentide?”

Honestly, I do not have a satisfactory answer for you. A big part of it is that I have two games waiting on my shelf for the Windows XP machine, but I want to stay on the main PC during August while the Edinburgh Fringe is on — because the main PC’s attached to the printer and I’ll need to print show tickets. Not the greatest justification, but what is that saying? “Wars have been fought over less”?

And, well, there’s also pure morbid curiosity. Did they manage to rescue the art and the potential when they made more bits of the game? It’s already installed and its siren call is irresistable.

Sometimes I hate myself.

Shadows of Undrentide

The two expansion packs for Neverwinter Nights, Shadows of Undrentide and its own sequel Hordes of the Underdark are a clean break, which might say something in itself — that the base game was simply so dull that nobody could think of a way to meaningfully extend it. They couldn’t do a Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast and just plop some extra areas into the world map, nor was there anything remotely like a hook at the end for the story to continue.

So! Shadows of Undrentide asks you to start at level one as a freshly-minted apprentice adventurer to a retired wizard. Its storyline lightly mentions a plague in the original city but is otherwise utterly disconnected. Indeed, as is tradition with expansion packs, it even begins with a new snowy tileset for the village of Hilltop.

The new desert tileset is also lovely.

And you know what? SoU is immediately sharper. It is more generous with experience points, both from kills and from quest rewards. There are fewer quests but they’re more immediately compelling. Shops don’t just have one of everything and blend all the different weapons into nothingness. The dungeons are smaller but they’re more interesting.

I said previously that I reckon most of NWN‘s saminess comes from its chunky, modular tilesets. These make it effortless to build new areas, at the cost of big, obvious decorations being baked into them — and with such a big grid, it’s almost impossible to make novel combinations of those decorations. Compare this with something like Warcraft III, where the smaller grid and more numerous decorations make for endless combinations even though it surely has no more fundamental elements.

SoU however does manage to play more with stand-alone decorations. Although the big tilesets are the same, they’ve simply tended to layer a lot more stuff on top, and there’s more messing with lighting conditions too. It’s not much but it is a step in the right direction to make, say the Elven crypt-city a bit more meaningfully distinct from the lich’s desert tomb even though they’re both built of the same underlying prefabs.

I am especially fond of the brief sojourn into the Plane of Shadows where, instead of making a whole new gloomy tileset, they just swapped the textures on all the decorations (like this tree) with a dark semi-transparent liquid. (But it’s a Shadow of Undrentide! Literally the title! Should have put more effort in for that one, lads!)

That’s not to say that all the old problems have gone away. It still feels incredibly unsatisfying to watch yourself surrounded by a crowd of kobolds, with everyone just swatting mid-air and unable to actually land a blow. It’s not even tense, as there’s no particular danger from crowds of low-level opponents like that; it’s still just boring.

I am beginning to wonder how the game would feel if you simply deleted Armour Class as a mechanic, and gave things more hit points instead — although battles would go on as long, I have the strong sense that they’d still feel more engaging. Maybe drop everything’s Armour Class to very low so that missing is at least a rare occurrence rather than every 2nd attack? (Oh god, don’t remind me how it’s got an editor and I could literally rig this up.)

Though Shadows of Undrentide does have another answer to the Fighter’s Boredom: there are simply more items that do stuff. By the end of Chapter One I’d picked up heaps of consumable grenados — Alchemist’s Fire, Thunderstones and Choking Powder. None of these are remotely as powerful as the spells they ape, but even so, they give you something else to do. Someone, somewhere, in BioWare had clocked the base game’s issues and was trying to do something about them.

They’re clustered — commence bombardment!

The other recurring issue is how small it all seems — and I think I know why now.

In Neverwinter Nights, for all you’re sent to all sorts of different places, they’re always directly connected: you start in a hub zone and go north for one objective, west for another, and so on. This makes sense in Chapter 1, when you are literally locked in the titular city and exploring its immediate districts, but it falls apart in Chapter 2 when you head north into the nominal wilderness around a smaller town. Although you’re meant to be exploring fields and then forests and mountains, the world feels miniscule because, well, each map is pretty small and they’re all directly connected to each other by instant doorways.

Yes, take a shot, I think Neverwinter Nights lacks a world map. The implication that space exists between the levels you traverse manually is a simple but powerful conceit and you can really feel its absence in the Aurora Engine.

Having said that, Shadows of Undrentide does offer some kind of answer in its “Interlude” chapter, where you join a trade caravan crossing the Anauroch desert. Rather than teleporting instantaneously to the other side (perhaps via a cinematic), there are a few stops along the way including being waylaid by scorpion centaurs and purging a haunted oasis of its resident lich. It’s not a world map, but it’s at least a step towards reinforcing that sense of scale that is otherwise only present in dry text.

Yes, it’s called “being the protagonist”, can you please step away from the fourth wall now?

So you know what? I’m not going to give Shadows of Undrentide anything like a recommendation or a seal of approval, but it has clearly noticed a lot of Neverwinter Nights’ problems and tried to fix them — and it’s even met with a measure of success in some cases.

Yes, of course, now I really do have no choice. I’m going to have to play Hordes of the Underdark next.

There are only two ways this can end, and in both of them, Robbie burns another 20 hours of his life.

And you tell me...

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