Lots of games got better with their expansion packs. Warcraft III unlocked the modding universe with The Frozen Throne. Age of Empires II‘s The Conquerors gave us the fantastic Mayan and Aztec civilisations (and snowy tiles). Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon gave us the delightful (snowy) island of Solstheim. Supreme Commander‘s Forged Alliance gave us the gloriously shiny Seraphim faction (but, alas, little more snow than we already had).
And Neverwinter Nights got… well… marginally better with its first official expansion pack, Shadows of Undrentide. Then there was a second, a direct sequel to the first expansion pack! Remember when games could get two expansion packs?! It never happened! (Still raging that WC3 never got a second pack at the time, and let’s not talk about… whatever Re4ged is.)
It’s time for Hordes of the Underdark.
Hordes of the Underdark
The one thing they don’t tell you is that while you may have finished Shadows of Undrentide with your character at level 13 or so, you’re meant to start Hordes of the Underdark at 15 or 16. Where are you supposed to get those missing levels?! Or that weird item that powers your respawning on death and turns out to be pivotal to the plot?
Apparently, BioWare hosted a community contest for the creation of a “bridging module” that would explain what happens between the two official parts of the adventure. While Diamond Edition does include a few bonus “Premium Modules”, none of these are the contest winner(s) so, well, if I wasn’t such a savvy gamer who accidentally discovered this while looking for hints…
I played one of the contest winners and it was not very good; plus it genuinely broke my character with the inclusion of the Deck of Many Things applying some weird/irritating permanent effects. So I decided to play Hordes of the Underdark with my Fighter at 13 as she left Undrentide and call it quits.
Hordes of the Underdark begins by stealing all of your items anyway, and a few difficulty spike boss fights aside it wasn’t actually that big a deal… so yeah, tip for free: don’t bother with a bridging module. (Or make your own? Eep.)
It also, unfortunately, begins with a classic dungeon crawl. Yes, somehow you’ve ended up in Waterdeep and you have to face the long and boringly trap-filled Dungeon of the Mad Mage before you get to the actual Underdark. For every step that Shadows of Undrentide took to give you a fairly punchy start with little side quests and civilians and better-decorated areas, Hordes has decided to ignore and revert to perfunctory type.
The lack of a meaningful connection to Shadows of Undrentide beyond sidekick kobold Deekin is also a bit of a punch. Undrentide ends with you escaping into the Plane of Shadow, but even if a bridging module is supposed to get you from there to Waterdeep, the invasion of Waterdeep by the titular hordes is completely unrelated to anything your character has done before. It might as well have been a completely cold start with a new adventurer. (For all I think Baldur’s Gate II is a massive side quest, at least it still hinges on the foundation of the player character’s divine blood.)
At least one of HotU‘s few highlights comes up very quickly. Soon after entering the dungeon you’ll find a companion who can be raised from the dead — and join you as a second henchperson! While it’s just generally convenient to have a second ally, getting you closer to that all-rounder D&D party setup, this is also a huge improvement for more fluffy reasons.
It is perhaps slightly remiss of me that I did not mention this other thing that Shadows of Undrentide did better than Neverwinter Nights, but in all honesty I didn’t actually realise it was a thing until Hordes made me reflect on it. One of NWN‘s many foibles was how papery its henchpeople were. They each had a sob story to tell, which would literally give you a quest that said “talk to them again once you’ve levelled up to hear more”. Occasionally they’d ask you to find an item which you could only obtain by just trotting about doing stuff, rather than following any specific trail. Awful. Perfunctory.
Undrentide did better, because your henchperson started to interject into normal game conversations. They’d even offer unsolicited advice about upcoming bits of dungeon! It’s such a small thing in retrospect, but it did go a long way to make the campaign feel properly alive. Combined with the new ability to manually manage their inventory equipment, you had a lot of room to get attached to your companion rather than just having them along as a convenient sack of extra hitpoints and attacks.
HotU‘s second henchperson gives this a further dimension because, yes, now you have two people who can interject into normal conversations, give you unsolicited advice and chat to each other. It’s all pointless banter but suddenly that boring slog through the trap-laden corridors of Undermountain is punctuated with moments of character-driven interest, the world empty of civilians to talk to replaced by… well, mobile civilians I guess. It’s better than nothing! I quite enjoyed the side characters this time!
Things look like they’re warming up again once you actually make it to the Underdark. You’re given a set of objectives to tackle in any order in the traditional BioWare style, and they’re the usual mix of unraveling curses and exploring funky ruins and just beating up bad guys.
… But it doesn’t take long for this to unravel too. The most notable annoyance is how after completing some number of those objectives, returning to your hub town immediately triggers the next phase of the game. This is annoying because there are unique shops that become inaccessible (including the blacksmith who can enchant any weapon into an ultra-rigged monstrosity) and even some side quests that cannot be resolved once this gate has slammed down. Thanks?
Some of those objectives also culminate in the inevitably annoying boss fights that come with high level D&D. Yes, the Demilich and Dracolich might be franchise staples but… those ultra-regular stun/daze/paralyse effects that stop me from being able to take literally any action for thirty seconds don’t make for interesting gameplay. (And no, the henchperson controls are not direct enough that you can force them to dispel you out of such stupors.)
And don’t get me started on those puzzles in the wastes of Cania, which are quite possibly the most obnoxious to ever grace an RPG. Come back Towers of Hanoi, all is forgiven.
All of which means that any goodwill that Shadows of Undrentide might have won has been thoroughly washed out again. Yep, we’re back to being bored and even slightly angry at the game.
Hordes of the Underdark has more flashes of interest than the base campaign, sure, but it’s ignored most of the steps forward that Undrentide made. Indeed, I now get the feeling that Undrentide was made by a different team, and the original campaign team was reinstated for Hordes…
I still kinda want to play Neverwinter Nights 2 though, so with our background reading done the way is clear and I will happily never touch NWN or its expansions again. The sequel was handed off to Obsidian, and we all know they always manage to make things interesting if nothing else.