Saturday, July 27, 2013

Honors of the Underdark

Phew! As promised, Hordes of the Underdark has proven to be the best of the original trio of Neverwinter Nights modules. It builds on the vast improvements of Shadows of Undrentide and expands them, bringing in welcome elements like multi-person party banters and area exploration. Even more impressively, it manages to retroactively improve the stale original campaign of NWN, drawing forward the few key plot elements and putting them in a really engaging context. (I still would recommend that everyone skip the first campaign and jump right into SoU, but for those few who suffered through it, there are some emotional rewards to be found here.)

First things first: the manual to HotU mentions that this campaign is designed for higher-level characters, and suggests that you import either your NWN or your SoU character. I decided to bring forward Cirion Bartlemann, my male halfling rogue from NWN. Unfortunately, it turns out that the game is written such that it assumes you're continuing the story from SoU. Characters from NWN won't acknowledge your history in the first game, while people from SoU will have a lot to say about your past together. I was a little bummed by this, but ultimately decided to keep playing as Cirion, mainly because of the romance options he had available.

You can get incredibly high-level in this expansion, which is awesome. You're auto-leveled to 15 if you weren't already that high at the start of the game; you'll reach Epic level roughly a chapter into the game, which unlocks a bunch of unique new high-level Feats (including stat boosts, Epic Dodge, and other goodies); and by the end of the game you'll probably be around level 30. I played as an almost pure Rogue, with one level each in Ranger (for cheap dual-wielding) and Shadowdancer (for Hide In Plain Sight). It was a lot of fun. My AC was around 50 near the end of the game, plus I had stuff like Epic Dodge available, and so I ended up tanking most fights, especially since for most of the game I had glass cannon companions. I rarely used HiPS, but it was a useful emergency lever to have for certain high-risk fights. I also got a ton of mileage out of Use Magic Devices, which let me equip some great Wizard and Monk equipment.

Probably my single favorite mechanical enhancement to HotU was the addition of another henchman slot. I'll get into my particular companions in spoilerville below, but for now I'll note that it helps on a couple of fronts. First of all, it's much easier to create effective parties, and you're less hamstrung by your PC class choice. (For most of SoU, your only options for a companion were Thief or Barbarian/Sorcerer, which made certain classes very difficult to pull off.) You don't have nearly as many options for companions as you did in NWN1, but simply by having multiples available at the same time, it's become far easier to cover multiple bases at the same time. (I would have appreciated having a cleric choice, but at higher levels your companions have some good options for buffing and healing.) Secondly, having multiple companions lets us FINALLY get back some of the banters that I enjoyed so much back in BG2. There aren't a ton of them, but I appreciate them a lot. Companions will question each other about their histories, motivations, romantic desires, and plans for the future. It's cool stuff, and I like it a lot.

The Henchman AI has long been the weakest part of NWN. In some ways, it's better in HotU, but in other ways, it's way worse. Spellcasters in general seem to be much better off now than they were before: I almost never get into that state where they just stand around, repeatedly starting and then failing to cast a spell. Instead, though, there seems to be a chronic problem where henchmen just stand around in a fight and do nothing, not even responding when they're hit. It seems to go away after your party rests, but is very unpredictable. I've tried tons of changes, like setting their tactics to stick close to me, to avoid stealth, and so on, but still, they periodically seem to just want to chill out. It seems to be somewhat henchman-specific, for better or worse… one of my companions rarely or never got into this state, while others will get into it and sometimes take turns between which of the two is free to take actions. Anyways. Whenever it got really bad, I could always cheese it up with HiPS, and in non-boss fights I could usually solo the enemies anyways, so it was more of an annoyance than a true frustration.

Most of the stuff I write about NWN is about how it's slowly trying to return to the high-water mark BioWare reached years earlier with BG2. However, HotU starts showing some signs of trends that actually point to the future, with some rough concepts that will eventually be realized in Dragon Age. In HotU, for the first time, we get true in-game cinematics. I don't want to set your expectations too high: this was a decade ago, so we're talking low-res textures, low-poly models, and so on. Yet, what they manage to do with it is pretty impressive. In particular, I was struck by what they were able to accomplish with the camera: depending on the scene, sometimes it floats above the action, or zooms in on a figure of interest, or chases behind a rampaging horde, or circles disconcertingly around the scene. It's also synchronized rather well to music and speech, making a surprisingly engaging if low-fi scene. Of course, in-engine cut scenes have been in games forever, but I think this may have been the first time BioWare used a 3D engine for such scenes, rather than kicking you out to a video or using a scripted isometric sprite scene.

All right… technical stuff out of the way, let's move on to

MEGA SPOILERS (HotU and NWN1 and probably SoU too)

It's a little hard to put my finger on just why I like HotU's story so much. I mean, I just got done making fun of NWN1's plot which progressively reveals the real villain behind the previous villain, and HotU is structured in a similar way. I think part of the reason may be that the plot feels more dynamic. The actual situation on the ground in NWN1 didn't change much at all, apart from a major betrayal; for the most part, you were stuck in this morass of hopelessness, trying to figure out what's going on. In contrast, in HotU, stuff is actually happening behind the game. You find a later villain, but it's because that villain did something to shake up the status quo.

It definitely helps that the villains are so interesting. The "insane wizard" is a stereotype, but this one was played to the hilt, and the wizard doppelganger element caught me by surprise. The Valsharess is a presence throughout the game, sending her drow assassins after you at the very start, and I liked how she gradually morphs from a vague, sinister presence to a well-known and even personal adversary. She has a lot of traditional drow traits like ambition and bloody-mindedness, and also a surprisingly sensual side that she starts revealing when you start getting close to her. Finally, Mephistopheles is… well, pretty much exactly what you would expect with a name like that. I'm rarely a fan of the D&D cosmology, and mostly endured all the various descriptions of demons and realms of Hell and whatnot. Still, the actual mechanics behind his plot are pretty cool, and the cinematics showing his assault upon the surface of Toril were genuinely engaging.

I didn't think of this at the time, but there are some really nice parallels between Chapter 2 of HotU and Chapter 5 of Baldur's Gate 2. In both cases, your party uses a Drow city as a base of operations, and must venture out to conquer the most feared races of the Underdark, passing through claustrophobic tunnels filled with Beholders and a city of Illithid. The only thing HotU is missing is a battle against Kuo-Toa.  I don't want to exaggerate the similarities, since your overall position is quite different, but still... while I tend to focus most on the Amnish portions of BG2, its Underdark plot was one of the most exciting, tense, and atmospheric parts of the game, and so it was territory well worth revisiting in the NWN engine.

HotU continues the plot threads from the earlier NWN games in some entertaining ways. You meet most of your companions from before at one point or another, and can even join with many of them for a little while. Some of the NWN1 crew has shown up at the inn where you start the game, and after finding and rescuing each individual you can choose to recruit them. This is one of the first points where I got a little bummed by the lack of continuity: even though I was playing my NWN1 character, Linu acted like we'd never met before. Sigh. Still, it was good seeing her, Sharwyn, and Daelan again; also Tomil, though I never spent any time with him in the first game. Of the SoU companions, only Deekin makes an appearance, but that's good since he was my favorite of that set. Deekin is actually a bit of a constant in HotU: most of the other companions are unavailable after Chapter One, but Deekin can stay for the entire duration if you want him. Finally, late in the game you can actually rescue and recruit Aribeth to your cause, which was awesome. She was by far the most interesting NPC of NWN1, and it was great to see her quality added to a context that could do her justice.

I won't bother recapping the plot of the game, though there's a bit of that in my web album. I'm awfully curious if the game actually does let you play on the side of evil; there are several points in the game where it seems like you might be able to betray the Seer and join the Valsharess, but I didn't try them and don't know if you can actually follow through it or not. I'm sure that, regardless, you end up fighting Mephistopheles at the end.

Speaking of which: good lord, that final fight was very hard and frustrating. Mostly because one of my companions would always go full-passive for the entire duration. I could always get Meph to the last and final stage, but he hits so hard and so fast that, with a few bad die rolls, I could quickly be killed before drinking one of my 30 Heal potions. I must have tried nearly a dozen times, which was frustrating, since the fight is VERY long, requires careful pausing, and doesn't support saving between stages. (You sort of can, but if you do, upon reload Meph will be at full health again.) In the end, I had to reload an older save, head back to the shops, and spend 3+ million gold on upgrading my weapons. Acid seemed to be the most effective against him, so I upgraded all of our weapons to +10 and gave them Acid damage, as well as picking up Acid Bombs. I had no money left, but that's fine, there's nothing else to spend it on. It ultimately did the trick, especially the Acid Bombs, which do a nice chunk of damage with each throw.

Post-final-fight, though, was really cool. It's been annoying playing NWN1 and SoU on a modern machine because the post-game video won't play at all, just the audio, leaving you on a very anticlimactic note. In contrast, HotU ends with a brief cinematic (too brief - the ones earlier in the game were way more complex and cool), and, even better, follows that up with a "Where are they now?" style of thing for major characters and factions from the story. It felt a little like the very end to Throne of Bhaal, or the endings to DA:O and DA:Awakening. It's something that I dearly appreciate, a chance to reconnect with the characters who meant most to me and see where they are going. That said, the specific choices were a little odd. I did enjoy hearing about how Daelan Red Tiger found redemption and helped steer his tribe towards a better future, but why was there no word from Deekin, with whom I traveled longer than any other companion? Also, even though the in-game dialogue seemed to acknowledge that I loved Nathyrra alone, I seemed to get romance endings for both Aribeth and her. Which isn't the worst thing, I guess; I remember modding BG2 to do much the same thing. Those are minor complaints, though. For the most part I found this final set of prose very satisfying and cathartic. It was a great cap to a highly enjoyable adventure, and removed the last lingering bit of bad taste left in my mouth from the dullness of NWN1.


As has now become an inexplicable tradition, I have taken many in-game screenshots of this campaign and placed them online.

BioWare isn't perfect, and does make mis-steps, so it's highly encouraging to see that they're self-aware and introspective enough to recognize when something hasn't gone very well, and then improve upon it in the future. NWN1 was hardly a failure in its time, but for many gamers like me it represented a step back from the incredibly rich storytelling of games in the Baldur's Gate series. It's very cool to see how they took that criticism, acknowledged it, and then put forth greater efforts in the follow-ups to raise subsequent games' quality, ending with something really terrific like Hordes of the Underdark. They seem to be going through much the same process now, synthesizing the often-negative reaction towards Dragon Age 2, and it makes me more hopeful that Dragon Age: Inquisition will see a similarly superior transformation of its franchise.

My earlier advice still stands: if, for some weird reason, you're like me and feel tempted to play a decade-old, technologically-obsolete role-playing franchise, I highly recommend that you entirely skip the original campaign and start off with Shadows of Undrentide. SoU and HotU form a single, unified, epic storyline that is far more likely to impress and entertain you than any part of the first game.

With NWN out of the way, I'll eventually move on to NWN2, so I can eventually check out this "Mask of the Betrayer" game that everyone's talking about. Not right away, though. Shadowrun Returns beckons, and I also want to check out Bioshock Infinite and see what the deal is with that. But, I'm now looking forward to more NWN far more than I was at the start of this project, which can only be a good thing.

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