Six years ago Dungeons & Dragons Online launched. Back in 2009 it hopped on the Free-to-Play bandwagon, bringing in a much needed injection of new players and continuously funding new content for three years as well as regular updates. Last year Turbine ran a test bringing an expansion to Lord of the Rings Online with the free-to-play model active and it was a success. They’ve got another one coming up for LOTRO, and right now there’s one out for Dungeons & Dragons Online called Menace of the Underdark. The expansion consists of three new questing areas, all of them in the Forgotten Realms and tying into a free quest chain that came out earlier this year starting with a quest with some Rakshasha and the Lords of Dust and ending with the freeing of Lolth’s sister, The Spinner of Shadows. Menace of the Underdark picks up where those free quests left off with the player forging into the open rift in the harbor of Stormreach and through the Demonweb, Lolth’s planar domain, and into Faerun, the Forgotten Realms setting. So is this expansion worth your time if you’re a DDO player? It’s had a little bit of a rough start, as MMO updates often do, but I think it’s done so many things right any DDO player or Forgotten Realms fan should love diving in. I’ve had some pretty decent experiences if you look back at my overviews of The King’s Forest, The Underdark, and then the Demonweb, Druid and Epic Destinies. I’m hitting on some different things here in the review though, so let’s take a look.
As I mentioned earlier, the beginning story hooks are part of the Lords of Dust quest chain where the Drow have started working with some Rakshasha to free the Spinner of Shadows from her prison in the realm of Khyber which is attached to Eberron. They’ve managed to succeed and a tear has formed between Eberron and Faerun as Lolth’s domain, the Demonweb has begun to slowly suck in the realm of Eberron. It seems she’s after Dragonshards, the magical crystals that people in Eberron use for just about everything. You travel through the Demonweb and meet up with Elminster, who has snuck into Lolth’s realm to see what she’s up to and decides that recruiting you to help save your own world as well as his, would be a good thing. You’re dropped into the Underdark from the Demonweb and have to make your way to the surface to a small village at the edge of The King’s Forest in the Forgotten Realms, a town called Eveningstar. From there you help free the town from the Drow attacks rescuing families, breaking up rituals in cemeteries, figure out what they’re doing in an old Temple of Mystra, stopping some Yuan-Ti from poisoning the water, fend off Werewolves at a hospital, and then a full on Drow attack on Eveningstar itself. From there Elminster makes plans to take the fight to the Drow on their turf, the Underdark and one of their cities. You fight off some Purple Worms, infiltrate the Drow city of Sschindylryn disguised as slaves and sabotage three of the ruling houses before taking on the head Priestess of Lolth. After that it’s into the Demonweb to sabotage Lolth’s plans, stabilize the rift into Eberron to keep it from growing, and then take on the goddess herself.
This is actually one of the more ambitious projects from a story-telling perspective Turbine has put forward with this expansion. The story is tied through 4 different quest chains, all of which are required to complete the raid, and all of them telling a complete and over-arcing storyline. Usually these stories develop over maybe two quest packs which vary between 8 to 10 quests total, maybe 3 or 4 to flag for a Raid. Including the 3 free quests from Update 13, the quest chain that you complete to do the raid on Lolth’s domain is 16 quests in total, with each of the areas having several optional quests and a Challenge area as well. If this were a tabletop box set it would run from levels 16 to 25 and overall I say the story is fantastically done, especially for an MMO.
I mentioned earlier that the game is over 6 years old now, and in some areas it’s showing it even with the graphical overhaul they did to make it compatible with DirectX 11. I do have to say though, the new areas, while a few looking a little sparse despite their size, look fantastic. The King’s Forest is probably one of my new favorite areas in DDO just for it’s layout and design alone. The Underdark is suitably dark and foreboding and Sschindylryn has its own unique look to it as well. The Demonweb looks pretty vast and it’s easy to get lost in, which is precisely the idea. My only complaint would be the Drow quests in Sschindylryn itself. The Drow houses are lit far too well when they had the lighting perfect outside in the city and in The Underdark, also they seem insanely large and almost seem to have too little in them for their size. They look rushed. The quests elsewhere, the King’s Forests, the ones in Eveningstar, look well polished and fully fleshed out. The quests in Sschindylryn were fun and a blast to do, they just seemed lacking compared to all the visual thought put in elsewhere. The Drow of Faerun do look very different than the Drow of Eberron, which is a very nice touch.
They’ve put in some new music to the game to go with the expansion. Even the character select screen has new theme music, which is kind of cool, but shocking when you first hear it expecting the same thing you’ve heard for years. Most of DDO‘s voice work in the past has been done through a Dungeon Master who narrates the quests, but lately they’ve been branching out a bit more. Menace of the Underdark is no exception. While I could take or leave the Spinner of Shadows, Lolth’s voice actress and Elminster’s voice actor do a fantastic job, not only in the quests, but in the messages that you can find in explorer areas that they read as you find them. Lolth mocking you as your travel throughout her domain through these is great, and Elminster’s somewhat coddling tone as he introduces you to how his world works are a nice touch.
There have been some bigger changes to how things control and play in the game. The first thing is a totally new design for the User Interface. I admit, at first I hated it. I’m still not fond of a few things, missing the full bar across the top, but most of the keyboard shortcuts still work and it is organized a little better. The Social panel for grouping now let’s you know if a quest is in progress as well which is also pretty cool. These are all part of the normal updates. The new areas follow a lot of the same rules for explorers and quests that we had before, but most of the new content that comes in the Menace of the Underdark is all Epic level content which is different. There are some quests that you can do sooner, all in Eveningstar once you get there, but everything else is for levels 20 and up. One of the nice things they’ve done is made Epics a bit more playable for people who don’t grind gear or aren’t one of the elite players. Epic level quests now have a normal, hard and elite setting, just like their Heroic Quest counterparts. The loot will be better on harder difficulties as well as the experience for it, but normal and hard play more like regular quests for epic level characters, while on elite, to survive, you spend most of your time cowering on ledges while your ranged people drop a ton of Are of Effect and other spells and abilities on the enemies below, which has its rewards, but for me isn’t as much fun. Epic levels work a lot like normal levels, you get a feat or two from 21-25 as well as hit points and spell points and a 1 point increase to any skill you have ranks in as you level. Where things get interesting are the Epic Destinies, and those are all part of the new expansion.
Epic Destinies are a lot like the Enhancements you can unlock as you level up your character. You have a limited number of points, 24, to unlock the Destinies with, get differing abilities that unlock with others for some, just by how many points you’ve spent with others. What’s interesting with the Epic Destinies though is that your class isn’t stuck with a specific tier and as you level up your destinies you can branch out into others and level those up. If you want to go back to your main you can and then you have the option of using abilities you’ve unlocked in other destinies on your main one. I’ll be honest, depending on your class and play style, some of these destinies might be completely worthless to you. The Ranged Bow User Epic Destiny is not going to be much use to your Cleric or even a two-weapon fighter. The Cleric and Favored Soul Epic Destiny also won’t be as useful to a Fighter. There are some things you can pick and choose from within the trees but a lot of the free stuff you get as you level up may not pertain to your class specifically, but will help in unlocking others that might. Any points you earn or experience within the Epic Destiny trees won’t go away if you True Reincarnate your character either but you won’t have access again until you hit level 20. For a bit more in-depth on the basics, here’s my review of the game from when it went free-to-play.
One thing DDO has had over most other MMOs I’ve played is replayability. You can go back and do any quest, except the first, at any time, as long as you’re not on timer. This also applies to the new content. Getting the most out of your Epic Levels and Epic Destinies is going to require a ton of experience and if you’re just sticking with new epic level content, you’re going to have to do it a few times to get all that experience, or better yet, named loot as that drops randomly along with the commendations you need in the new areas to get the newer gear from collector’s. The new quests are interesting and fun, you’ve got multiple difficulty levels to do them on, and the randomness of the rare encounters in the explorer areas is built in to have you come back for another go to get that experience.
Balance wise, this may be a difficult beast to break down. If you didn’t get in on the pre-order like I did, the number of bonuses you get drops significantly, but there are still some nice ones for the Standard Edition. If you’re a VIP player and are always going to be a VIP player, meaning you pay your fee every month and that’s how you roll, the Base Edition that just has the Epic Destinies and the 3 Adventure Packs in the Expansion should be fine, however you’re missing out on two big bonuses in the Standard edition that make up the extra $20 easily by themselves, the 1000 Turbine Points and the Greater Tome of Learning. Looking at the expansion from a free player or Premium player perspective, the Standard is more than worth it. I’ll tell you why, if you wait to buy all the stuff that comes with this expansion off the DDO Store you are shooting yourself in the foot financially. You’ll have to buy the Epic Destinies, the 3 Adventure Packs, the Challenge Pack and the Druid class. I’m estimating prices on these as they won’t be in the store until at least late August, however just those alone would run around 6000 Turbine Points in the store or roughly $58. They’re charging $50 for the Standard edition of the expansion. Then on top of that you get a bunch of other extras worth 5490 Turbine Points which is about $54. Even if you have the packs from the bonus already that is still another 3590 Turbine Points worth of bonus goodies which is about $40. I’m telling you this as a sane person and someone who loves this game and is a former Premium player now long-time VIP, buy the expansion pack if you’re planning on getting it off the DDO Store later. You are saving yourself at the minimum $8 and getting another $40 to $63 worth of stuff for free depending on the packs you already have.
Now that I’ve exhausted you with financials, I like the variety of the new quests. Each one presents a new obstacle to get around, gives you a few options to deal with it, and is a nice big chunk of content for the price. I’m not one bit sorry I paid for the Pre-Ordered Collector’s Edition when I did as all my characters have permanent experience bumps to level up. The new tiers to the Epic levels make playing as an Epic character a lot more fun, and for those who really like the challenge, Epic Elite is for you. Me I prefer Epic Normal or Epic Hard as it still feels like questing where as Epic Elite it’s more like hiding while your casters perform orbital bombardment in the hopes it’s safe to move on to the next room and do it again. Even with the Raid, the last little bit of the Menace of the Underdark storyline not in game, this Expansion has been more than worth the price of admission.
One thing DDO devs like to do is get creative with their quests and areas. While Eveningstar is lifted right from the Forgotten Realms setting (if you google it there’s a great overhead map on the wiki that is practically identical to the game version), they had some latitude with the Demonweb and the Underdark and the Drow city you visit. Several of the quests have totally new mechanics, and while a few of them follow patterns we’ve seen before in this MMO, the rest feel like a much needed breath of fresh air. While Elminster and Lolth have both been used before, most of the rest of the characters that show up and the situations are entirely Turbine’s doing which is fantastic. Epic Destinies themselves aren’t new to Dungeons & Dragons, but the way Turbine has gone about implementing them in DDO is. They’ve got a very nice mix of the old and familiar and new here.
I played the base game quite a bit, but I found myself kind of waning a bit on my play time even though my wife plays with. Then the expansion came out and that first bit of the love affair I had with the game returned. It’s a combination of the new content, a new class, some revamped abilities, and of course Epic Levels and Destinies. When I pop on now I’m back into it again. It’s a lot more fun again. And looking at my play time with DDO in the past few weeks averaging thirty plus hours a week since the expansion hit, when I was down to a little under twenty before, yeah I’d say it’s addictive.
Forgotten Realms was and still is one of the biggest campaign settings as well as the most successful one ever released for Dungeons & Dragons. Since its first release during second edition, a revamp for Third Edition, again for 3.5 and then Fouth, it has appeal in spades. It’s recognized by new and old school tabletop players, people who’ve played Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale on the PC, there’s brand recognition built into this. Hell there are people who just love the Drow that much and don’t necessarily care about the campaign setting but love dealing with Lolth. On top of that Turbine has done a fantastic job bringing this small portion of Faerun to life within the game. Both Elminster and Lolth are very familiar and work really well within the story they’re telling in the over-arching quest chains.
With any DDO release there are a number of bugs, some of which were fixed in the latest patch, some that were not. Right now, for example, the last quest in the whole chain, the Raid on Lolth’s lair, is not currently accessible due to problems with it since launch. Warforge can’t get healed as well as they used to as Healer’s Friend isn’t working. Some of the Artificer buffs are hit or miss working as in they show up but the benefits aren’t showing up in combat. One of the quests I was running the other day bugged out so we couldn’t get into the hidden area to actually complete the optional for extra experience, which is new content. Good luck bug reporting or opening a help ticket in the game, as most of the people I know who play can’t get that portion of DDO‘s help are to load at all. You can report bugs on the forum, but this takes even more time out of playing. The good news is they’re working on it. It’s an MMO. They patch and fix broken pieces of the game all the time. What was introduced and is working is phenomenal stuff. There are hints all over at more stuff set in Forgotten Realms, perhaps expanding what we’ve already gotten and I’m all for it. I would still like to see the smaller updates throughout the year, but a full on expansion every year like this one would be more than welcome as an addition to DDO.
Graphics: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Great
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Incredible
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
While there are some minor issues with the expansion, overall Menace of the Underdark provides some much needed content, a good expansion on Epic Quests and Epic Levels with the Epic Destinies. The addition of the Druid class and challenge maps as well as goodies for the free and premium players are a plus, and even if you are VIP not something easily ignored, especially if you ever think about dropping to being a Premium player. The content is very well done and provides at least three or four Updates worth of content in one huge chunk. Usually it takes about six to eight months to get these as updates normally. All in all I love this expansion and recommend it highly to any DDO player out there.