PAX East 2012 Preview: Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark
Druids, spider queens, and two disparate Dungeons & Dragons worlds combine in an upcoming expansion.
While spiders have their uses, many people just flat-out don't like the little critters. Sure, they serve a useful role in the ecosystem, have staggering genetic and morphological diversity, and keep much more pestilential bugs from proliferating, but something just doesn't sit right about them. Maybe it's the spindly little legs and the multitude of eyes, or perhaps it's the fact that their queen is a power-hungry dark goddess, hell-bent on conquering the realms of both Faerûn and Eberron. In Menace of the Underdark, the first full-fledged expansion to Dungeons & Dragons Online, players will go up against the minions of Lolth, the Spider Queen while traversing new areas, commanding a new character class, and questing towards and increased level cap.
Menace of the Underdark follows in the wake of Update 13, the most recent addition to DDO. A high-level boss fight with a spider demon known as the Spinner of Shadows serves as a warning sign to players that there are more sinister challenges ahead. As it turns out, the Spinner of Shadows is an aspect of the Spider Queen Lolth, one of the most dangerous goddesses in the D&D pantheon, and the queen has devised a way to connect the realms of Eberron (the realm where DDO takes place) and Faerûn (the world of, among other things, Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights). For the first time in a videogame, players will have a chance to travel between these two iconic fantasy territories.
The most striking aspect of the new expansion is the wide swath of new territories to explore. While the adventure starts in the highly ordered, storied land of Eberron, Menace of the Underdark first takes players to the underworld of Khyber, where swirling purple mists and wispy spider webs hang over enormous, precarious stalagmites that play host to a variety of enemies. From there, the action moves into the Underdark, the home of the evil elven Drow of the Forgotten Realms. This area is distinctly less colorful than its Eberron analogue, but the prominent rocks, caves, and shadows work to hide the many dark elves lying in wait. This path leads adventurers into Evening Star, an out-of-the-way town in Faerûn that acts as a hub for upcoming quests. Each area has a unique aesthetic quality, and the transition from one underworld to another helps give some dramatic weight to the transition between worlds.
The gameplay itself is almost entirely unchanged from the existing DDO experience. Hotbar combat mixed with some light action elements is the order of the day, and the existing classes will serve the same roles as before. However, a few smaller additions will keep older fans invested and may lure some new faces to the fold. For the first time in DDO's history, players will be able to advance beyond level 20 and into the epic sphere. The level cap will increase to 25, and while 5 levels may not sound like much, this is more akin to 20 levels in a traditional MMO scope (the level cap in D&D is generally low compared to most videogames).
Additionally, Turbine will add one new premium character class: the Druid. According to Fernando Paiz, the executive producer of Menace of the Underdark, players have been requesting a playable Druid class since the earliest beta builds of the game seven years ago, and the expansion aims to deliver a class that meets high fan expectations. Much like its counterpart in World of Warcraft, the Druid's unique selling point is versatility. The druid can shape-shift into three main forms (wolf, bear, and elemental), and develop two further specializations of each form (winter wolf, dire bear, fire elemental, etc.). With offensive, support, and healing magic at its disposal, the Druid should ring true to its pencil-and-paper counterpart.
A good chunk of Menace of the Underdark's new content comes in the form of new enemies. This is the first appearance of Drow in DDO, and other new threats such as forest hags and goristros - giant, demonic minotaurs - will rear their ugly heads during the expansion's new quests. While these enemies are generally just new textures layered over existing character designs, there are also a number of novel enemy designs. In addition to the boss creatures (such as the Spinner of Shadows), Turbine has implemented creatures called "Driders," which, as the name suggests, are half-drow, half-spider monstrosities that possess the strengths of both species.
Perhaps the most ambitious new enemies are the red, green, and blue dragons that will occasionally spawn as rare monsters. Turbine wanted overcoming dragons to feel like an epic challenge, and decided that each dragon would have a unique name and appearance. While generating random dragon names is a fairly simple process, creating the beasts themselves proved a little more difficult. Rather than just select from a number of premade dragons, the developers created a system similar to the players' avatar creation tool. Dragons will spring into existence with a number of features (such as heads, faces, and body sizes) randomly selected from premade elements. This method ensures that no two dragons will be alike, and no two players will have quite the same experience finding and defeating one.
While DDO is, and will remain, a free-to-play game, Menace of the Underdark is a premium expansion, and is priced accordingly from $30 to $80 depending on how much content players want. If these seem too steep, the individual pieces of content (dungeons, the Druid class, and "arcade"-style repeatable challenges) will be available piecemeal about seven or eight weeks after launch. Existing VIP players will have access to the Druid class for the game's core content, but will still have to shell out some additional funds to bring their nature-loving avatars into the Forgotten Realms. The initial quests to defeat the Spinner of Shadows, traverse Khyber and the Underdark, and arrive in Evening Star, however, will be free for all players.
Menace of the Underdark may not fundamentally change much about the DDO formula, but end-game players hungry for new content or neophytes who want to relive their halcyon Faerûn days from older BioWare series may find a lot to like in it. The game will launch on June 25, 2012, but those who pre-order now will get some additional goodies. Just be sure to watch out for spiders; killing them isn't as easy as it used to be.