Every single aspect of Hordes of the Underdark is better than the original campaign. The story is tighter, more gripping with more believable twists (not to mention dialogue.) In many ways, Hordes of the Underdark reflects Knights of the Old Republic. Veterans of BioWare games will be able to pick up a familiar vibe that goes deep beneath the obvious stylistic similarities. The NWN team’s writing and design have clearly matured and taken a page from the crew behind KotOR.
Even though NPCs are not nearly as important in NWN as they are in KotOR, they are fleshed out in a similar manner, always revealing a little bit of themselves at a time. They go through their own struggles and always resolve them (based on the player’s input) just in time to get through the toughest parts of the quest. The NWN team has grown skilled at masking the “fetch this” aspect of quests, so skilled, in fact, that even though you still are constantly the FedEx boy, you rarely feel like it.
The combat is improved with the addition of a second NPC, though it still lacks the tactical appeal that Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II had. The additional NPC has more memorable benefits by the occasional interesting conversations that two NPCs have together. There are fewer characters than in NWN or BG2, but they are quite well-developed by Neverwinter standards.
The greatest achievement for BioWare is a believable epic-level experience. With characters going beyond level 20, it becomes difficult to make them feel suitably powerful, while keeping the challenge believable – and yet that is precisely what NWN offers. Epic feats and prestige classes take characters into uber-realms, but it’s not as if the designers threw a token dragon or two along the way to make things interested. The challenges are truly creative, without being abusive. Best of all, the plot supports the epic feel without giving into the ludicrous extremes one might assume.
The combat, despite the addition of a second NPC, still isn’t comparable to the kind of experience available with a 6-character party. The major problem is that NWN is that NWN deals with such small battle scenarios, but there’s more to it. The bigger fights, or scenes with a lot of special effects, bring even the fastest computer systems to their knees. Monsters and characters warp around, making any sort of real-time control difficult. Pausing helps, but if you’re going to hit the spacebar to pause every 6 seconds, you might as well make the game turn-based only.
Also, the siege, while impressive and a great way to do something out of the ordinary, isn’t as impressive as it might be. It’s clearly a jury-rigged scene, a hack, if you will. It works well enough as an effect, but it’s actually a difficult battle to lose and the effects of the commands you give on the actual outcome of the battle are rather unclear.
Finally, the main campaign can’t be played in multiplayer, but we don’t really see how it could, given some of the plot and gameplay decisions. Besides, there are a half dozen good modules included with the game that do work online.