It has been a long time coming, but at last, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark has arrived. In fact, it launched earlier this week, but that didn't keep us from getting a guided tour from the fine folks at Turbine, who filled us in on everything from new monsters to new classes to explaining why a particular giant minotaur is just so cranky all the time. Actually, there are all sorts of cranky creatures in this expansion: drow, salamanders, wyrms, and draegloths, to name a few.
What are draegloths, you might ask? They are half demon, half drow, and all frightening, created from the union between queen of spiders Lolth and a horned demon called a glabrezu. If you're into The Forgotten Realms, such information may inspire a few nods of understanding; if you aren't a D & D fanatic, what you need to know is this: you wouldn't want to encounter any of these creeps in a dark forest--and certainly not in the pervasive gloom of the Underdark.
We got a chance to meander through the Underdark, which, as the title suggests, is a major new area of the expansion. But before we could get there, we started where Update 13 ended. If you recall from our other preview, Lolth has opened a rift from Eberron into the Demon Web. Since then, the rift has been growing, and a sect of druids called The Gatekeepers have been trying to contain it. Alas, their power is not absolute, and it's up to you, dear adventurer, to pursue the matter further.
Encounters are randomized, so you might come across bears one time and elementals another.
As we've previously noted, the Demon Web is your bridge connecting Eberron to the Forgotten Realms. The new meanies descend upon you immediately, including bebeliths--that is, spiders with razor-sharp claws. But there is a friendly face to bring joy to this difficult journey: that of Elminster, one of the most famous and beloved wizards in all of Faerun. The hawk-nosed charmer has been investigating Lolth and the pain she has been visiting upon the land of Cormyr. As we know from previews past, Lolth is terrorizing the once-peaceful village of Eveningstar, seeking an artifact known as the Thread of the Weave. Once we dispatched a few lesser dretches, we emerged in the forest near Eveningstar, ready to seek answers.
It's worth noting that we played as the all-new druid class during the tour, almost wholly in wolf form. As Dungeons & Dragons fans know, druids are casters with very versatile spellbooks filled out with a good number of nature magic spells. They also get animal companions--companions that, in Menace of the Underdark, allow you to customize their abilities and even their collars. Druids can also shape-shift into different forms: wolf (base and winter varieties), bear (base and dire varieties), and elemental (fire and water), for a grand total of six different possibilities. In these forms, you have new abilities open up to you, and existing ones may become more powerful. (For instance, when you are in water form, water and ice spells do more damage.)
The adventure continued with a number of battles, some versus the drow, who are able to fight even in daylight thanks to an effect called The Darkening. In the King's Forest outside of Eveningstar, you might encounter these dark-complected elves, though not necessarily each time: encounters are randomized, so you might come across bears one time and elementals another. You could even do battle with dryads, which aren't normally so aggressive. However, nature itself is angry and acting up, and the forest protectors are similarly affected. The forest doesn't just harbor secrets of the toothy kind, however. You also stumble upon symbols of Elminster--floating blue stars that contain messages from the wise wizard himself.
Soon, however, the game was to take a dark turn. As we moved deeper into the forest, the shadows lengthened, which gave the game's new volumetric lighting effects a chance to shine, but also enhanced the sense of dread. After battling some drow accompanied by astral panthers, we finally entered the Underdark, where the murk was almost unbearable. Fortunately, before entering this extensive network of tunnels and caves, you receive Melchior's Undersun Goggles, a wondrous set of eyewear that enhances your vision when traversing the blackness.
The Underdark is Dungeons & Dragons Online's largest underground space by a large margin. Here, all characters get a bonus to "hide," though the good news is that with your goggles, you get a spotting bonus. (The drow like to get stealthy, so watch your back!) Here, we encountered a dragon, who proved tough not just because he was dangerous in his own right, but because he could stomp on the battle platform and knock players off--and to their deaths. We moved on to other battles against salamanders, yuan-ti (evil snake creatures), and a purple wyrm who can swallow you whole and force you to fight from within his innards. (Gross.) And don't miss the night hag, who can cause opponents to dance uncontrollably, which is quite an adorable sight when you're in animal form.
Next up on the tour: Sschindylryn, the drow city of portals. The city is based around a giant pyramid called the Ziggurat, which is itself split into nine different levels and houses a temple to Lolth at the very top. Your quest takes you to this very location, where you fight a high priestess. Remember the cutscene that concluded Update 13? This is the very same priestess, Hekta, and one of the most powerful Drow in the game. The goggles are a great help here, as is Elminster himself, who needs multiple relics housed in this very temple.
The Underdark is Dungeons & Dragons Online's largest underground space by a large margin.
This battle isn't good news for everyone. An important character named Anna is being held here by Lolth's minions, and she is whisked away before she can be rescued. Fortunately, Hekta doesn't manage so well, either. She and her draegloth pets do their best to impede your quest, but she is no match for your skillful blade and powerful casting. Defeated, she cries out to Lolth for mercy--but the demon queen has no patience for such cowardice. A demonic minotaur-like beast called a goristro appears, bellowing that the priestess is no longer welcome in the Demon Web.
Ultimately, of course, you will encounter Lolth herself. She appears in a 12-player raid dungeon that requires the might of every player for success. We got a taste of this final showdown, starting with a bebelith battle, and continuing with encounters with draegloth, driders, and another high priestess (The Mistress of Agony--probably not the best dinner company). Finally, we could see the glow in the distance signifying Lolth's lair. It's here that Anna is being held, some kind of horrifying ritual performed upon her. Waking Anna draws Lolth's attention, but you need the woman's assistance: she can steal Lolth's power and use it against the evil deity.
The updates that came with Menace of the Underdark aren't limited to the content described. There's a new level cap (25, up from 20), along with a new epic destinies advancement system. Destinies are unlocked within four different spheres, and if you are intrepid enough, you can potentially make your way through the entire sphere map and level up in every destiny. Other improvements include an interface revamp (new adventure panel, new XP bars, and so forth); new grouping options that allow parties to more easily come together; and four difficulty levels for all epic quests.
Indeed, there's a lot to Dungeons & Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark. It's live and available now, ready to welcome adventurers into its fold. With so much content (four adventure packs' worth) in one full expansion, it'll probably keep you busy for some time to come. Just watch out for bebeliths; they're not likely to show much mercy.