Dungeons and Dragons Online has received many, many updates since it launched six years ago, but Menace of the Underdark is the first that the developers at Turbine have deigned large enough to warrant that "expansion" title. It'll raise the level cap from 20 to 25, add a new class in the form of the shape shifting Druid and add huge new zones set in, around and underneath some the Dungeons and Dragon's most famous lands in the Forgotten Realms
It's three or four times the size of any previous update, which meant there was plenty to see when DDO producer Fernando Paiz showed me around the new zones last week. Over the course of a busy hour I was swallowed whole by a Purple Worm, attacked by a hungry treasure chest, menaced by a Suspicious Tree and trampled by a green dragon. I even caught a glimpse of the colossal Drow goddess, Lolth, the final raid boss of Menace of the Underdark.
Lolth lives in a dimension that exists between all worlds, the Demon Web. From there she's marshalling an army of Dark Elves and hatching an epic plot to conquer the surface world. When Menace of the Underdark is released, a series of free quests will give all DDO players the opportunity to traverse the Demon Web and fight upwards through the Underdark (the Forgotten Realms version of hell) to reach the new hub city of Eveningstar.
The initial quick dash to reach Eveningstar won't be too taxing, but towards the end of the expansion, these dark zones will come to offer the toughest challenges. As each of the three new adventure packs unfold, players will battle a dark elf conspiracy in the evergreen woods that embrace the pastoral village, plunge into the Underdark to battle the Drow and and eventually return to the Demon Web to defeat Lolth and foil her plans.
The Demon Web is very purple. It's made up of a series of shattered rock formations floating through the multiverse. They're connected by pale, effervescent bridges and patrolled by hordes of silver-haired dark elves. These warriors form aggressive melee mobs, but during our sprint through the Demon Web, the sorceresses that stood behind the vanguard that proved to be much deadlier.
The horrible Driders are even worse. These dark elves have intentionally cursed themselves to take the twisted form of their goddess, Lolth. Everything above their torso remains humanoid, but their legs have been replaced by a swollen, grey arachnid. They attack in swarms in the Demon Web.
It's a Wilderness Area, which means it's a large zone full of dynamic quests and roaming boss fights. The challenging mobs will make exploration tricky, but there are some huge monsters to be found tramping around those glowing bridges. At one point we fought off a huge minotaur, a tough red-name villain. Players that manage to find him and take him out will be well rewarded.
The whole zone is dominated by a glowing purple maelstrom in the sky. That's where Lolth spends most of her time. Menace of the Underdark will eventually let players go toe to toe with the spider queen in her home during a climactic 12-man raid, but we managed to catch a sneaky glimpse of her on the way out of the Demon Web. She's DDO's biggest boss monster yet.
Later we travelled back to the surface to investigate the Menace of the Underdark's second wilderness, set in the forests that surround Eveningstar. It's a good locale to show of some of the graphical updates that'll arrive alongside the expansion. Turbine are keen to accentuate the bright, rural feel of the Forgotten Realms, and will introduce new grass and tree tech to create forests that sway in the breeze, and patches of long grass that will bend around your character as you run.
The forest wilderness is beautiful. The dense woodland areas are broken up by patches of half-drowned swampland and fast rivers. The dark elves are never far away, though, and their incursions are making the trees a bit tetchy. The spirits of the forests have implemented a blanket anti-outsider policy, so you'll have to fight off some angry trees and various wilderbeast as you hunt down the dark elves.
The elves are going to make things difficult. They'll wield the power of darkness, literally, to take out anyone interfering with Lolth's aims. When they attack, a black shroud will descend and you'll have to battle the dark elves in a narrow pool of light. The shroud will collapse once the dark elves in the area have been wiped out. This causes the sun to rush through the sky, sending shadows strobing across the landscape. It's a dramatic effect.
The forest also proved to be a good place to take a look at the Druid, the new class that'll be available to all subscribers for free when Menace of the Underdark launches. Druid players will be able to shape shift into three different forms. Wolf forms are good damage dealers, bear forms can tank for friendly groups and elemental forms make the Druid's comprehensive spellbook even more potent. He has can heal if needed, but also specialises in dealing heavy elemental damage with fire, ice and electrical attacks.
The Druid is also a pet class. Pets behave like hirelings and can be customised as they level up. If you need more creatures, you can summon extra allies temporarily, all while occupying an animal form. "I love that a wolf can have a pet wolf," I said to Fernando Paiz as we battled through the forest.
"In fact they also get to charm natural creatures," he said, "so if you found a pack of wolves in the forest you could charm them, you could be a wolf yourself, you could have a pet wolf, summon a temporary wolf and run around as nine or ten wolves."
'That's my kind of class,' I thought. I started to imagine a group of druids, all in wolf form with wolf pets summoning wolves and charming other nearby wolves to form a colossal wolf hunt that could strip the forest clean of the dark elf menace in minutes. Then a dragon attacked. Well, it wouldn't be D&D without a big, scaly lizard.
Menace of the Underdark is looking good. It's got some huge, beautiful zones, an intriguing new class and will add some of DDO's biggest monsters yet. It'll be available to buy from the in-game store, too, which is good news for players with lots and lots of Turbine points. It's set to be released on June 25. Find out more on the DDO site .