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In order to get us (and, ultimately, you) a closer look at the expansion, public relations representative Leo Tan, senior producer Eric Boyer, and community specialist Amanda Grove took us through some of the add-on's initial content earlier this week. Each of the new adventure packs will be based around a new wilderness area, with The King's Forest and the Underdark being some of the largest we've seen in the game to date (Eric likens them to the size of the Menechtarun desert, with the added bonus of the Underdark spanning multiple, difficulty-varying levels). There are several dozen new experience-granting explorer points within them, too, with The King's Forest featuring 40 voiced journal messages from Elminster and the Underdark featuring its own set of voiced messages about drow culture from one of the high priestesses.
Beyond voicing some journal messages, Elminster actually plays a big role in the add-on's storyline. In short, the Spinner of Shadows we dealt with at the end of the Update 13 "Web of Chaos" adventure pack is involved in a plot that seeks the destruction of entire worlds (remnants of crushed civilizations can be seen hanging in the Demonweb as you travel through it) and Eberron and the Forgotten Realms are next on her hit list. As you and Elminster have a common enemy, he'll aid your party in breaching the path between your world and his during the initial (free-to-play) "Beyond the Rift" quest, and then assist you in bringing the fight to Lolth herself in the game's most difficult raid to date.
Taking down a goddess is no easy feat, but luckily players will have a lot more firepower at their disposal with all of the new content that Turbine is introducing. The first notable addition is the long-awaited druid class, which I suspect will be very popular thanks to its range of highly adaptable Wild Shape feats, the not-to-be-overlooked scimitar proficiency, and an assortment of both devastating and party-saving spells. The Wild Shape feats are unlocked throughout the heroic levels - the wolf is picked up early in a druid's career (and it can later be upgraded to a winter wolf), the bear will be attained somewhere around level 8 (and it can later be upgraded to a dire bear), and then we have the fire and water elemental forms that are granted at specific intervals past level 10. Each of these Wild Shape feats has specific strengths - wolf form is great for speed, bear form is great for soaking damage, and the elemental forms are great for dealing damage (though as with the sorcerer's prestige enhancements, shapeshifting into either elemental hinders the damage done by spells of the opposite element).
Without question, the biggest surge in epic-level power for players will be obtained through the new Epic Destiny system. In this system, a player will speak with a Fatespinner NPC to initially choose from one of ten separate destiny trees that they'd like their character to gain experience toward (Eric assures me that more destinies will be offered after the expansion ships, too). Each of the destiny trees is geared toward a specific role or theme, but there is nothing stopping, say, a barbarian from picking the "Exalted Angel" destiny to gain access to an assortment of divine bonuses and abilities that might be more synergistic with their particular character build. As normal questing experience is accrued, it is divided between two pools - one for regular leveling and one for epic destiny leveling - with the latter awarding action points at certain intervals that can then be spent on the destiny tree that they currently have chosen.
At any time, a character can switch to another adjacent destiny that they've unlocked and begin advancing through it, with one major caveat: bonuses and abilities granted by a destiny can only be utilized when it's the active destiny. This roadblock can be circumvented through the use of fate points, however. By earning fate points, a player can unlock "Twists of Fate", which are essentially open slots that can house abilities from an alternate destiny. There are a total of three Twists of Fate available to a character, so ultimately you could have access to one entire destiny tree and a trio of abilities from other destinies. If a player goes that route, however, the three abilities they choose must be from the two lowest tiers on the destiny trees. Should they find that isn't sufficient, they can instead use their fate points to upgrade a previously unlocked Twist of Fate so that it can gain access to tier 3/4 and tier 5/6 abilities, though obviously this comes at the expense of having less total accessible abilities from other destinies.
As another source of acquiring power, the expansion will also feature the Eveningstar Challenge Pack. These challenges will function exactly as they do in House Cannith, but there will be entirely new goals to achieve. For example, one will feature a tower defense scenario where the party will be protecting a fortress and ballistae from waves of enemies, while another will feature an arena battle in the Underdark that's hosted by a red dragon. Do well enough in the ensuing battles, and the red dragon will enter the arena himself to become your final adversary. And, of course, all-new challenges means that there will be all-new epic loot to trade your earned ingredients for.
There are a few changes coming to the base game with the addition of Menace of the Underdark, too. First up is a revised UI that uses a slick silver design and adds an extra dose of accessibility to the game's various menu screens through the use of a large ampersand button in the bottom left corner of the screen. On top of that, loot drops are going to be kicked up a notch, with +1 and above enhancements showing up as early as the Catacombs and more effects showing up on randomized loot (a robe I looted in the Beyond the Rift quest had five different effects attached to it, including damage resistance which many of you will recognize as a named item-only effect previously). Drop rates are also going to see some tweaking - in particular, the team promises me that the epic ingredients within the Update 13 quests should drop a little more frequently. And while the team hoped to get the tree-based enhancement overhaul implemented in time for the expansion, the reality is that it won't quite make it onto the live servers until sometime soon after its release.
Ultimately, I was quite impressed with what I saw of Menace of the Underdark. The art design is considerably different and is a nice change of pace after spending so much time in Eberron, character builds are getting a significant amount of extra depth with the addition of five new levels and epic destinies, there are at least a dozen new creatures for us to do battle with (including new dragon types!) across three separate adventure packs, three larger-than-average wilderness zones, and a new set of challenges, and you really can't go wrong with a storyline that pits Lolth and Elminster against one another to determine the fate of two interconnected worlds. If you're an MMO fan or simply a Dungeons & Dragons fan, there are certainly worse ways to spend your $30 this June.