DDO's Demonweb
To be honest, I haven't delved very deep into Dungeons and Dragons Online, and I have lost count of how many times I've gone through that first introductory dungeon. The reason isn't the game itself. It seems great, and Turbine has done a lot of work on it over the years. What always gets to me is the setting. For me, "Dungeons and Dragons" is synonymous with Forgotten Realms, and while Eberron seems interesting, it causes a mental disconnect.

So when Turbine finally got its hands on the Forgotten Realms-license and offered Massively a tour of some of the areas in the now-released expansion Menace of the Underdark, I jumped at the opportunity. Even if I'm not Chaotic Evil in real life, my inner Drow couldn't resist a trip to the Demonweb.

A brave new world

Incorporating a brand-new world into an old one isn't always easy, but luckily Forgotten Realms comes hand in hand with the Demonweb. As the name implies, the Demonweb is a dark, interdimensional web that connects many worlds to each other. In other words, it's the perfect explanation for why Eberron and the Forgotten Realms suddenly find themselves in the same game. My journey with the developers started there, at the gate the players will first encounter when they delve into the expansion.

Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
Outside the gate, the devs paused to show me some of the new UI features and systems they've been working on. The list of difficulty modes has been changed and looks a lot sleeker than the old one, with some graphical icons instead of text-only. You have the choice between casual, normal, hard, and elite difficulties; normal is supposed to be soloable, while elite requires a coordinated team of players to complete. Casual, on the other hand, is more aimed at complete noobs like yours truly. You also have the option to either lock the dungeon to your party (or yourself) or open it up for random players -- it's Dungeon & Dragons Online's answer to a looking for group-tool.

Behind the gate awaited the famous wizard Elminster, who showed up just in time to save us from the giant demon that ambushed us. It is he who will lead the players through the darkness of the Demonweb so that they can step out into the light of Eveningstar, the main hub of the expansion.

There's a lot of contrast between the two places. Where the Demonweb is black, purple, and filled with demons and Drow, Eveningstar is bright and green. In areas like these, it becomes quite obvious that Turbine is happy to share technology between its titles because Eveningstar really looks like something straight out of Lord of the Rings Online. (At this point, "other games we have in development" was mentioned, but I refrained from asking leading questions like "so these forest areas are similar to the Forbidden Woods in your Harry Potter-MMO?") That's hardly a bad thing, since it's a nice and cozy place that serves as a welcome break from the darkness of the Drow's domain. If you've ever gone crazy from spending too much time indoors in Mines of Moria, you'll need that break sooner or later.

Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
A ziggurat of great power!

Still, we better get used to the idea of spending a lot of time in the dark. The Demonweb and the Drow cities are hardly known for their abundant light sources. Helping you see in the gloom is a pair of magical goggles, which will allow you to spot enemies and chests more easily, although the developers did point out quite a few times that the dungeons are designed such that you can play without the goggles on.

Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
While I did spend most of the time during the tour with my trust goggles equipped because they do help (especially if you're playing when the sun is up; squinting at a computer screen is probably not good for your eyes), I nevertheless felt as if they ruined quite a lot of the atmosphere. Your mileage might vary, of course, but I'll probably be leaving them in my bag as much as possible in the future.

Except for Eveningstar and the surrounding forests (which incidentally is also filled with evil elves), we made two stops on our tour through the Forgotten Realms, both of which count as spoilers, so skip past the next few paragraphs if you don't want to know the details!

Our first stop on the tour was the Drow city of Sschindlyryn (say that 10 times fast). Our goal was to the reach the mighty ziggurat rising from its center, where we would face off against the high priestess of the evil elves. On our way there, we met up with a giant worm that, according to my guides, could swallow players whole, forcing them to fight their way out of its belly. Since we were immortal during the tour and armed with developer powers, the worm didn't have the time to eat us alive before we put it back into the ground, but it was a sight to behold as it towered over us.

Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
Sschindlyryn itself felt just as dark and evil as one would expect from a city built underground by elves who like to kill everything that gets in their way (including each other, it should be said). Again the goggles came in handy to spot enemies waiting in ambush for us, but if you want to be (literally) kept in the dark as you go in, I'd recommend dumping them. Menace of the Underdark comes with a dynamic event system that aims to make every run-through of a given dungeon different from the last, so not wearing the magic glasses is a good way to get some extra surprises on the way to the ziggurat.

Once we were inside, Elminister returned to help us out, but to reach the roof and the high priestess, we had to gather a few artifacts for him so he could open a portal. Once that task was finished (which in our case didn't take long due to our magical dev powers), we could finally face off against the priestess and her minions high above the streets of Sschindlyryn. The multi-phased fight ended with our foe begging for her life, something the dark spider goddess Lolth did not appreciate. Powerless to do anything to stop her, we had to watch as the goddess pulled Eliminister's companion Ana, one of the key characters of the expansion, into her lair.

The grand finalé

As is tradition in fantasy games (and literature), being a god doesn't make you safe from armed adventurers. Lolth herself will be the boss of Menace of the Underdark's 12-man raid, during which the players will try to stop her from killing Ana. I only got a small taste of the fight, as Lolth fired laser-like beams from her eyes and tried to swat us with her spider-legs. Immortal or not, I ran around like a madman trying to avoid the hairy legs that suddenly popped out of the ground.

Going for a tour in DDO's Demonweb
Then, all of the sudden, the tour was over and I was popped back into Eveningstar. As both one of my guides and I were playing Druids, the new class introduced in the expansion, we spent some time dancing in our wolf-forms while wrapping things up. Having dance animations while being shapeshifted is important, as any Druid player from World of Warcraft can tell you.

Dungeons and Dragons Online is turned six years old earlier this year. For the most part, you can't tell; the graphical updates and the DirectX 11 support absolutely helps make it look as modern as it possibly can. For me personally, the only things that can feel slightly outdated are the UI, which at times feels clumsy and aesthetically unappealing, and some of the animations -- both problems the game shares with its sibling Lord of the Rings Online.

But with Menace of the Underdark, the game has introduced an important part of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. Currently you need to be at least level 16 to access the Forgotten Realms, but the developers are looking into adding low-level content in the future. I can only support them in that, since it might help attracting people like yours truly who have a hard time adapting to Eberron.

It's silly, I know, and I'm sorry. To make up for it, I've created a brand-new Drow Artificer to give the game a proper go. It's an Eberron Drow, by the way. I'm not Chaotic Evil, I swear!

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.
SWTOR's 1.3 Allies patch goes live [Updated]