Dawn of the Hunter Rangers Touring Neverwinter's Shadowmantle module
Considering all of the exciting reveals of Neverwinter's second module, Shadowmantle, I think it's prudent to start with the unknowns. No, we don't have a specific date of release (although it will be "by the end of the year"). No, we don't know whether Druids or Warlocks or any other Dungeons and Dragons classes are in development for next year. And no, we can't tell whether there's a massive honey badger conspiracy in the city of Neverwinter.

With that said, there's plenty that Lead Designer Andy Velasquez had to reveal to us for this upcoming module. For starters, it's 100% free, just in case you were wondering. Sure, Cryptic will continue to run a robust store (and doesn't seem to have any inclination to rein in the lockbox invasion), but all of the content of Shadowmantle will be available to the entire playerbase on day one.

It's shaping up to be an even meatier update than Fury of the Faewild, believe it or not. The big star of Shadowmantle is the first new post-launch class: the Hunter Ranger. But this flexible fighter won't be hogging the entire spotlight; Neverwinter will also be adding a new zone, additional paragon paths, and a spiffy artifact skill system. So read on and prepare for the stampede of players rushing to be the next online Legolas-slash-Drizzt.

Dawn of the Hunter Rangers Touring Neverwinter's Shadowmantle module
Meet the Hunter Ranger

If you are the type of player who always wants the best of both worlds, then the Hunter Ranger is for you. Neverwinter's finally introducing a ranged fighter in the game, although the twist is that the Ranger has the option to toggle between melee (twin blades) and archery modes. Melee is better for group engagements with its AoE abilities, although it's hard to argue with the power to slaughter your foes from 40 feet away. As you switch between modes, your skills will change; each skill has both a melee and ranged version. Finally, it's worth toggling modes for the lack of shared cooldowns alone.

As with all of Neverwinter's classes to date, the name of the class is an important distinction between types of Rangers. This isn't just an Archer Ranger but a character that has a lot more flexibility and mobility. In fact, you'll be doing a lot of dashing, jumping, and scooting in your fights. The Hunter Ranger gets a shorter-distance dash for its evade skill, although he will be able to activate it as many as five times in a row.

The Hunter Ranger isn't just about DPS, either, although that is his primary specialty. The class can bring a few other group-friendly benefits to the table, including crowd control and buffing.

Another flexible option for the class is the ability to fire off daily skills before the meter is fully charged. While this will result in an underpowered effect, some players may consider the trade-off worthwhile in certain situations.

I asked why the Hunter Ranger wasn't part of Neverwinter's starting lineup, especially considering that its absence left the game without a fantasy class staple. Velasquez said that it came down to an issue of quality; the team knew it could put five polished classes out of the door in time for launch, and the Hunter Ranger wasn't as far along in development. However, he knew the Ranger had to be the next class to come out considering what he described as "an overwhelming outcry" for the class.

Entering the Dread Ring

So take one long-dead super-dragon and mix in a sorceress who's trying to raise it to become the biggest dracolich the world has ever seen. That's not good, right? That's kind of like the fantasy equivalent of unleashing the Death Star. At least there's a chance for you and other players like you to stop it by entering the dragon's graveyard and putting a stop to this resurrection nonsense.

That's the core concept of Neverwinter's Dread Ring, the new level-capped zone that will be added in module 2. The zone is surrounded and divided by the enormous skeleton of Lorragauth, some black dragon whose name probably makes D&D lore fanatics dizzy with excitement. It's here that many familiar NPC faces, such as Celeste and Sgt. Knox, will show up to urge players to disrupt the resurrection efforts and bring the fight to Valindra Shadowmantle in a new high-level dungeon.

Even if you're level-capped, there are plenty of rewards to be gained from conquering the Dread Ring. Cryptic promises some of the best gear in the game, new mounts, new companions, and other goodies such as artifacts. Speaking of which...

Dawn of the Hunter Rangers Touring Neverwinter's Shadowmantle module
Artifacts are a fact, Jack

Even if you don't choose to try out the Hunter Ranger, there are many new class goodies in store for you with Shadowmantle. The first is the artifact system, special items that give you active and passive skills when you find and equip them. Around a dozen will be in the game at release, and an introductory quest will help guide you to your first artifact.

The one artifact I saw was the Lantern of Revelation. It gave a wide variety of effects, including a critical strike bonus, an armor penetration bonus, an AoE attack, a stealth reveal, and an incoming damage debuff.

A player can choose to equip up to three artifacts at a time, with one providing an active and passive power and the other two only providing passive bonuses. Artifacts can be leveled up and upgraded in quality as you "feed" them enchantments, runestores, and white treasure items. Cryptic wants you to think of artifacts a bit like companions, what with the leveling and collecting of them all. You'll acquire them from questing, boss drops, and special store promotions.

The user interface for artifact leveling is so intuitive, Velasquez said, that the team decided to extend its use for enchantments and runestones as well. Another small quality of life improvement along those lines is the ability to slot several companions to use all of their passives instead of just the one active.

The other big news coming to all classes is word of a second paragon path for everyone. Great Weapon Fighters and Guardian Fighters will gain access to each other's paragon path, Trickster Rogues will get a path full of ranged attacks and gap-closing options, Control Wizards will get a fire-centric line, and Devoted Clerics will get a party-supporting buffing path. Hunter Rangers have two paths in the works, although it's not certain whether both of them will be available when the module releases.

Because of the new paragon paths, Cryptic will be giving everyone in the game one free respec token. After that, however, you're going to have to pony up some money to change your spec.

With its free price tag, new class, and host of additional features, I have to say that Shadowmantle looks to be a content update that will make many players very happy -- and perhaps drag in a few new ones as well.

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This article was originally published on Massively.