Last week, Dungeons and Dragons Online released Update 6, which introduces the Red Fens Adventure Pack, a series of quests which lets players engage in underwater combat for the first time. There's something special about the “underwater level,” some illicit substance in its DNA that compels developers to design it and players to demand it. When the DDO development team tackles its mystic properties, there's a real sense it's going to be an interesting experience, especially given the team's constant experimenting with physics. Three members of the team – Senior Content Producer Charles Miles, Design Director Ian Currie, and Producer Eric Boyer – took me on a tour of the swampy region and its underwater dangers.
The set-up for heading to the Red Fens is rather simple: House Kundarak trades in salt pearls, a special export of a Drow village in the Red Fens. In House Kundarak's enclave, we first discover and speak with Ormar, who explains that Sahuagin have destroyed this village and are causing trouble, and adventurers are needed to help out. On agreeing to help, Ormar sends us off into the Red Fens themselves, a private outdoor instance that plays host to a refugee camp. This refugee camp actually acts and feels like a public area, much like Three Barrel Cove, and offers a rest shrine, quests, and vendors for players to make use of.
The Red Fens itself is a somewhat muggy area, very earth-toned and undisturbed, by the most part, of the races that live there. Tall, rounded rocks surround the area and provide natural outcroppings, while high grasses obstruct the view around you at some points, providing ample cover for predators. A hazy green sky, complete with a rainbow lingering in the distance, looks over us as we explore. There are several new creatures out in this swamp, including the copper-colored mudmen, jaguar-like fen cats, eerie blue will-o-wisps, the entangled vine stalkers, mire rats, slimes, and rare encounters including a lone hill giant. Even the sahuagin here have a new look, with brighter colored scales. Also found in the swamps is a special shrine, which players can hunt down the crests for in order to unlock its darker secrets.
From the refugee camp, we learn very little about the sahuagin attack, other than they appear interested in a ziggurat. We move to ascend this mammoth structure, which has several ways up guarded by the Sahuagin. At the top, we find the quest entrance for the first of the adventure pack's quests, Fathom the Depths, allowing us to descend into the structure itself and discover a strange thing: the sahuagin have learned to create magical barriers to hold water in, much like an aquarium. We find out from Foxpaw, a Raveneye Shaman found inside, that the sahuagin are taking drow as slaves, and our job is, of course, to free them. We're also on the look-out for an artifact that the sahuagin are after, and need to restore the temple by removing those magical water barriers, flooding the temple in the process. As we finish up, we even have the chance to encounter a classic Dungeons and Dragons monster – the gelatinous cube.
We move ahead, taking time to visit the burning drow village in the Red Fens, which shows a blend of architectural styles and reveals its tribal roots. As we move ahead, the team explains to me that the artifact from the pyramid has been taken to the sahuagin underwater base, but hope isn't lost – a rebel faction of sahuagin are unhappy with the priestess who is worshiping the demon locked within it as a god. Since this is heretical among the seadevils, the rebels are willing to help us in our quest to put an end to the trouble.
To that end, the sahuagin have developed a magical barrier which, when passed through, creates a bubble around each adventurer. This bubble allows players to breath endlessly underwater, as well as move and fight. Here, some spells will work better than others, based on the idea of the watery element players are operating in. Once we pass into the watery areas of this final quest, the effect of the bubble is very immediate. Moving forward at first under the immense water pressure is very sluggish, but the more you move forward, the more your momentum helps propel you forward at a more normal rate.
The watery world in which the sahuagin live is both beautiful and eerie. One of the first things we're greeted by are strange water elementals that seem to take the form of maidens, shaping the water around them as they attack. Bubbles and colorful swarms of fish surround us as we explore, and a great structure with a deep pit offers an enticing bright green glow from its mouth. Sahuagin will still attack us here, swimming from higher up in the depths and fighting us, before floating up like dead goldfish toward the surface after they have been defeated. Sea Paws, a special plant, are scattered around and may be collected to return for rewards like health potions.
The entire quest, I'm told, would take a good hour to hour and a half to complete with a full party, designed intentionally as a long quest. Once we finally wind our way to the High Priestess' lair, we face off against her cronies, and their scrag troll slaves, as she summons the strength of the demon found in the artifact. Once she's defeated, we can also take the option of fighting the demon itself, a special optional boss found in a pocket dimension for a well-prepared party with generous rewards.
Although my time with the team didn't allow for us to see all of the quests, what I did get to see was a good addition to the mid-level questing for DDO Unlimited. For all the hype about fighting underwater, that particular element felt relatively minor in the scope of the entire Red Fens adventure pack, perhaps in an effort to reduce player annoyance. Still, while I feel that the “underwater level” is perhaps a little too cliché, especially for an MMO, the physics and storyline behind the adventure pack make it more than simply “Go kill sahuagin again, but this time underwater.” For experience, rewards, and the chance at new adventures, it's definitely worth the visit to the Red Fens.