Recognising your rise to prominence in the world of Eora, the Mayor of Stalwart, a small town in the foothills of the White March mountain range, reaches out to you for help. His town is dying, but with your aid, he hopes to restore the White Forge and claim the high quality metals and industry of the abandoned dwarven kingdoms for their own.
Arriving at the end of this month, The White March – Part 1 naturally features tweaks and additions to the gameplay, with a higher level cap, new abilities and so on, but the real meat comes in the form of over a dozen new maps to explore, a pair of new characters and this new tale that exists alongside the story of the main game. It’s not locked away behind needing to complete that central story.
“Most players don’t finish the main game,” Josh Sawyer, Pillars of Eternity’s Project Lead explained. “So if people only got half way through or they stalled or they wanted to do a new play through and it’s only super-late game, we’re basically telling people that if you want to play the expansion, you have to have completed the game.”
What stands out is that there will now be hooks back and forth between the content. There’s naturally new dialogue for the existing characters as you explore the White March mountain range, but the two new characters, the bronze-bodied Devil of Caroc and Zahua, a creepy old monk who is more than happy to fall asleep in a barrel of fish… In fact, that’s how you meet.
The Devil of Caroc actually seems to get a pretty good deal out of her previous misdeeds. She was once upon a time a human and a murderer, but for her crimes found herself trapped in a metal body of bronze. She’s effectively a walking suit of armour now, immune to poison and disease, but is no longer reliant on food or drink items – magical potions do affect her though. I can think of worse ways of being punished.
It’s partially through these two characters that the adventure isn’t one that can standalone, as Josh explained, “We wanted to have narrative ties between your companions going into the expansion and commenting on it, and coming out to the main game and commenting on it, we wanted to make them mesh together well, so it feels like it makes the whole game bigger and richer. We always wanted it to feel like an extension of the main game.”
Yet the White March area will have its own visual style, moving on from the greenery that was inspired by Baldur’s Gate to take on the snowy, wintery climes of Icewind Dale. Not everything will be confined to a sub-world map for the White March Mountains, with Crägholdt Bluffs added to the main map of Dyrwood. It’s intended to be an ultra-challenging location for players coming to the expansion at high levels.
Josh said, “We know a lot of players will be coming to the expansion at very high level, and while they can choose to scale the content up, some players might just want very high challenge content areas, just as they are. So for that reason, we added a couple of new regions that are specifically targeted for high level parties.”
Crägholdt Bluffs sees you trying to break through the mercenary force that is laying siege to the keep, which is a potential threat to your own stronghold at Caed Nua. Helping you to do so are some new gameplay elements that are releasing alongside the expansion.
With The White March, Obsidian are wholeheartedly adopting Paradox’s form of post-release game support. This isn’t just a DLC expansion which adds new content for paying customers, but many of the ideas and gameplay changes are to be rolled back for those who just want to play the main game. In fact, you can already try them out, if you’re feeling adventurous enough to install the 2.0 beta patch.
So there’s individual character stealth or the ability to re-spec a character, but perhaps the biggest change is the addition of Player Party AI. This was something that was requested by many that bought or backed the game, with high level battles in particular coming to require greater and greater degrees of micromanagement of you party members. Now this can be offloaded onto AI scripts which will automatically pursue a particular course of action, with different scripts for each class. You can direct your Monk to disrupt isolated spellcasters, for example, or set all your party to be really aggressive and charge headlong for the enemy.
However, they’re trying to tackle this with the same degree of finesse and flexibility which marked many of the features within the main game. It’s really just another possible way to play the game and has a granularity to it that lets you set only certain party members to be AI controlled, rather than letting it take over the entire party, and you can quite easily dive in and issue a few commands for a character which will then overrule whatever the AI has planned.
Josh revealed that “As a sort of side effect that we built upon, when we were working on the party AI system, we found it was also improving enemy AI a great deal as well. […] A lot of the enemies use behaviours they would never have used in the base game, and while those changes are most evident in the high level areas, it’s also evident in the base game as well.”
The game can be played much faster, as a consequence of these changes, without having to manage each and every character, but the new AI system also applies to enemies, who will make better use of their abilities when fighting you and should present a better challenge.
All in all, The White March’s first part looks to broaden the scope of Pillars of Eternity even further. A new environment to explore and battle through will naturally be appealing to existing players, as will the potential challenge that awaits in Crägholdt Bluffs, but this is an expansion that wants to go beyond merely adding content, to continue to refine and improve upon the game with new gameplay features. Just don’t be surprised if it leaves you on a cliffhanger.