The folks at Atari and Obsidian were kind enough to provide us with an early copy of their new NWN2 expansion: Storm of Zehir. So after having had a chance to play for a couple of days and test things out, here are our first impressions. (Warning: There are some mild spoilers in various sections of this review. However, we won't be discussing the particulars of the plot or specific locations after the beginning.
Storm of Zehir is compatible with either NWN2 or NWN2 with Mask of the Betrayer installed. Having SoZ installed will allow you to access all of the additional expansion content including the new base and prestige classes. Storm of Zehir includes the following:
New Overland Map system
New Trading System
New Crafting System
New Death and resting system
2 new races: Grey Orc and Yuan-ti
3 new classes:
Swashbuckler base class
Hellfire Warlock PrC
Doomguide of Kelemvor PrC
12 new monsters
100+ new items
32 unique new spells (40 if you count spells for mutiple classes)
90+ plus new feats including
7 new backgrounds
10 heritage feats
12 teamwork feats
10 new general and divine feats
40 new race, class and PrC feats
33 epithet feats
Don't dismiss the epithet feats. Unlike the OC versions, some of the SOZ epithet feats actually provide real benefits. The benefits might not be huge, but they are free. They aren't just for bragging rights.
The first character you create when starting the game is the ONLY character you have to have to keep. After that you can create up to three additional characters. You can add a fifth character (a cohort) later (plus a sixth if you have the leadership feat) and you have the option to swap out cohorts at any time you are at an inn. You can also swap out any your characters (except the party leader) for cohorts. Starting characters come in at level 4 (adjusted for ECL) and are given basic equipment sans weapons which you have to find for yourself
You can also import characters for your party leader and the other three initial party slots if you so choose. They are not de-levelled or stripped of gear, so use some caution as to who and what you import. Bringing in your MotB characters will destroy the challenge of the game however. And there is also a variety of pre-made characters ready to choose from as well, if character creation isn't your bag.
Pay close attention to the character skills your party has. During our run-through, almost all of the skills have had some value - whether it be thru additional dialogue options, crafting or on the overland map. The craft alchemy skill will come in handy during the opening combat segment as well as on the overland map so don't disregard it. With that in mind, I stuck to the basic DnD party: a paladin, rogue, wizard and cleric and kept them single classed throughout the game. Not the most glamorous party for sure, but I was able to cover almost all of the skills.
The Story begins
Once your party is created and you've explored the ship topsides, go below. A slide show ensues with dialogue from Volo. At the end of the slide show your party, Volo and several survivors from the crew, wash up alongside the wreck of the Vigilant on a beach on the shores of Sammarach. And you're not alone. Three groups of batiari goblins (and they are nasty little buggers too) are nearby - watching and waiting. After a brief dialogue with Volo, he'll run off to talk to the goblins. During the convo with Volo, your skills will prove useful as you can gain a couple of much needed weapons for the ensuing fight. When Volo runs off, start scrounging for stuff immediately. You should be able to find or craft additional weapons and other useful gear.
Volo of course will fail miserably in attempting to prevent an attack. In fact, he probably encites the attack. After dealing with the Batiari, a group of Samarrach guards appear and you're whisked off to Samargol.
After an initial conversation with Sa'Sani, your first real quests will appear in your journal. And they require that you leave Samargol and return to the site of the shipwreck. So it's off to the Overland map. You're going to be spending a lot of time on the overland map. A lot!
The skills you select for your characters are absolutely essential. High skill ranks in Survival, Spot, and Hide and feats like Monk's Speed will make your life a lot easier. Search, Listen, Lore, and Craft Alchemy are also extremely useful. In fact, I've found occassions to use almost every one of the skills.
Monsters will spawn frequently on the overland map. In fact, they seemed to spawn a little too frequently at times at the end of my first extended playthrough, and then spawned a lot less on starting up the next session. You can deal with the roving monsters in a myriad of ways: run from them, hide, parley with them, bribe them and simply gird up your loins and go to a mini-map to fight them. Kill 'em, grab the lot, heal the party as needed and exit the min-map back to the overland map. You can NOT rest on the mini-maps. So exiting to the Overland Map can be an adventure in itself. It's entirely possible to exit from one encounter right on top of another with NO avenue for escape. You can encounter monsters that you are not prepared for or equipped to handle. The difficulty rating for encounters does not scale to match your party's level. So be careful where you go. You're not in Kansas anymore Toto.
Once back on the Overland map, you can attempt to rest, heal and memorize spells but there is a risk of being discovered and attacked. A high survival skill comes in extremely useful here. There is a lot to be discovered, such as various items and other quest locations that you can find on the Overland Map. General directions to some of these locations can be discovered by asking the bartenders at the various taverns for recent rumours.
You will also use the Overland Map to access the Trading System when you attempt to enter a city. Unfortunately, our resources weren't sufficient to test this out fully.
Exploration on the Overland Map is a lot of fun. It does take a little getting used to the monster spawns however. If you are so inclined, you can carve a bloody path across Samarach, or be a little crafty and avoid some of the combat as you choose.
There are a lot of sidequests in the game. A few of them would seem to be your typical Fed-Ex quests, but they have some nice little twists: such as "the singing amulet". Some poor schmoo has lost his amulet and wants you to find it for him. When you enter the cave where it's located, you start hearing a "one note voice" - it's actually the amulet singing and as you get closer the singing gets louder.
I've only encountered two cohorts so far: Inshula the ranger and Umoja the druid (and his trusty dino sidekick Yushii) Both are available very early on, so you can plan your party accordingly. Both cohorts were fully customizable: feats, skills and even PrCs could be selected as you choose or you can use the default (recommended settings). So build away to your hearts content.
The one thing that seems to be lacking is any form of interaction from the cohorts. No snappy dialogue - no witty repartee. Even attempting to initiate a conversation gives you zip. Nothing. The cohorts are as silent as the stone heads at Easter Island. Perhaps it's simply a matter of how far I've gotten in the game. While I wasn't expecting lengthy MotB type dialogues, I did expect at least something equal to if not better than the OC. Having nothing so far is surprising. If party interaction is a major driver for you, you are in for a severe letdown. This is a major disappointment.
AI and Combat
The AI system has been upgraded, thanks to modifications based on TonyK's AI. For starters, the enemies you encounter are going to be smarter and utilize better tactics, making combat more of a challenge. Your spellcasters come fully equipped with bull's eyes on their backs and you can expect the enemy to make a bee-line for them. With large group encounters, you can expect the enemy to throw a wave of melee fighters at you, followed by a second line of ranged fighters, and backed up with one or more spellcasters. And they co-ordinate well.
I still had an occassional issue with the companions not following and getting stuck behind other non-npc characters or objects, but it didn't occur frequently and was never an issue in combat. The "should I attack?" question from companions did keep popping up repeatedly in combat however and that WAS annoying. In fairness, I didn't tweak any of the AI settings and folks familiar with TonyK's AI tell me this is a problem easily solved.
Death and Resting
While the new death system is well implemented and functions exactly as advertised, it's probably going to take some getting used to. You can't simply expect your fallen comrades to arise without some intervention. So you'll need to keep a watchful eye on everyone during combat.
Resting is only possible at Taverns and on the Overland Map. None of the dungeons I encountered would allow any resting whatsoever. Resting at a campsite on the Overland Map is free but comes with risk, while resting at taverns is totally safe but comes at a price.
The crafting system has been overhauled again, and the new system is vastly easier to use and to understand. The recipes fully list how much gold the item will cost, which ingredients you need, which spell is required, what caster level or skill rank you need and which bench to use. And all that information is stored right at your finger tips in a series of recipe books. You won't start with a lot of recipes, if any, but you'll be able to find a lot of them from the merchants. The ones that were available early on were fairly inexpensive as well. Plus you can pick and choose which ones you want. And once you buy a recipe, it automatically gets added to the right recipe book! No fiddling with scribing them. Buy it and it's accessible. How simple could it get?
Using the recipes is also a snap. If you have the right ingredients and meet all of the requirements, simple go to the nearest set of benches, open the right book and click on the right recipe. VOILA! The item is created. It's amazingly simple. There are a set of benches accessible almost at the very beginning of the game, so you can hit the ground running.
There are 350+ recipes in the game, including crafting recipes for weapons and armor, traps, alchemical grenades, weapon and armor enchantments and wondrous items. The lists for weapon and armor enchantments are similiar to the enchantments found in the OC, but in keeping with a magic lite world there are fewer choices available. Don't expect to be able to craft +8 stat boosters or weapons. Stat boosting items are capped at +6, weapons at +3, and armor/shields at +4. You can also add weapon enchantments to thrown, ranged weapons and on ammo for ranged weapons as well. Although I would have liked to have some more enchantment choices for armor and weapons (can I have my vorpal recipe back please?), there is still a nice set of choices available.
You'll also find that the maximum ranks required for the crafting skills are somewhat lower than before which will allow you to spread your skill points across more skills
There are three minor things I don't like about the crafting system: The first is that grenade recipes require NO components whatsoever. You simply pay a gp cost and poof, your grenade is ready. The old recipes weren't bad or too complicated, and dropping the components for them was a questionable choice in my opinion. It destroys some of the flavor from the game. The second is the lack of exotic hides to craft with. No more dragon scales, umber hulk hides, etc. Again I thought they added flavor. And finally, as mentioned above I would have liked to have had more enchantments to choose from. However, those three complaints are really minor issues.
Overall we really like the new system and think it is MUCH improved. Hats off to the developers on this one.
One word of caution: Do not LOSE your recipe books. Without them, NO crafting of any sort is possible.
The music in the game is exceptionally good. I can't recall the last time I didn't fly right past the opening game screen and jump right in, but I actually stopped and listened to the opening soundtrack for a while (until I could't resist the urge to dive right in). The rest of the in-game background music is just as good. It just fits the game perfectly.
So what's the Bottom Line?
Obsidian has simply done an outstanding job with the Overland Map, revamped crafting system, improved AI and the new death and resting systems. Everything fits together seamlessly and runs with virtually no problems. If you are looking for a game that features more open ended exploration, with challenging combat then Storm of Zehir is definitely the game for you.
However, if you are looking for some depth to the interactions with your companions, you might want to think twice. In my opinion, the interactions with the cohorts are sadly lacking and the game suffers for that. Admittedly I wasn't able to finish the game so perhaps things get better later on but my initial impression of the cohort interactions was not favorable.
Some of the changes do require a little getting used to. Once you get over that hurdle, this is definitely a lot fun to play.
kgambit, November 16, 2008
My sincere thanks to Obsidian, Atari and the folks at dkcnews for giving us an opportunity to review the game.