Love it or hate it, you’ve got to give Storm of Zehir points for effort. Developers Obsidian could easily have banged out a generic adventure for this expansion pack. Instead, they’ve produced a radical overhaul, one that’s not afraid to take a few risks.
They’ve turned the traditional Dungeons & Dragons RPG into a fantasy trading and empire building game. This doesn’t mean that the classic linear single-player narrative campaign is out; simply that it’s now complemented by a more open world, and several major new features for both the main campaign and for future mods that want to build more complex campaigns.
The first new feature is the party system. Neverwinter always let you control multiple characters, but in Zehir you’re forced to create a four person party from the outset, rather than recruiting them later.
In doing this, one thing immediately becomes obvious. Zehir damn well expects you to know your onions when it comes to D&D rules, and Neverwinter’s specific implementation. Creating four characters takes time, especially as you get a boost to roughly Level 3 before the game even starts. You can sidestep the process and have the computer do it for you, but it never does as good a job as you’ll get from manually massaging your stats and feats.
You start the game unarmed and under siege, fighting a small army of monsters, and Zehir is quite prepared to kill your newbie arse right there and then. Nor is death the minor setback it was back in the original game and the first expansion pack, Mask of the Betrayer. Without a Raise Dead spell or suitable magic trinket like a Coin of Life, most of your team can be taken out of action in a single fight. If nobody’s left to limp back to the nearest temple, consider your game well and truly overed. Thank goodness for the auto-save option.
Once you’re going, you’ll discover the new overworld. It kicks in when you leave town, disabling the camera controls and zooming the action back to show the surrounding area. From this view you can see and avoid wandering monsters, making it well worth your while to have a Rogue/Ranger type on the team to let you move faster, avoid pointless fights, and track down bonus goodies scattered around the map.
Getting into a fight with these monsters is tedious and time-consuming, especially since you’ve got to sit through a loading screen and sort out buffs for everyone each time. Unless you really need the XP or have a specific target in mind, you’re better off just bolting for town and focusing on the quest locations instead.
Towns are the final major new feature. Most are little more than a menu that lets you rest at the tavern, heal your group at the Temple, and most importantly, trade. Trade is by far the most important aspect. Very early on, you’re roped (press-ganged would be closer) into joining a trading company, and much of the game is built around creating your own little empire, first by ferrying a few goods from A to B, and later by organising a more automated system by spreading the wealth and creating networks. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s hardly high strategy, and definitely not high adventure.
In fact, that’s the basic flaw of the whole package – in struggling to serve as both a regular story and a more open-world adventure than previous Neverwinter games, it winds up feeling too flabby for the former and too claustrophobic to let you really ride off in search of your own story. It’s not a bad campaign by any means, simply an odd choice for a major expansion. On the plus side, it’s a decent chunk of game, and it’s refreshing to see Obsidian trying out some new ideas. Many of these are likely to dripfeed into future downloadable modules, making Zehir a must-purchase if you want to keep up to date.
Look at the campaign as a demo for these features, even if their exact implementation doesn’t ring your bells, and you can’t go far wrong. For those purely interested in Zehir as a dedicated campaign, however, decide if you want to play Elite or smash some elite monsters, and you’ll know if it’s worth heading back out on the trail.
Dec 22, 2008