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In Storm of Zehir, you create four characters. These characters form the bulk of your party, and you can switch between them at any time. So if you're trying to negotiate with a quest-giver, you might put your paladin in charge. If you're traveling in the wilderness, you might select your rogue or your ranger. If you're examining arcane symbols, you might bring your wizard front and center. You'll also meet some potential companions during your travels. The first companion will join you without restrictions (although you might need to complete a quest or pay a fee first), but for the second companion somebody in your party will have to learn a special Leadership feat.
As the campaign opens up, you find yourself on a ship in a storm. The ship ends up wrecking, and you land on the unwelcome shores of Samarach. In fact, you're so unwelcome that you're first attacked and then arrested, and you only get to walk around freely when a merchant champions your cause. You then decide to repay the merchant by doing some field work for her, and this gives you an excuse to explore Samarach and later the Sword Coast, as you first discover that somebody is trying to sabotage the merchant, and later that more evil things are afoot.
The main questline is rather short and straightforward, but that's because Storm of Zehir has one of those open-ended campaigns where the emphasis is on side quests and random encounters. There are somewhere around 50 locations that you can visit, including ruined temples, haunted crypts, and friendly towns, and there are also two huge (overland) maps for you to explore.
The overland maps look like regular Neverwinter Nights 2 maps, except that instead of clicking on a location and instantly traveling there, you have to walk around. That gives the game a new dynamic, plus a reason to keep certain skills high. For example, if your hide and move silently skills are high enough, then the enemies roaming the map won't detect you, and you'll be able to move freely. If your spot skill is high enough, then you'll detect where enemies are, and you'll also find some random goodies, like abandoned wagons and lost cargo. There are actually lots of skill checks involved in the overland map (including everything from detect traps to craft alchemy), and so the more skilled you can make your party, the better.
The downside to overland maps is that they usually force you into combat when you just want to get somewhere (anybody who played Arcanum knows how frustrating this can be). But in Storm of Zehir, assuming that you have a competent rogue or ranger in your party, you can pretty much pick when you want to fight, and so you don't have to worry about every trip getting bogged down with a string of battles. I also thought it was fun to explore the countryside and find hidden locations and random objects, and Obsidian even threw in a few special encounters, such as meeting One of Many from the Mask of the Betrayer campaign.
Also new in Storm of Zehir is a trading system. Unfortunately, unlike the overland map, this new feature didn't turn out very well. The way the system works is that each town you visit has a certain amount of goods available, and they set a price for each good. So your goal is to wander around and find goods at a cheap price and then sell them at an expensive price. That's Economics 101 stuff, and that's as complicated as the system gets.
I guess a system like that by itself wouldn't really add or detract from the game; where it gets silly is that when you go to the Sword Coast, you get to set up trading posts and trade caravans, and the caravans automatically generate income for you. That's friendly, but the caravans produce so much income that they ruin the economy. For example, in the first half of the game I'd make a few (trade bars) (the trading currency) here and there, and I'd accumulated maybe 500 bars by the time I made it to the Sword Coast. But the very first time I set up a caravan and then checked for my income from it, I received about 8000 trade bars! By the end of the game I was getting something like 40,000 trade bars when I checked in, and so all of the manual trading I did was just a drop in the ocean. Worse, you can turn in trade bars for gold, and so I was able to become a millionaire in the game, and buy anything I wanted, without having to do any work.
There are some other new improvements included in Storm of Zehir: two new races (grey orc and yuan-ti pureblood), three new prestige classes (doomguide, hellfire warlock, and swashbuckler), over 20 new feats (including (daylight adaptation) for underground races like the gray orc), and several (teamwork benefits.) I've long since gotten past the point where Neverwinter Nights 2 has enough races and classes for me, and so I found the teamwork benefits to be the most interesting.
Teamwork benefits include things like (camp routine,) where you're less likely to get interrupted when resting, and (fearsome roster,) where lower level enemies will leave your party alone when you're on the overland map. The downside to these benefits is that the requirements are sometimes silly. For example, for (circle of blades,) which gives your party a small flanking bonus, every PC in your party is required to have the weapon finesse perk or a sneak attack bonus. Well, who's going to waste perks on their party just to get a tiny bonus? Not many people is my guess. I only ended up learning three of the 12 bonuses when I played the campaign.
For the most part, the quests in the game are a little perfunctory. Somebody might ask you to kill some shadows in a crypt, and that's all there is to it. There isn't any impact on the storyline, and there aren't any decisions to make. And even when there are decisions, they don't have much of an effect. For example, early in the game you're given the choice of talking to a batiri chieftain or killing him, and either way you never see him again, and so there aren't any consequences to your actions. Also, the companions don't seem to add a lot. I never had a conversation with the companion I chose after I added him to my party. He just inserted a line of dialogue here and there.
It's almost as if Obsidian decided to make Storm of Zehir into a combat campaign, with little regard for story or character development. The problem is, the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine isn't especially good at that sort of thing. It was designed with scripted conversations and cut scenes in mind. In particular, the Neverwinter Nights 2 engine is rather slow and cumbersome, with long loading screen waits every time you change maps or save your game. These loading screens weren't really a problem in the OC or Mask of the Betrayer, because the maps in those campaigns were large and you'd stay on them for a while. But Storm of Zehir is all about quick hits. Each random encounter on the overland map generates a new map and a loading screen, and almost all of the locations are places that take ten minutes or less to complete. That means the ratio of playing the game to staring at loading screens is way too low. It took me somewhere around 20-30 hours to complete the campaign, but it felt like half of that time was spent twiddling my thumbs.
Worse, even if it had worked perfectly, I probably wouldn't have liked Storm of Zehir much, just because it was so dull. But it didn't even come close to working perfectly, and some of its bugs are just dumb. For example, you can find rare resources while trading with towns, and besides selling them, you can also use them to upgrade Crossroad Keep (yes, you have to upgrade Crossroad Keep again; let's hear it for originality). The problem is, if you actually send the resources to Crossroad Keep, they disappear! There's also an NPC who asks for nine rare resources when there are only eight in the game, and a quest update that suddenly announces who a murderer is before the murder takes place! Or how about this? When you exit to the overland map, you get to select who is going to lead your party, but then when you get there, half the time the game switches to someone else, and if that character isn't stealthy, then every enemy in the region starts making a beeline for you. Yay and double yay.
The best way I can sum up Storm of Zehir is that it feels like one of the Neverwinter Nights premium modules -- and not one of the good ones, either. It's boring, it's sloppy, it's frequently annoying (I'm thinking of the resting restrictions here), and, aside from about three battles, the combat is trivially easy. Even the voice acting is lackluster. The campaign didn't feel anything like Obsidian Entertainment to me, and after wasting a lot of time with it, I'm suddenly much more pessimistic about what we're going to see when Alpha Protocol comes out later this year.