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Page 1 of 2From reading the forums here, I know that there are some people out there who hate Obsidian Entertainment with a passion, and who for some reason think that Knights of the Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2 are an affront to western civilization. I'm not one of those people. I'd much rather champion a developer who tries new and interesting things but sometimes fails, rather than simply going along with a developer who clones ideas and succeeds. But something just seems to be wrong with Obsidian. They usually come up with good ideas, but can they actually develop games? Can they finish a project on time and without a plethora of bugs? Recent evidence suggests that the answer to these questions is (no,) and Storm of Zehir, their latest expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights 2, is at best a black eye for them.
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.