Friday, November 21, 2008

Storm of Zehir Review

Well, I just finished Storm of Zehir. As some may remember, I was quite complimentary of Obsidian in my review of Mask of the Betrayer. I will not be so complimentary this time. Needless to say, SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read on at your own risk.

My Party
I created four characters with the ending levels given:

  1. Male Human: Swashbuckler 9 / Duelist 10

  2. Male Human: Wizard 19 (Enchanter)

  3. Female Moon Elf: Bard 10 / Rogue 9

  4. Female Human: Druid 15 / Fighter 4

So it's obvious that I prefer not to have a "party of freaks" as I have called it before, just the straight-up old-school D&D races. Another thing I concentrated on was playing classes I don't normally play. Therefore, I chose the new swashbuckler as my tank, a druid to fill the divine healer role, and a dual-class rogue/bard as my stealth warrior. I orginally intended to really give bard a good try and only use 3 rogue levels to give a little extra oomf to flanking attacks until I was reminded of the experience penalty for uneven class distribution. That character was about 2000 XP behind the others for the nearly the entire play-through. I learned the following:

  1. Swashbucklers can be mean tanks. I gave him a keen rapier with massive criticals and maxed all the feats to up the critical range and he sliced and diced his way through the hordes. This class will definitely fill a roll in parties I create in the future.

  2. Bards kick a lot of ass too, not necessarily as solo characters, but definitely as amplifiers to allies in their party. I always knew that, but I never really "knew" that. I'm still not enthralled by their spell selection - however, I know I was also using a dual-class bard - but their inspirations and songs are amazing. Bards are in for me in all party-based games in the future.

  3. Druids still don't do it for me. The animal companion isn't overly powerful, but it serves well-enough as a meat-shield. However, the lack of restoration and resurrection spells really lower their effectiveness as primary healers. Back to priests for me.

So now let's get to this expansion in particular

In SoZ, Obsidian went the exact opposite route from MotB. Whereas the first expansion was essentially an interactive novel with a well thought-out and involved story, this one had only the barest bones of one and instead concentrated on a much more open gameplay. What story there was centered on a vague plot by followers of the new D&D version 4 deity of the yuan-ti, Zehir, to supplant Sseth, take control of yuan-ti society, and eventually control the world.

The vehicle used to get the player investigating this is an enforced relationship with a trading emporium headed by a mysterious woman named Sa'Sani. Having crashed in Chult, the party can only get permission to roam around by becoming employees of an established merchant; enter Sa'Sani. After the player uncovers hints of a yuan-ti plot in Chult, Sa'Sani is discredited, and the group is forced to move to the Sword Coast where a couple of Sa'Sani's associates have gone missing. Eventually, the player locates the associates, who are revealed to be agents of Zehir. When the player returns to their merchant headquarters, they find that Sa'Sani has murdered one of her henchmen and fled back to Chult. When the party catches up to her, she reveals the location of Zehir's followers temple where the players confront and kill one of Zehir's chosen. And that's literally the entirety of the main story of the 30 hour expansion.

The lack of an engrossing main story could have been mitigated with a bevy of interesting sidequests. However, SoZ completely strikes out in this regard. I can't remember a single sidequest that didn't fall into one of the tried-and-true stereotypes: (1) fetch-quests - i.e. go get a singing amulet, gather rare resources for the sensate, find exotic locations for Volo, (2) go and conquer quests - i.e. clear firenewts from the mine, kill the Luskans in Port Llast, or (3) kill the evil bad guy - i.e. the priestess of Umberlee. Add a healthy dose of one-off random encounters, and you're left with a game that feels old-school because... well, it is. Other than the graphics engine, this game could have been made 10 years ago. In fact, it was. I think it was called Baldur's Gate I, only that game was revolutionary for its time, and this one most definitely is not.

Having decided to do a "story-lite" expansion and pushing the idea of party created by the player, Obsidian obviously decided to devote zero time to their cohorts. Apparently, they are almost mute. To be fair, I don't say this from personal experience, but rather from comments I've heard elsewhere. None of the cohorts I came across screamed "take me with you" and it really seemed contrary to the idea of a user-created party game.

Overland Map
The overland map made a big initial impact, but it got tiring fast. One of the big no-nos that any modder learns from his first released mod is to never, ever make large areas that have to be repeatedly traversed during the course of the game. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the overland map is. Once you wander around it once and clear out all the mines, barrows, towers, etc., you're left with what seems like an interminable delay getting from one place to the next. Put that on the Vault, and you get major points deducted for poor design.

Obsidian tried to mitigate this obvious shortcoming by upping the number of random monsters to what I think is an absurd degree. (As an aside, I don't know how everyone on the Sword Coast isn't murdered by all the bands of high-level orc bands wondering around.) Unfortunately, there's only one battle map for any kind of terrain, and there aren't nearly enough different types of monsters to make replaying the same half dozen encounters on the same half dozen maps interesting. It wasn't long until I found myself fleeing from encounters not because I was scared of death, but because I was scared of being bored to death.

Some I have talked to have said the overland map reminds them of the wide-open exploration feeling they had during Baldur's Gate I. I agree to an extent, but there's one important difference. Because Baldur's Gate was still a "point and click" overland map that instantly transported you to the end location, once you cleared a map, you could skip it forever after. In Storm of Zehir, you'e stuck traversing the same terrain repeatedly, always being harried by the same orc tribe that will attack on the same battle map.

Party-Based Conversation
This is one of the few unambiguous improvements. If you're going to role-play a party, it only makes sense that all of them should be able to influence a conversation.

Area Design
Some of the area design was very nice, certainly better than anything I can do, but this comes from Obidian's designers' ability to envision the use of placeables in ways I apparently can't. Almost all of the maps are interiors, as the overland map feature removes the necessity of having normal exterior locations as we've become used to. This is unfortunate, as because exteriors are not tileset-based, they present the freedom to make jaw-dropping areas in ways that interiors are unable to match.

The music was generally decent. The main title is the type of grand sweeping theme reminiscent of old fifties epic films, and it has grown on me over my play-through. The rest of it really doesn't stand out.

I was under the impression that there would be several new creatures, but all I can remember is the yuan-ti abomination and the raptor. Maybe the re-tinting of existing models to make the yuan-ti purebloods and grey orcs are supposed to count. Anyway, I thought the models were pretty standard fare, though I do think the death animation of the abomination is a bit odd.

Of course, I have to also mention the same old epic non-epic monster again. Numberless warbands of 10th level orcs, gnolls, etc. There are encounters suitable for 10th level parties without making 1st level monsters into 10th level behemoths. Oh, well. I give up hoping for anything better in these adventures.

SoZ wasn't really my bag. Although there were a few good points to it, it wasn't nearly able to live up to the standard set by MotB. This game was sort of like what I envision crack cocaine to be like (having never tried it myself). My typical day would be to go to work and slowly have the desire to play build up. Finally, at the end of the work day, I was shaking in anticipation, and I rushed home to get my "fix." Unfortunately, after a couple hours of playing, I crashed when I realized how lacking the game was, so I quit and did other things. The next day, I went to work, and the process started again. Therefore, it did have something to it that drew me back, but it didn't have enough to keep me playing for long stretches.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Bunch of Quick Hits

Bunch of things happening, but not many details I can talk about...

Election News
As I said on my very first blog post, I do not speak politics here. This is not because I don't have definite views; it is mostly because I just want to enjoy my hobbies without the real world encroaching, so... Without getting into specifics, I'll just say that one of my long-time friends was elected to the Florida House of Representatives last week. It was a ton of fun and a little illuminating working on his campaign, minor though my role was. It will now be interesting to watch his progress. I know Tallahassee isn't Washington, but politics is still politics. My friend is what I'd call an ideologue, albeit one I agree with, so if this guy is corrupted by the experience, then there are no incorruptible politicians.

Halloween Mod
I haven't kept up with how mods are normally received by the NWN2 community, seeing as how I haven't actually released anything yet. Bouncy Rock's Halloween mod got around 800 downloads within the first week. That's huge by NWN1 standards, but it seemed small by NWN2 standards... but then I guess the game is about two years old now. I really have no idea if I should be disappointed by the reception.

As for the individual efforts, I thought there was a lot of good stuff there... too much, in fact, for me to remember everything. One mod stands out, though... and that's the one by regular reader and comment contributor liso... warped is all I can say. And, of course, I would be remiss in not singling out the homage to one my all-time favorite show, Dr. Who. Now that was cool!

Maimed God
I managed to work my way through all but the details of the most complex series of cutscenes in Act III. It's a group of four scenes that take place back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I know that may sound... uh, fantastic in terms of roleplay value, but it's not as bad as it sounds (or bad at all, really). The PC has plenty of opportunity to speak for themselves, and they make one big campaign decision during this time. The complexity comes from a boatload of characters coming in and out, getting all their animations and timing correct, and playing with the static camera angles so that the correct information is conveyed. Doing that for a twenty minute stretch of play is quite the effort.

Anyway, I was making good progress until something stopped me. What was it...?

Storm of Zehir
HAHA! I got my pre-release version and am quite a bit through the campaign now. It basically soaked away my weekend, much to the non-delight of my wife, who actually thought I might do some work. However, I can't say anything... NDAs and all that. I'll post a full review once it's released and I don't have to worry about stepping on people's toes or revealing what I shouldn't. The main point of this paragraph is just to make you all jealous. So there.

I will say that some of the area design in SoZ is so awesome. I know I say that a lot about a number of different groups, but I am just constantly amazed by the creativity of other people. I see how they set things up, and I understand how they do it by resizing and reorienting different placeables, but it would never occur to me to do any of that without seeing it first.