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.


Anonymous said...

Great review Tiberius. I must say I agree with you on several if not all points.

"runs to go play Mass Effects expansion" Bring down the sky! I've not played it yet.

our review will be released on podcast this weekend :)


Jason said...

Great review. Just started it last night so I can't agree or disagree at this point. I do know that after just one fight I really dig my Air Genasi Rogue/Swashbuckler.

I opened up the toolset to check out all the new monsters and I agree it's pretty lame. The Yuan-Ti look great and I like the dinos, but everything else is pretty lackluster.


Starwars said...

I completely disagree on the likes/dislikes, but I also knew that this game would be very different than MotB. They try to achieve very different things and while I really loved MotB, I'm really happy they didn't try to simply live up to its particular qualities and instead take the design in a different direction. This caters to a different crowd and there are many who have disliked both NWN2 and MotB who have voiced their support (I like both "styles" though I found the NWN2 OC to be really mediocre).

I will gladly take SoZ over any RPG I've played (aside from MotB) in a really long time. From where I stand, RPGs haven't really *evolved* that much the past 10 years. What I feel they *have* generally done is restricted the player to a very forceful narrative and often simplified and/or actionified the gameplay. And of course, the allmighty graphics.

Mass Effect was brought up above and that is a perfect example for me of a game that is so eager to tell a story to the player, rather than allowing the player freedom (either in exploration or in really meaningful choices).

But yeah, this expansion will definetely split the community, just like how MotB split the community with its Spirit Eater mechanic. :)

Tiberius209 said...


I don't think telling a story and allowing choice are mutually exclusive. I believe that the BG series is generally considered the gold standard in CRPGs precisely because it does both. If forced to choose between the two styles discussed, I'll go for the strong story every day, but modders, and ESPECIALLY game developers with all their resources, should really strive for both.

In addition, the choice vs. story is not really a valid excuse to have companions who are mute. If the proper effort was not going to be put into the cohort development, then I think a better design choice would have been to simply abandon the notion altogether and allow the player to fill all six party slots themselves.

I'm not ready to abandon the overland map idea yet. I think it might be able to be done well, but it wasn't in SoZ. Ultimately, a game is judged on how fun it is, and while the first pass through the map was fun, traversing it all the subsequent times with only randomly respawning identical encounters to break the monotony was not.

I'll agree that the NWN2 OC was horrific; it remains the only NWN-series product that I just couldn't give a damn enough to finish. Obsidian redeemed themselves with MotB, though the spirit eater mechanic is a slight annoyance. I've never played Mass Effect, as I'm really a D&D homer, and so I can't comment there.

Anonymous said...

I'll probably get a copy eventually.. I'm interested in messing with the overland map.. but, quite frankly.. I don't see hear of anything that really seems new..

The overland map seems just to be scaled different and have a frozen camera .. not the fixes that I was hoping to unleash my Treasure Island mod (

The conversation thing sounds fun.. but it seems to put the player in a situation that reminds me of playing D&D when half the group didn't show up.. so I wound up playing their characters too.. and gone was the fun character interaction..

Of course.. I'm just speculating from what I've read in reviews and the forums..

I really like the idea of these new things.. And I look forward to what the community can put out.. as to buying SoZ.. well.. I have a 6-year-old to spend money on.. so I'll just make do with the NWN2 patch 1.21.. I'm thankful they are still supporting the game!!

Amraphael said...

Thanks for that great review Tiberius! As I'm pretty easy to entertain I'll probably like SoZR. Heck, I even enjoyed the OC ;) Some of the things you mention worries me but not that much that wouldn't play the expansion (when I have the time)

Jclef said...

Thanks for this review, Tiberius!

Joseph Bracken said...

Thanks for the review. I just bought SoZ yesterday, so I suppose I'll lower my expectations !