Inoffensive but, Ultimatly, Non-Essential Campagining
Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir is as bizarre an expansion pack as has ever been made. The second content major content add-on for Obsidian’s wonderful Neverwinter Nights 2 features a number of changes that, on paper, sound dramatic and meaningful, a callback to older Dungeons and Dragons games like Baldur’s Gate. Unfortunately, the various changes to the structure keep the gameplay feeling (at best) identical or (at worst) a little more annoying than past releases. Worst of all, the time and effort spent developing this new gameplay system means that the best aspect of previous NWN games – the story and characters – don’t receive the meaningful attention that made the previous Neverwinter Nights games so rich and interesting. Storm of Zehir isn’t an offensive release, and it still represents the most cohesive and compelling representation of Dungeons and Dragons on the PC. However, between the lack of rich characters and compelling narrative coupled with design changes that seem to be directed towards new players, Storm of Zehir will probably befuddle all but the most stalwart NWN fans
Right from the get go, Storm of Zehir’s attempt to appeal to new players is clear: the campaign has very little connection to the previous campaigns. You aren’t continuing the story of NWN2 and Mask of the Betrayer, but instead starting a whole new quest in the land of Samorach. You and your adventurers are crossing the sea by ship when the wreck is sabotaged by a mysterious foe. You crashland on the coast and are immediately taken into the service of a wealthy merchant who places you under her protection, giving you and your party of adventurers the opportunity to explore the jungles of Samorach and the Sword Coast. The story, however, never goes anywhere interesting, and doesn’t even come close to reaching the glorious, sophisticated highs of the Mask of the Betrayer campaign.
It’s one thing if the story is bad because it just isn’t very interesting to begin with, or if it’s poorly written, but Storm of Zehir’s story and writing actually suffer because of new gameplay mechanics introduced. SOZ implements a new “party conversation system” allowing for any member of your party to respond and interact with different individuals in the game(as opposed to previous games, where only the player’s main character could steer conversations. This system encourages you to form a pretty varied party, since different characters will have (optimally) allocated their skill points differently. In practice, that means that, at any time, your party will be able to intimidate and barter and perceive and spot all at the same time. It’s a neat system, but it comes at the expense of the game’s wonderful characters. Every character in the game is, now, a stock template, with it’s available phraseology completely dependent on stats, rather than the characters motivation. If you have two evil, intimidating characters in your party, they’ll have identical dialog options for being evil and intimidating. It makes all the characters seem like robots. Beyond the lack of unique dialog, Obsidian has further removed the very features that allowed players to resonate with their characters in previous games: the voice acting and the cutscenes. It seems like the game has consciously decided to remove the confections that players have with the individual characters in favor of a focus on the “grand adventure”, but after two hours with my party of identical, soulless cohorts, I felt like I wanted to go back and play more of Mask of the Betrayer than continuing further in SOZ.
The major gameplay changes don’t stop with the party conversation system, as, upon setting foot outside of the first town, players will be introduced to Storm of Zehir’s biggest content overhaul from previous games: the Overworld map. Previous NWN2 campaigns features an overworld section where the player could choose an automatically travel to the next location in their quests. Storm of Zehir seeks to make traveling through the map to more areas a greater gameplay experience; players will find random enemies, as well as hidden temples and goods which you can trade with other towns. Your interactions with various friendly, neutral, and enemy units on the world map are affected by the allocation of stats and class selection; more nimble classes like Rangers and Rogues can move faster through forested areas and sneak around enemy units, while more intimidating classes like Warriors may be able to scare an enemy before a fight, lowering their stats before combat begins. These changes are kind of neat, and it can be fun experimenting with the way different classes interact with the terrain and other units. However, the more I played around on the overworld map, the more I realized that this new movement system was virtually identical to the ways movement was handled in the past games. Finding treasures, getting into fights with enemies, locating dungeons….you may have access to a larger, more open world, but that larger world doesn’t make the discovery of new items and treasures better. In fact, the randomly generated enemy battles will bring the player face to face with the biggest technical problem in the NWN2 games: the long load times. Battling enemies takes even more time than the pre-generated, linear battles from the previous games. At best, the overworld map provides a slightly different but basically identical exploration experience, and, at worst, it brings the games technical problems into stock relief.
At the end of the day, I was left feeling confused and (to be frank) a little bit bewildered by Storm of Zehir. As a longtime fan of the Neverwinter Nights 2 games (and especially Mask of the Betrayer), I was shocked by how consciously Obsidian tried to craft a game more about the “gameplay” than the wonderful stories that made the previous games so great. At the same time, the actual changes brought in Storm of Zehir don’t actually change much of anything, and they certainly don’t ameliorate the series long standing technical problems( especially those stupid load times). I find it hard to imagine that SOZ will bring in brand new players into the Neverwinter Nights franchise. But, in spite of all this negativity, the game plays just fine. The gameplay is as satisfying as it has ever been, with vibrant spells and cool prestige classes and that constant lust for loot and power that drives RPG’s. As a game, Storm of Zehir is just fine, but it ends up feeling like a purchase that even normal fans of NWN2 could reasonably pass on. Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir is “okay”, but it doesn’t live up to the immense quality of the previous games, nor does it feature enough gameplay changes to bring new players into the fray.