Party: Human Cleric, Half-Orc Fighter, Wood Elf Ranger/Rogue, and Sun Elf Wizard/Arcane Scholar
I've tried to keep the spoilers pretty light throughout this review, in case there is still anyone else out there who hasn't played the game.
Plot hook: as part of a small adventuring party, you set off for Samarach aboard the Vigiliant, a vessel owned by the Samarch merchant, Sa'Sani. As the ship approaches Samarch, however, it suffers a collosal explosion and runs aground south of Samargol. After a thrilling battle with the local goblins, Sa'Sani protects you from arrest at the hands of the Samarch guards in exchange for your service. As you set forth on a variety of missions for her, you become embroiled in a scheme that affects not only Samarach, but the sword coast and even the gods themselves.
Storm of Zehir, the second expansion to Neverwinter Nights 2, started very well. The initial adventures on Samarch were simple but full of terrific atmosphere. There were dinosaurs(!), wonderfully developed goblin cultures, hidden black markets, dinosaurs(!), and the glimpses of what could be an exciting plot. The game is visually stunning, with loads of new placeables and monster models for modders to play with. Unfortunately, while the first quarter or so of the game were full of adventure, I found that the middle portion fell a bit flat. As I wrote last month, the sandboxy style of the game can lead to your characters running into encounters that they clearly are not ready for or intended to experience. While you can say what you will about realism, I ultimately just found it to be frustrating.
That said, there were some real gems among the sidequests. My favorite were invariably the ones in which you just went off to explore a mysterious area. My personal favorite happened early in the game when you were asked to explore the remains of what had been the home of three wizards who lost control of their Djinn. The story is told via scraps of paper, items, and the occasional warnings of a pixie who still lives in the tower. It's brilliantly done.
The big innovation of the game was the overland travel map and the accompanying merchant system. The overland maps were beautiful, and in many ways I really enjoyed the sense of scale and wholeness that they added to the game. But after the first several hours of gameplay, travel on the map became a chore. Even while boosting survival skill to maximize the speed of my team, travel on the map was slow and bogged down gameplay. I also found myself almost always avoiding random encounters, which is easy to do once you have sufficient hide skill...and that made me question why they were even there. The only times I did have to deal with encounters were when either a) the game (annoyingly) switched back to my cleric party leader after a load screen, or b) I forgot to get back to my ranger after a conversation. By the end of the game, I was using portals as much as was possible, and avoiding the map at all costs. There were some quests that I didn't complete largely because I didn't want to trek long enough to complete them.
Combat along the main plot was generally fun and well balanced. I found the final dungeon, including the final battle, to be particularly fun and engaging. Other areas were severely unbalanced for my characters at the time they first experienced them, with little to warn me that this was to be so. As a result, there were an annoying number of times that I had to reload a game after stumbling upon a battle for which I was hopelessly overmatched.
Also...perhaps this is just because of the amount of time I spent in nwn modules, but I think I prefer small parties with a focus on character development. The SoZ model, with four user-generated characters plus two NPCs, doesn't work as well for me. It was hard to develop much personality for my four characters, and in many ways they were little more than hired thugs throughout the game. Plus, there seemed to be far less mechanical detail than was needed in the chat window, which got really annoying.
Overall, I think this is one of those games that tried some neat things, won some small victories, but ultimately fell short of what it might have been. It did enough right that I think it's definitely worth a try. I'm glad I played. But I'm also glad that I finished. If we're judging it for the sake of the game itself, it's a 7 (Very Good, Deserves a Look). If we're judging it for all of the extensions and fixes of the engine that the expansion brought, it's a 9 (Outstanding, a Must Have). I'll vote 8 and leave it at that.
More screenies after the jump...