I recently finished playing through this Neverwinter 2 expansion (click here for my review of the original campaign). Even though I skipped a lot of Neverwinter 1 and 2 stuff, including Mask of the Betrayer, this expansion caught my attention due to it allowing to create your own party, up to four characters. Click on a picture to enlarge it.
The installation process is very slow, it's around one hour to install NWN 2, another hour to install Zehir, and another 30 minutes for patching from Internet. NWN2 and Zehir in all take nearly 13 gigabytes of your hard drive.
This is probably the best part of this expansion. Character creation is flawless. The base classes are Wizard, Warlock, Swashbuckler, Spirit Shaman, Sorcerer, Rogue, Ranger, Paladin, Monk, Fighter, Favoured Soul, Druid, Cleric (you can choose two domains among many), Bard and Barbarian. The Spirit Shaman and Favoured Soul use cleric spells but they don't need to memorise in advance.
There are plenty of prestige classes available: Arcane Archer, Arcane Scholar of Candlekeep, Arcane Trickster, Assassin, Blackguard, Divine Champion, Doomguide, Duelist, Dwarven Defender, Eldritch Knight, Frenzied Berserker, Harper Agent, Hellfire Warlock, Invisible Blade, Neverwinter Nine, Pale Master, Red Dragon Disciple, Red wizard, Sacred Fist, Shadow Thief of Amn, Shadowdancer, Stormlord, Warpriest and Weapon Master. However, there are still no Hierophant, Mystic Theurge or Archmage from the Dungeon Master Guide 3.5.
The red wizard gets a difficulty class bonus to his spells, while an arcane scholar can cast maximised fireball as a spell of level 5 rather than 6.
My party included a half-orc barbarian (single class), a human cleric/doomguide and a wood elf rogue/ranger (1 rogue/x ranger). The cleric's domains were time and healing. Both are extremely useful. With healing, all you cure spells are empowered free of charge, and you get to cast Heal and Cure Serious Wounds at one spell level below normal. Time brings the ever useful Haste and Premonition. Considering I went without arcane casters, this was a good choice. The Earth domain deserves a special mention as it gives Stoneskin.
Was this a good party to use? In hindsight... yes and no. The lack of an arcane caster was a major hindrance during the final battle (more on that below).
It's rather difficult to effectively control all the party members, but no worse than in the original campaign. The main difficulty is spells. It can be hard to target a beneficial spell on the party if they're running around towards monsters, and equally it's hard to target harmful spells like fireball on enemies. That's why I didn't bring an arcane caster along.
Quests and Story
The quests and storyline are moderately interesting. Your party survived a shipwreck. Strangers in a tropical land hostile to foreigners, you are taken in by a merchant house. The master of this house assigns quests to you all along the game. At one point in the game this merchant house falls from grace and is banished to the Sword Coast - to the site of the original campaign, Crossroad Keep. From there the game turns into a kind of economic simulation as you must set up trade posts in a lot of cities and organize caravans between cities. Then in the later part of the game you get to return to Samarach (the tropical land) in order to defeat the arch enemy of the merchant house that helped you. This arch enemy turns out to be a yuan-ti god, Zehir, and that god's avatar, the Herald of Zehir. cRPGs often pit your party against a divine being. In Temple of Elemental Evil, you fought against demigod Iuz and demoness Zuggtmoy. You also had some business with drow goddess Lloth. In Baldur's Gate, you fought against your half-brother, son of Bhaal, god of murder. In Dark Queen of Krynn, you fought against Takhisis, the goddess of evil.
Loading screens and Tips
In my opinion, the game's main flaw is the fact that it takes a long time to load up areas when moving from a map to another. The game displays loading screens much too frequently. When playing Zehir, you will watch these screens a long, long time.
Tips are displayed during the loading and saving screens. That could have been a wonderful opportunity to complete the manual. Unfortunately it's not. None of the "tips" can be acted upon - they are only pieces of lore such as "Khelgar manages Crossroad Keep for Lord Nasher but he doesn't like it".
Here are some examples of what SHOULD have been displayed as tips:
"they say that the Herald of Zehir is resistant to all weapons except cold iron holy weapons."
"they say that the yuan-ti are monstrous humanoids... don't forget to select this favourite enemy for your ranger"
"they say that you can apply armour class enchantments to a lot of common items, even boots, amulets and non-wearable items"
"they say that long-term spell effects disappear when moving to another area" (yes that's different from the original campaign)
"they say that you can apply up to +4 armour class enchantments"
"they say that Jacoby is the Quartermaster of the merchant guilds in Neverwinter" (you're constantly referred to the quartermaster but no one tells you WHO he actually is), and so on... This is the knowledge you really need. Not more folklore information.
This is the second best thing in the game, in my opinion. The overland map is a 3D landscape viewed from high above. You can't rotate or zoom in this view, which is a good thing as you don't need to fight with the camera, for once. On the overland map you will see you party leader in reduced size, as well as cities, ruins, and enemy (or neutral) encounters. You can even see fights between roaming monsters and city guards from time to time. Avernum and Albion also used an overland map with reduced-size party characters to good effect.
The overland map is a lot of fun. However, it practically forces you to have a ranger/rogue in your party. Why? Because a LOT of skills are necessary for a successful experience on the overland map. Hide, move silently and survival are necessary to avoid random encounters, which otherwise are much too frequent. Diplomacy is useful to bribe enemy encounters after hiding has failed.
The following skills all allow to discover goodies on the overland map: appraise, craft alchemy, craft armor, craft trap, craft weapon, disable device, heal, hide, listen, lore, move silently, open lock, search, sleight of hand, spellcraft, spot, tumble and use magic device. If your party leader doesn't have any of these skills, you will miss a lot of content.
The best character for the overland map is probably a wood elf rogue/ranger. Rogue is necessary to get a lot of skills like Open Lock (extremely useful even outside of the overland map), and it is the class that brings the most skill points. The character's first level definitely should be Rogue as this will give the character a lot more starting skill points than any other class. The first feat should also be Able Learner so that you can increase Open Lock at the same cost as a rogue if later on you level up as Ranger. A wood elf has Ranger as favoured class so there's no experience penalty for multiclassing, and a Ranger has Survival as class skill. A wood elf also benefits from the permanent search ability (you don't need to switch on search mode - which would slow down any other race). I created a Rogue 1/Ranger X but you could go for Rogue X/Ranger 1 instead.
There is a great variety in the difficulty of encounters. For example, you discover a black market operated by mind flayers early on. They also keep prisoners. For a lawful good party, there is an urge to destroy the mind flayers and save the prisoners, but that's impossible to do with a low level party. So you just have to come back later. Another time, my party of four level 5 characters met a single fire giant who was ransoming the nearby village, and we got crushed. However, as you advance above level 10, challenging battles will become much rarer.
The final battle deserves a paragraph all of its own. It's much more difficult than the rest of the game. Playing with just my three characters and no cohorts, I reached the final battle at level 17. I played the whole game on the highest difficulty level but had to switch it on the easiest level just for the final battle; I also had to level up to level 19. Why was it so hard? For two reasons, I wasn't aware of the armour class bonuses you can obtain by enchanting items like gloves, amulets and boots, and I didn't employ any arcane spellcaster. In hindsight I'd say the entire game is not about completing the quests, but all about creating a party that can beat the final battle. That battle includes a main monster, the Herald of Zehir, a group of spellcasters, and a few melee fighters.
Just like a roguelike game like ADOM, I think Zehir is a game where it's better to be spoiled about all the game's information rather than go blindly. Here are some of the Herald's statistics (on the highest difficulty level):
Herald of Zehir, Outsider
Attack Bonus around 40, Armor Class around 42
Spell Resistance 28, Damage reduction 15/cold iron and holy
Damage Resistance: Acid [10/-], Cold [10/-], Magical [10/-]
Immunity: Electrical damage, Fire damage
Immunity: Bigby's Clenched Fist, Bigby's Crushing Hand, Bigby's Forceful Hand, Bigby's Grasping Hand
Immunity: Isaac's Greater Missile Storm, Isaac's Lesser Missile Storm
Immunity: Knockdown, Mind-Affecting Spells, Paralysis, Fear, Disease, Death Magic, Poison
Permanent True Seeing
There are some arcane spells that can really help, like Wail of the Banshee, Bigby's Interposing Hand and Shadow Simulacrum, and the missile storm spells if you play on a difficulty level lower than the highest. You can scribe copies of these spells on blank scrolls to have a large supply during the battle.
As for beating the herald in combat, I'd suggest a Dwarven Defender rather than a barbarian. A Dwarven Defender wielding a tower shield and with all AC enchantments can be difficult to strike for the Herald. Of course it should use a cold iron weapon with holy enchantment. However, watch out for Disarm attempts from the Herald. Specialising in ranged attacks may also be a good idea. A very effective party may include a rogue/ranger, fighter/dwarven defender, cleric/doomguide and wizard/Arcane Scholar of Candlekeep.
There are a lot of possibilities for crafting in Zehir. You can create non magic items (weapons, armor, alchemy items, or traps) using the various Craft skills, you can enchant items with the feat Craft Magic Weapon and Armour, you can create magic items using the feat Craft Wondrous Items, you can scribe copies of a spell with the feat Scribe Scroll, you can create a magic wand with Craft Wand and potions with Brew Potion.
However, of all these possibilities I think that only two are worthwhile: the feat Craft Magic Weapon and Armor and the feat Scribe Scroll. Enchanting weapons, armor and other items only requires gold and so is very easy. It is an essential part of the game. Scribe Scroll can be useful for a wizard, as they get the feat for free. All the other possibilities require something extra: a material, some gems or other specific item, making them much more cumbersome to use.
It's a good expansion. However, the long loading screens reduce the quality of the game a lot. I was sufficiently interested to play it all the way once but I don't intend to restart now, despite my poor performance at the end battle.