Icewind Dale - Review

Hack and Slash Goodness

By: Souma

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 9
   Interface 8
   Music/Sound 7
   Originality 7
   Plot 6
   Localization n/a
   Replay Value 10
   Visuals 8
   Difficulty Hard
   Time to Complete 40-100 Hours
Icewind Dale

  It all began with Baldur's Gate and it's expansion Tales of the Sword Coast. It continued with Planescape: Torment. And now, with a little help from producer and developer Black Isle Studios (a division of Interplay), the Bioware Infinity engine has spawned Icewind Dale.  It would be ludicrous to declare Icewind Dale to be totally original. It isn't. It reuses a game engine used in two previous games and the famous 2nd Edition AD&D set of rules used by pen and paper roleplayers all around the world for 12 years previous. However, it does grab your attention by bringing the game engine closer to the full 2nd Edition AD&D rules (compared to Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment). It then firmly grabs you by the throat by throwing in a whole bunch of new spells, items and monsters, nicer graphics, new background music and an expanded range of character sounds. In other words, it doesn't take any steps backwards.

   Billed as a dungeon hack, Icewind Dale has delivered as promised. The dungeons are deep and atmospheric. The battles are intense and strategic. The battle system in Icewind Dale is the same system seen in Baldur's Gate with few modifications. Exploration is integrated smoothly with combat, taking place on the same map in real-time with the ability to give orders at any time and pause at any time. On the other hand, movement rates have been increased by 50%, allowing characters and monsters to get around faster. This was a real problem in Baldur's Gate where you could often wander around for many minutes without running into anything at all and monsters would crawl forwards as you peppered them with missile fire. Fortunately your range of vision has been extended with the game using up to 800x600 resolution so you won't be caught flat-footed any more than in previous games. You can now access the inventory screen without the game unpausing, allowing you to take the time to use your equipment to the best of your advantage during combat. This is important as there are a great number of items in the game and having the right item to hand in every situation is nearly impossible. Now you can have your neat item and use it too.

Burn baby, burn!
Burn baby, burn!

   The interface is solid with most screens available directly from the main game screen by buttons and by hot keys. The main commands are all accessible at the bottom of the main game screen and vary depending on whether you are selecting a single character or several (character or party). You can streamline the use of many abilities and spells by assigning hot keys for them in a special configuration screen. Targeting is the simple point and click affair common to the PC and mouses. Moving around has become much easier as the path searching AI has become smarter and will actually move obstructing players out of the way and then back thus allowing you to get into formation with a minimum of fuss. The only real gripe about the interface is the lack of some way to leave a dungeon speedily. If you need to resupply or simply get back out after completing a dungeon, you will have to trek all the way back to the surface on foot. A shame considering there is no real reason why it should be this way. Monsters do not block your path by respawning randomly so you travel freely (if tediously) in previously explored areas.

   As you create your entire party yourself from scratch with no set leader and no npcs joining the party later in the game, there really is no room for character development. The only exception to this rule is a sparse few npcs who are central to the plot itself. The plot itself is very linear, very solid and only does what it needs to do in order to progres the game. Basically, it directs you from one dungeon to the next and lets you know why you are trying to kill everything in sight and take their stuff. After that, most additional information is found in journals and books found in dungeons and in short conversations with tall angry monsters just before they attack. This is quite refreshing after dozens of games where the battle system is pretty much secondary to the story that is being told. There are a few moments where the game doesn't quite make clear exactly what you need to do next, but luckily it doesn't usually take too long to find out anyhow.

   FMV is almost non-existent in the game, but this allowed the designers to pack the entire game onto just two CDs so it is quite forgivable. On the other hand, there are many hundreds of beautifully animated monsters and spell effects. Giants tower over the party members ominously, beetles scuttle, spells crackle with energy. The menus, item icons and character dolls have all received a sprucing up. Even a simple long sword is more detailed than the same seen in Baldur's Gate. The background is in the same hand-drawn style that has been so successful with all of Black Isle Studios previous rpgs and with Baldur's Gate, but with the most attention to detail I have seen thus far.

Fire fetish?
Fire Fetish?

   Sound is used to good effect. In haunted dungeons the ambient sound gives the impression that it has been uninhabited for hundreds of years. In the fortress of the arch villain, the music reprises the introduction to Baldur's Gate, giving you a foreboding sense of crumbling architecture and impending doom. On a wind swept glacier, a tune reminiscent of something from Fallout II gives you an impression of wind and the feeling of extreme isolation. In dank caverns, there is the constant drip of water and the occasional sound of something in the distance. The music is in general quite subtle and unless you are paying close attention you will hardly notice it is there. This is good as the overall feel of the game is quite dark and you don't want to be bopping along in the middle of an undead tomb! The sounds of fighting are quite good too. Each monster has it's own range of sounds as do the various weapon types you can use. Monsters slaver and scream appropriately when they die. Due to the small amount of important characters in the game (no more than a dozen) the designers were able to get the lines of each of these fully spoken. This is quite nice and much better than Baldur's Gate where everyone from normal townspeople to Elminster were stuck with only a few lines. Possibly the worst part of the sounds are the relatively limited range of sounds for characters. While there are quite a few "mage" and "fighter" sound sets and a couple "thief" sound sets, the rest of the classes are largely unrepresented and the player is forced to make do or create their own.

   The casual gamer with little or no experience with the AD&D rules will not be able to just leap in to Icewind Dale and learn as they go. Even the first fight you get in can be deadly if you have no idea what you are doing. It's quite embarrassing to lose a member of your strong brave band of fledgling adventures to a small pack of a dozen goblins or a couple wolves. Arguably, the game would have benefited from some sort of training quest that would give a complete novice enough practice with the interface to know what they are doing. However, this game was designed to be challenging and exciting and it provides. There are very few points in the game where you will feel you are breezing through. If you fail to pay attention you will get in trouble so you won't find yourself falling asleep during battles. The major villains of the game are strong enough that you can easily fail to defeat them without a plan of attack and even then you may come very close to losing or be surprised by some new trick. On the other hand, it is far from impossible as even a poorly designed party can win out in the end.

Can't these guys stay dead?
Can't these guys stay dead?

   The replay value of Icewind Dale is the highest of any rpg I have ever come across. While some magical items are set (spell scrolls from which mages can learn new spells are limited very carefully for instance) there are dozens of places in the game where items are randomly selected from a set group of items. So each time you play it all over, you have every chance of finding some new item to try out. On top of this, you have all the technicalities of trying to craft the perfect party and trying out every different class and race available. While the standard console rpg generally allows you to try out nearly everything the first time through, Icewind Dale wisely leaves you with something else to try the next time around. And the time after that. And then some more. Currently on my third time through, I look forward to returning to Icewind Dale a few times more to try new parties and see what new challenges face me and what new strategies I can develop.

   Being a completist and a careful planner, this game took me around 100 hours to complete the first time. On my next time through, I reduced that time considerably, but still found it took around 70 hours to finish. I suspect that something around 40 hours would be the minimum time you could slash your way through in. Icewind Dale is a very polished game that will challenge you at every turn and show you something different each time you play.

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