Icewind Dale

Skull-bashing of evil minions on the Spine of the World.


All of Icewind Dale’s levels are hand-crafted!

Icewind Dale had the misfortune to debut on store shelves alongside Blizzard’s Diablo II. The two games are almost completely dissimilar, but some unfortunate marketing efforts by Interplay have created something of an impression that their game was also an action-oriented RPG, full of fast-paced combat. Not so. Where Diablo II focuses on rapid clicks, combat, and constant treasure scavenging, Black Isle’s game is much more traditional. Battles are tactical, the pacing is slower, the rules are more complex and the story is more substantial.

High Plains Drifter

For people that are completely unfamiliar, Icewind Dale is an indirect sequel to Black Isle’s highly acclaimed Baldur’s Gate, going as far as using the same engine, interface and gameplay. Using the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeon & Dragons ruleset, Icewind Dale casts you up as leader of a band of freebooting adventurers looking for excitement, starting you in the backwater town of Easthaven located in the Spine of the World mountains. One of the Ten Towns, Easthaven is a ramshackle hamlet whose only claim to fame is the knucklehead trout fished out of the nearby lakes. A little bit of exploration reveals rumors of ‘bad things’ happening nearby, so you pack up and set out looking for trouble – and trouble there is aplenty.

8_1While the game features a solid plot, the only real reason for it is to give you an excuse to kill creatures and take their stuff. There are a few twists and turns, but it’s the loot and experience awards that keep you moving through the game, more than any desire to find out what is happening to Kuldahar. Even so, it’s a more successful approach than many more thematically ambitious games, because the writing is good and the voice acting of the NPCs is solid. Yet on the whole this is more about mowing down rows of bad guys than figuring out overtly-complex narratives or making deep moral choices.

The most significant consequence of the game’s focus on combat over story is the absence of a single, “this is supposed to be YOU” character. You direct your party of six as if a disembodied guiding spirit, rather than manifesting yourself as an on-screen avatar like in Baldur’s Gate. It doesn’t matter if a party member dies – just resurrect ‘em. Alignment and behavior don’t matter much, either. There’s nothing critical that you can mess up by taking an “evil” or hostile approach through the conversation trees, and most conversations with NPCs inevitably end in combat anyhow. You might miss out on a few goody-two-shoes experience quests by being evil, but much of the time you’ll gain nearly as much from just slaughtering everyone, if that’s your preference. Where Baldur’s Gate actively penalized evil characters, Icewind Dale is morally neutral.

Dungeons and Ice Trolls

But if it’s combat you want, you’ve come to the right place. Most computer RPGs are pretty combat heavy, but Icewind Dale is combat centered. Each area on the world map is crammed with locations teeming with monsters, and each sub-area is generally divided up into a few more densely populated rooms or chambers. Except when traversing an already-cleared map, you’ll almost never have to walk more than a few virtual feet before encountering something to fight. Whether it’s a few beetles in the basement or a demoness in a deep cavern, you’ll face constant combat from the get-go.

Whether all that fighting is something to look forward to depends entirely on your tolerance for the Infinity Engine’s combat system. It’s the same pausable real-time mechanism that’s sustained the last two and a half Black Isle AD&D games, where you can set it up to resemble a turn-based game or let it rip at top speed. It works well enough, once you get the settings the way you want them, but it’s still too fast and the information display is too cluttered to really handle all of the nuances of the AD&D rules. The available AI scripts for your party members are decent, but you’ll inevitably find that none of them are precisely what you want. That leads to a lot of micromanaging your party, which in turn means you’ll have to pause combat a lot, hence leading you to wonder why the designers didn’t simply go with a turn-based system in the first place. Nevertheless, it’s fun, tactics do matter, and winning the tough fights takes some thought.

One of the complaints gamers had about Baldur’s Gate was the level cap, where your characters couldn’t advance beyond about the eighth level. Now you can go up to around 15th level (14th for mages, 18th for thieves), or 1.8 million experience points. This means more spells, better abilities and items, more hitpoints, and of course correspondingly bigger monsters.

19_1But there’s really very little difference between a sixth level fighter and a twelfth level fighter beyond the obvious performance improvement. Throughout the game, this sort of pervasive sameness dulls the impact of the beautiful artwork and proven game engine. You move, you fight, you loot, you rest, you do it again, until you get a cutscene that propels you to the next round of fighting, looting, and resting. Just when you’re about to give up, however, you come across a particularly juicy battle where you actually have to think to win, or you find a unique and valuable item.

If you like RPGs, you owe it to yourself to consider Icewind Dale. It’s a very solid, attractive, and entertaining game, in a very traditional way. You can play with a group online or over a LAN, cooperatively, if you want. You can play an evil party if you want. You can play a bunch of paladins. You’ll get about the same experience no matter what you do, but at least that experience is fun. It’s by no means as epic as its predecessor, nor as intriguing as the excellent Planescape: Torment, but it’s far more than just the random collection of dungeon crawls Interplay once pitched it as.

System Requirements: Pentium II 300 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, 8 MB Video, Windows 95

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