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by Black Isle and Interplay

An expansion pack can be great fun.  It allows you to come back to a game that’s been sitting on the shelf, re-explore it, and test out whatever goodies the developers have thrown in--be they new character classes, abilities, or places to explore.  That said, expansion packs almost invariably seem to let you down.  There just isn’t enough new wine jammed into that old bottle to make the experience as breathtaking as the original.  And often, by the time the expansion rolls out, the original game feels dated and dull. 

The Heart of Winter pack for Black Isle’s Icewind Dale fails in just this way.  After playing marathon sessions of Baldur’s Gate II with all of the added pizzazz of character kits and high-level magic, the relentless hack and slash dungeon crawling of Icewind Dale gets tired quick.  Now I know that Icewind suffers in comparison to Planescape or Baldur’s Gate in a few specific areas and that these games are designed with separate types of play in mind.  I enjoyed Icewind the first few times through, but Heart of Winter doesn’t have enough punch to re-energize the experience. 

Some of the technical advances from Baldur’s Gate II have been ported to Heart of Winter.  You can now play at 800x600 resolution and the interface bars can be hidden.  Additionally, a hot key illuminates all visible doors and items on the ground.  No more hunting for dropped wands in the dark.  A Heart of Fury mode has also been added that provides unbelievable experience points but is almost impossible.  Goblins give 2000exp per kill.  It’s the killing that’s the problem.  Strangely, and I don’t have a good explanation for this, with the expansion pack, Icewind Dale plays slower and more clunky (a problem I had with Baldur’s Gate II) than I recall.  Even tweaking down the performance options doesn’t help much. 

Since you’ll probably begin the game from scratch, the first changes you’ll notice are to the character classes.  Paladins walk taller with tougher holy powers.  Druids shape-shift earlier and better as well as benefit from added spells – so too clerics and mages.   Bards learn some different tunes.  The two most interesting new skills are the thief’s sneak attack/crippling strike and the ranger’s tracking aptitude.   Sneak attack is a 3rd Edition rule and, in place of the traditional backstab, allows the thief to do additional damage when behind or flanking an enemy without sneaking.  Crippling strike lowers a monster’s to-hit and damage rolls on a successful sneak attack.  Tracking, potentially, could be the coolest new skill in the game as it allows the ranger to get a feel for an area’s inhabitants as well as its recent history upon first arriving.  However, as Heart of Winter and Icewind Dale are hack-n-slash adventures, tracking doesn’t provide much info that’s terribly useful as all you’re going to do is trudge around the map and kill everything.  This would have been great in another game with a more varied storyline but fails to impress here.

Once your party attains ninth level, they can travel to Lonelywood where Heart of Winter’s new travails take place.  If you remember, a certain shack in Kuldahar never opened.  Well, it does now.  Inside is a barbarian representative with information of an, as yet, unnamed evil plaguing the barbarian tribes.  Would you come save them?  While you can take on this part of the game at ninth level, it’s advisable to be a bit higher.  

And in that lies part of the problem with Heart of Winter.  By the time you can effectively deal with the challenges of Heart of Winter, you’re going to be so tough that the battles aren’t that interesting.  The new and nifty magical items – some truly nifty – aren’t much use so close to the game’s end.  Additionally, since many of the magic spells from Baldur’s Gate II aren’t included, much of the fun and flash of ultra-high level battles isn’t available.  Without mages firing off spell sequencers and time stops and protection from magic weapons, the fighting becomes rote and unimaginative.  Icewind Dale was a fun forty-hour killing spree.  Straightforward.  Not too complex.   Heart of Winter just give more battles – only now your enemies have extra hit points.  As the bang-per-buck decreases significantly, I don’t see the point of tacking on another twenty hours of the same. 

Where Tales of the Sword Coast added an insanely difficult dungeon crawl to a game that lacked exactly that, Heart of Winter adds a not-so-tough dungeon crawl to … a dungeon crawl.  While high-level characters are nice, what’s the point if those levels aren’t concomitant with the magic and challenge that ought to go with them?  If Heart of Winter came with a lower price tag, I’d recommend it, but since it rides around thirty dollars, I’m forced to say wait until it hits the bargain bin.  Heart of Winter is fun but not fun enough. 

Matt Blackburn


Ups: More hack n' slash for the Icewind Dale crowd, some additions from BG II engine

Downs: More of the same.

System Reqs:PII 233, 32MB RAM


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