|These are heady days for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
franchise. After a slump in sales and interest occasioned mostly by TSRs wretched
stewardship, AD&D was sold to Wizards of the Coast. In the last year or so, good
things have started to happen again. The games nifty third edition just came out
(look for a review in these pages soon), and the franchises PC presencenearly
nil since the gold box gameshas been reinvigorated by the overwhelming success of
Baldurs Gate. At least three of this years most-anticipated games
(Baldurs Gate 2, Pool of Radiance, and Neverwinter Nights) are based upon the
AD&D engine. For the first time in a long time, Im seeing kids at local game
stores playing D&D instead of Pokemon. Looks like the Forgotten Realms are rising to
memory once again.
The PC D&D comeback spearheaded by Baldurs Gate continues with Icewind Dale. Though Icewind Dales engine and interface are very similar to Baldurs Gate, there are some significant differences between the games. First of all, Icewind Dale takes place not on the balmy Sword Coast, but rather in Icewind Dale, the frigid setting of R.A. Salvatores classic trilogy (though theres no sign of that popular and enigmatic dark elf Drizzt). When youre not fighting in a cave (which is most of the time) youll braving the snowy wastes of the Ten Towns region and the Spine of the World Mountains. Its a different world, with a nice new spread of monsters (including 70 new ones) and environments. Another big difference is the games emphasis on playing as a party, rather than a single player. In Icewind Dale, youll be able to create up six characters for your party when the game begins, and its a good idea to go with all six. Icewind Dale is populated with swarms of monsters, and smaller parties will quickly be overrun. Believe me, that extra tank will come in handy. Finally, Icewind Dale allows for higher-level characters. Though youll probably only need to get to level 12 to finish the game, you can ramp fighters up to around level 15.
In homage to the recent release of third edition, Ive decided to grade out Icewind Dale by converting the standard abilities used for character generation in AD&D (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) to game values. For those of you not familiar with the system, the highest score possible for each ability is 18, the lowest 3.
Theres nothing but action and combat in Icewind Dale. In fact, Ive never seen quite such an emphasis on hacking and slashing in a D&D PC game. Theres scarcely such a thing as an empty room in Icewind Daletheyre almost all full to the ceiling with monsters. And remember those leisurely, often uninterrupted strolls you could take across maps in Baldurs Gate? Forget it. In some ways, the monster wave attacks youll experience in Icewind Dale make the game feel almost more like Diablo II than BG. While this is great for gaining experience, it can wear down a party in a hurry. Fortunately, its very easy to rest in Icewind Dale. If youre not in the immediate vicinity of a monster, you can usually get some rest (which replenishes spells and health) before sallying into the next room. The down side to this constant fight/rest/fight/rest/fight cycle is that it can get tiresome after a while, especially since the story is so thin. (More on that later). But if youve got that barbarian mentalityif you find talk cheap and combat the be-all and end-allthen this games for you.
The bad news is that if youre not familiar with the AD&D system, Icewind Dale can take a while to get used to. Even if you are, the interface can be a little arcane and daunting at first. The good news is that once you do figure it out, this is a very slick interface and game system. It helps that the manual, like the manual for Baldurs Gate, is big (150+ pages), detailed, and helpful, though points must be taken away for its small print on eye-killing gray background. As with Baldurs Gate, Biowares combat interface is a love-it-or-hate-it-proposition. While ostensibly a real-time combat engine, you have the ability to pause anytime during a fight and rummage through your backpack for a new weapon. Since its so easy to micromanage, combat tends to play out more like a turn-based game than a realtime one. This blurring of genres causes no end of aggravation to some, but I find the engines combination of thoughtful planning and frantic action to be just about perfect.
Icewind Dale is considerably shorter than Baldurs Gatebut its still a good 30-40 hour game for most. Nevertheless, it seems much more linear than BG, so your options for different game paths are more limited as well. And while you could play through the game with an entirely different party, lets face it: most successful parties are very similar. Oh, sure, you could substitute a druid here for a mage there, but unless youre just perverse, youll usually have a nice fighter/cleric/mage/rogue mix. Thus most groups in Icewind Dale play much the same, and replay value--unless youre daring enough to recruit a party of nothing but halfling thieves--is only middling.
Usually Icewind Dales enemy AI is pretty good; close combat monsters will attempt to get into hand-to-hand while casters stand back and nuke you. But sometimes they can be pretty stupid. The worst and most ubiquitous example of this is how easily monsters can be lured one at a time from a room and to their doom. Most players will use this to their advantage, especially when confronted with one of the nastier rooms in the game. Indeed, it may be the only way to get past some rooms, where monster numbers are initially overwhelming. But theres something dissatisfying about the strategy of luring a few powerful monsters from a room, dispatching them, resting up, and repeating the above sequence until the room is nice and shiny. Friendly AI is just OK--make sure you control all your party members in combat. And as in Baldurs Gate, there are still pathfinding problems. For instance, when trying to move your party from one shop to another in Kuldahar, a few of them will invariably be delayed or hung up. Dont try to move across big or complicated maps in one clickoften party members will run off by themselves, become isolated, and stumble across a really nasty denizen of the North.
Please. While you could make an argument for a high WIS score for Black Isles Planescape: Torment, which had a compelling and interesting story, or maybe even Baldurs Gate, Icewind Dale is about nothing but killin monsters. This makes it a lot of things, but wise is not one of them.
Icewind Dales graphics use an improved version of the Baldurs Gate engine, but its not that improved. While spell effects look better, the game still runs in 640x480 resolution, and the character sprites can look very pixelly. The games backgrounds, however, look great, as does the interface. Overall graphic verdict: good, but I sure wish theyd have used the Torment: Planescape engine. Sound is mostly excellent, especially the music and voice acting for NPCs. Your party members, on the other hand, endlessly repeat smartass remarks that werent even very witty the first time. This needs some work. Finally, the most damning thing about the games presentation is its narrative, which is lame. The story throughout the games first chapter, for example, is ponderous and advances the narrative scarcely at all. While things get a little better, its clear that the story here was an afterthought. And there's virtually nothing to match the wit and humor one found in BG (remember that hamster?) or Torment (remember Morte?). Thats unfortunate, especially given the strong background that Icewind Dale brings to the table through Salvatores novels. While there are some gestures towards the novels, the most disappointing thing about the game is its lack of a coherent and compelling story. Without one, the repetitive hack-and-slash can get boring.
If youre into RPGs or D&D, youll definitely want to pick up Icewind Dale, especially if your tastes run towards unbridled combat. On the other hand, if youre the type who enjoyed all the talking in Planescape: Torment, you might want to take a pass.