|Back in the good old days of pen and paper gaming, D&D players could generally fall into two broad categories: those who were so deeply into the campaign that they'd have their character sheets laminated on a bi-weekly basis, and those who were out to play something light, smart and frequently violent. And while the truly hardcore had their choice of deeply immersive, time-consuming epics into which they could pour their enthusiasm, more casual role-playing gamers really only had Diablo and Diablo II's clickfests to keep them occupied. |
So when Icewind Dale came onto the scene in the summer of 2000, a hack-heavy D&D title with a surprisingly deep story and some truly compelling atmosphere, it was considered to be a surprise smash. Holding its own against Diablo II and Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale proved that there was still some wiggle room between gamers who wanted constant combat, and those invested hours in their blacksmithing skills.
Now, Icewind Dale is back with a sequel, transporting the player back to the northernmost reaches of the Forgotten Realms with a brand new crisis and a brand new iteration of the D&D rules. It's also carrying along with it a very old game engine, some unfortunately familiar technical issues, but once again Icewind Dale has defined itself as the ideal role-playing game for those looking for something quick, smart and gory.
In fact, Icewind Dale II seems to go to great lengths to re-distinguish itself as separate from the pack right from the get go. Despite the fact that the community of the Ten-Towns has again fallen onto tough times, this time the scale of the event is much larger than a single party of adventurers could possibly contain. A horde of goblins, monsters and evil priests is laying siege on the Ten-Towns, determined to wipe it from the face of the Realms, and the heroes are just a small part of a massive effort to stem the tide. From the moment the players step onto the docks, they're joining the battle to save the area from a seemingly endless wave of humanoid foes, and are drawn smoothly from one scenario to another -- each more difficult than the last.
Truly, many of the events that players will get to participate in are more the result of scripted events rather than assigned quests. As players wander through the besieged North, they'll come across battles raging, hear people crying out for help from within their houses, and will even be called to the pallisades to defend a town against a daylight raid. Smaller scripts will also play out among larger events, pulling the player from one point on the map to another in the hopes of heading off disaster, lending a kind of hectic energy to the game that's generally been lacking from D&D titles in recent years.
On top of this, the intelligence of the foes in Icewind Dale II has been greatly improved. Archers will flee to a safe firing distance, rather than mindlessly wading towards the first player character to hit them. Spellcasters will target the strongest points in a player's party with area of effect or incapacitating spells before beefing up their own forces, and will avoid hand-to-hand combat at all costs. Lowly Orcs will set ambushes with explosive kegs, leaving boobytraps in the player's path to tenderize their party before a large confrontation. All of this is a refreshing change from previous D&D titles, and even this summer's Neverwinter Nights, in which battling lower-level creatures was simply a matter of counting how many a player could kill in a single attack. Through a combination of clever scripting and improved AI, even the lowest-level foes can prove deadly to an experienced party.
This is a pretty clever move on the part of Black Isle, who elected to bring back the now-creaky Infinity Engine to power Icewind Dale II. On one hand, this more or less guarantees a familiar gaming experience to anyone who's picked up an RPG title in the last three years; on the other, it also makes absolutely certain that all the quirks and limitations of the Infinity games will crop up in one form or another. To remedy that much, Black Isle invested quite a bit of time in revamping the interface for Icewind Dale II, resulting in a much less cluttered screen, and a much larger view of the game world. The party is still accessed through a portrait menu on the right hand of the screen, while weapons and armor are allocated through a paper-doll image of the characters; inventory, however, now allows players to put together up to four different weapon combinations, which can be swapped on the fly. Similarly, spells and special skills -- including 3rd Edition feats -- can all be accessed through a quick series of right-clicks, making it easier for players to focus on the enemy during combat, rather than flipping back and forth between screens.
Unfortunately, all the interface upgrades in the world don't do a whole lot for the visuals in Icewind Dale II. The background maps are spectacular in both their tone and their imagery, but the character sprites remain basically unchanged from what they were in the original Icewind Dale, and while the monsters often have new animations to augment them (even lowly orcs), the overall look of the game is dated. The generally recycled nature of the character voiceovers, the majority of which are identical to those found in the original Icewind Dale and its expansion pack, Heart of Winter, doesn't do a whole lot to help things, though Inon Zur's musical score does add a breath of fresh, frosty air into the proceedings.
Finally, not only are sights and sounds of Icewind Dale II a bit too familiar, but so are the bugs. From the first loading of the game, Icewind Dale II was subject to crashing to the desktop on a fairly regular basis, and offered a number of smaller problems to boot. A number of these have already been addressed in a patch; however, a little while spent in the support forums at the Black Isle website informed me that my own issue was one of bad data either in the install, or on my copy of the install CD itself. I doubt I'd have found this to be quite so frustrating if I didn't truly enjoy the game, but as it stands, the constant crashing of the game kept me from finishing it, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same bug didn't drive at least a few others away as well.
Which is a shame, because Icewind Dale II, like its predecessor, is a clever game in a well-worn package. It's certainly not the most cutting edge game on the market, but its focus on clever, challenging gameplay in a huge, dynamic context makes it a game well worth the time of those who are bored with Diablo clones, but who just can't bring themselves to join the ranks of Everquest.