Normally I review the so-called hardcore RPG games. You know, the ones where you have about 30 different quests going on at the same time, have to concentrate on party interaction, follow main, romance and side quests and generally take a lot of notes. I never got into the Icewind Dale series because I was told they were hack and slash titles, with lots of combat but not much role-playing.
Another staff member told me that they were actually pretty good and wanted to know if I wanted to try my hand at reviewing it. He assured me that I would not be disappointed despite my preconceived notions about the game. He of course was right, but I’ll get into that in a bit.
The first thing that I liked about Icewind Dale II was that I was able to create my entire six-person party from scratch. In fact, it took me an entire evening of tweaking until I had the exact mix I thought would be perfect. Since nobody leaves or joins your party during the game, what you create is what you play with for the entire adventure. At first I did not think I would like this, but I remember playing Baldur’s gate and wishing beyond hope that Minsk would be a fighter instead of a ranger at times. Now I have a party of balanced people, many with odd quirks, and if things don’t work out then I have nobody but myself to blame.
Of course the game uses third edition Dungeons and Dragons rules, which it seems is mandatory now days since everyone is doing it. I would spend time lauding how great third edition is compared to second, but I already did that during my Neverwinter Nights review a few weeks ago. Suffice to say, the computer handles the new rule set a lot better than most pen and paper dungeon masters I have played with.
Once the characters were created, I was surprised to find a rich storyline within the game. Yes you are given quests and side quests, but they are much less complex than the ones from the Baldur’s Gate series. Its funny, but I thought this would be a bad thing, but really it’s not. You still have all those "find me a hammer" type quests, but mostly the quests are along the lines of going out and killing some rampaging monster. You never have too many quests that it gets complicated, but never is it boring either.
The game does live up to its billing as having a heavy emphasis on combat. Sometimes the combat comes to you, as in when you are charged with defending a town that is under siege, though most of the time you are going out and seeking and destroying the enemy. That said, the game does an excellent job of setting up tactically puzzling situations for you to solve. In this manner, it actually does a better, more balanced job than another Interplay title, Fallout Tactics, which was supposed to emphasize this.
As an example, in one mission you are supposed to capture a bridge that is currently being held by hostile forces. After battling your way though a seemingly endless series of mountain paths, you come to the bridge in question. The local commander realizes that your party is probably powerful enough to take over the bridge, so he orders it destroyed. Several ogres start pounding on the bridge, but thankfully they have clubs instead of axes, so it takes a while to damage the support structures. You see the bridge taking damage in the combat window though, so it’s only a matter of time..
At the same time, an army swarms out and pretty much stands between your group, who entered the map in the south, and the bridge in the north. So now you have a dilemma. Do you rush through the blocking hoard, knowing that your spell casters in the back of the party are going to be highly vulnerable to devastating attacks as you pass? Do you try and sneak a party member through the battle while everyone else fights on the front, though even if successful this plan will make your scout outnumbered if he reaches the bridge? Or do you take your time and fight the army the right way using your magic, ranged weapons and brute force fighters effectively, but leaving more time for the ogres to possibly crash the bridge?
I was able to win in this scenario by forming a circle with my fighters on the outside and using spells like sleep and hold person to incapacitate opponents while I moved forward. Once at the bridge, I formed a new front line using the bridge itself to prevent enemy flanking. Some of my party held the line while some went back and killed the ogres and their guards. Then we re-formed up at the front of the bridge just as some of the monsters were waking up or forming up for an attack. Of course there are probably many ways to solve this combat puzzle, but I was pretty impressed with my strategy considering I made it up on the fly and it worked perfectly.
The graphics for the game are good, perhaps the best yet from either the Icewind Dale or Baldur’s Gate series. The characters moving around on what is essentially a 2D board do however look a little bit dated and are easily outclassed by the fully 3D world, where you can also rotate your perspective 360 degrees and zoom in and out, found in Neverwinter Nights. But the graphics do look good, the spell effects are nice. The game also ran well on a test laptop that could not handle Neverwinter.
The soundtrack is wonderful. Created by composer Inon Zur, it is perfectly appropriate for the game and seems to be a mix of Nordic and medieval instruments with a bit of a modern flair. If you can find the soundtrack, it’s more than worth a listen even outside the game. Within the game, the music is perfectly integrated into the combat and exploration phases to help set the mood. Personally I liked the Fallout Tactics soundtrack a bit better with its haunting vocal-like pieces, another Zur composition, but this is just personal preference. There is nothing to dislike about the Icewind Dale II soundtrack.
The one main complaint I have with the game is that sometimes the gameplay can get to be repetitive. A lot of maps in the game seem to be designed to make your characters walk around a lot. You will be in a cave with more S-turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco. Sometimes you even have to go all the way to one side of the map and then something opens up and you have to go all the way back and walk another direction. This would not be too much of a problem if the AI pathfinding was any good at all. Almost every time I told my party to cover a large distance across a twisty map, four of them would go the right way and two others would either go the wrong way for a long time before coming back, or just wander around lost. I even went into the setup file and turned pathfinding way up so they could plot better paths, but it did not help. If developers are going to make these twisty maps, at least they should teach their AI how to navigate them.
The other repetitive thing is combat itself. After a while you will be dreading yet another charge by 20 or more low-level combatants. I know the emphasis is combat, but it just gets to be a bit much with fight after fight after fight, especially on long missions outside of towns.
If you like role-playing games, but don’t like having to write a book just to keep track of what is going on, then the linear nature of Icewind Dale II should show great appeal. At times hardcore RPGers like myself may feel a bit frustrated by the constant combat, but this is easily balanced by interesting tactical puzzles and a surprisingly rich storyline. Plus, epic-sized battles that would make Baldur’s Gate characters give a double take are a ton of fun to tackle. Wading through a seemingly hopeless situation to the light at the end of the tunnel is wonderfully satisfying, and you do it so very often here. Icewind Dale II earns 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems for its rapidly accumulating treasure trove of awards.