Black Isle Studios's sequel to Icewind Dale uses the same Infinity Engine that powered the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment. The game team has spent lots of time implementing new rules from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons. Most of the 3rd Edition based races and classes are now playable and players will have a much easier time figuring out how their character is progressing. Also, high-level magic users will be rewarded with powerful new spells.
Icewind Dale II offers a chance to revisit the frozen northern reaches of the Forgotten Realms. The worst fear of the civilized realms has come true: the Goblinoids have united an army of misfits and they want to call the Ten Towns their own. Massive swarms of Orcs and Worg-mounted Goblins are attempting to overrun the town of Targos. A call has gone out to all those willing to face insurmountable odds.
If you are at all familiar with the original Icewind Dale and its two expansions, then you know exactly what to expect from Icewind Dale II -- a combat laden D&D adventure with one big fight after another. This, in and of itself, isn't a bad thing, and the new 3rd Edition rules certainly make things more interesting, but in the end there remains a feeling of "been there, done that" that cannot be expelled. However, this is a solid, if not unspectacular, hack-and-slash adventure and a good game on which to retire the classic Infinity engine.
The sequel takes place some 30 years after the events in Icewind Dale. (The events of the original game are referenced many times throughout the course of the sequel.) Your merry band of adventurers is traveling to aid the besieged city of Targos, looking for fame and fortune as mercenaries. The small hunting and fishing town is under attack from raiding orcs and goblins, and you (among a few other mercenary groups) were hired to repel the attacks and help save the city.
The meat of the story is finding out whom or what is responsible for the attacks -- and stopping them. This search takes you on a wild ride from Targos, back to a few familiar locations from the original game, and even to areas far, far removed from the wintry landscapes of the Spine of the World Mountains. It's more epic in scope than the original, and the story more fleshed out -- it's also bigger ... a lot bigger. Black Isle has stated that the game is larger than the original and its add-ons combined, and this certainly appears to be the case. While not as huge as Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale II should keep you busy for quite some time. There are a lot of bad guys to kill.
Without question, the star of the show is the new 3rd Edition rule set. The new rules add so much life to the game that it makes you wonder how older games such as the Baldur's Gate series would benefit from the changes. It truly makes for a better experience, especially in terms of character freedoms. Want to deck your mage out with heavy armor? Want your barbarian to try to search for traps? Want to make a halfling cleric or a half-orc mage? Anything is possible. The character system, along with the addition of several sub races such as Moon Elves, Gold Dwarves, Rock Gnomes, and Lightfoot Halflings to name a few, doesn't limit you the way the old rules did and it makes for much more rounded and unique characters.
The new "feat" system works wonderfully. There are over 75 feats in the game such as Power Attack, Cleave, Toughness, Rapid Fire, Spell Penetration, Hamstring (a lovely thief feat), and Lightning Reflexes. These new feats add even more flavor to your characters; as they gain experience and increase in level more feats are made available to them -- some of which are class specific. It cannot be stressed enough just how much they add to the game; going back and playing an older Infinity engine game without them seems impossible.
Visually, the game succeeds. True, it cannot hold a candle to flashier titles such as Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights, but just because a game is in 2D doesn't automatically mean it's unattractive. The graphics in Icewind Dale II are anything but that; they're actually quite good. Spell effects are topnotch and creatures look better than ever. The need to go "3D" isn't always a necessity, and this game proves that point tenfold. Supporting resolutions up to and including 1024x768 (higher resolutions are available, but unsupported) Icewind Dale II is a clean-looking game.
While the graphics are good enough to get the job done, the pathfinding AI is downright poor. This is always an area of concern in any Infinity-driven game, and oddly enough it's never been as bad as it is here. It's so bad it will induce flashbacks of the mines in the original Baldur's Gate. Characters take more wrong turns than a blind man in a hedge maze. Some areas are worse than others, but anytime there are hallways in which to walk through you can rest assured that someone gets lost. You literally have to babysit your characters through certain areas, taking small steps just to get them through a door. The help files suggest changing character formations to help alleviate this, but it does little good. It's just plain annoying -- especially when a wrong turn results in a quick death at the hand of an irate Ice Troll.
The newly designed interface is a welcome change. Character information now runs along the bottom portion of the screen, not the sides as in earlier games. This adds more viewable space and keeps things nice and tidy all in one location. New weapon slots are available so that you may "preload" up to four weapon choices at a time. For example, if you're a thief who uses a dagger to backstab, but who also uses a sling from a distance, you may change from dagger and shield to the sling with a click of a button rather than having to go into your inventory.
Audio is excellent. The music in particular is extremely well done. The voice acting is as good as it gets -- whoever hired the voice talent for Icewind Dale II deservers a raise as it has some of the best voice work in any role-playing game to date. The voices are believable and filled with emotion.
The strategic level of combat, combined with the sheer volume of fighting that takes place, lends itself well to multiplayer as you setup battle tactics and spell options. The usual protocols are available, as well as GameSpy Arcade, and it supports up to six players. It's best to use a voice chat program such as Roger Wilco; it's always entertaining when a mage lets loose with an area of attack spell and "accidentally" blasts his buddies to bits. To hear the other players scream, "Hey, watch that fireball!" over your PC is always a treat.
Icewind Dale's hack-and-slash theme stays true to form in the sequel. There is a lot of combat in the game. It's true that there are times when you can use a character's Diplomacy or Intimidate skill, but for the most part it's a "grab your torch and pitchfork" kind of game. There's very little let up. It's one huge fight after another and it can get a bit tedious as the game wears on. After spending 15 minutes slogging it out in a tough fight, you can expect another large battle right around the corner. Sometimes monsters are placed in very odd locations; it's as if the designers wanted to keep throwing bad guys at you for no other reason than to induce combat. Turn one corner: Ice Trolls. Turn the next corner: Yetis. Turn south a few paces: Ice Drakes. It's not subtle -- this is truly a combat lover's game.
The problem is that some of these battles are exceedingly tough, even on the medium level of difficulty. In fact, one battle took no less than 30 reloads before finally winning without losing half the party. Aside from the relentless combat, there are a few puzzles and one highly annoying forest maze that will test the nerve of even the most hardened role-playing fan. Mazes are no fun. They weren't fun in The Bard's Tale and they aren't fun today -- especially when it takes hours of trial and error to figure out where to go. Throwing in a maze or a nasty puzzle is fine, but at least give the player a chance to avoid it or solve it instead of wasting time figuring it out as you go.
Despite these issues, the sequel succeeds in being a better game than the original. It's bigger and better in almost every way. If you're looking for a blood and guts 3rd Edition role-playing game, Icewind Dale II fits the bill perfectly.
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Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo, Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor, Diablo 2
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