Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter takes place in a frosty climate, in a harsh terrain separated from the rest of the world by the mountain range known as the Spine of the World. The slowly unraveling plot revolves around the resurrected corpse of an ancient king, possessed by some unseen force that gathers the barbarian tribes into a fearsome army. Interaction with a wide variety of NPCs, each with unique motivations, keeps the story flowing.
The game starts slowly with creation of six characters from scratch, using standard second-edition AD&D race and class combinations. It's a laborious process, requiring attribute assignment as well as redistribution of points. While the customization possibilities are varied, character creation is six times longer for six distinct characters.
Further customization includes a choice of weapon skills, portraits, and even character voices. The assumption is made that you're familiar with the AD&D game, and it's a trade-off of customization versus playability. The character customization feature can't be underestimated in terms of enjoyment for players who take care with their character's biography, portrait, and color scheme.
Combat is not the first action your characters perform, a welcome relief from similar games. Heart of Winter's plot advancement requires taking the time to talk to a wide variety of NPCs. The interaction is rewarding in its own right, as characters can actually gain experience through successfully uniting a family, uncovering a lie, or finding out a bit of lore. The party wanders around for quite some time before traveling off to the barbarian lands, where the action really heats up.
Heart of Winter, like Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate, is Dungeons & Dragons with all the irritating flaws removed. Bards have actual songs they can use, spells are represented by easily recognizable icons, memorization and spell casting are a snap, thieves pick pockets, clerics cast spells, and wizards even specialize. Dual-class, multi-class, and weapon specialization are all included in the game to good effect.
Exploration in Heart of Winter uses an interface that seems better suited to real-time strategy games. Each area lies shrouded in a "fog of war" until characters pass through and reveal the terrain. Even though the game still runs in 640x480 resolution, the large pre-rendered backgrounds have exceptional detail. Random weather effects add to the impressive and engaging environment.
Alignment and attributes matter, too. Characters with various charisma attributes and distinct alignments garner different responses from NPCs, while some actions reinforce a good character's nature. Killing townspeople is an abominable act, which speaks for itself and has serious repercussions on character interaction. As for characters, you pick a voice for each and they all recite their lines on cue. It's very entertaining, for example, when a surly female gets annoyed and husks: "Yes, what IS it?" or a snickering thief mutters "What now?"
Even more amusing are the phrases the characters utter when they die. Combat is positively lethal, if not impossible, without intermittent pausing. Trying to distinguish a character from the enemy can be extremely difficult, especially in the chaos of combat. Nevertheless, the spell effects are magnificent as characters chant ancient spells with magical effects blasting across the screen.
Other flaws include a miserable path finding function, often requiring repeated clicks to enter a dwelling, or when the party grinds to a halt if the leader gets stuck behind a stool. A potentially fatal flaw is the possibility of accidentally killing a character that is integral to the plot, which can effectively ruin the game. Ultimately, the story makes the game, albeit with interspersed and occasionally annoying action sequences. But each combat has a purpose, which makes gameplay challenging and rewarding.
Graphics: The game uses Baldur's Gate's graphics engine. The six player characters are represented with the same small, animated sprites from BioWare's other games. The terrain is varied and includes tombs, temples, ruined cities, and underground caves to good effect.
Sound: Heart of Winter's soundtrack, composed by Jeremy Soule, is one of the best produced for a game of this type. The sweeping score reinforces what's taking place in the game, alternately forlorn in the wintry outdoors to rousing in the heat of combat. The narration is exceptional and other sounds effects are above par with dogs howling in the distance, wind whistling around your characters, and every footstep echoing with the crunch of snow underfoot or a creaky footfall on a wooden floor. The characters speak from a series of pre-selected lines, and the running commentary adds a bit of levity to a game that otherwise could take itself far too seriously.
Enjoyment: A better combat engine could have made Heart of Winter great instead of simply good. The plot is engaging, but the game is exceptionally complex, enough so that it may turn off players unfamiliar with the Dungeons and Dragons system. The new D&D Third Edition rules have some subtle but fundamental differences guaranteed to confuse new players.
Replay Value: Saves can be made at any point in the game, and with combat so lethal, it's a necessity. An auto save function built into the system ensures that no game is lost. Heart of Winter's depth is superb compared to similar games, and while the plot is fairly linear, multiple opportunities abound to explore the lives and motivations of the many characters in each town. The complexity, combined with the detailed character creation process, makes for a very involving game.
People who downloaded Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter have also downloaded:
Icewind Dale 2, Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Neverwinter Nights 2, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment
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