Interplay's Black Isle Studios has been publishing PC RPGs for the past several years, often to critical praise from gamers. Perhaps the most popular games they've made are the ones using TSR's popular Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule-sets - including Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment. While those two particular games were highly story-driven, Black Isle decided to go with a slightly different focus for their next game.
And so, Icewind Dale was born. Based on the Icewind Dale books by Robert Salvatore, and set in the popular Forgotten Realms universe, Black Isle decided to make Icewind Dale a hack-and-slash dungeon romp, without neglecting the strong plots that are associated with their games. To a large degree, they succeeded - Icewind Dale may not be the deepest RPG you'll ever play, but it's a blast, with more than enough gameplay to keep you happy.
A Journey to the Spine of the World
The game starts in one of the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale, Easthaven. The game begins much like a typical AD&D campaign - a few adventurers meet up to find their path in the world and to gain their fortunes. Shortly after meeting each other, they decide to assist a local hero, Hrothgar, in traveling to nearby Kuldahar. All is not well in the North - people are disappearing, packs of monsters are appearing near villages, and a sense of evil is rising. An unfortunate accident separates the adventurers from their caravan, and they are charged with discovering the source of the evil - at whatever cost.
The game is significantly more combat oriented than any of the other recent AD&D games. Even so, there's still a fair amount of dialogue, a lot of quests to be done, and a nice back-story to the game. While it's certainly not the biggest, most epic game you've ever seen, you'll still become quite involved with the problems of the Dale. There's a lot to do, a very interesting cast of characters, and a lot of interesting lore to learn about within the context of the game. Especially interesting are a lot of the magical items you run across - many of them have back stories - it really helps you feel like you're part of a larger world.
The game is highly linear, which is unusual for a PC RPG. It's not really a strength or a weakness of Icewind Dale - while there's not much confusion caused by being unsure of where to go next, the linearity aspect could have been handled better - much of the game involves fetch quests, and for the most part, you won't hear about important people or places until you have to go there next. It does detract slightly from the game - for all the history of the game world, much of it is unused. Regardless, however, the plot of Icewind Dale is still pretty good, and does a good job of giving you a reason to continue adventuring.
Icewind Dale's graphics are stunning. For all the trends towards 3D, there's still no better way to make a game beautiful than to use 2D artwork. The frigid beauty of the North is amazing. From glaciers to snowy plains, to crypts and underground lairs, there's a lot of variety in the areas you visit. There's a lot of detail in the backgrounds, so there's always something to look at.
Animation on characters and enemies is superb. Your characters' appearances depend on what equipment they're armed with - as well as what class they are. You can choose their skin and hair colors, as well as their clothing colors - both major and minor. As such, you can have your ranger wear green clothing, while your thief puts on dark shades and your mage wears dark red robes. It's entirely an aesthetic decision, but it's fun to help personalize your characters.
Battles are also a joy to watch. Arrows fly through the air, your characters swing their weapons, mages and clerics cause bright magical swirls to occur as they cast. Spell effects are beautiful, from purple lightning bolts, to glowing magical webs, and other effects both lovely and deadly. In fact, it can be hard to keep track of battles, just because there's so much going on - but this is a good thing. You'll never be bored of looking at the graphics. Large sized monsters have been implemented into the Infinity Engine, so that some enemies will tower over your party - it helps give a sense of perspective in what you're fighting.
"I'll die if you make me do any more work!"
Sound effects are crisp, and largely what you would expect. The sounds of battle fit together extremely well - weapons clash, casualties scream in pain, spells echo and roar. There are a variety of voice sets you can choose for your characters, ranging from comical to serious. As in Baldur's Gate, the voice set you choose for your character will essentially determine their personality, but it's mainly a way to determine how a character's doing.
The music is wonderful. It's epic, the instrumentation is fantastic, and it's simply a joy to listen to. Tracks range from soft and peaceful, to loud and frantic - yet none of them are overwhelming. Vocals are present on some tracks, but rather than being the focus of the song, they're just part of the whole - which is a very nice touch. It's hard to compare Icewind Dale's soundtrack to any other game's - I suppose it could best be described as more "mature" than many other games. Regardless of how it's described, it fits the game amazingly well, and is overall an incredible work.
Is it a dungeon crawl if you're running for your lives?
For anyone who's played any AD&D, or any AD&D based games, you've got an excellent idea of what to expect from Icewind Dale. At the start, you create from one to six party members. You can roll their statistics (until you create a character you like the looks of), then you can determine their race, class, alignment, weapon preferences, appearance, and even write a back-story for them, if you'd like. I'm not going to go into detail about the AD&D system - much information is available online for that.
The Infinity Engine used in Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment is back, and it's been refined. The interface has been streamlined, making it easier to do what you need to do. It's easy to set your party up using formations, to move them around, give them commands, and so forth.
Interaction with the environment is quite simple. A simple left-click of the mouse will do whatever you need to do - pick up items, manipulate objects, talk to friendly characters, and attack hostile ones. Quick item slots let you switch weapons and use items and spells without having to go rooting through menus.
Combat is a breeze thanks to the game engine. You can pause to give orders, or let things take their course. Party AI can be turned on and off so you don't have to micro-manage your party, though that's certainly viable. Extra options such as having the game auto-pause in certain situations further simplify the gameplay.
It's a good thing that the game engine facilitates interaction and combat, because you'll be fighting a lot. Interplay's not kidding when they emphasize Icewind Dale's combat-filled gameplay - you'll be fighting very often. The game is rather difficult, almost frustrating at times, simply due to how often you'll be in battle - coupled with AD&D's unforgiving combat rules, and you'll be re-loading quite a few times. Even though combat's difficult, though, it's quite satisfying, especially as your party goes up in levels and becomes powerful.
Due to the linear nature of Icewind Dale, there's not a lot of ways to go through the game. Different dialogue options are available and can change how you progress through the game, but for the most part, it's a matter of allowing you to get through a situation without fighting, or to pick a fight when one wouldn't normally exist.
Side quests are fairly common, and result in extra treasure and sizeable experience bonuses. For the most part, they're a matter of giving people items they're looking for, or rescuing prisoners, and so forth. Most are optional, but you can be rewarded for doing the "right" thing, or simply taking the extra effort to do favors for characters.
As always, there are a few small issues that detract from the game.
Pathfinding, as has been the case with all the Infinity Engine-based games, is horrendous. Your characters get in each other's way; take the long way to get to places (occasionally annoying enemies you hadn't found yet), and generally act extremely brain-dead. Enemy AI is similarly stupid - most of the time, if they can't see you, they don't acknowledge your existence, which can lead to some cheap kills for you.
There's a strange emphasis on unfair enemy positioning. For the first few chapters of the game, you'll find a small (or large) army right next to most area entrances. It's fun for a little while, but when you find yourself having to repeatedly go with hit-and-run tactics just to clear the entrance to an area, you'll become less fond of the game. Such ambushes are prevalent throughout the game, and with the unforgiving nature of AD&D combat, you'll probably find yourself loading the game more times than you'd like.
The inventory is also a bit small. Despite having slots to hold multiple weapons, armor, and a quiver for ammunition, it never seems like you have enough inventory slots to hold quest items, potions, and the treasure you're accumulating - and frequent runs to town aren't always available. More of a nit-pick than anything else, but since the characters already have weight limits, why not let them hold as much as they can possibly carry?
Fast and Fun
Icewind Dale is a game that's hard to write about. Saying that it's a "fun, hack and slash adventure" doesn't really do justice to the game, but that's really what it is. It's essentially a long AD&D campaign, wrapped up with a nice interface, great graphics and sound, and other nice touches.
It's not the greatest game you'll ever play, but you can certainly do worse with your time and money. If you like PC RPGs, pick it up. If you don't usually like PC RPGs due to their non-linearity, this may be the game for you.
It's another quality game from Interplay and Black Isle Studios. That's all that really needs to be said.