One of the more pleasant surprises of 2000 was Icewind Dale. It was largely overshadowed by Diablo II (in fact, they were released within a few weeks of each other), but was a title more than capable of holding its own. Black Isle Studios focused less on the story aspects of their prior titles, and more on the combat. The result was a very entertaining and challenging dungeon romp set in the icy reaches of the North.
Recently, the expansion pack was released for Icewind Dale. Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter expands upon the world detailed in the original game, and while not offering anything significant, provides a few more hours of fun.
Those wacky barbarians
The farthest north of the Ten Towns, Lonelywood, has a bit of a problem. See, various barbarian tribes are gathering nearby, and the townspeople fear attack. The dead king of one of the tribes, Wulfdene, has arisen, and wants to reclaim the plains of the north for the barbarians.
One of the tribal shamans, Hjollder, wants your party of adventurers to help - he's seen visions that indicate that Wulfdene isn't what he seems to be, and fears the worst. Your party will travel to Lonelywood, investigate the matter - and discover the truth of what's happening.
The story is pretty much what you'd expect from an expansion to Icewind Dale - certainly functional, but nothing to write home about. The main plot moves pretty quickly, and it's safe to say that it provides ample opportunities to beat up on some pretty fierce opponents. There are also the requisite side quests involving the villagers of Lonelywood - the fallen Ranger Emmerich, the innkeeper, Kieran, with the shady past, and so forth. The side quests don't have to be finished, but there are some incredibly hefty experience and treasure rewards - certainly worth doing.
In fact, you'll want to do as much as you can, simply because it's so short. There are 5 new areas to explore, and only 3 of them are dungeons - overall, the size of the area you'll explore in Heart of Winter is comparable to some of the later chapters in the original game. Expecting more than 15 hours of new content out of the expansion is going to leave you disappointed.
The graphics in Heart of Winter are pretty much identical to those in Icewind Dale - very, very nice. The settings provide ample opportunity for eye-candy - the highlight is a gigantic ice cavern, with smooth ice passages crossing each other. Not the most impressive you'll ever see, but a nice argument for 2D graphics.
Similarly, the enemy and character animations are nice. The characters really haven't changed since the original game, and are virtually identical to what you'd find in the other Infinity Engine games. Enemies are largely different than the foes faced earlier, with a lot of variety. Enemy models look nice, and they animate well also. The new spell effects are also rather nice.
Overall, it's nothing we haven't seen before from the Infinity Engine, but it's more than ample. It should also be noted that 800x600 (and higher) resolutions are now available, though they tend to slow things down significantly. For those with beefy machines, have at them.
Similarly, the sound effects are pretty much what we got out of Icewind Dale. The typical combat sounds - metal armor ringing, sword swings, and bows firing. Monsters have their own little growls, screams, and howls.
Voice acting is sparse, but very nice. Only a few characters speak, but Hjollder sounds like you'd expect a barbarian shaman to, and Wulfdene sounds...well, like a dead barbarian king should. There are also a variety of voice sets for your characters, and they help interject a bit of personality to the proceedings.
More power, more fun, more deaths
The expansion is designed for higher-level characters. In fact, to access the areas of the expansion, you need characters at least level 9. Rather than viewing this as a flaw, this is a definite plus - level 9 is actually pushing it.
After installing Heart of Winter, you can either start a new game of Icewind Dale, or create an expansion-only game. For those people who haven't completed the original, they can play through Icewind Dale until they're of sufficient level, then go to Lonelywood. If the game's been completed, you can either use pre-made characters to go directly to Lonelywood, or import your characters from the end of Icewind Dale. This is probably going to be the preferred option for the target audience (since they've had almost a year to finish Icewind Dale).
Any characters dead from the final battle will be resurrected when the expansion starts - but I ran into a problem here. Due to the extreme difficulty of the final boss from the original, only two of my six party members survived - and while my whole party was alive and well in Lonelywood, all the equipment from my deceased comrades had been left in the final battle arena. This problem was easily circumvented (I loaded a saved game from just before Icewind Dale's final battle, and when I walked into the boss's chamber, my characters were exported with all their equipment), but for those people who only saved their characters and not their saved games, there could be a problem here.
The battles are very difficult - enemies are numerous, strong, and resistant to various forms of attack. Even with a party of level 13 characters, I had trouble coping with my first encounters. While I found a strategy that worked well (cast haste and as many other beneficial spells on my party as possible, go ballistic on everything, rest, repeat), people should be prepared to save and reload often. Another problem is the ambush design that carries over from the original - most areas have enemies right inside the entrances to areas, and while they're not quite as numerous as before, the higher-level foes make it dangerous nonetheless.
While the enemies are stronger, you're certainly not without aid - there are a variety of new, higher level spells available to cast. New weapons and armor are all over the place, some with very powerful modifiers. The experience cap has also been raised - it's possible to get characters up to level 30. With some of the side quest rewards, you'll find yourself shooting up in levels - particularly if you have a party smaller than the possible six people.
For those people who feel they can handle the challenge, there's an optional Heart of Fury mode you can turn on. Monsters gain in power and health, but the experience rewards are correspondingly boosted. Moreover, all quest exp earned in Heart of Fury mode is doubled - a nice benefit. I got smacked around when I tried to fight in Heart of Fury, but I can see how it'd be a nice way to add challenge to the game - or for those who want to reach the higher power levels.
Over too soon
Really, the biggest flaw with Heart of Winter is the length. It'd be great if I was playing Icewind Dale for the first time, since I could just approach the new areas as part of the whole - but I've completed the game, and installing an expansion that can be finished in a dozen hours seems a bit little to me - particularly for the $30 most people will find it for.
Fans of Icewind Dale will want to pick up Heart of Winter - it's more of the tried-and-true gameplay of the original. If it's been a while since you've finished Icewind Dale, however, I'd recommend replaying the whole game - it'll allow you to get more into the expansion pack, since you won't have an extended gap in playtime between the original and expansion (for all intents and purposes, my party was simply a bunch of pre-made characters with familiar names and some good equipment). The equipment you can find in the Lonelywood area may be more useful then - I remember that the final battle in Icewind Dale was tremendously hard, and being able to level up your characters and get new items would certainly help.
If you liked Icewind Dale, and don't mind paying a bit much for some more, then Heart of Winter will give you something new to play around with. I'd rank it much higher if it was twice as long - I just felt it was over too soon.