Back in 1998, a small game company called BioWare released a little game called Baldur’s Gate. OK, I lied. BG was much more than just a “little game”. In fact, it single-handedly rekindled an interest in Dungeons and Dragons-based PC games, due mostly to the ingenious game engine that powered it. The game was a huge success, and thus, the Infinity Engine was born. Over the past four years, many games have been created using this engine, and all of them have been exceptional products. Black Isle Studios’ Icewind Dale II, the newest game to use the Infinity Engine, is no exception. Even though it seems a bit dated in a time when beautiful 3D RPGs like Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights are topping the sales charts, IWD2 manages to hold its own against its prettier and more technologically advanced competitors by relying on what made the series so popular in the first place: rock-solid D&D gameplay.
Icewind Dale II, unlike previous Infinity Engine games, uses the 3rd Edition D&D rules. This doesn’t affect the core gameplay so much as to confuse players who are used to the 2nd Edition rules, but it does allow the player much more freedom to customize his or her characters. Rather than statistics being determined by a roll of the dice, the game uses a much fairer system in which players get a set amount of points to raise their stats with during character creation. The move to 3rd Edition also adds a more refined skill system to the mix. Depending on a character’s intelligence level, he or she will receive a certain amount of skill points that can be used to upgrade various skills, ranging from pickpocketing to alchemy to almost anything else you could imagine in a fantasy-based RPG. Another new feature of the 3rd Edition is “feats”. To those of you that played Fallout or Fallout 2, feats are very similar to the “perks” of those games. Every so often, you will get to choose a one-time offer of a bonus to your character. These feats can be anything from increased fire resistance to better proficiency with a given weapon. For those of you who are sick of the races and classes available in the first game, Black Isle has addes some new ones to the mix, including the much-loved Drow elves. Also, if you aren’t sure you have the know-how to craft a good party (or if you’re just plain lazy), the game comes with pre-made adventuring companions for you to use, complete with their own backstories. Overall, this allows the player to create characters exactly how they see fit, unlike previous games in the series.
Aside from the character building, the core gameplay of IWD2 is largely unchanged from that of the first game. You will create a party of anywhere between one and six adventurers and proceed to tour the land of Faerun, visiting various dungeons, killing hundreds of monsters, and looting everything that isn’t strapped down. Like the first IWD, combat is the main focus here. For those of you who have never played an Infinity Engine game, I’ll tell you right now that lots of combat is a good thing. Although things start off slow when your party can’t do anything but attempt to hit the enemies with assorted weak weaponry, things do pick up eventually once you start gaining levels, spells, and abilities to play with. The combat is highly strategic and requires a great deal of forward thinking. Although some fights can be incredibly difficult if the correct actions to take don’t occur to you, it’s very rewarding to finally win a fight you’ve had to reload two dozen times. And speaking of reloading, expect to do it often. IWD2 is not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, even on the easiest difficult setting. Let this serve as a warning: if you have no experience with the first IWD or the Baldur’s Gate series, prepare to be slaughtered regularly.
Although IWD2 doesn’t have the immediate visual appeal of something like Morrowind, it’s still an attractive game. Granted, it does look a bit dated, but the 2D graphics lend a certain charm to the game. The character sprites look the same as they have since the original Baldur’s Gate, but the backgrounds are very attractive. The spell effects are decent, too, although it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The game unofficially supports resolutions up to 1024×768, although the characters start to look a little too small when you turn it up too high. All in all though, the look of the game is solid and doesn’t do anything to detract from the experience. And hey, look on the bright side…at least you won’t have to worry about manipulating the camera just to keep track of where characters are in the middle of a fight.
IWD2 has a decent, if cliched, story behind it, but if you don’t care to worry about it, you really don’t have to. As a matter of fact, the plot is really only advanced in the beginning and end of the game. The rest is just an excuse to kill things and get loot, which is A-OK in a game like this. For those of you looking to play another Planescape: Torment or BGII, this really isn’t the game for you. However, fans of Torment will be pleased to learn that the dialogue in IWD2 is almost as detailed and satisfying as in that game. Several character skills are devoted solely to dialogue, and the resulting amount of conversation branches is staggering. Like Torment, a character’s intelligence and charisma make a big difference in the dialogue choices you receive. The NPCs are also well-written and each one has a well-defined personality, rather than having armies of people named “Villager” and “Townsperson”. This helps to make the game more immersive, even if the story itself is somewhat lacking.
Black Isle has redesigned the interface since the last Infinty Engine game, making it much less cumbersome and reducing the amount of screen space it takes up. This helps to streamline things a bit, although it takes a bit of getting used to if you’re already accustomed to the traditional “takes up three sides of the screen” layout. Once you get the hang of it however, you’ll be good to go. Unfortunately, the buttons still all have a bit of a clunky feel to them and sometimes you have to click more than once to get it to recognize your actions. This is annoying at tiems, but not a real impediment to gameplay. One thing that annoyed me to no end, however, was that after four years, the pathfinding of the game is still horrid. Characters act as if they are blind, deaf, crippled, and mentally challenged when trying to navigate anything more than an open field. They’ll often go in the opposite direction of where you tell them to, and sometimes they’ll just stand there and look around as if you never clicked that space of ground fifty feet away. This gets especially annoying when fighting in tight corridors, as your characters will just walk back and forth instead of attacking the enemies. This can be dealt with, but it’s tedious and could have been fixed by this point.
The music in IWD2 is excellent. Composed by Inon Zur, the man behind the music of BGII: Throne of Bhaal and Fallout Tactics, the score is nothing short of excellent. It has a terrific feeling of “epic adventure” and each piece of music perfectly fits its placement in the game. The voice acting is also excellent. Each NPC has an appropriate voice and the actors perform their lines without going overboard. The only time I noticed a voice over that sounded unnatural was the character of Madae. Her speaking seems stunted and out of place. Other than that, however, the voice acting is top-notch in every way.
All in all, if you’re looking for a new RPG to play on your PC and you’ve already finished most of the other big games released this year, you should consider IWD2. It provides a rich combat engine and great character building all wrapped up in a treasure trove of Forgotten Realms locations. If you’re already a fan of the Infinity Engine, you’ve no doubt already bought the game, so I need not say anything else to you folks, except that IWD2 is a fitting end to a long and excellent series of games. Play it, enjoy it, and remember that there’s always room for a game like this, even in a world where fancy 3D graphics engines are king.