Icewind Dale II Review

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Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Black Isle Studios (Interplay)

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: Pentium II 350 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM

Venture into the Spine of the World to face an evil that has surfaced to menace the Ten Towns.

Kyle Ackerman

Icewind Dale II is yet another game based on the venerable Infinity Engine, proving that gameplay can still win out over the latest graphics, and that age can indicate technological refinement rather than outdated play. Technically, Icewind Dale II is a role-playing game in which you lead a band of up to six adventurers to once again save the humble inhabitants of the northern wastes of Faerun. There are innumerable role-playing elements, but (like the original Icewind Dale) the game may be better described as a real-time strategic combat game using the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, in a spectacular, two-dimensional, hand-drawn setting.

Unlike more role-playing intensive games using other flavors of the Infinity Engine, such as the Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale II focuses on a long sequence of battles with foes both fantastic and mundane. In that, it is an appropriate successor to Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter, occurring a single generation later than the earlier titles. Dialog trees exist, and not every encounter is best resolved with violence. Not every encounter – just most of them. The Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules are thoroughly implemented, but statistics and feats exist to make your characters better dealers of death through melee, marksmanship or magic. The emphasis is not on building relationships between your characters, but on killing everything that stands between you and saving the world. That's a good thing. There is a need for games with deep plots and complex characters. There is also a need for games where you can enjoy epic battle after epic battle, with just enough plot to imbue your and your party with a sense of purpose.

If you have the necessary basic familiarity with the newer D&D rules, Icewind Dale II is a game that you can play for many hours in a single sitting, or just a few minutes – enough for a single engagement. The complexity of the rules can make it difficult to determine how to create and advance your characters, fortunately, the point allocation system for starting ability scores saves us the burden of staying up through the wee hours of the night re-rolling characters. The rules also make this a title given to optimization and min/max styles of play. The focus on combat doesn't encourage players to spend experience on skills that align with a charming character concept, but with extensive control over the game's difficulty level, you can create as much or as little of a min/max challenge as you desire. Once you are familiar enough with the system, you can enjoy the emphasis on tactics and strategy, and concentrate on preparing your adventurers with appropriate equipment, potions and magic. As commander of this small group of adventurers you can carefully husband their resources, attack in full-out assaults, and enjoy activities ranging from simple prioritization of targets to carefully scripting your approach to each encounter.

Certainly, after twenty hours of constant combat, you might want a break, but that's roughly akin to saying you might want to try something else after finishing another, average length game. Icewind Dale II is truly epic in scope, and offers a great many more hours of entertainment than most titles. That makes it a game that can reside on your hard-drive for a long time, allowing you to return occasionally for a quick combat fix or long campaign, without having to replay an already completed game. While much easier to play for any length of time as a single-player game, you can even work through the region of the Ten Towns cooperatively in a multiplayer mode for group fun.

Icewind Dale II starts in the small fishing village and outpost of Targos, which has been invaded by goblins. The party has the usual slate of entry level adventuring before them – they get to kill the least challenging of foes and do a great deal of fetching and carrying before acquiring sufficient experience to take on more powerful creatures. The game has an appealing sense of humor about itself and the genre, such as when you meet a group of mercenaries who grumble about the same sorts of "fetch and carry" tasks that you, yourself, have been performing. Your aid in repelling a massive assault by evil humanoids at Targos' palisade reveals a darker force moving into the land of the Ten Towns. Familiar friends from the previous titles like Oswald and his airship are joined by new enemies like the half-dragon Sherincal and the child Thorasskus. The journey will take you from being nearly powerless mercenaries in Targos, through a temple forged of ice, the grim Black Raven Monastery and ultimately to the Severed Hand, a familiar locale for fans of the series.

The journey is a beautiful one. The two dimensional backdrop for the flurry of sequential battles is gorgeous, hand-detailed and captures the feeling of swords and sorcery paintings far better than the usual three dimensional environments that have become standard fantasy game fare. Individual characters, items and monsters are attractive, carefully detailed and graced with glorious animations that enliven the world of Icewind Dale II. Many of the exotic creatures such as the driders and or the white dragon are impressive, but even the basic beasts like the rhinoceros beetle are satisfyingly rendered. The main failing of the graphics is that, in keeping with the icy theme, many of the early environments are dominated by whites and blues, and could use a few more splashes of color. The music punctuates the action and swells appropriately, with portentous or victorious themes, depending on the circumstances. For a game so long, though, there is a need for even more of the excellent score to match the enormous size of the game. As it stands, many sections are absent music to avoid excessive repetition.

With the exception of the change to the Third Edition rules, Icewind Dale II feels like a continuation and improvement of everything that was good in Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter. As a whole, this installment seems even more polished and complete than its predecessors. That doesn't mean all the original problems are gone, as pathfinding is still occasionally problematic, but monster AI has improved, and the game continues to have all the improved inventory management features from Heart of Winter such as gem bags, potion bags and scroll cases. The Icewind Dale series also does an excellent job of allowing the player to play as he or she wishes without impediment. There is no need to save and reload every level to gain the maximum number of hit points – just instruct the game to give you the maximum HP every level, if you so wish. Fans of the original series should be aware that there are a few more non-combat puzzles in Icewind Dale II than in the previous games, and they are sometimes challenging. Unlocking the shadow trap in the ice temple comes to mind, as all the elements of that puzzle are not necessarily in view. The puzzles are, regardless of difficulty, interesting and internally consistent.

Overall, Icewind Dale II is a hack and slash wonder that offers countless hours of fun and merits a long-term place on your computer. The game may use an aging engine, but it takes advantage of that solid and familiar foundation to create a title that is engaging and attractive. Moreover, the older technology means this game is playable on older machines with lower system requirements – a boon to gamers without the latest in technology. The number of polygons a game engine can flash across your screen is not the sole measure of fun. Icewind Dale II demonstrates that.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 12, 2003 9:14 PM.

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