Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition

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Evil stirs beneath the Spine of the World. In the northernmost reaches of the Forgotten Realms lies the region of icy tundra known as Icewind Dale. Journey deep into the Spine of the World mountains a harsh and unforgiving territory settled by only the hardiest folk.

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I am glad to have the time to rest and update my journal, although it has been but a day since we set out of Easthaven, it seems as if it has been weeks! The horror of the pass .. the expedition .. all of it too overwhelming to recount. I am glad for the company of my most trusted friends, at least I know I have people upon whom I can rely. I have a feeling that the challenges we have faced thus far are only “the tip of the iceberg”, as they are fond of saying in these snow covered lands.

Similarities between Interplay’s Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate are more than coincidental – both games take place in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms, use the second edition rules, and share the same engine and gameplay style. While much more limited in scope than Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Daleimproves on its predecessor in many ways. It is a compelling mix of strategic combat, character and party development, and linear story progression, marred only by the bugs and glitches found along the way.

Yes, It’s Cold

“They say that history is the greatest of all teachers, and that tales of past deeds define who we are in the present and what we shall be in the future. It is said that such tales shall, with each telling, illuminate us all with the light of truth.” Thus begins the tale of our adventurers, recounted to us by a kindly-sounding narrator with a vested interest in the tale. You learn that their story is somehow connected to that of Jerrod, the barbarian shaman who unified the feuding tribes of the north against a common enemy, and his eventual self-sacrifice to save his people. As the game progresses, key events are narrated to us as pages in a book – a very effective technique made more so by the fine job done by David Ogden Stiers as the narrator.

Icewind Dale takes place about 100 years prior to Baldur’s Gate and almost 18 years before the first recorded explorations of Drizzt do’Urden, the Dark Elven hero in the books upon which this game is based. Your party begins their adventures in the town of Easthaven, one of the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale, where all of the town’s adventurers are preparing for an expedition to the neighboring town of Kuldahar to investigate a dying messenger’s claim of trouble in the area. Your party joins the expedition and sets out on an adventure that will ultimately take them through snow covered lands, haunted Elven ruins, Dwarven strongholds and more as they try to track down who, or what, is behind all of the disturbances in the Dale.

Roll, Reroll, Reroll, Reroll .. Reroll

Unlike Baldur’s Gate, the storyline’s focus is on a group of adventurers and not a single “hero”, so you are required to create a full party whether you play the game through in single player or multiplayer mode. While some may miss the interaction of NPCs within the party, or the additional abilities granted a main character, this feature allows players to have full control over their party composition and progression. These custom created characters all have a measure of individual personality that begins during character creation and continues throughout the game. The race, class, and to some extent, gender of your party members does affect the reactions of people that you speak to. There are new character portraits and voices to enjoy, including comments tailored to one particular race or class, which add to the realism of the game. There’s nothing like moving your Dwarven Warrior to the leader position only to hear him complain, “Oh, when all else fails, put the dwarf in charge”.

Character creation remains very much in line with the Baldur’s Gate experience, including use of the same character models within the game world, and can be as short or as time-consuming a process as you wish it to be. You select gender, race, class, attributes, skills, and starting spells, then customize the character’s appearance and sound. In addition to the standard classes from Baldur’s Gate you may also choose to play a bard. While I was thrilled with the inclusion of this class, it quickly made me aware of how much my lack of detailed AD&D knowledge was going to work against me, and how little the manual and quick reference guide help “newbies”. After combing the manual looking for information about the bard, I had to turn to the Internet to answer my questions about her singing and spell casting abilities. It then took me half the game to realize that I had to take her armor off, or find the right kind of magical chain, if I wanted to cast spells. Likewise, concepts such as THACO and weapon damage calculations are likely to be more than confusing to anyone unfamiliar with D&D rules.

There are many other character enhancements to the game, the most notable being the fact that experience caps at 1,801,000 – an amount I fell far short of even after finishing the game – meaning characters can progress up to levels 14-18. There is a smooth progression in difficulty, at no point do you find yourself facing creatures that are far more difficult than you could beat at your level. Rangers can now quasi-dual wield, they get an extra attack per round as long as they are using a 1H weapon and no shield. You can select an option to allow max hit points per level so perfectionists like myself no longer have to save/load/load/etc to get the max HP roll on a level up. In addition to these types of enhancements, the engine has been modified to allow the display of large enemies, such as frost giants or cyclopes. These guys are much, much bigger than your adventurers and are far more intimidating than many of the other creatures that you will face because of it.

They Might Be Giants

The world of Icewind Dale is very well depicted, somewhere between 3D and hand painted landscapes with often very realistic ambient sound. Shadows fall across the land at dawn and dusk, rivers flow, and even some reflections can be seen in water, gently distorting as the water moves. However, unlike Baldur’s Gate, you will never find yourself wandering aimlessly through large outdoor areas enough to appreciate the passage of time. There is a linear path through the game, and it generally entails only spending enough time outdoors to travel from a dungeon to Kuldahar for supplies, and back to the dungeon.

You can choose to explore each area to the fullest, or try to quickly progress deeper into each dungeon. As you explore, dark areas of the world map become visible, giving you an idea of where else you can go. You are generally rewarded for dungeon exploration via equipment, which is important since you are limited to what you can purchase in the store. You may also find quest items you can use for money, experience, or items. While quest items are fairly static and predictable in their locations, you will find that while the same places tend to hold treasure, what they hold is fairly random and will change on subsequent games. There are quite a few magical items to be found throughout the game, some that could be found in Baldur’s Gate and many totally new.

Combat takes place in real time, with the ability to pause the game at any time to plan attacks, move characters around, or switch equipment. I found it to be so easy to control the characters that I never needed to turn on the character AI scripts. However, this does not mean that combat itself is easy. You are generally faced with hordes of creatures to fight, and the “select all your characters, and attack the nearest enemy as one adventurer clump” strategy usually ends up killing off one or more of the characters.

It is important to plan your attacks and use your character’s abilities based on the weaknesses of your opponents, and use the magic, skills and weaponry at your disposal. Some creatures cannot be killed without magical aid, some are extremely weak to one certain type of weapon, some prefer ranged attacks, and some attack in such sheer numbers that the odds seem firmly against you. It is important to quickly assess and adapt to the challenge. Because of the focus on strategy, despite the linear story and much smaller scale than Baldur’s Gate, the game offers much replayability simply by mixing around your party composition and alignment. This also has a direct impact on how some of the puzzles are solved, allowing for minor story branching to make the game less predictable. For instance, I was able to solve one puzzle at least three different ways, once by having a character with high intelligence lead the conversation, once by having my paladin lead the conversation, and once by finding a clue further in the dungeon.

The interface and multiplayer options will be immediately familiar to anyone who played Baldur’s Gate, that’s because they are essentially the same, with some minor tweaks to improve icon appearance. That means that there are a ton of icons to remember, be it actions, spells, or options. The icons available change slightly depending on the class of character you have selected, so learning the interface is that much more important, so that you don’t miss out on the special abilities of each class.

There are a ton of options to be found in multiplayer as well, granting the power to be flexible in allowing new players to join an existing campaign, and to protect the session against unwanted behavior. The interface makes it easy to create or join sessions as well as import and export characters – in fact, the multiplayer and single player campaigns are so well integrated that characters and save games can be shared between the two. The “leader” has the power to decide whether or not the other players have the ability to modify characters, buy and sell, leave an area, initiate dialog, view other characters, or pause the game. The leader can also remove players, as well as change which player controls which character at any point during the game.

Boring Beetles Aren’t the Only Bugs ..

While Icewind is usually a joy to play, I was surprised to find the amount of bugs I encountered in the release version, many of which hindered my gameplay experience. While I was writing this review, Interplay released the 1.05 patch which fixed many of the complaints I originally had, such as a quest which had rewarded you with a lost item and a conversation choice of “NO VALID REPLIES OR LINKS”. However, I still encountered bugs playing the patched version. My characters had slight pathing problems, so I seemed to always find my Ranger lost (oh, the irony) and halfway across the world from the rest of my characters if I tried to make them go long distances between points. I had other problems with quests, such as completing a quest to find my journal was updated with the entry for the solution to the second part of the quest, along with information that spoiled a major plot twist. Quite a few of the quests I was given in the game did not make it into my journal and I had to keep track of them manually.

I had the computer lock up on me or dump me to the desktop several times while loading a new screen, saving, importing, or even simply walking across an area. However, I had far more lockups playing multiplayer than I did single player; I had to reboot around fifteen times while finishing the game in multiplayer mode as opposed to only one during my single player campaign. While the patch did not completely remove my problems with lockups, it did seem to reduce the frequency with which they occured.

Your Adventure Awaits

Despite the bugs (some fixed by the recent patch) and the difficulty in learning the AD&D rules and interface for new players, Icewind Dale is a challenging and addicting game. From the freedom given the player in the party generation process, to the many ways to interact with NPCs and solve quests, to simply playing the game through to increase the party’s power and equipment for the inevitable sequel, there is a lot to love about this game.

*Review from gamesdomain.com for the Original Icewind Dale

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