Icewind Dale II Review
Like its predecessor, Icewind Dale II is simply a great role-playing game.
The days leading up to the release of Icewind Dale in June 2000 didn't make the odds of the game being a success look very good. Billed as sort of a dumbed-down hack-and-slash version of the epic fantasy role-playing game Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale also happened to hit the shelves on exactly the same day as Blizzard Entertainment's very highly anticipated Diablo II. Surprisingly, Icewind Dale wasn't drowned out by Diablo II, but instead seemed to ride that game's wave of success. Good thing, too, because Icewind Dale was a great game that deserved an audience. Though heavily focused on action, it was anything but dumbed-down, and it featured some impressive production values for good measure.
Arriving more than two years later, Icewind Dale II faces similar adversity. This has already been an outstanding year for computer role-playing games, thanks to some extraordinary games--particularly The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights--that have undoubtedly raised the standards for the RPG genre. At a glance, Icewind Dale II doesn't look like much of a match for these ambitious games, mostly because Icewind Dale II still uses the ancient Infinity Engine first seen in Baldur's Gate in 1998. "Ancient" is perhaps too pejorative, actually--"immortal" may be a better word to describe the engine, because the fact is, Icewind Dale II plays great. And though the likes of Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights have proved that a role-playing game can play and look great, most RPG fans would agree that good looks aren't as important as excellent gameplay.
Like its predecessor, Icewind Dale II is a Dungeons & Dragons-based role-playing game set in the popular Forgotten Realms universe. It offers a similar blend of role-playing and pure, intense tactical combat, but it weaves an entirely new story and poses a more significant challenge. Though action-oriented by all means, Icewind Dale II is a considerably long game, and it will provide plenty of lasting value even to those expecting a lot of bang for their role-playing buck.
Icewind Dale II does have a lot in common with its predecessor. It features many of the same graphical and aural elements as its 2-year-old forebear, and it basically has a similar pacing and style. However, unlike the original Icewind Dale, the sequel happens to use the relatively new 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, which have much more depth than the classic 2nd Edition rules featured in games like Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate II. At the very least, the new rules make the gameplay of Icewind Dale II noticeably different than that of its predecessor, enough so that it succeeds in providing an experience that's original in its own right.
Icewind Dale II is structured much like the first game. You begin by creating a party of up to six different characters, though you have the helpful option to quickly select a prefabricated party if you want to jump right in. All characters begin their lives as first-level neophytes who are sometimes barely able to hit the broad side of a barn, much less a savage goblin. So you'd better cross your fingers, because the game doesn't tarry in putting you into an action-packed situation. In fact, you'll be fighting almost from the start, in your efforts to defend a humble town from an invasion by the vicious green-skinned races.
The plot thickens, the combat gets more intense, you gain levels, you find better equipment, and you learn better spells (several hundred are available), and suddenly you realize that your party has grown immensely powerful. Like any great role-playing game, Icewind Dale II offers a very subtle yet somehow palpable sense of continuous character development. Experience points are hard-earned from combat and from quests, and changes in experience level tend to be few and far between (though more frequent than in 2nd Edition D&D), yet you'll still get the impression that your party is gradually but noticeably growing stronger and stronger. Interestingly, the early stages of Icewind Dale II are some of the hardest, as you'll be challenged just to keep your stalwart band alive through each battle. Later on, death itself will hardly be an issue, as you'll have such mighty spells at your disposal that you'll feel as though virtually nothing will be able to defeat you. The fact that you'll still have to overcome some very stiff challenges just goes to show how expertly paced Icewind Dale II generally is. There's nothing like feeling you're on top of the world in an RPG, only to come face-to-face with a truly mighty foe who's more than your equal.