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Icewind Dale 2

In a world populated with excellent RPG games, IWD2 stands out for its solid foundation of compelling story line, great game play, and high replayability. It’s hard to please all RPG fans who desire different mixes of action, quest, and character development. IWD2 strikes a nice balance between quest-laden Baldur’s Gate and Diablo’s mindless click-fest. There are plenty of hack and slash to be found here, including all-out melees with a multitude of foes and harrowing battles against powerful monsters. While many quests are of the simple “go there and fetch this” variety, many are quite lengthy and challenging. But the most compelling raison d’ĂȘtre for IWD2 has to be its implementation of the vastly improved AD&D 3rd Edition rule set. The 3rd Edition offers not only new races and sub-races, but also new classes, skills, rules, feats, and weapons. The new races, coupled with multi-classing, make possible a mind-boggling number of party combinations, from Drow paladins/sorcerers to deep gnome thief/monks. A vast selection of weapons and magical items can be found throughout the game. Even better, the special Heart of Fury mode with insanely challenging combat and vastly upgraded weapons is almost another game within a game. Throw in an almost intuitively perfect user interface and beautifully rendered, finely polished graphics and there’s no doubt IWD2 is a winner in the crowded RPG arena.

IWD2 is set 30 years after the events in the original Icewind Dale, when a band of adventurers issued from Easthaven to thwart the plan of a demon to turn the Spine of the World into his private playground. Many of the characters from the original Icewind Dale, in some cases now grown up, make cameo appearances. In fact, the antagonists in the present story have an intimate connection to certain characters in the original story. It’s not necessary to have played Icewind Dale, but if you have, you’ll certainly appreciate the connections.

As its name implies, IWD2 is a visit to that famous region in the fabled Forgotten Realms of the AD&D universe. The story begins when goblin hordes invaded the Ten-Towns, one of which had already been overrun. Bands of mercenaries, of which you are a part, were summoned to the defense of the town Targos, the goblins’ next target. Almost as soon as you get to town, you have to deal with goblin attacks. Soon it becomes apparent that greater evils were behind the goblin threat and you found yourself thrust to the forefront of the conflict, for gold or for glory. Your adventure takes you through many exotic locales, both above- and under-ground, including visits to the great oak of Kuldahar, the warrens of Dragon’s Eye, the steaming jungles of Chult, and the ruined elven fortress Severed Hand. The plot is fairly linear; you won’t be going back and forth between locales to accomplish quests. Nevertheless, the game is surprisingly replayable, thanks to the reasons below.

The new rules are vast improvements for several reasons. Gone are the cryptic THAC0, the counter-intuitive negative armor rating, and the rather complicated types of saving throws. Now, armor bonuses are additive; however, as before, wearing armor increases arcane spell failures and hinders certain abilities such as Hide and Move Silently. Saving throws are reduced to 3 types: Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, which are directly affected by your ability ratings, racial bonuses and magical enhancements. You get to allocate points among a bevy of new skills, such as Bluff and Diplomacy, and feats, such as Ambidexterity and Two-weapon fighting (fighters rejoice!) I’m almost giddy with excitement whenever my characters get to upgrade. New races include half-orcs, Aasimar and Tiefling humans, Duergar dwarves, Drow elves (yes!), and Deep-Gnomes. Each race comes with its own bonuses and disadvantages; some are more powerful than others, but advance in levels more slowly. New classes include monks, barbarians, and sorcerers. If you’re a fan of RA Salvatore, you can even re-create his party of dwarf, Drow, halfling, human, and barbarian from the Icewind Dale trilogy. With multi-classing you can get a dizzying array of combinations, such as monk/sorcerer, paladin/cleric, or thief/ranger/fighter. The experience level now caps at 30, allowing the creation of even more powerful multi-classed characters. In fact, experimenting with different party combinations is half of the fun, and playing the game again with a new party is almost as fun as playing a new game! Unlike many other game, you get to create your entire party from scratch. For those so inclined, you can use one of the pre-packaged parties. Of course, you can also import characters from previous runs through the game. Unfortunately, due to the new AD&D implementation, you can’t import characters from the original Icewind Dale. Exotic and highly desirable magical items are sprinkled throughout the game. In typical Icewind Dale fashion, they are either picked up in quests or available at stores instead of made. A vast many more non-essential but cool items can only be picked up through cheat codes. A few new items such as bags of holdings, gem bags and scroll cases are so indispensable that it’s a surprise they weren’t thought of in the original game.

The battles in IWD2 are intense and furious. For some reason, the designers tend to favor the “attack as soon as party moves to a new area” approach. There’s nothing wrong with that except after a long journey most of your defensive spells will have worn off. The result is often a frantic scramble to escape damage, cast defensive spells, summon supports, and finally counter attack. Combat almost certainly requires a tactical approach, as the enemy parties more often than not are well-balanced, complete with both tankers and magic users. Yes, many times enemies will also teleport in behind your back when the battle rages hottest. It’s hardly fair from the player’s perspective, but I suppose it could happen if this were real-life. The AI is also excellent. Enemies will often go for the weakest member of my party, much to my chagrin. When attacked, enemies will cast the appropriate defensive spells; for instance, if attacked with fire arrows, enemy mages would cast Protection from Arrows and Protection from Fire. Sometimes, however, they will also mindlessly attack an invincible target. One of my favorite strategies is to lure enemies into attacking a summon, then encase the lure in an impervious shell and let my mages bombard them to smithereens from a safe distance away. In short, you can’t rush in hacking and slashing and expect to last; the enemies are just too powerful for a single-minded approach. This also necessitates making up a balanced party; you can probably get by with a party of all-fighters or all-sorcerers, but would certainly have a much more difficult time.

The Heart of Fury mode deserves an special mention. This mode can only be accessed from the configuration screen, and a dialog box would pop up to warn you of the implications. Anyways, you shouldn’t even be playing in this mode with characters lower than level-15. Heart of Fury mode, in short, stands for insane difficulty. Not only are monsters more numerous than in normal mode, they also are immensely powerful and have astronomical attack and damage ratings. If you’re not careful, even fully-upgraded level-30 characters can get mauled in a hurry. Your rewards are proportionately powerful magical items, including a special magic sword that are +10 when everything else maxes out at +5, and more experience points. Of course, the challenge is its own reward. You probably won’t get the most out of the game unless you play through and finish the game in this mode.

Much ado has been made about the game’s venerable but dated Bioware Infinity Engine. What it lacks in 3-D camera angles it makes up for in polish and ease of use. Despite its popularity, I just find Neverwinter Nights’ interface clunky, and the constant need to pan and zoom tires my wrist and frazzles my nerves. IWD2’s interface is much more intuitive than those of IWD and Baldur’s Gate and does a great job of organizing the wealth of information required to effectively manage an RPG party while leaving as much space as possible for the god’s-eye view. The columns of buttons and character portraits on the sides of the screen are now moved to the bottom right, freeing up a big chunk of screen estate (chances are you’d be using hot keys instead of clicking anyways). The quick-action bar is fully configurable and a joy to use. I only wish more slots were made available for frequently used spells, perhaps with the use of the shift and control keys. The maps are not very large, but this is a blessing in disguise. It takes a lot of time to move from one point to the next, and the less time you spend moving is the more time you spend actually playing the game. Complaints have been made about the game’s lackluster graphics and animations. In fact, the fixed 2-D background is gorgeous. And I found the sprites and spell effects animations to be beautifully rendered, particularly in true-color mode; they’re certainly superior to those in Baldur’s Gate II. The spell animations are a joy to behold; it makes spellcasting fun for everybody (except for the monsters on the receiving end). In an aside, the soundtrack is superb, from the haunting strains in Targos to the exotic Eastern influence of Limha’s theme. Characters are also given a large selection of voices, including Drow-speak! The voiceover is competent, if sometimes overwrought. There are no famous names from Hollywood, but I recognize minor actors from “Armageddon” and “Speed”.

Thanks to its implementation of new AD&D rules and its excellent game play and interface, IWD2 deserves to be a standout in the crowd.

Originally posted February 22, 2003 on Amazon.com