Icewind Dale should have been great. Coming from the same pedigree that gave us the truly epic Baldur's Gate and the brilliantly imaginative Planescape: Torment, it promised an epic, multi-part RPG adventure across frozen landscapes with plenty to explore and great quests to undertake. Being something of a geek for computer RPGs, I bought this with anticpation levels high. I couldn't wait to stock up on broadswords, virtual d20 dice and see what was in store.
~Plot and Story (or lack of)~
Quite early in though my early warning system went off, cautioning me not to expect too much of this game. The plot, such as it is, is as thin as a Jacob's cracker and riddled with cliches. The action is set in the frozen northern wastes of the faux-medieval Dungeons and Dragons 'Forgotten Realms', which is bog-standard elves, swords, goblins, magic and so on. While not the most imaginative of settings, it served Baldur's Gate well as the backdrop to an involving and complex story, so I was hoping for the same. Instead, you learn that your party of adventurers (who are of no consequence at all; more on that later) are roped into an expedition to cross a dangerous, icy mountain pass. Predictably, there's an avalanche and you are cut off. Smelling foul play, you are forced to follow a very linear story to uncover the troubles behind it all...
-Starting Off -
The game starts off with the character creation screen, where you pick the type of character that you want to guide through the adventure, choosing from class (warrior, bard etc.) and their special skills that you can add to as the game progresses and you level up. However, this is where my concerns were raised, as Baldur's Gate gave you free reign over creating only one character, the protagonist, and the others in the party were to be recruited from a roster of characters that you encounter along the way. In Icewind Dale, you are allowed to make up to all six of your party's characters, rather than just the one. This is one of the fundamental flaws of the game. While in theory it allows you greater control, in reality it makes for a much poorer gaming experience. One of the great things about Baldur's Gate was the characterisation of your fellow adventurers, who would periodically strike up conversations with you or each other, bicker and debate certain subjects, fall out with each other to the point of engaging in mortal combat, or become jealous of romances. This group dynamic was central to making the quests exciting. In Icewind Dale, the characters you create aren't characters at all, they are just lifeless entities designed to be used as tools to overcome problems such as locked doors or cut through swathes of monsters. There's no interaction between them, and when engaging with other NPCs (non-player characters) encountered in the game, the dialogue options are nearly always the same throughout.
The usual sort of character classes are available, with warriors and rangers skilled in weaponry, thieves and bards are useful for disarming traps, and wizards and priests can cast spells. Yet the game design is so bias towards a certain way of playing that it only adds to the linear nature of it all. If you try to do this game without a thief or a priest, you're basically stuck. There are so many deadly traps littered throughout that it would be impossible to complete without the right person in your group, and you can expect to receive a hell of a beating from the enemies you encounter. And there are going to be lots and lots of those...
-Hack, Slash, Rinse, Repeat -
Icewind Dale is, unfortunately, one big dungeon crawl that is extremely trying due to its linear structure. The plot unfolds in a series of 'go to' quests handed out one at a time. It is discovered that quite early on an unknown evil force has poisoned the lands around the settlement of Kuldahar, which is kept safe from the harsh winters via the powers of a giant tree (an idea nicked straight from Tolkien). This town is very sparsely populated, with little to do in the way of subquests and with pretty boring folk in it. The only character that really gives out quests is the local druid, who tells you to go and explore an ancient, haunted ravine riddled with catacombs. With no other choice, you do this, and it turns out to be one giant slog through endless hordes of zombies, skeletons and ghosts. This is extremely taxing even for my patience, as it often involves lots of saving, running into a room to see what's in it, getting splattered by hundreds of enemies, then resorting to trial and error to come up with the right tactic of defeating them all.
I must point out that even on the normal difficulty setting this games is VERY demanding, to the point that some players would find it unfair. It is especially punishing in the early stages, as your characters are weak and under-equipped, with hit-and-run tactics clearly being necessary to survive. It breaks the flow of the game as well, as it is almost impossible to react to encounters with enemies as they arise. This is especially true if you wish to use magic to combat monsters, as spells have to be selected to be 'stored', and then memorised by sleeping. This means that the only way of effectively using them is to know that you're going to need them in advance, which is incredibly irritating. Icewind Dale chucks enemies at you like it wants to be Doom 2 - that might not sound like a bad thing, but not when I hoped for an intriguing story-driven game. Guiding my party through this game felt like being a scout leader on the most miserable and disastrous camping trip ever, trudging through the snow to get beaten up by gangs of zombies, pitching our tents to learn a few lame spells, do some more fighting and go back to sleep again. And again....
There are plenty of weapons and armour to choose from, most of which have to be found at the end of quests as there is very little to buy in the one town in the game. Actually, that's not true as there are quite a lot of powerful magic items for sale, but since each one comes with a price tag that is uterly ludicrous you'll just have to make do without. Unless of course you're prepared to grind out the endless respawning goblins for 3 coins a go and repeat the process dozens of times.
I found Icewind Dale a hard, linear slog that didn't offer much in the way of reward in terms of its story. The locations might be pretty and imaginative, such as visiting a frozen aquarium run by giant half-human half-salamander creatures, but even this turned into yet another predictable slaughter through the hordes. Each turn of the quest just seemed to point to another clue that lay at the end of another monster-infested series of screens, with no real reason to care about why the hell the bunch of people you are controlling should be there. And when you do finally make it to the end, the climax of the story is so utterly predictable and unimaginative I kind of wish I hadn't bothered. Maybe the expansion and sequel would improve on this.
-Heart of Winter-
Heart of Winter provides an extra area to explore in the form of an island in some unexplained location, which you can travel to via magical means in Kuldahar. As the game assumes that you're doing this towards the end, this can be cripplingly punishing if you go there prematurely. It revolves around a semi-interesting plot about disputes between tribal warriors and a series of disappearances in a logging settlement, but again be prepared to routinely slog it out with hordes of enemies. At least there comes a chance to try and be diplomatic and use sensible dialogue options, but it does feel a little too late. There is also an extra little add-on to this called 'Trials of the Luremaster', which adds a castle to explore with a demented ghost providing you with tasks to complete, but again, it's all too combat focused. There is a bit of intrigue concerning the ghostly inhabitants of the castle, but not enough to satisfy.
-Icewind Dale II-
The sequel is ostensibly the same as the first, taking place in the same setting and is also unfortunately lumbered with the same leaden story-telling and countless combat encounters. Arriving in a town called Targos, you find it besieged by goblins, and yes, you have to destroy them all to progress to the next set of monster-riddled labyrinths. Ugh. I guess all the good plot developers at Black Isle were busy on other developments. The dialogue is better though, with more choices and consequences for each one, but since you are responsible for creating all your party members and unable to recruit anyone of interest, it suffers from the same lack of interaction and depth that the first instalment did. Seems like the criticisms of the first game fell on deaf ears.
~Sound and Vision~
The interface is user friendly, with logical tabs for inventory and character's spells and statistics, and is all easily accessible and manageable, without encroaching too much on the gaming screen. The graphics are quite spectacular, even if they are in the quite unfashionable 2D of old. The world is represented through a series of screens which are mostly static, but are so wonderfully rendered from paintings done by professional artists each one is a joy to behold. Exploring the frozen wastes and icy caverns is one that is driven almost solely by this visual treat; it's just a shame they couldn't cook up a proper story to match them.
One area that I can't dump enough praise on though is the score. Icewind Dale and Heart of Winter have two of the most wonderful orchestral scores written by Jeremy Soule (who also worked on the scores for hit RPGs Morrowind and Oblivion). Replete with stirring choral passages, swelling strings and memorable parts that punctuate the action brilliantly, I regularly listen to them for their own sake. Icewind Dale II's score was penned by Inon Zur, and is a bit more experimental in nature but equally interesting with tribal rhythms and interesting percussion work. If you have a love of orchestral music and grand soundtracks, and you can work out how to extract the files and burn them onto a CD, it is well worth the asking price of this trilogy even if you have absolutely no interest in gaming.
In all, I was a bit disappointed by these games, as they were lacking in depth and were far too linear to hold my attention. Its cousins Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment were excellent stories with great writing that featured the right amount of action. This is shallow in comparison, and is not in the same league at all. It's saved from being totally wretched by its aesthetic qualities, both visual and musical. It's available for not much money at all on Amazon (under a tenner for a used copy) so if you liked the Black Isle games, or are interested in older RPGs, then it could be worth a look.