Its numerous ancillary improvements actually amount to very little value, considering you can finish the expansion quest in just a couple of casual play sessions.
Over the last several years, Interplay has gradually established its Black Isle Studios brand as the premier publisher of computer role-playing games. Ever since the science-fiction-themed Fallout in 1997, each of Black Isle Studios' role-playing games has been consistently excellent, and several have already become modern classics: the epic Baldur's Gate, the unforgettable Planescape: Torment, and last year's remarkable sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. The original Icewind Dale was also released last year--actually, only a couple of months before Baldur's Gate II. Since it used BioWare's enduring Infinity engine and bore the Dungeons & Dragons license, some players were skeptical about the game: They feared that it was quickly put together to distract them until Baldur's Gate II's release. Fortunately, that wasn't the case. Icewind Dale turned out to be a fun-filled, distinctively action-packed role-playing game that shared only a superficial similarity to other Infinity-engine games. Unfortunately, the official expansion to Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter, is exactly the sort of product that Black Isle fans were worried Icewind Dale might turn out to be. It's a short-lived, uninspired addition to Icewind Dale that costs nearly as much as the original game did and requires that you have the original installed; yet it offers only a fraction of Icewind Dale's value.
However, you wouldn't know it at first: On the surface, Heart of Winter actually promises a lot of new features. Perhaps the most impressive of these is that it raises Icewind Dale's experience-point cap for player characters such that they can all theoretically reach a maximum level of 30--godlike status in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. The expansion offers multiple new special abilities, including a tracking skill for rangers that lets them try to detect an enemy's presence in an area; many new shape-changing abilities for druids; and multiple new spells for clerics and magic users. Heart of Winter also has great production values, much like Icewind Dale before it: The expansion features several new impressive orchestral pieces from the same composer who created Icewind Dale's incredible soundtrack. There are also a lot of new beautifully painted character portraits that you can choose from (though a lot of these have been available for download from Interplay's Web site since Icewind Dale's release). And the voice acting in Heart of Winter is excellent; it includes several new nonplayer characters who deliver all of their lines convincingly. Heart of Winter even includes an all-new "heart of fury" play mode, which makes all of the enemy creatures much more powerful and is suitable for seasoned players who want to continue on with their built-up characters even after they've finished the game.
Heart of Winter's story is based on a minor detail introduced in Icewind Dale. Basically, your party is asked to travel further north and help bring about peace between some powerful barbarian tribes and the nearby community of the Ten-Towns. Soon, you discover evil at the source of the problem--and so you must finally put an end to this vengeful villain. In doing so, you can either export your characters from Icewind Dale or start afresh with pregenerated high-level characters designed for use with the expansion.
In spite of all this, Heart of Winter falls flat as far as the actual game is concerned. The expansion offers only a few new areas to explore, which will collectively require about a dozen hours of your time before you're finished with them. A couple of these areas offer some interesting surprises. At one point, as you pass through a frozen passage, you'll see a ghostly portrait of the blind seer you're seeking materialize momentarily in the reflection of a glacial wall. As in Icewind Dale, the effective use of environmental audio helps bring all these cold, inhospitable places to life. Even so, most of the areas in the expansion simply require that you hike your way through twisting passages that conceal the game's predictably intermittent encounters with groups of monsters. Furthermore, many of these areas simply aren't very interesting; you'll be glad to leave them behind because even if you've played hundreds of hours' worth of Baldur's Gate II since the last time you played Icewind Dale, you'll still recall many of the encounters you'll face in Heart of Winter. When you first squared off against a frost giant in Icewind Dale, it was quite a showdown: The enormous bearded warrior stood many times larger than anything you'd seen up until that point. When you battle the exact same creature in Heart of Winter, you'll be less than impressed. Many other monsters from Heart of Winter are lifted straight from Icewind Dale, such as polar bears, yetis, and snow trolls. In fact, aside from some barbarian warriors, a few new undead foes, the large wormlike remorhaz, and the final battle, there are scarce few new challenges to speak of in Heart of Winter.