Icewind Dale II Review
Like its predecessor, Icewind Dale II is simply a great role-playing game.
Icewind Dale II offers many more choices when creating and developing your party than its predecessor did. Many more character races are available, including the ever-popular dark elves (also known as the drow), as well as different subraces of dwarves, gnomes, and, of course, elves. Some of these character races are quite powerful from the get-go, but they're balanced out by having an experience penalty. More character classes are available than before, too, namely the 3rd Edition barbarian, monk, and sorcerer classes. The old standbys are all still here, of course, and thanks to the 3rd Edition revisions, they're even more distinctive than ever. Wizards, clerics, paladins, fighters, druids, bards, rogues--all these character types and more are interesting and viable in Icewind Dale II. Some character classes seem far more powerful than others--3rd Edition fighters are incredibly strong, for example--but you'll still have to form a diversified group of characters for best results. As you rise in level, you can customize your characters with various special feats and other abilities, as well as by multi-classing your character--that is, learning an entirely new profession. Like in the previous game, the fact that you can play the game using entirely different types of characters adds some compelling replay value to the sequel.
There's replay value to be found in other areas, too. Icewind Dale II offers a feature first introduced in the Heart of Winter expansion to the original game, called the heart of fury mode, that ramps up the game's difficulty considerably but also awards your characters with even greater experience bonuses. As before, a cooperative multiplayer option is also available, letting up to six players control the party.
The main draw is still the standard single-player game. Though the Infinity Engine is undeniably showing signs of age, at the same time, Icewind Dale II's developers clearly are very adept at making it do what it does best. In fact, in many ways Icewind Dale II represents the best use of the Infinity Engine's prerendered, isometric settings to date. Each of the game's big areas is complex and extensively detailed, often packing in far more quests, encounters, and battles than you'd ever think were possible. The combat is persistently challenging and rarely straightforward, and the occasional puzzle is added for a good change of pace. The areas take a long time to get through, and yet you don't have to do too many annoying things like constantly search for traps or go back the same way you came in. It's true that you'll sometimes be forced to reload saved games just to gain prescience of a combat situation, but that's been the case with pretty much every other Infinity Engine game. In any event, Icewind Dale II remains fun to play.
Like the original, Icewind Dale II is a mostly linear game that's split up into chapters, and throughout them, the game provides an engrossing story that keeps you focused on the action and interested in the circumstances. At the same time, Icewind Dale II does a better job than its predecessor of letting you role-play. The addition of skills like bluffing, intimidation, and diplomacy work their way directly into the dialogue options that are available. So, for example, depending on whether you lead with your neutral evil human fighter or your lawful good elven paladin, you'll often get different results in your conversations with the game's colorful non-player characters. Every Infinity Engine game has been plot-driven, and Icewind Dale II is no exception. You'll be happy to know, then, that the game is very well written, offering up a number of strong characters and serious themes but also providing a healthy dose of comic relief on occasion.
If you've played Morrowind or Neverwinter Nights lately, let alone any of this year's many graphically impressive games, then starting off in Icewind Dale II will be a little tough on your senses. The game's graphics really don't look like much at first. The small, awkwardly animated 2D characters, the ugly black fog of war covering each area, and the flat (albeit detailed) scenery makes for a game that looks, at best, decent. However, a newly revised interface, now visible only along the bottom edge of the screen, is a big improvement on the spread-out interface of all previous Infinity Engine games, and many of the locales you'll visit actually do look quite good, though that doesn't change the fact that Icewind Dale II generally looks dated. The game doesn't even offer much in the way of new character portraits to choose from when building your party, opting instead to recycle most of the old ones. Fortunately, the old ones still look great. Of further note, the retail release of Icewind Dale II does suffer from some technical issues, which we experienced in the form of occasional crashes to desktop. Also, amidst the game's many twisting passageways, the pathfinding for your characters can get pretty bad, requiring you to micromanage their march.
Though Icewind Dale II mostly uses recycled sound effects and player character voices, the game otherwise lives up to the very high standards for audio set forth by previous Black Isle Studios role-playing games. A stirring, impressive symphonic soundtrack filled with soaring strings evokes the same sense of grandeur and adventure as the score from the original Icewind Dale, yet with some distinctly different touches. Jeremy Soule, the composer of Icewind Dale soundtrack (as well as the scores for this year's Dungeon Siege, Morrowind, and Neverwinter Nights), didn't actually do the music for this sequel, but his replacement, Inon Zur, does a truly fantastic job that's perhaps even better than Soule's effort in the original Icewind Dale. Meanwhile, the voice acting in Icewind Dale II is as great as you've perhaps come to expect from a Black Isle Studios role-playing game, though there aren't too many celebrities in the voice-over cast this time, unless you count Gabrielle Carteris, Beverly Hills, 90210's Andrea Zuckerman.
Like its predecessor, Icewind Dale II is simply a great role-playing game. The designers clearly understood what role-playing gamers want to see and experience in such a game, and they provided plenty of it. The game somehow manages to be long despite having such a brisk pace, and the balance between the story and the action is well maintained. The action itself might appear to be all mindless hacking and slashing, with your small party often having to take on droves of enemies, but in truth, clever tactics are required to make it through to the game's conclusion. So despite Icewind Dale II's somewhat antiquated presentation, it's still very easy to recommend to anyone who's enjoyed previous Black Isle role-playing games--or any of this year's other great RPGs, for that matter.