Icewind Dale II Review
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Icewind Dale II Review
Codex Review - posted by Exitium on Sat 9 November 2002, 17:53:41Tags: Black Isle Studios; Icewind Dale 2
* Disclaimer: This review does not employ the Ben Rudick Review System
Lo and Behold
The first thing you'll notice when you run Icewind Dale II is the game's introduction. The game's logo is enveloped by falling leaves, which then place the game in the setting of a pleasant house, and the view zooms in onto to a storybook filled with vividly illustrated images. The next thing you will hear is a female voice who speaks of a story of yore, thus setting the stage for a great epic in the domain of Icewind Dale, far to the north of the Sword Coast in this Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms adventure.
You will then arrive at the main menu, upon where you will designate a party, consisting of six members of your own creation. Character creation is a simple enough task, but if this is your first time playing a party-based game, or if you wish to get right into the action, you may select from several preexisting parties from which you may choose to role-play in your adventure.
However, if you choose to create your own party members, there almost a dozen classes for you to choose from. All of the classes available to the player are variants of fighter, spell caster or rogue playing styles. Fighter types utilize brute force in combat, whereas spell casters employ the use of powerful offensive, or defensive spells and Rogues sneak around enemies, and scout the way ahead for the party, also clearing traps along the way, should you choose to spend points in this skill.
The big difference between 2nd and 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons rules is the fact that in the latter, the classes in the game allow for a much wider degree of creative variation than ever before. Icewind Dale II incorporates this principle into the game's design by for example, allowing you to make the choice of making a fighter with thief-related skills without selling yourself short in your more powerful class, whereas in 2nd edition rules, your dual-classed character would always suffer from the detriment of forcing you to have your original class at a level higher than your secondary class.
There is a discrepancy among the usefulness of the various classes, though. The monk is a tad weak in comparison to his fighter companions even though he should be, by the very mandate of 3rd Edition Rules, a kick-ass fighter specializing in hand to hand combat. I'm afraid that the designers have sadly reduced this strong, willful character into a meager combatant due to the barrage of complaints many players had about the Monk class in Baldur's Gate II; I feel that more could have been done to balance him to get him up to par with the other classes. In his present state, the Monk is but a shadow of his former self.
The other issue with party balance is the fact that the game simply does not allow for more than two of the same class characters in a single party without severely limiting the options of the majority of the members. For example, a party with 5 mages will find itself in dire need of spell scrolls to learn new spells, and a party with too many pure fighters may find itself out of equipment. I don't think that this is shortcoming of the game, though as it merely encourages the creation of a well-balanced party, unlike former Infinity Engine games.
And then there is that issue with character alignments. Infinity Engine games have always allowed for you to play an Evil, or further more Chaotic Evil character, but the amount of role-playing that such a character allows within those games, including Icewind Dale 2, is extremely restrictive, to the point of degrading 'Chaotic Evil' to 'Chaotic Greedy'. It makes no sense that your brutal, mass-murdering character would want to SAVE a town for a price, let alone volunteer to do it, even if it is for a price. If you attempt to role-play such a murderer, by killing a random innocent you will indubitably find yourself in a trifle you can't get out of, because the designers simply did not foresee the event in which a player would try to attempt such a thing. Was this a lack of foresight?
Just as well, Icewind Dale II isn't entirely faithful to the 3rd Edition Rules. There are several glaring omissions of the official rules from the game, most notably the Attacks of Opportunity that are present in the pen and paper game, in Bioware's Neverwinter Nights and even in Pool of Radiance 2. The lack of that feature's presence hinders the game play from being much better than it could be now, when you consider the fact that the Attacks of Opportunity are one of the 3rd Edition's largest tactical implements, not present in 2nd Edition rules which the Infinity Engine was designed for. Attacks of Opportunity are not to be found in Icewind Dale II for several reasons, most notably the limited amount of animations possible per round allowed by the Infinity Engine, and the poor pathfinding, which I will elaborate further upon later. The title also lacks the Prestige Classes of the pen and paper game, but they're not that big an issue in comparison with all that I've mentioned.
Experience The World
The other thing you'll notice about Icewind Dale II is the music that plays in the background. Present as the game's musical composer is Inon Zur, the man who also brought you the great soundtrack present in Baldur's Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal. His musical vibes and orchestrations are certain to enthrall any listener, and therefore are an extremely important aspect of the title by allowing the player to visualize a world brought alive through sound. Besides the soundtrack, the designers of Icewind Dale II made good choices for background ambience, with sounds of howling winds, haunted crying, wolves howling and others that provide for a well designed aural environment. There is also a wide selection of character voice sets to choose from, including all of those used in Icewind Dale and its expansion pack. If you don't like them, you can always choose to download one from the internet or make your own, though you'll probably be satisfied with what the game has to offer.
The areas that you visit are rendered in a vivid fashion and will certainly pique the interest of anyone with an eye, trained or otherwise. Some shortcomings do exist however, with the fact that the game uses the exact same avatars as the Infinity Engine games before it. But I won't fault Icewind Dale II for that: albeit old, the graphics are still good looking, and certainly do the game justice.
One problematic issue with the graphics is the fact that the game tends to lag an awful lot in certain times when plenty of spells are cast or areas where the monsters are huge, such as the drakes and dragons you will encounter sometime late in the game. I also noticed a slowdown during battles against large hordes, but it wasn't anywhere as bad as the combat with the enormous dragons. I do not believe that this problem stems from my system, as my system comes equipped with a mid range processor, an adequate amount of ram and a powerful GeForce 4 video adapter, which more than meet the system requirements for the game. The problem probably has to do with the support for 3d rendering, which was originally intended for the game and was disabled sometime late in the development period for reasons that cannot be satisfactorily explained, noting the fact that the nVidia company logo is present during the game's introduction.
It isn't a game stopping issue, but it is by no means a mild problem either, as it can be quite frustrating to watch your game chug as a slideshow in those extremely visually-intensive encounters, and there's more than a few of them present in the game. It's a simple problem to remedy, however, but at the cost of poorer visuals. The game's configuration program allows you to tweak the visuals and sounds to lower levels of intensity and quality for the game to run at a smooth pace.
Once More, Unto The Breach Dear Friends
One thing you'll need to know about Icewind Dale II is that it has plenty of combat in it, though nowhere as much as its prequel, so while you should build your characters primarily for survival, there will be many situations where you wished you had characters with more non-combat skills if you figured this game for a complete hack and slash combat spree. It caught me by surprise, too. Imagine my woe when I found myself trapped in the game's only maze, in Felwood. A character such as a Druid or Ranger with tracking skills would have certainly come in handy and saved me the hassle of charting my own way with a notepad. As tedious as it was, I found it to be fun as it was certainly a very welcome change from the monotony that most of the Infinity Engine games seem to exhibit. But as far as Felwood goes, mapping it out on paper is just the player's way to compensate for the inability of game to be able to map area well. But if you give it a little more thought you'll find that Felwood was more of an area that exploits a weakness in the design to make a puzzle out of it; an intuitive but not altogether unheard of decision on behalf of the designers.
On the other hand, the difference between Icewind Dale 2 and the Baldur's Gate series is the fact that while combat in Icewind Dale 2 isn't around every corner as it was in the original Icewind Dale, the combat areas are extremely expansive and take quite awhile to let up, so you may invariably find your party bereft of potions and health if you forgot to stock up or spent your supplies unwisely, and may very well cause your game to come to an abrupt end. A good example of where this happens is a portion of the game that involves a timed sequence where your party has to win a fight in under five minutes in order to make it to a door. It's bothersome, if you don't fancy yourself as being much of a twitch-decision maker. Otherwise, it makes for an interesting experience.
Do I Make My Own Decisions?
However, if you were expecting an RPG along the lines of Fallout, or Arcanum, you may be left dissatisfied with Icewind Dale II, as it is the kind that's more of a visceral experience than a cerebral one when it comes to decision-making. There are, however, several choices to be made in the manner in which you may choose to progress your adventure through the Icy North. For instance, you may choose to side with the Drow (Dark Elves) by aiding them in their requests and earning some of their gifts as a reward for doing so, or you may simply choose to engage them in combat if you haven't the time nor the patience for task work. These sorts of choices are by no means comparable to the epic decision-making of the formerly mentioned titles, but Icewind Dale II is certainly the only Infinity Engine-based game that accommodates such a feature in several key areas of the game.
It should be noted that there are not too many optional areas of the game, bearing the fact that the game follows an extremely linear storyline with very little diversion when it comes to progressing. It is however, a good storyline. The writing is leaps better than that offered in Baldur's Gate and its sequel and many similar titles.
Regardless of the interesting experiences you will have, the game suffers some major shortcomings in this department. If and when you failed to complete the timed sequences, the game will abruptly 'reward' you with the generic 'game over' sequence, instead of revealing to you the result of your mistake/decision. The same outcome applies in the event that the player kills an important character or an innocent in town, the game breaks entirely, causing the player to be unable to continue and have no choice but to reload an old saved game. This problematic issue can only be summed up as a result of lack of insight into the game's design and any alternate endings it could have allowed had they been explored by the game's designers. It's annoying that you never really find out what happens if you ever fail the timed quest or do something outside of the designer's limited vision on player freedom. No gamer would like to be forced to reload the game over and over until he follows the intended path. There should be alternative ways to 'unstuck' your path.
Seek and ye shall find, and perhaps lose your way
But just as all is not well with the Icy North, there are troubles too with the Infinity Engine upon which the game is built on. The main complaint I have is the path finding. Remember the part earlier where I wrote that I would elaborate on it? If there was one word I could use to describe it, that word would have to be 'wretched'. It is the same wretched path finding algorithm that was present in the Infinity Engine games before it, but this issue is entirely exacerbated by the fact that most of the maps you will have to wade through in the game are filled with tight turns and narrow corridors than ever before. However, I will not allow the blame to fall completely upon the shoulders of Black Isle Studios, as a portion of the blame is with Bioware for their programming and design of the Infinity Engine, which they licensed to Black Isle Studios to produce this title.
I learned that the reason as to why Black Isle Studios could not do anything to remedy the poor path finding was because most attempts to modify the code caused a malfunction in the game due to the manner in which the path finding was hard-coded into the engine. But to say that they were helpless is not entirely true either; the simple fact is that, given time and devotion, they really could have done something about it as there was no magic reason barring them from editing the code. To make things worse, Icewind Dale 2 had an extremely limited development schedule and the release had already been postponed by several months in attempts to remedy issues that several of the areas in the game had with the Infinity Engine. They could have tried harder, though, honestly as Black Isle Studios was, after all involved in the engine's original development so it would be wrong for me to suggest that they were clueless in that aspect.
Call it a lack of foresight or lack of time, or maybe even lack of enthusiasm, but what Black Isle Studios could have done to remedy the poor path finding could have been to redesign some of the areas to be wider and more spacious to compensate for it. It'd have certainly gotten rid of the irritation that one will constantly experience while dealing with the path finding related issues. For instance, they could have resized the maps (which are bitmap images) to accommodate a wider path finding area. It would have undoubtedly taken more development to remedy the path finding issue by resizing, or perhaps redesigning the maps, but should remedies not be sought where the mistakes are clear?
A Fight to the Finish
I don't know about you, but although I've always enjoyed the first Baldur's Gate, although I've never really fancied the style of Pause-and-Play that the game offers as its combat scheme as it has always felt a little too automated for my tastes. The combat encounters in the first Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate II disgusted me with their commitment to boredom, which for the most part revolved around 3 near-invulnerable mages boasting physical immunity spells, accompanied by a host of strong fighters throwing all that they had at your party. I even considered tearing out my hair to provide me with an activity in those periods of passive observation. Thankfully, Icewind Dale II incorporates much better battle area designs the aforementioned games, and does provide for a nicely cerebral experience when it comes to battle tactics.
Despite troubles, Black Isle Studio did a nice job with what little time and resource they had (though it can be argued that time is resource, but I digress) in their implementation of the game's various areas. Perhaps 13 months may not be such a short period of time, especially when you have a complete engine with sounds and avatars at your disposal; but they could have done more to better the game's shortcomings. However, areas like the challenge within the Monastery come to mind as some of the most enigmatic locations incorporating some of the most innovative features within the frame of the Infinity Engine to date. Quite thankfully, there's no mind-numbing electric floor puzzle to ruin the nice experience that such locations that the game has to offer.
As for the game's design, it has its host of shortcomings, mainly stemming from the Infinity Engine and several issues with the multiplayer game when played over the Internet, though a LAN experience with a close knit group of friends and family should prove somewhat enjoyable if you can tolerate the time it takes to situate team tactics. All in all, multiplayer could have used a bit more effort, considering the fact that Icewind Dale II touts itself as a party-based game.
Overall, I must say that I do indeed like the game and enjoyed it thoroughly despite the troubles that bog it. It's well designed, if you can excuse the mess, which is something I've come to expect out of Black Isle Studios, including the mess; Fallout and its sequel were riddled with bugs, after all, but extremely good games they both were. Icewind Dale II was released in a relatively buggy state, from issues ranging with ATI-based Cards (though this bug was promptly fixed), the constant slowdowns, which seems to be a memory-related issue, certain game-unbalancing ultra-powerful spells and the accidental non-inclusion of most of the armor that should have originally made it into the game. Patches have been fore coming to remedy those issues, however. Hopefully, there will be more fixes in the future to remedy the remaining issues, such as the slowdown bug and hopefully the awful path finding as well.
The resolution of this review is a balanced one; it's not for you if you prefer turn-based games, but if you enjoyed the Baldur's Gate series and the original game, you'll probably love Icewind Dale II, and if you're looking for a game set in a fantasy background with a nice storyline, you'll definitely prefer this over the rather lacklustre Neverwinter Nights. Be warned, however, Planescape: Torment fans, this isn't the sequel to Torment that you were hoping for... it isn't Fallout, either, but you already knew that. However, as much as I enjoy the setting of the Forgotten Realms, I do feel that it is a tired setting. It would be nice to see a game set in an original setting of Black Isle Studios' own creation in the future.