Icewind Dale makes no attempt to disguise the fact that it is a traditional RPG aimed at hardcore fans of the genre. Using an updated version of the Infinity engine (used in Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment) and based closely on the rules of the classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons pen-and-paper RPG, it provides further evidence that Black Isle Studios are the current masters of the RPG scene. That is not to say the game is without its share of problems, and it certainly does little to advance or revolutionise the genre, but what it sets out to do it does exceptionally well.
Those of you who played Baldur's Gate will be instantly familiar with the look and "feel" of Icewind Dale. The character creation system is identical; however, this time around you are able to create the characters for the entire party rather than an individual around whom the story of the game is focused. This is the first sign of the differences between the two titles.
Where Baldur's Gate had a sprawling tale which at times did not seem to relate well to the actual events in the game, Icewind Dale has a lean, stripped down story which moves along at a cracking pace. Having said that, the story is by no means under-nourished, as it does provide all the justification required for the actions your characters perform throughout the game.
Icewind Dale begins with a rather stirring tale of an epic battle fought in the Spine of the World mountain range (the setting for the game) and sets the tone for the adventure that lies ahead. This adventure begins with your newly assembled party of adventurers arriving in the town of Easthaven greeted with alarming tales of roaming monsters and a clear sense of evil rising in the region. After a short introductory sequence of events around the town, your party heads off into the mountains to fight the good fight.
Icewind Dale's story has clearly been designed to highlight the game's greatest strength, the character development system. One of the aspects of Baldur's Gate that I found disappointing was the slow pace of character development. I often found myself milling around certain areas trying to increase my character levels so that I could progress further into the story. Icewind Dale gets this element — which is crucial for a good RPG — almost dead right.
The only portions of the game which seem imbalanced are the beginning and the end. Players who favour clerics and magicians may find the first parts of the game tricky, but once the "main" adventure begins the pacing is nearly spot on. The other character development aspect which impressed me was the sense of your characters gaining in power. It really feels like you are watching a team of wet-eared wannabies slowly grow into bad-ass monster-slayers who laugh in the face of death before burying a dagger between his eyes.
One other important element in getting an RPG right is making the process of character growth interesting and customisable, and Black Isle has hit this nail on the head as well. Icewind Dale has a huge number of unique items which all have their own interesting little story behind them. The detail provided in the unique items' descriptions shows how much value Black Isle places on intelligent and interesting writing. This plentiful supply of unique weaponry and armour provides ample opportunity for players to customise their party and also provides motivation for the numerous dungeon crawls as you search for that particular item that will turn your character into the ultimate killing machine.
Also in plentiful supply are your foes. I wasn't counting but apparently there are over 150 different monster types and this claim certainly doesn't seem outrageous. One minute you are fending off a horde of goblins, the next you are concentrating your party's might against a towering Frost Giant. In short, there is plenty for your party to see, kill and pick up.
Graphically Icewind Dale is a bit of a mixed bag. The bitmap backgrounds that are used are often lush and usually very gorgeous, but it is often difficult to get any feeling of perspective. In some areas it is particularly hard to identify which areas your characters can traverse and which they can't — and this leads to random mouse clicking to try to navigate your party. At times the backgrounds can also seem rather sterile and empty.
The character models are nearly identical to those used in Baldur's Gate which I consider a bit of a shame. They just don't seem to have much personality. This problem is compounded by the fact that equipping unique items and armour does not make a huge difference to your character's appearance. The variety and quality of the monster models is impressive, however. Special mention should go to the boss monsters you will face — Black Isle has done an excellent job on these.
An option to use OpenGL acceleration has been included, but doesn't alter the appearance of the game very much; some of the spell effects look slightly different but not hugely improved. The game is restricted to a resolution of 640x480 which is a disappointment, but not a huge issue.
In my opinion, Black Isle can do no wrong when it comes to the aural component of their titles (aside from the annoying voice samples in Baldur's Gate!). The musical score in Icewind Dale is perfect. No matter what environment or situation your party is in, the music is always highly appropriate and never jarring. The sound effects used also reach the high standard set by the score. Ambient noises are exceptionally well, and often sparingly, used. Heated battles sound great as spells crackle and swords clash. Some of the voice samples used for the characters in your party can be a little repetitive, but I didn't find this too problematic. Dialogue between your party and non-player characters is brilliantly executed. Bad voice-acting is one of my biggest gripes with many games and it is a pleasure to listen to the convincing and appropriate voice talent that is used in Icewind Dale.
The minor gripes that I have with Icewind Dale are the things which will most likely stop it from appealing to a wide variety of gamers and keep it in the realm of the hardcore RPG fan. First of all the story is very traditional. While it suits the game perfectly, you do often get that sensation of "I've seen this before," which can result in waning interest levels as the story develops. On top of this the game does not lend itself to short sessions; to really appreciate it you have to try and immerse yourself in the storyline. There are a few minor bugs as well such as disappearing inventory items and incompleteable side quests. A patch is available and it is likely that these issues have been addressed in it.
There is no question that this game is a must-have for RPG fans, and gamers who can get past the few minor flaws will also discover an enjoyable gaming experience. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before there is a real contender to remove Black Isle from the throne of the RPG genre.