Icewind Dale is the latest title from the developers Black Isle Studios that is set in the Forgotten Realms and, like the much acclaimed Baldur's Gate is based closely on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons System developed for pen and paper roleplaying games. This latest adventure, however, leaves the picturesque Sword Coast behind in favour of the northern reaches of Faerun, the rugged, inhospitable region known as Icewind Dale.
The detailed manual gives more information on these cold, barbaric lands and as the book (or should I say the game) opens on this latest tale you are treated to a reading of the turbulent history of the area. Here many a battle has been fought amongst the barbarian tribes but one such battle involved a wicked Arch Mage, Arakon, who mustered an army to invade the land and, when faced with certain defeat, opened a portal and invited all manner of evil creatures from the lower plains to fall in behind him. But it just wasn't Arakon's day, the helpers he summoned turned against everyone including himself and his army. Only the great Jerrod's sacrifice saved the land from that terrible deed.
That's the lead-in in a nutshell; you must watch the introduction to learn the details. It works very well to whet your appetite, as the narration is particularly stirring. The pages of an illustrated book slowly turn as the tale is told and it's a shame that the writing isn't readable. If it was, and mirrored the narration, then it would have been a great help to hearing impaired players. Fortunately all speech is captioned for the remainder of the game so this is just the one slip up.
Anyone who has played Baldur's Gate will know what to expect with this title as it uses the same game engine with a bit of judicious tweaking that I'll mention in a moment. But if you aren't familiar with Baldur's Gate then this game is played from a third-person viewpoint and is mouse controlled with real-time combat where you can pause the action at any time to take a breath and review your tactics, change weapons, choose spells, etc. The combat does work pretty well for everyone (frantic fighting fanatics and laid-back tacticians) and there is one particular improvement in Icewind Dale that helps a lot ... when you pause and open your character's inventories during battle you can dither around as long as you like swapping weapons and gulping potions, the game will patiently wait for you to resume play. I heartily approved of this change and was also very pleased that a good night's rest healed my characters ready for the hard day ahead. In Baldur's Gate healing wasn't such a simple task.
In Icewind Dale you control a party of up to six characters on your journey. You can either import ready-made characters or roll the dice at the beginning of the game to set yourself up. There is a choice between male and female as well as a number of races (human, elf, halfling, half elf, dwarf and gnome) and an assortment of occupations including various types of warriors, priests and rogues. Some of the characters have special natural abilities such as the ability to shape change or, in the case of the rogue classes to turn invisible and go into stealth mode, but you have some degree of freedom in selecting weapon proficiencies.
You can spend as long as you like fashioning your characters, rolling and re-rolling to get the statistics right; choosing their portraits, (or you can import your own), changing the colour of their clothes and their voices and biographies. There is also the option of selecting the alignment of your characters and during the game this affects the way in which the non-playing characters treat your party although I couldn't see that it added completely different pathways through the game.
You begin your adventure in the tiny Hamlet of Easthaven, one of the 10 Towns of Icewind Dale, and where Jerrod's Stone is interred. There are rumblings of disturbance in the region and word has recently arrived from nearby Kuldahar that all is not well there either with evil forces at large. Of course, being an adventurer you offer to look into the matter and join an expedition headed south. The story unfolds from here and, even if it isn't too long, there's certainly an arduous journey ahead of you.
At strategic places along the way you will find friendly characters to chat to and learn more of what is happening and what you must do so save the world. Or maybe there's an evil 'boss' who needs 'sorting out' in order to obtain some important artefact. Although there is perfectly adequate character interaction to see you on your way this title is much more oriented towards combat than Baldur's Gate. This means there are fewer side quests and the story is more compact. Most of the time you are on the straight and narrow heading towards your ultimate goal. And it isn't easy. You'll blunder into deep, dangerous water on many an occasion. Ultimately, some of the battles will require a very careful strategy to win and I would recommend that you chose your party carefully and include a range of specialists. Of course you can opt to make the combat easier in the game options screen, but there are penalties to pay for such a weakness so I didn't dare change a thing considering that improving characters in these games takes a lot of effort in the best of circumstances.
Having said that I must make note that, along with the above option to control the difficulty of combat there are also options to adjust the sound, graphics, to turn the gore off and on as well as to cheat the dice and collect the maximum number of points each time you roll to go up a level. I weakened on this latter option because I like to be paid well for my hard toil, and I was very pleased that the experience cap has been lifted in Icewind Dale as opposed to Baldur's Gate. I finished with an average of level 13 and I'm sure I could have progressed further.
Much of this journey is underground in dingy dungeons or darkened caves. Even adjusting my monitor didn't make some of the locations terribly clear. I must admit I really wished that there was a light spell so that I might have seen more of where I was and, maybe, appreciated the very good graphics a bit more. But being in the dark does show up the huge array of spectacular spells in Icewind Dale, I amused myself for a while sleeping and learning different spells just to admire their effects.
For me the darkness wasn't an asset, in some dim locations I had difficulty determining the pathways through the area. I spent some time blundering around and my party often got separated. This can be very bad news if there are two headed giants in the vicinity, or herds of goblins, spiders or worse ... is there anything worse than spiders? There is a long list of devious adversaries to meet in Icewind Dale and they are not all dim-witted dodos as they are keen enough to pick out your weakest character and give him/her a really hard time. The ability of your thief to go into stealth mode and range ahead to see what's in store is a much better idea than blundering around and taking pot luck.
So you will need to sharpen up your sword for this game and do some serious studying of your spell book. There's a reasonable amount of useful magical weapons to be found if you search around carefully but unfortunately the shops are few and far between so you'll often have long hikes if you want to trade goodies. I was a bit disappointed with the shopkeepers' lack of foresight at not stocking enough decent arrows to meet my needs and I also felt they could have had a few spare pairs of shoes. I only found one pair and they weren't enough to share between six of us. L On the plus side here, I liked the way the NPC's sometimes recognised different character races or professions and I was particularly impressed that not one of them was confused about my female character's gender.
I played Icewind Dale through with just a few crashes that I took in my stride. However there is a patch available at Interplay to ensure a smoother trip. As I said earlier this isn't a long journey but it is surely tough. For this reason I wouldn't recommend Icewind Dale as a starting out game. Even if it is a bit dark it has plenty to keep you on your toes so try this one if you are feeling energetic and itching to swing your sword and throw some fireballs and travel some tunnels whilst saving the world. If you want to play more serious politics and immerse yourself in a complex story then you might have to make allowances.
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2000.
All rights reserved.
in 95/98, DirectX 7.0 or higher, PII 233 Mhz, 32MB RAM, 400MB Hard Drive space, 4x CD-ROM drive, DirectX certified sound card, 4MB DirectX certified video card, keyboard and mouse. Recommended: PII 266 or faster, 64MB RAM, 600MB Hard Drive space, 8x CD-ROM drive, OpenGL compatible 3D card required for 3D mode.