I was going to start this review off with a little rant about the value of expansions, both monetary and play wise. It ended up turning into a big rant so I decided not to waste any more of my time or yours, the gentle reader’s. Heart of Winter, of course, is the expansion to Icewind Dale. Along with Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment, they make up the core of Black Isle’s (and Bioware’s) Infinity Engine series.
A quick synopsis of the original Icewind Dale is that of a game that lacked the more random approach to the master plot and focused the gamer strictly on the main objectives. Cut out most of that annoying chit-chatting with everyone, like in Baldur’s Gate and the little mini-quests, and get down to business. Icewind Dale was more of a straight up, hunt down your enemies, hack them into little pieces, and carry on with the story. Heart of Winter builds upon it, giving you a handful of NPC’s scripted to provide information on the game, and a few minor mini-quests and little else except getting down and dirty.
Heart of Winter, like Icewind Dale, does not use scripted NPC’s for your party. Like the Gold Box games of old, party design is completely up to you. I have no preference either way, make up your own party vs. having to pick and choose from NPC’s, but since Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment both had scripted NPC’s, it’s nice to have something different. You roll your own stats, pick your own classes and specialties, and play how you want to play, instead of playing with what you have.
Also in a supporting role is the improved Infinity engine. Like Baldur’s Gate 2, you now have multiple 3D accelerated resolutions (though, like BG2, everything above 800x600 is “unsupported”), improved EAX support, and more customization. The Infinity engine has been moving in nice increments so everything has gotten to a good level of refinement.
The basic story; tracking down the source of evil that was plaguing the icy nether regions of Faerun and saving the world. Instead of wandering around a giant map looking for stuff at random (like the original Baldur’s Gate), there are fixed locations for you to go to. Heart of Winter does a lot of the same things. There are a few mini-quests in Heart of Winter, mainly based on conversations, as opposed to combat, just to give you some quick experience boosts. The first half hour or so of the game is actually fight-free. After becoming the savior of the frosty northern reaches, you don’t look for trouble. It comes looking for you. After hearing the story of the awakened King of the Northlands and how something isn’t right and you set out gathering up some basic information on what you need to do.
Then comes the combat. Lets just say after all that talking at the beginning of the game, I wasn’t quite prepared for the first combat (which isn’t even a major battle), as I promptly got two of my guys killed and was running for the quick load button. After getting a handle on the game (basically every damn battle is hard) and learning the proper use of the quick save key, I was off on the adventure.
Even after learning of quick save, I soon found that combat was almost all intentional. Aside from being attacked while sleeping and a few re-spawn areas, there aren’t very many “random” encounters. The game pushes you along at a relatively fast pace toward the finish. The plot follows most RPG storylines of the past, giving you very little starting information and slowly unraveling the details. While the story isn’t particularly gripping, it does carry enough interest to propel you on through to the epic climax. For those of you who played the original Icewind Dale, or even Baldur’s Gate 2, the last fight is a rocking good battle. I went in expecting just to be facing one big mother-of-god enemy and proceed to lay the smack down on it. Well, I was right about the large god-like final creature but I wasn’t expecting it to bring buddies for fodder. This final battle took me a good bit of time, finally beating it with only one character remaining.
Like Icewind Dale, and even on into Baldur’s Gate 2, many of the weapons are special, not just your long sword +1. One of the things that I always found slightly irritating in past AD&D games was the boring assortment of generic weapons. I love how Icewind Dale and Heart of Winter had very few “basic” magical items. Even the lower powered (i.e.: +1, +2 weapons) had a large assortment of unique properties. Instead of going, ‘Long Sword +1… sell’, I actually took time to read the story of the item and check out the particular characteristics before selling it off.
Unfortunately, even with the large, time consuming fights, the focused storyline pushes you a little too fast through the game. I’d say Heart of Winter is at most twenty to twenty-five hours of game time. Experienced players could probably skim through this add-on in well under that. The level cap has been raised tremendously, thus giving it some replay value, but with its semi-shallow nature, I’m not exactly sure how much more playing most gamers are going to give it. To carry on with this, I’ve also never really been a big fan of the multiplayer found in the Infinity engine games (yes I know, Planescape Torment doesn’t have it), as it’s hard to really get going online unless everyone is ready and focused on the game. Since all of the games are like this (though Baldur’s Gate 2 and Heart of Winter both have more options for multiplayer), I can’t really hold it against Heart of Winter.
Overall, Heart of Winter is a well-focused expansion with a higher cap level and challenging fights. The progression is a little slow at first, getting used to the strength of your opposition, but it builds up, getting hotter and hotter until boiling over in the climatic finale. It’s far too short for my tastes though and for all the quality of the game, there’s just not enough to really carry weight.
Upgraded Infinity Engine
Very little to explore outside of the plot