In 1998, Black Isle Studios introduced us to the Infinity Engine with Baldur’s Gate. The engine and the game helped to revolutionize the role-playing genre, and they received many critical and popular accolades. Now, almost four years later, Black Isle has released the fifth game to use the engine, Icewind Dale II, the sequel to 2000’s Icewind Dale. But while the first four games to use the Infinity Engine were above average or better, culminating with the superb Baldur’s Gate II, Icewind Dale II looks old and plays familiar, and there isn’t anything special about it besides its heritage.
Of course, I’m biased. Out of the first four Infinity Engine games, my least favorite was Icewind Dale. I prefer my role-playing games to have a deep story and interesting characters, but Icewind Dale eschewed that in favor of wall-to-wall combat. Black Isle could have gone anywhere with Icewind Dale II, since the title only refers to where the game takes place, but they decided to make Icewind Dale II play a lot like Icewind Dale. So once again you create all six members of your party, and once again you spend 90% of your time fighting.
And once again the story is rather thin. Icewind Dale II takes place 30 years after the events of Icewind Dale, but, just like before, the Ten-Towns of the north are in trouble. In fact, the town where you first arrive is under siege by goblins, and, worse, some of those goblins have infiltrated the city and are causing havoc there. So right away you have to start fighting, and then once the town is clear, you have to go capture a bridge so reinforcements can arrive, and you have to defeat the stronghold responsible for the attacks. Whew! And that’s just the first chapter. Eventually you discover that the creature leading the attacks has a boss, and that that boss has a boss, and that that boss has a boss, et cetera and so forth until you finally make your way to the end boss. That’s pretty much the story. There isn’t much excitement about why any of the fighting is taking place.
Luckily, character creation and development are interesting in Icewind Dale II. The game uses Dungeon & Dragons Third Edition rules, and so you can create characters who are barbarians or monks or sorcerers -- or one of the “standard” classes -- and you get more control over how they multi-class and what skills they get to learn. So if you want your wizard to learn lock picking, no problem! In fact, you can assign out all the rogue-type skills to other classes and not use a rogue at all (although rogues, getting more skill points that other classes, still tend to be a good choice). Plus, there are now “feats” (special features) that characters can acquire every three levels, and these include things like weapon proficiencies, spell bonuses, extra hit points, and more. And if that wasn’t enough, Icewind Dale II also includes several sub-races to go along with the regular races. So you can now play a drow elf if you want, or a tiefling, or a duergar. In all, there are enough options for creating and developing characters that that’s the reason you might want to play through Icewind Dale II a couple times, just to try out the possibilities.
It’s once you get into the game that Icewind Dale II starts to lose some of its appeal. For starters, the graphics, which once were a positive for the Infinity Engine games, now look completely dated. Everything is muted and a little fuzzy, and if the characters didn’t have a colored ring at their feet (when they’re selected) they’d often blend right in with the background. In fact, at one point you have to fight a huge black dragon, but the dragon is so hard to pick up that I didn’t even bother to get a screenshot of it. Plus, too much of the game is familiar. Black Isle updated some of the graphics so objects like potions and ammunition now look different (which is especially nice for the ammunition, since you can now easily tell the difference between the regular and magical versions), but you’ll probably recognize many of the enemies, objects, and locations in the game, especially if you played Icewind Dale.
Moreover, the constant battles are a little exhausting. Unlike some other role-playing games where the battles are relatively easy until you get to a boss, Icewind Dale II throws difficult battles at you left and right, and I found myself loading games far more often than I’d like. Plus, it’s my view that the Infinity Engine isn’t great at combat-heavy games. If I’m going to play (what amounts to) an action role-playing game, I’d rather go with Diablo II or Dungeon Siege, games that are much more fluid and rewarding. But if you prefer combat over quests, and fighting over talking, then Icewind Dale II provides what you need, including a “Heart of Fury” mode where the enemies and equipment are pumped up over the standard mode.
Of course, there are some quests -- and even side quests -- in Icewind Dale II. The problem is they’re mostly unfulfilling. The experience you get for completing quests is negligible (you get way more for killing creatures), and the equipment is downright bad. I mean, most of the equipment my party ended up using at the end of the game came from shops! How boring is that? What helps a little is that Black Isle included some puzzles here and there, and they’re mostly very nice. For example, at one point you find a slippery ramp that you can’t go up, but if you shoot the lever at the top the ramp turns into stairs. I just wish Black Isle could have been as ingenious with the rest of the game.
What really surprised me about Icewind Dale II was how sloppy some of it was. Parts of the game didn’t work right, including one broken quest, and others seemed unbalanced, like healing potions that were way too wimpy to be of any use, and a search skill that barely detected anything. Plus, I found some grammar mistakes in the game’s text, and mistakes in the manual (the preferred class of the drow is not the wizard), and almost all of the character voices and portraits used in the game are straight from Icewind Dale. And don’t even ask about the frequent slowdowns I encountered, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with what was going on in the game.
So, obviously, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Icewind Dale II. Despite moving to Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition rules, the game seemed much too familiar, it didn’t look particularly good or run particularly well on my computer, and it didn’t even come close to capturing my imagination. The Infinity Engine had a nice run while it lasted, but five games over four years is enough, and it’s time for Black Isle Studios to move on.