by Benjamin Fitzgerald
Developer: Black Isle
Release Date: August 27, 2002
Mode: Single-player, multi-player
Rating: T for Teen
Icewind Dale II – The Story Begins
Twenty years have passed since the intrepid adventurers from Hrothgar’s fated mission to Kuldahar ended the proxy war waged by infernal forces and defeated the demons Yxonomei and Belhifet, restoring peace to Icewind Dale. Now a new power has risen in the frozen North. The Ten Towns of Icewind Dale have been invaded by a fierce army of orcs and goblins, soldiers for an enigmatic foe known only as the Legion of the Chimaera. Once again, a small team of mercenaries assembles to track down the threat to the Ten Towns and eliminate them.
Your first task is to protect the town of Targos from the goblin horde massing outside the walls. Once their immediate attacks have been driven back, your band sets out at the urging of the town governor to reclaim the Shaengarne Bridge, a strategic location under occupation by Chimaera forces. Once the bridge has been liberated, you take the fight straight to the goblin fortress. Here, you begin to understand that this invasion of the Ten-Towns is merely the first wave in an all-out assault against the races of Faerûn, and only your intrepid band of mercenaries can stop them.
When I reviewed the first Icewind Dale, I did not feel that it was quite worthy of inclusion into the Hall of Fame. Its sequel, however, shines in a way its predecessor did not. This is because the Infinity Engine was overhauled to incorporate the new 3rd Edition AD&D rule set, which allowed for significantly more complex and varied character development. New races, classes, skills and feats allowed for an almost unparalleled degree of customization.
More than that, Icewind Dale II improved upon its predecessor in almost every imaginable way. The story is bigger, the plot more detailed. Conversations are more involved, and many NPCs will respond to your character in different ways depending on their race. In the same way, your race, alignment and certain stats, such as charisma, constitution, or intelligence, can modify and change the course of your conversation.
More Varied Gameplay
The first Icewind Dale was driven by combat. The opening stage in Easthaven, as well as the hero’s arrival in Kuldahar, provided arenas for several quests to be completed, as did the Severed Hand, but these almost invariably involved killing a host of creatures before you could complete your objective. There was simply a very small number of side quests to accomplish.
Icewind Dale II doesn’t try to reinvent the formula, but it certainly improves it. Targos feels a lot bigger than Easthaven. There is more combat, but also more character interaction and involved side quests. Some of these quests can be solved in different ways depending on your characters’ skills, race, class or ability. There are quests than can only be accomplished with a high charisma score, a strong constitution or a crafty intelligence. Some solutions are better than others, and yield more experience.
One of the major ways this game expands upon its predecessor is by incorporating more varied level design. About 90% of the first Icewind Dale took place underground. This is evened out a bit in the second game, with most of the first act and many subsequent arenas taking place under the blue skies of Faerûn. A lot more side quests have been added to the game, including several that are completely optional, and these areas are a lot more common, from Targos itself to a wandering village of hunter-gatherers, a duergar fort, and a monastic enclave.
The variety of monsters is also significantly greater than in the first game. After the initial wave of goblins and orcs, I feel like I spent the vast majority of that game hacking my way through undead armies, and most of the rest slaying lizard men and evil yuan-ti. In IWDII, you start off by fighting goblins, graduate to orcs, and then quickly advance to fighting Malarite druids, harpies and lycanthropic monsters. Every subsequent area reveals new monsters to defeat, from the bugbears at the Shaengarne to the warg riders you meet when you assault the horde fortress. In one of my favorite parts of the game, the party descends into the Underdark and are pitted against all the horrors we read about in Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden novels: drow, duergar, hook horrors, driders and even the fearsome illithids!
Icewind Dale II also succeeds in changing the tempo of the game by introducing several areas that are less combat heavy, instead focusing largely on puzzles, mazes or quests. The first such area is the ice temple. There are a number of puzzles that have to be solved to advance, and a pretty fun combat mini-game as well that yields increasingly potent prizes. The Fell Wood is a maze of sorts, a confusing labyrinth full of strange undead, with only a single pathway to the heart. The final level, the Severed Hand, was a major source of conflict during the first game, but here it has been largely rebuilt and is populated primarily with non-hostile NPCS. The final act sidelines combat in exchange for an immersive series of quests, building up in a dramatic way for the inevitable final battle.
The Severed Hand isn’t the only area from the first Icewind Dale we revisit, however. We also venture back to Dragon’s Eye. In the first game, this was filled primarily with the aforementioned reptilian foes, and this remains largely unchanged. Also unchanged is the fact that Dragon’s Eye is the most tedious part of the game in both titles. In Icewind Dale, there were deadly traps everywhere you walked that only a thief could disarm. In Icewind Dale II, the tedium comes from what feels like a never-ending string of frustrating puzzles. I hate Dragon’s Eye.
On the other hand, perhaps the most inventive part of the game took place in Dragon’s Eye. On the final level, you descend directly down into the bowels of the volcano. Inside the magma chamber, you discover you are caught in a time loop. While this does lead to a degree of wandering around, it was innovative and exciting, a very creative method of storytelling.
No review of Icewind Dale II would be complete without also mentioning the incredible work composer Inon Zur did for the game’s soundtrack. Jeremy Soule composed the soundtrack for the first game, and his soundtrack was awesome. Even so, Inon Zur’s work manages to surpass it. There are some absolutely incredible bits here, from the dramatic crescendo in the town of Targos to the haunting return to the beaten village of Kuldahar. The powerful soundtrack is yet another component of the game that draws the character in.
Detailed Character Creation
There used to be a time when creating your character(s) was a central part of role-playing games. Now, though, it seems that 85% of character creation is choosing how your character looks rather than their class, skills or anything else. One of my favorite things about the Icewind Dale series of games is the endless amount of freedom and customization available to create your party. Moreover, the choices you make for your party matter a great deal, because your party members will affect how successful you are in this game. While you can successfully complete the game with a wide mixture of character classes, a balanced party will make the game easier.
Traditionally, a balanced party consists of two tanks to deliver melee damage, a thief for unlocking doors and sneaking around, a cleric to heal your party, and maybe a spellcaster or two. You can go in this direction, but maybe you want to see what happens if you have a party of nothing but clerics. Maybe you don’t want any spellcasters, or maybe you want a bunch of evil drow to save the day.
Alternately, you could do what I did and have an entire party of dual-class characters. This ups the challenge because none of your characters are true specialists, forcing you to be innovative in your tactics. Maybe you want to power through the game with a single character, or a Mass Effect-style strike team of three members. All of these things are a possibility.
Another amazing thing about your character creation is this: the layout of your party will determine the strategies you use to defeat your enemies. This isn’t a slight thing. Many of the battles in this game, especially later on, hinge on your ability to change your tactics on a dime and carefully utilize your character’s unique talents and abilities. Although the monsters you fight will be the same in each run of the game, the methods you use to go about killing them could be dramatically different. One player might send a fireball into the room of sleeping orcs to thin their numbers before beginning the assault. Another might send in a strike team of thieves hiding in the shadows to hamstring your enemies. There is no right or wrong way to make your party, and that is one of this games greatest triumphs. I know of few games that grant the player as much freedom to craft and control their party of heroes.
I have already discussed many of the game’s strengths. There are others. The voice acting, for example, is nearly always excellent, and the writing is generally very strong…except there are a couple places where this is not true, which distracted from the experience.
This is best illustrated when your heroes infiltrate a strange temple made entirely of ice and inhabited by worshipers of the cruel Frostmaiden, Auril. During your journey through this temple, you slay three sisters, high priestesses of Auril who must be stopped. One of these sisters was voiced, and while her acting was fine, it was immediately obvious that the writers of the game were not familiar with the grammar of formal English.
“Auril…sweet, loving Auril – I hath failed thee, yet still thee beckons me…”
In formal English, ‘you’ becomes ‘thee’ or ‘thou’, depending on context; ‘your’ becomes ‘thy’ and ‘yours’ becomes ‘thine’. In modern English, the sentence would be rendered, “I have failed you, yet still you beckon me.” Thus, not only is the wrong pronoun used in the second instance, but ‘beckons’ is the wrong conjugation of the verb. These translation errors riddled the entire dialogue of Lysara. This might sound like academic nitpicking on my part, but the writing pulled me completely out of the experience, so it is a negative mark.
As far as voice acting, it was all very good except, unfortunately, Isair and Madae. Isair was at least tolerable, but Madae’s voice acting was completely unconvincing. Unfortunately, Isair and Madae are the games primary antagonists, so the poor quality of their acting is very noticeable. Fortunately Isair does most of the speaking during the final showdown, so Madae’s intolerable voice doesn’t drag things down too much.
My only other complaint with the game is the sheer quantity of fighting. It’s exciting and challenging, to be sure, but sometimes it can be a bit of a drag, especially towards the end, when nearly every single fight requires a change of tactics and strategy. By the end of the game, I had killed well over 2000 enemies, and I cherished the parts of the game that were not centered on combat.
Despite a few complaints, Icewind Dale II holds up exceedingly well as a game. This is true visually as well, which after is a major testament to its strengths 14 years after its release. The community for Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate yet thrives. Even today, there is a community of players who love the games, modding and revisiting them. Mods exist that create new characters for the game to give it more of the spirit of Baldur’s Gate, where your party members were not quite as anonymous. Such a devoted community is yet another testimony of the massive legacy of the Icewind Dale games.