by Benjamin Fitzgerald
An elven sorceress, a half-orc priest, a roguish dwarf, a half-elf bard and two warrior women walk into a bar. It’s not a joke – it’s the opening of Icewind Dale!
BioWare developed the Infinity Engine between 1997 and 1998, and it was employed for the first time in Baldur’s Gate. Interplay borrowed the rights to use the engine and made three games of their own with it, all of which were developed through Black Isle Studios. Icewind Dale was the second of the Interplay AD&D titles.
Unlike Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment before it, Icewind Dale was driven not so much by story as by combat. The previous titles centered on a single protagonist, around whom the entire narrative was woven. Companions were recruited as you met them over the course of gameplay. In Icewind Dale, you create the entire party from scratch before the game begins (the opening party I described is just one possibility). At the time, some reviewers criticized the character creation as being overly long, but I love the thrill of creating different parties. The type of party setup you choose can dramatically affect your experience of the game as well.
A Quiet Fishing Village
The adventure starts in the small hamlet of Easthaven, one of the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale, situated at the south end of Lac Dinneshere, north of the Spine of the World. Your party of mercenaries has recently arrived in town and is immediately greeted by Hrothgar, knight and leader of Easthaven. He invites your party to join him on a quest to investigate some strange disturbances in the North.
Wandering about the sleepy hamlet, there is a small handful of quests to be found, as well as a very engaging discussion with the local Tempuran priest, Everard. Hundreds of years earlier, the Reghedmen shaman Jerrod had saved the barbarian tribes of the north from an infernal throng of demons by sacrificing his own life. Everard has a rather strong opinion of this chapter in history, and his dialogue is among the best in the game.
Once you have taken care of business in town, your company departs on the expedition with Hrothgar, but tragedy quickly strikes. Frost giants cause an avalanche that kills the rest of the party, and your ragged band of mercenaries is forced to proceed to Kuldahar alone, where perhaps you will find an answer to everything that has gone wrong.
The Great Oak
If Everard is the first great NPC in this game, Arundel is the second. He is the Archdruid of Kuldahar, though few know him as such. You can ask random NPCs where to find the Archdruid and they won’t know who you’re talking about. His role is not so much of a leader – for the small farming community has no real need of one – but as caretaker of the great oak which gives life to the village. It is an enormous tree that radiates warmth, transforming a region of frozen tundra into green, arable farmland. But there are malevolent forces at work, and the warmth of the oak is fading. If the oak dies, so too do the people who depend upon it. Arundel’s concern is to uncover whoever is behind these upsets in the frozen north and stop it. This becomes your great quest as well, with Arundel as your sagacious guide through the perilous domains you must travail. As the quest rolls on, your party finds itself caught in a struggle between two ancient abyssal forces, with the fate of the North hanging in the balance.
For a game so heavily focused on combat, it does a very good job of crafting a rich narrative to surround it. Take Diablo and its sequel, for instance. Those games both had a decent story, framed largely by Deckard Cain, but neither of them were the sort of thing to write home about. They offered an acceptable framework for the game to sit, but the real meat, especially in the first game, was action and ambience. Diablo offered style in spades, but was somewhat lacking in substance.
Icewind Dale is another story. There is a heavy emphasis on hacking, slashing and bashing, but the game frames your motivation with a strong story and memorable characters. Even the villains in this game are interesting, with Kresselack the Black Wolf being my favorite. The game really succeeds in making you feel for the characters – every victory and every defeat feels immediate and personal.
Glorious, Glorious Combat
The story in this game is strong, but what really matters is the combat. Since Icewind Dale is about 90% fighting, the combat system has to deliver, and fortunately it does. The isometric party-based system isn’t for everyone, but it really helps to create a sense of drama and scale that most FPP and TPP games can’t really emulate. You can walk into a cave and be immediately confronted with a dozen goblins or a horde of skeletons, zombies and ghouls. Strategy and careful placement are essential. Is your wizard too close to the front lines? Does your cleric have enough healing spells to keep your party alive during a long engagement?
Combat is not nearly as intuitive as say, Diablo or Skyrim. Despite the obvious stylistic differences, I’m inclined to compare it to the Witcher games, because combat in those games requires forethought and strategy. The Witcher is, of course, TPP as opposed to the isometric RTwP (Real-Time with Pause) that Icewind Dale and other Infinity games present, but the similarity is that you can’t just waltz through combat willy nilly. If you aren’t paying attention, casting offensive and defensive spells, moving combatants who are being injured, drinking potions, etc., chances are you’re not going to survive.
Icewind Dale was created with the same engine that powered Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, so the structure of combat is very similar. However, all three games have a significantly different pacing where combat is concerned. Combat isn’t central to Torment, and many of the combat segments are optional or can be avoided if desired. Combat is a big deal in Baldur’s Gate, however, and for some reason I don’t find it nearly as satisfying as I do in Icewind Dale. I’m not really sure of the reason for the difference. Maybe it’s because the game lacks the same grand scale, but combat in Baldur’s Gate somehow feels more tedious than in Icewind Dale. But for all I know, that may be nostalgia talking. I do know that killing orcs is a lot more satisfying than slaying tasloi, gibberlings and xvarts.
A Linear Romp
If Icewind Dale has one major failing, it’s the linear progression of the game. Both of the Infinity games that came before it were sprawling role-playing adventures and many of the quests could be tackled in any order you please, just like in The Elder Scrolls. In Icewind Dale, you pretty much have a straight path from A to Z. There are a handful of optional side quests that aren’t essential to successfully beating the game, but even many of these can only be be completed at a certain point in the game.
Also, the game is light on actual role-playing. You have different dialogue options, but these are usually more for color than for anything else, and very few have any meaningful effect on the game (offhand, I can only remember two instances). There are a couple of different dialogue options that show up in Easthaven depending on the race of your character, but these are cosmetic as well, with only one (the dwarf conversation) having any effect at all.
Still, in my view, these are minor flaws that do little to dampen the experience of the game. For those who aren’t satisfied with the main quest, there is a pretty good-sized expansion called Heart of Winter that adds another maybe 15-20 hours of gameplay, and a free download called Trial of the Luremaster that Black Isle Studios offered for free to expand the gameplay. I’ve only played through Heart of Winter in its entirety once, but it is a pretty awesome adventure with a strong story in its own right, with interesting characters and a deep plot.
One of the nice things about being such an old game is that Icewind Dale is very cheap. You can buy the complete game with expansions DRM-free on Gog for $10 – even less if you get it on sale. Alternately, you can buy it on a budget DVD package that includes the second game very inexpensively on Amazon. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but I think it was around $15, which is a crazy good deal for two games plus an expansion.
I’d like to recommend Icewind Dale to everyone, but unfortunately I can’t. It has nothing to do with the quality of the game so much as the realization that this style of strategic combat simply isn’t for everyone, and too many times people mislabel their opinions as fact: “You don’t like [insert random game title]? What’s wrong with you?” This world is big enough for more than one opinion. The truth is that combat in Icewind Dale can get tedious, especially if you’re not familiar with the tactical approach the game requires. Also, the game is pretty old, and a lot of the conversations are not voice acted, which can be a turn-off for some gamers. In this regard, however, Icewind Dale stands above the other Infinity games. I haven’t played BG2 yet, and from what I understand it’s a lot better than the first game, but I’ve put a lot of time into that game and there isn’t a lot of voiced dialogue. Torment has more, but it’s inconsistently applied. In Icewind Dale, there isn’t as much dialogue, but every voiced character is completely voiced, and the level of talent they employed is quite good.
In short, I love this game. If you’re looking for a challenge, it’s definitely worth playing. It lacks the open-ended wanderings of Baldur’s Gate, the gripping story of Torment and the customization of its sequel, Icewind Dale 2, but it is a great game in its own right. It succeeds admirably in what it aims to accomplish, and I don’t know if I can give it higher praise than that.
EDIT: Somehow I neglected to mention the soundtrack to this game. It is sublime. The Kuldahar theme is an incredible composition! I guess when you hire Jeremy Soule, you get good results.