Reviewed By: Kirk Hiner
Review Date: April 19, 2002
There are certain things in life which, for the life of me, I can't explain why I like. It's that I'm embarrassed to like them, but rather that their appeal baffles me. In the winter, for example, I find myself purposely catching colds just so I can take Fisherman's Friend cough drops. I still occasionally find myself singing along with Night Ranger on the commute home from work.
I own the DVD for Dude, Where's My Car?. I've watched it more than once.
Of course, I'm about to tie all of this in to my affinity for MacPlay's Icewind Dale. It's not exactly fair, because Icewind Dale is certainly more highly revered in its genre than the aforementioned items. But it's not just the fact that I enjoyed this game, it's the degree to which I enjoyed it. It fell just short of addiction (although my wife would tell you it actually went way beyond).
If you've played Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, or just about anything from Black Isle Studios, you understand the concept behind Icewind Dale. You're an adventurer. You run a few errands, make a few dollars, buy a few weapons, fight a few monsters, and restore many saved games.
Icewind Dale, however, takes a different approach to all of this. I'm not sure if it's fresh or if it's old school, I just know it's quite intense and extremely frustrating and rewarding at the same time. Unlike it's predecessors, Icewind Dale relies much less on story and much more on action. This game is about fighting...plenty of fighting. I've heard it referred to as a traditional "dungeon crawl," but I haven't crawled enough dungeons to verify that claim. I did once crawl through the water drainage pipes from the Ashland High School practice fields to the Big Wheel parking lot, but I didn't have to slay enough orcs and bombardier beetles to really call it a dungeon crawl.
So, yeah...combat. Combat all the way up, down and through the Spine of the World Mountains, a treacherous area located in the upper north of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms setting. Comparing this game to Baldur's Gate is like comparing The Mummy to...well, The Mummy Returns, I guess. In both cases, the first was a good balance of action, plot and character development. The second was nothing but action. This often meets with criticism, but there's certainly room for this type of entertainment in both movies and computer games.
Icewind Dale is extremely linear. What's more, the line is not too terribly interesting. The plot is shoved along by non-player characters who often pop up just to give you someone to kill on your way to bigger things.
"No, despite four levels of traps and hordes of monsters, I no longer have the emerald. It's at the bottom of four more levels of traps and hordes of monsters, but here, I'll try to kill you anyway."
Still, like I've often said while in line at the BMV or for the Millennium Force at Cedar Point, "People move faster if you push." Icewind Dale moves along at a breakneck pace. Well, unless you're not very good, like me, but I'll get to that later.
Another departure; Icewind Dale lets you create all six members of your party. Cool. There are many pre-configured characters from which you can choose, but where's the fun in that? You can even create custom histories, use your own artwork for their mug shots, and record your own voice for the pre-set phrases they can use. This seems a bit extreme, sure, but any chance to make these characters more personal is welcome. You'll be spending plenty of time with them, so it's important to identify.
Of course, if a couple should die along the way (and they will), you can always just create other characters to take their place. Sadly, but understandably, they'll start with no experience or items. Happily, and predictably, items and experience come quickly. That, and you can always just take the items from your fallen comrades and give them to the new guys. You can't take it with you, after all.
Icewind Dale boasts some of the most formidable (and largest) opponents to appear in a Black Isle game. There are over 70 new types of monsters, for a total of over 150, or so the box claims. After a while, I grew tired of paying attention to what I had already killed and what I was killing for the first time. As with other Black Isle games, the combat system allows you to pause the action to assign tasks to your characters, then let them have at it. You can even pause the game to transfer items amongst characters (provided they're within range) and ready different weapons. This may not be a very realistic approach to combat--although I like the mental image of my warriors tossing health potions and chugging them down in the midst of battle--but you'll need every advantage you can get.
There are plenty of weapons and spells at your disposal, so you don't need to be a pack rat like I was and horde them all. Every magical potion or higher level spell I found was put in someone's inventory and saved for some really formidable foe. Know what? There will always be formidable foes. There will also always be potions and spells to be found. Use them freely.
Graphically, Icewind Dale is on par with other efforts from Black Isle. Its graphics engine isn't as advanced as that of Baldur's Gate II, but it makes up for it in style. The icy cliffs and dark dungeons are effectively rendered, providing a nice feel to the game. The characters themselves don't look as good as their surroundings, but not to the point that it detracts from the game. The sound effects greatly enhance the visuals, as does the music...although the queues did get fairly repetitive. The music kicks in nicely when you're about to be attacked, but it doesn't slow back down immediately after the battle. This is somewhat unsettling, as the uptempo music led me to believe there were enemies around when there were none. Well, within sight, anyway. There are always enemies around.
The multiplayer component in Icewind Dale is perhaps the closest a computer game has come to emulating the comraderie of a night of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing. Six players can tackle the adventure together via GameRanger, LAN or TCP/IP. TCP/IP proved to be an exercise in futility for me and fellow reviewer Bill Stiteler, but opening a lunch size pack of vanilla pudding can prove to be an exercise in futility for me and Bill Stiteler. GameRanger proved the better option, and we were unable to test LAN play.
Icewind Dale allows the host of the multiplayer session to set the permissions of all the players in the party. This can prove quite valuable when playing with people like Bill; no more worries about your teammates spending money frivolously or saying the wrong thing to the wrong priest.
Of course, the game is not without its flaws. The interface took up far too much retail space, for starters. Quite often, while trying to inch along so as to not attract the attention of too many enemies at one time, the tiny window wouldn't allow me to see my characters and the newly revealed areas at the same time. And speaking of inching along, I had to do it far more often than I would've liked. In a game where the action's supposed to come with fury, it's very nature often slowed it to a crawl. Oh, hey. I guess that's why they call them dungeon crawls. Perhaps less quantity, more quality in the monsters could've helped out the flow.
I still have no idea why right clicking an item in OS X brought up its description, while doing so in OS 9 simply selected the item. This alone kept me playing in OS X the majority of the time, despite some undesirable behavior there. The animation in certain levels, for one reason or another, would stutter terribly. This wasn't always during large battles, but simply as my characters were walking from point A to point B. When I'd advance to the next level, all would be well again.
Also, the game tends to be mainly about saving and restoring more than anything else. I know it may be cheating, and I know not everyone plays as I do, but I'd save constantly in case something didn't go right. Woken up from sleep by a pack of goblins? No worries, I saved it right before I went to sleep. My ranger didn't get many hit points when advancing to the next level? No worries, I saved it right before levelling up. That door was trapped and I didn't disarm it with my thief? No worries, I...you get the idea. This is not the game's fault, I suppose. It's the fault of the genre. The only way to really prevent it is through multiplayer. At least there, the whole party must be composed of cheaters.
And finally, one final, major complaint. This goes not only for Icewind Dale, but for many games released these days. If you're not going to bother giving us a useful manual, just don't give us one at all. The manual barely tells you how to play the game and shows a couple tiny pictures of what the spells look like. I assume this is done on purpose; the game publishers must have some kind of deal with the damn strategy guide publishers and purposely don't put anything of use in the manual that ships with the game. What's more, the text that is there virtually unreadable black type on a gray background. It's a racket, plain and simple.
Despite these shortcomings, I couldn't get enough of Icewind Dale. By stripping the RPG genre to its bare essentials, Black Isle has managed to create a game that's entire appeal comes from the action. Although this is rarely the case, simply hopping from battle to battle works tremendously well for this game. It's really too bad that MacPlay wasn't able to bring us the expansion packs as well, since Mac gamers usually get these included with our ports. Here's hoping they find their way over soon. Here's hoping the sequel finds its way over soon. Here's hoping I find my way out of this addiction and back to more productive work soon. Maybe I should just go watch Dude, Where's My Car? gain instead. It's not as entertaining as Icewind Dale, but it takes up much less time.
"That's not a ju-ju zombie, dude, it's an ostrich."
There's just no accounting for taste...not even my own.
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