Review by C.LE
"A Worthy End to the Infinite Engine and Black Isle"
Icewind Dale II ended up being the last journey for the heavily praised Infinite Engine, which saw use in all sorts of D&D RPGs, such as the literary Planescape: Torment to the classic Baldur's Gate series. But Icewind Dale II also represented something else - one of the final projects of Black Isle before Interplay shut them down. Black Isle produced the finest PC role-playing games in history, including the amazing Fallout series, the Icewind Dale series, and assisting in the Baldur's Gate series. Icewind Dale II is a part of Black Isle's legacy and represents some of the best work that they have ever done, and it is a fitting tribute to their skills as designers.
Story (10/10): I'll be first to admit that I really didn't like the story of the original Icewind Dale. I'll also be the first to admit that I was really skeptical of the story for Icewind Dale II when it was first previewed - something about goblins attacking the Ten Towns - (sarcasm) OH MY HOW EXCITING (end sarcasm). Yet, from such simple beginnings, the story eventually builds up to an epic tale. And this is no ordinary epic tale. The villains are well fleshed out, sympathetic characters, and the conflict so well etched-out. It would've been easy to make Isae and Madae caricatures of fantasy villains, but their cause is so ultimately noble, and their motivations tragic, so that even if their methods are inherently criminal and sadistic, it is with some moral ambuguity that you have to defeat them. It is this level of moral grey-ness that elevates the story from being stereotypical fantasy game base drivel and into something with actual literary potential.
While there are very few large side quests (the game is quite linear), the many tiny steps along the road are fulfilling and satisfying. Unfortunately, there are a few interactions amongst the plot points that make it seem a bit arbitrary, but these are few and far in between. Nevertheless, the amount of detail written about various magical items is amazing, and most are small stories in and of themselves (such as the background for the super Paladin sword). I don't know when they made this step up from the original Icewind Dale, but I'm glad they made this decision.
Graphics (10/10): I normally don't grade graphics, as most people simply think that "shiny new graphics = good" without considering how the graphics serve the game, but I felt that the graphics deserved special mention here. Icewind Dale II was released when pretty pretty polygons were everywhere. Recall that when Baldur's Gate was released and the Infinite Engine first established, polygons were limited to a Quake or Quake II sense at the most, but Icewind Dale II was released when you have games with near photo-realistic 3D modelling, with the technology improving every month, so it runs the potential of looking seriously dated. And, I'll admit, the first second or two of gameplay is jarring. Even comparing to Baldur's Gate II (which is older than IWD2), the graphics look not-so-hot. But then you realize that this is artistic style, and the artistic detail paid to the world of IWD2 borders on the insane. While it is true that accurately modelling 3D figures is quite a task, IWD2 presents to you a whole different level of talent. While the backgrounds are still traditionally prerendered, many of them are given a stylistic painted approach. Coupled with the new art for player portraits as well as the art used for each chapter, the amount of physical painting skill necessary becomes evident and is truly amazing. While certainly not as shiny as, say, the latest shader-enhanced FPS, the graphics serve the game well in creating a fantastic ambience.
Sound (10/10): One of my favorite things about the original Icewind Dale was Jeremy Soule, who composed the music, and he's back in full form for Icewind Dale 2. His talent is very evident at all points. His evocation of the Kuldahar theme from the original when you revisit Kuldahar is masterful. Battle music is epic and soaring.
Like the original IWD and unlike the Baldur's Gate series, all your swings and blocks register as actual sounds in combat, which leave a very satisfying sound impression, as your axes thuds against shields and the like. Moreover, there is a much expanded spell list and Black Isle chose not to simply duplicate sounds used in BG2 for similar spells in IWD2 in many cases, resulting in very satisfying and updated explosions and metaphoric bells and whistles.
Replayability (9/10): With the extensive possibility of races and classes and the possibility of running a party of anywhere from 1 to 6 characters, coupled with randomized loot as well as the super-difficult Heart of Fury mode (which almost definitely requires you use characters wth which you've already beaten normal mode), there is a lot of replayabilty here. Unfortunately, Black Isle had to essentially stop work on IWD2 and move on to other work, so there won't be the level of expansion as there was with the original IWD, where you had an expansion pack as well as a free-downloadable dungeon, which is unfortunate.
Gameplay (10/10): Black Isle simply did alot of things right with this game. First of all is their decision to switch the Infinite Engine to 3rd edition D&D rules (instead of using the original AD&D). This is huge. I had problems with other Infinite Engine games, not directly related to the games themselves, but with the underlying system. AD&D was a heavily flawed system in its computer implementations (such as the near uselessness of Int, Cha, and Wis stats), but 3rd ed went a long way into making D&D a solid, rigorously established system. Not only does this make IWD2 the strongest Infinity Engine game simply by virtue of having a better game system, it gives the system more depth, as Feats and Skills (both 3rd ed additions) help character customization. The second was an early decision to switch the game to uncontested rolls. The idea was that if you made random events nonrandon, it would discourage players from reloading games until something went their way. This is somewhat evident in the BG series, as lockpicking either succeeds 100% of the time or 0% of the time, depending on your skill, so you can't just have a 1% in pick locks and sit there spamming mouse clicks for a minute. The application for IWD2, was intended to be more broad. If you failed a stealth check, you couldn't reload and hope for a better roll. If you failed a pick pocket, you coudln't reload and hope to get lucky on the next try. Unfortunately (in my opinion), Black Isle decided not to stick with this, but the impact is still evident. All role-playing skills are uncontestable and your basic stats are uncontestable (instead of generating your stats by rolling simulated d6's, you have a point buy system so you can precisely determine each character's statistics). This leads to a much better balanced and meaningful game system. Third, and most interestingly, Black Isle introduced Role Playing into a series that started off with little to no role playing (IWD). Now, not only did "soft" skills like Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate actually influence what you could or could not accomplish within the game, but now class (Paladins and Monks are the most obvious) and race now impact your in-game capabilities. Having a party of 6 multiclassed Paladins might be absurdly powerful, but you're going to get piddling rewards due to your chivalrous ways, for example. This is some nice stuff, but its expected since this is from the same people who brought you Fallout.
All being said, the game is immensely fun to play. Combat is still the same as ever, except now with 3rd ed rules, improved interface management, better AI, and more interesting creatures and scenarios. The game overall is more balanced than other entries in the IE legacy, and Heart of Fury mode will test the skills of any hardcore player (that is, unless you cheese your way through it). The game, unfortunately for casual players, is intensely difficult, even on normal setting, so be prepared for some white-knuckle battles and absolute skill-testing.
Final Assessment (10/10): Wow. That's simply it. Anyone who remotely like role playing games should play IWD2. Even if the difficulty might push you off at first, stick to it. The experience will reward you.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 07/27/06
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