Review by ExcellentDude

"The best Bioware game that's not a Bioware game"

Icewind Dale II is the best Bioware game not made by Bioware. The Canadian developer created the Baldur's Gate series, probably the most popular PC roleplaying games at present. Black Isle Studios, Interplay's in-house RPG developer, used Bioware's game engine to create Icewind Dale, which was such a hit that they made a sequel. I've played most of the Baldur's Gate titles, as well as the first IWD, but I have to say that of all of these, IWD2 is my favorite. Why? It might have something to do with the streamlined playflow, such as the useful ability to set up four different weapon-shield combinations for each party member and then switch among them on the fly. Or it might be that the game uses the AD&D third-edition rules, which enhance gameplay flexibility significantly. But at the end of the day, the real reason is it's just so darn playable. At the default difficulty level, it's not that easy, but it's not as hard as the earlier titles, and gameplay is more linear, which is a big plus for those of us who don't have all day to play (cf. Morrowind).

In IWD2, as with its predecessors, you guide a team of six player characters through a world fraught with challenges both physical and mental. You can start out with one of several nicely balanced preset parties, whose characters the designers have taken pains to imbue with interesting histories, or you can roll your own. In the single-player game, you can control any or all of the characters directly and use A.I. scripts for the rest, and in multiplayer mode, humans control each party member.

The new classes made available by the third-edition rules are Barbarian, Monk, and Sorcerer. The Barbarian is a fast-moving fighter, so fast that they cannot be flanked. They can use the Rage ability once a day, which makes them a fiercer fighter, but quickly brings on fatigue, at which point they can no longer fight. The Monk is also a fighter, and can use weapons, but is best suited for fighting barehanded. As long as you don't equip a monk with weaponry, he'll level up quickly. He can't cast spells, but gains special abilities such as immunity to poison and fatigue. And the Sorcerer is closest to the Wizard, but can't learn spells from scrolls and doesn't have to memorize spells. As a result, she doesn't learn nearly as many spells, but all spells she knows are available at any time. For example, if a sorcerer knows the level 1 spells Magic Missile and Mage Armor, she can use any combination of the two up to N times (the number increases with level) before having to rest. The limited spell selection really isn't a problem; I'd guess that most CRPG players generally don't come near to taking full advantage of the wizard's broader palette of powers. The fireball spell, for instance, is eminently useful.

The story is a good one. You start out at a goblin-infested port city, fight a few nominal battles, report to the commander, and learn the rest of the story as you complete his assignments. I won't presume to spoil it for you in any way, but rest assured the plot twists keep you interested and wanting to see what comes next. As with most such games, the gameplay's the thing, and as long as you keep your wits about you, the battles are eminently winnable. This is where the Bioware engine shines: you can fight in real time, which saves time if your party is much stronger than the enemy, or you can pause at any time to issue commands, which are then carried out as soon as you resume the game.

IWD2 might be the last big PC RPG with two-dimensional graphics, which is a pity. The designers took full advantage of their ability to use pre-rendered backgrounds, resulting in some locales of breathtaking beauty. The recent 3D RPGs with a similar vantage point--Dungeon Siege and Bioware's Neverwinter Nights--look nice, but not as good as this. However, although the 2D graphics should be less of a burden on the CPU and graphics card, the game does bog down occasionally, especially when many characters are on the screen.

As for flies in the ointment, there aren't many. Pathfinding isn't the best: Sometimes, when you click on a destination for the party, one or two characters at the back decide to take the long way around rather than wait for those ahead of them to move. If you aren't paying careful attention (not always easy with six party members to keep track of), they'll end up on the other side of the current map, perhaps getting slaughtered by an unknown enemy. Similarly, a party member will move out of the way of a single player-directed character, but not if someone else is in his way. Characters seem not to respond to in-battle commands sometimes. And the process of choosing new spells for the Sorcerer when leveling up could be clearer; I ended up giving mine spells I didn't really want a couple of times until I figured out what was going on. But I did get the fireball!

Also, the spoken responses that result from clicking on characters can get old quickly. The manual is small-box sized, and thus uses tiny print, but that's preferable to omitting important information. I like that the manual uses a single spell list, rather than subdividing spells by class, so it's much easier to find a particular spell. Of course, the game offers thorough explanations of all resources, so you might not even have to use the manual.

All told, Icewind Dale II is a fine, big roleplaying adventure, with lots of gameplay variety and surprises around almost every corner. Because of the many choices available, there's good replay value, but you never get lost. Bottom line, it's a fun game; what more could you ask for?

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 10/02/02, Updated 10/02/02

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