Following on from the overhauled releases of Baldur’s Gate and its superb sequel Shadows of Amn, publisher Beamdog have set their sights on the chilly dungeon-crawler Icewind Dale as the next title to receive the Enhanced Edition treatment. It’s time to gather your party, equip your Tinted Glasses of Rose (+2), and venture forth once more.
Icewind Dale always felt like the poor cousin to its narrative-driven RPG brethren. A lack of recruitable party members and a focus on combat meant that anyone coming over from the Baldur’s Gate stable felt like they had been set adrift, handling a completely self-developed party with no backstory other than that which you imposed upon them, and set on a rather pedestrian mission to help find the cause of a dying tree. Comparisons with Shadows of Amn were inevitable, given that they were released in the same year. Yet whilst Minsc, Jaheira et al were caught up in a treacherous plot of intertwining factions, Icewind Dale’s refreshingly old-school hack and slash sensibilities meshed well with its intriguing side quests, and provided a more satisfying experience than the likes of Diablo 2 and more straightforward dungeon divers.
Fourteen years on, the opportunity to revisit Easthaven, Kuldahar and other memorable locations has presented itself once more. We’re happy to state that this retooled version - which includes the expansion of Heart of Winter and its add-on, Trials of the Luremaster - is the definitive version, both respectful to the original and providing enough additional content to make it a worthwhile purchase.
Starting out with a party of six, your first objective will be to create a set of characters with complementary skills. Unlike later series such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, where a deficiency in any given ability isn’t enough to hamper you too much, here you’ll need to build a rounded party from the outset or face something of a baptism of fire. Going all out with five mages and a rogue will leave you reaching for the reset button before the second Magic Missile leaves your fingertips. Initial characters are cripplingly weak at level one, and hit and run tactics are simply not possible if you don’t have a combination of tanks, artillery and spellcraft to cover each other.
Control of your party will be familiar to anyone who has played a Black Isle game, or even more modern offerings such as Wasteland 2. Party members can be selected individually or as a group from either the game window or via character portraits. Inventories are managed individually, and actions boil down to a choice of attacking with a weapon, using an item, or casting a spell. When combat comes - and in this world, it’s sooner than you’d expect - it can be paused at any point with the spacebar to allow you to assess the situation and adjust any actions you had already lined up to make. It’s a system which worked well a decade ago and still holds up today, even if the visible representation of turn and round times make fighting feel somewhat staccato when compared with the beefed-up responsiveness of Dragon Age’s combat.
As mentioned, the introduction to the game’s world is a little mundane compared to other titles based on the Infinity engine. Your party is invited to join an expedition, and set off from a small town to investigate strange occurrences which have been plaguing the land, inevitably getting caught up in a much bigger web of evil. So far, so D&D. This isn’t necessarily a negative though, as Icewind Dale is possibly the most faithful of its family when it comes to more traditional role-playing. It is driven behind the scenes by a modified version of the 2nd Edition ruleset, with all of the dice rolls happening without your intervention. Unfortunately, this ruleset also incorporated some oddities such as THAC0 (To Hit Armour Class 0) which was confusing to new players and not particularly conducive to fun gameplay, given that you needed enhanced weapons to even have a chance at hitting some enemies. It was thankfully replaced by the 3rd Edition ruleset by the time Icewind Dale II came around, but here it’s a case of gritting your teeth and buffing your party as best you can when facing more powerful opponents.
Should any of your characters suffer the indignity of getting laid out, they can be raised from the dead at a nearby temple for a price. You’ll soon become very familiar with this service as combat can often be unforgiving. When your mage loses his entire six hit points from a single attack and leaves the rest of your party reliant on brute force to take out a mountain of goblins, there’s little to be done other than revising your tactics and trying again. And when that leaves you in the middle of a massive dungeon with nowhere to rest safely, the tension can soon crank up to unbearable levels. One of the game’s strengths lies in its balance; whether its rushing into an area without getting your thief to scout ahead unnoticed, or forgetting to rest and recover your spells before taking on a boss, pretty much every setback can be traced to a mistake on your part.
Enemies are varied and interesting, combining traditional staples such as goblins and kobolds with ogre mages, snow trolls and blast skeletons. Given the age of the engine the character models are expectedly dated, but the addition of a zoom function makes them far more palatable and having a greater view of the gorgeous wintery landscapes is a bonus. Jeremy Soule’s superb doom-laden soundtrack heightens the immersion, as frosty and foreboding as it ever was.
If you tire of questing alone, the co-op multiplayer is a fine option as Beamdog have clearly learned from the mistakes made in their previous enhanced offerings. Jointly taking control of a party couldn’t be simpler, thanks to a clean lobby interface which lets you choose the characters you want to lead and entering the environment together in a matter of seconds. It’s also a cinch to import any character you may have created outside of co-op, meaning you’re not just reliant on playing with a single person’s party. Even better, it works cross-platform.
Of course, limitations of the game mean that one person will be driving all of the conversation and shop interactions; you won’t find anything like Divinity: Original Sin’s dual dialogue here. Conversely, whilst you can pass items to other players, there’s no option to take items off them. This in turn leads to frequent discussion and re-organisation of inventories before you can sell off any of the junk and treasure you’ve accumulated from your recent dungeon forays. Giving the lead player the option of autonomy over the rest of the party’s inventory would have been more welcome than constant equipment shuffling, especially since dead characters automatically dump all of their equipment on the ground and leave you with the dilemma of what to take or leave. When you’re down to only three out of six characters standing, things get frustrating very quickly. Pathfinding, one of the biggest issues with the original release, has not been addressed sufficiently either. Too often we found ourselves wondering why we weren’t able to enter a tavern or leave an area, only to realise that our bard had gone on a detour and was stuck up a mountain, waiting for us to redirect her.
But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise sterling remake. Beamdog’s previous endeavours with the Forgotten Realms world mean that Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition not only benefits from all of the spells from the Baldur’s Gate games, but their character classes and kits as well. Throw in a plethora of new items as well as several quests retrieved from the cutting room floor of the first release, and the sum total is a carefully crafted remake which will appeal to both hardcore dungeon crawlers and newer players looking for more of a challenge than today’s party-based CRPGs can offer. It may not have the narrative thrust of other Black Isle titles or the likes of Bioware’s slick epics, but Icewind Dale remains an important part of the adventuring landscape for those willing to brave its frosty depths.