Developer: Black Isle Studios
A generation after the events in Icewind Dale, a grave new threat has arisen in the North; a threat that seeks to cut off the Ten-Towns from the rest of Faerun in a bitter power struggle. A vicious horde of goblins, orcs, and bugbears have gathered beneath the mysterious banner of the Chimera and are attacking the port town of Targos. The town of Bremen has fallen, goblin raiders ride the plains, and a stream of refugees are fleeing southwards to Bryn Shander and beyond. Fearing that they will be overrun, Targos has sent out a call for all able-bodied adventurers, soldiers, and mercenaries to sail north to stand with the towns defenders against the encroaching horde, and it is up to the players small band of adventurers to save Targos from destruction. Yet nothing is as it appears and as the shadow of the horde falls on Targos, the players find themselves drawn into an escalating conflict that plunges the region of Icewind Dale once again, into war.
Icewind Dale fans have been anxiously clamoring for a new adventure since the middle of 2000, what they got was a brief and somewhat disappointing spin-off game by the name of Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter. Luckily, Icewind Dale II is not a slightly reworked expansion pack of the original and ID fans everywhere should be thoroughly satisfied with Black Isle Studios latest offering. 2002 has been a great year for the PC RPG and there is no doubt that the bar has been raised by a considerable margin. So what is most surprising is that ID2 manages to compete with the best of the big boys despite the fact that it uses the Infinity engine, first seen four years ago in the highly-acclaimed Baldur’s Gate.
Icewind Dale II is based on the 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules and is another addition to the popular Forgotten Realms universe. While the basic game play mechanics are not entirely dissimilar to that of its precursor, the update from the past game’s 2nd edition D&D rules does allow for more depth and game play possibilities. It’s not hard to understand why Black Isle opted to stick with the same basic formula though, it provides an excellent blend of strategic combat, interesting exploration, and a story that is so well-written it will satisfy even the most fanatical of D&D-heads. This time around, the adventure is more challenging and, unlike Heart of Winter, it is a long enough game to warrant a purchase. Icewind Dale II introduces new class kits like the Mercenary, Giant Killer and the Dreadmaster of Bane among others, plus new sub-races including the Drow and Tiefling.
The progression in ID2 is structured in such a way that if you've played similar Forgotten Realms games you'll feel right at home. You start by creating a party of up to six characters, the customization options available for doing this is impressive to say the least. Everything from the character’s appearance to class sub-category can be tweaked with relative ease. There are tons of back-stories, character illustrations, and unique abilities to choose from. It is easy to spend upwards of an hour just fine-tuning your party. Fortunately, there are a slew of pre-made parties that you can choose from if you are itching to jump into the action. And if action is what your looking for you'll be glad to know that Icewind Dale II doesn't waste much time getting down to business; you'll be introducing the pointy-side of your weapon to some nasty goblins almost immediately upon arriving at the port-town of Targos.
One of the best things about Icewind Dale II is the sheer amount of accomplishment you feel from building up your characters as you progress through the game. You'll come across new weapons, spells, equipment, and challenges that will steadily increase the power of your party until you are eventually taking on hordes of powerful baddies without difficulty. A big part of what makes this game so immersive is the fact that gaining experience points is not limited to hacking and slashing, but can instead be gathered from performing tasks for the townsfolk, taking up jobs as a hired-sword, or helping out people in distress. This makes exploring towns and conversing with NPC’s well worth the time investment, though the many mini-quests are purely optional.
Expect to progress through an immense amount of quests in Icewind Dale II before watching the end-credits roll, everywhere you go there is always a few different things that you can do to garner some gold or experience. It is easy to get lost in just exploring every nook and cranny in Maer Dualdon and conversing with the locals. Every personality that you come across in your adventure will come off as truly authentic inhabitants with their own motives and believable tale to tell. The combat sequences are tons of fun too, challenging enough to make you think but not so difficult that you'll be constantly replaying areas over and over again. There are a handful of fetching assignments but they are kept to a minimal and are entertaining enough anyway.
While the Infinity engine is undeniably starting to look a little rough around the edges in contrast to other RPG’s like Morrowind and Neverwinter Nights, Black Isle Studios has made great use of it in this title, proving that it is more than capable of producing spacious and intricate environments replete with tons of pre-rendered detail. All the same, gamers bred on more visually impressive titles will initially be turned off by Icewind Dale II’s simple 2D character models and limited animations.
Black Isle employed the same top-quality level of aural goodness that you'll find in their other Forgotten Realms RPGS. Voice work is exceptional, only key characters are provided with voice-overs though. The sheer amount of dialogue in the game most likely forbids the option to make every piece of discourse audible but still, how cool would that be? The soundtrack consists of stirring orchestrations that fade in and out or ramp up to fast-paced war-like compositions when key combat sequences begin. The composer of Icewind Dale II, Inon Zur, does a very adequate job of giving the game an epic feel that is rivaled only by that of -- well, every other Black Isle Studios RPG.
The main single-player mode will take a hefty amount of time to complete, but Black Isle also included a cool multi player mode that allows you and up to five friends to play the game simultaneously, each controlling their own character(s). There is also a Heart of Fury mode, first seen in the Heart of Winter expansion, which increases the difficulty of the game and thusly the amount of experience collected, a welcome addition. On top of all that the Heart Of Fury mode also introduces over 100 new special items.
Black Isle has had plenty of experience catering to the needs of RPG gamers and Icewind Dale II is a testament to that. This is basically a careful culmination of all the best elements from past Infinity engine games. The visual presentation is a little outdated but if you can get past the mediocre graphical exterior of the game you'll find an immensely engaging role-playing game that will keep you busy for countless hours with its extensive single-player campaign and full-fledged multi player component. Do yourself a favor and pick this game up.