Icewind Dale: The Past, Present, and Future

27 Oct 2011

Windswept, icy plains. Majestic and dense forests. Deep canyons falling miles into the earth below. A perpetual blanket of snow. Barbarian camps and wintry hamlets barely pock-marking the landscape. The eerie chill of the northerly wind, an eternal presence. I'm talking, of course, about the evocative and imaginative imagery found in one of the best-remembered Infinity Engine franchises, Icewind Dale. Based upon a trilogy of novels by famed fantasy author R.A. Salvatore (though taking place many decades apart), the Icewind Dale name is perhaps better-known within the gaming community for the two computer role-playing games it spawned in 2000 and 2002. More linear and combat-focused than the ever-successful Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale eschewed much of the lengthy dialogue, open-ended exploration and storyline that made its predecessor so successful to begin with, but in so doing, managed to carve out a unique identity for itself that has stood up well for over a decade... so much so that it may well be high time to revisit the Dale once again.

An Icy Gem

Icewind Dale was initially conceived as a lower-budget title, intended to help fill out Interplay's catalogue by repurposing their older technology and filling the gap between the two Baldur's Gate games. As former Black Isle technical designer Scott Everts explained,

    "Icewind 1 and its expansions did very well and I’m both happy and proud to have worked on them. The original concept was to make a dungeon crawl instead of a more scripted adventure like the Baldur’s Gate series. So you started out with your full party that you created yourself instead of picking up as you adventure. I think that’s why the Icewind series did well since we didn’t try to just duplicate BG but instead took it a different direction. It gave our fanbase another experience and complemented the BG series quite well."

As such, Icewind Dale was conceptualized as a fairly small-scale game, taking a break from the epic size and world-saving of Baldur's Gate, trading it for a more self-contained experience that focused more on the basics of combat and exploring dark caverns and ancient temples.

Unfortunately, this smaller scope and relatively simpler gameplay next to other RPGs of the time may have ultimately cut into Icewind Dale’s success. Given the game’s positioning, it was almost doomed to be overshadowed by its "big brother" Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which released only a few short months afterward and went on to gain huge critical acclaim and sales numbers. Meanwhile, Diablo II, perhaps the biggest game of 2000, released on the very same day as Icewind Dale. However, marketed as a hack-and-slash, dungeon-drawling adventure, Icewind Dale's round-based combat, Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, emphasis on single-player, and measured game pace simply didn't match up to Diablo II's more immediate appeal. Though still financially successful, Icewind Dale was perhaps destined to be overlooked by the mainstream.

Despite the competition, Icewind Dale managed to find its own niche. The most obvious hook of Icewind Dale, and one I think was a mistake for BioWare to largely ignore in Baldur's Gate II, was the ability to create an entire party from scratch (though preset characters were still available for rookies, or those who just wanted to jump into the game quickly). Baldur's Gate had already introduced a robust character creation system, complete with importing and exporting of characters, but it was Icewind Dale which realized the dream of creating an entire band of adventurers - at least without resorting to some work-arounds using the multiplayer mode, or modifications. The obvious downside of this new freedom to fully explore the game's ruleset, however, was a lack of party banter and interaction in general, as putting words in the player's mouth wouldn't have made much sense in such a context. Indeed, the lack of extensive dialogue options and story motivations in Baldur's Gate (especially for evil players) was one of the major critiques made against that game, so perhaps it even worked to Icewind Dale's advantage.

If story and characters were one thing that Icewind Dale downplayed, it made up for it wholeheartedly with atmosphere and a strong game world. Beginning in the small, snowed-in fishing village of Easthaven, one of the Ten-Towns of the Dale, Icewind Dale eschews the standard tutorial dungeons and most of the fetch-quests that so define most RPGs, instead opting for a few side-quests, world-building and establishing its unique visual identity. From the snow-covered log cabins, to the icy waters of the harbor, to the twisting, bare trees, to the towering, wood-carved chapel in the village's northwest corner. To this day it remains one of my favorite opening locations in an RPG, serene and simple, with a rustic charm, without feeling like a tutorial area or overstaying its welcome before the player is put right into the action.

That action, appropriately, is an expedition into the frozen wastes, undertaken in order to reach Kuldahar, a druidic grove of a village built around the roots of a massive oak tree. Under the guidance of Kuldahar's archdruid, Arundel, your adventuring party soon set out on a lengthy journey to expose and defeat a plot that threatens both the Ten-Towns and all of Faerûn. Icewind Dale was extremely light on story, but it managed to still build a convincing and enjoyable context for the dungeons that made up the bulk of its gameplay. The focus on the single town of Kuldahar may have been a design choice made out of the game's more limited scope, but it too helped to solidify the game's focus and emphasize the isolation of the Dale, making every trip into the wilderness feel like its own doomed expedition - making it back alive to the warmth and safety after successfully scouring a dungeon was one of the game's high points.

Indeed, out of all the RPGs released from its same period, it's quite difficult to find a game as consistently enjoyable as Icewind Dale. In the lead-up to this retrospective, I played through it fully in a matter of days, and never felt as if the game slowed down, lost its pacing, or ran out of ideas. The environments one explores were always varied, there were new and unique enemies introduced with every new chapter, and there are just enough characters to talk to, plot threads to follow and magic items to uncover that one always looked forward to the next chapter. Furthermore, Icewind Dale's phenomenal 2D artwork was and still is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen in a game, and the soundtrack, courtesy of Jeremy Soule, set the mood of frozen desolation perfectly. While there are other RPGs which reached higher highs than Icewind Dale, it only rarely suffered from any drops in quality - the Dragon's Eye dungeon in particular standing out.
Into the Heart of Winter

While not a massive commercial success, Icewind Dale was well-received by critics and fans alike; given these conditions, an expansion pack was a pretty sure bet, and Interplay obliged with Heart of Winter in 2001. Heart of Winter kept much of the focus on dungeon-crawling of the original game, but exposed more of Icewind Dale's lore and world than the original game ever did, with a plot revolving more around conflict between the Ten-Towns, the barbarian tribes of the Dale, an ancient frost wyrm, and a cryptic, blind seer. Set in and around the village of Lonelywood, Heart of Winter provided more in the way of character interaction, side-quests, and even some mild choice and consequence that was lacking from the original story. Technically, a number of improvements were made to the game and its engine, most notably a higher resolution, a slew of extra high-level spells, a raised level cap, and the Heart of Fury mode, which substantially increased the difficulty level and made replaying with a well-developed party a more fulfilling experience.

However, there was one glaring flaw with Heart of Winter, one which saw fans' opinions grow sour towards Interplay, and that was its considerably shorter length when put next to Icewind Dale's original story. Though few expect an expansion pack to provide massive amounts of gameplay, Heart of Winter was but a third of the size of Icewind Dale, with only a handful of dungeons to explore. Furthermore, many of its dungeons were little more than long, winding, straightforward corridors, in stark contrast to the multi-floored, more open-ended labyrinths in the original game. While it did introduce a variety of new enemies, items, and made further changes and improvements to the core gameplay, including the Heart of Fury mode, the relative briefness of the campaign and the lack of gameplay variety led to some backlash against Interplay and Black Isle.

To retroactively play devil's advocate, Heart of Winter is still a fine expansion pack. Played today back to back with the original campaign, it's hard not to notice how much more limited it is in terms of scope, but many of its improvements, including a wider world that included more than just dungeons, a greater number of quests, and a more immediate narrative still elevate it beyond its relatively poor reputation. Compared to the rather anemic Baldur's Gate expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, Heart of Winter feels significantly more coherent and substantial, and is well worth playing through after completing the main storyline.

In response to the complaints about Heart of Winter short campaign, Black Isle released a free expansion pack shortly after, Trials of the Luremaster, though calling it an expansion pack may be a bit of a misnomer, as it was really more of an expansion dungeon (not to mention it requires the prior expansion pack as well). Much in the vein of Durlag's Tower from Baldur's Gate, Trials contained a host of challenging high-level enemies, difficult boss encounters, its own mini-narrative, and, most distinctively, puzzles, which were in fairly short supply in the original campaign.

Fan reception to Trials of the Luremaster was decidedly mixed. As a free add-on it offered up great value, and added approximately ten hours of gameplay to Heart of Winter. At the same time, whether or not one appreciates the emphasis on puzzling is a very subjective thing - personally, I found myself more frustrated with traveling back and forth within the dungeon depths while ferrying items to and fro, and a slew of other annoyances, such as monsters that could teleport party members around the map, also dragged things down for me. Still, releasing an entire expansion for free, even a relatively small one, was an unprecedented move by Interplay, and one which helped patch up relations with fans. It also helped keep the Icewind Dale name relevant after the main game's release and was likely instrumental in determining the chances of a potential sequel down the road.

A Return to the Dale

With its two expansion packs, good reputation with critics and fans, and an idle D&D license, it was only fitting that in 2002, Interplay and Black Isle Studios would release Icewind Dale II. While the original game had always been conceived as a lower-budget alternative to the Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale II's development history was significantly more troubled. Interplay's financial woes during 2001 had begun to escalate, and as a result, several ongoing RPG projects, including TORN and Van Buren (the ill-fated Fallout 2 sequel), were delayed or canceled outright in order to make more room for what Interplay considered to be the more reliable Icewind Dale brand. Initially given a development window of only four months, according to lead designer Josh Sawyer, even with the additional team members gained from the cancelation of those other projects, as well as further delays, Icewind Dale II saw a rushed production cycle.

There were other obstacles in Black Isle's way while developing Icewind Dale II as well. Much as BioWare had decided to switch over to Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition rules for their upcoming Neverwinter Nights, Interplay wanted to make the transition themselves, spearheaded by Josh Sawyer, development lead, as he felt it was "one of the few things that could make people look at another Infinity Engine game". Initially, only a few smaller features were planned, and the transition was initially resisted by the development team, especially as much of the game had been designed around the 2nd Edition rules. Interplay eventually conceded a delay so that the team could more fully implement the 3rd Edition's new ruleset, though the implementation was still lacking compared to games built fully around the rules.

Icewind Dale II was the last game released to run on the then-dated Infinity Engine, and at the time of release, it was hard not to look at the game's 2D visuals as a little bit long in the tooth, especially next to Neverwinter Nights and its entirely 3D game engine. Additionally, due to technical limitations in the Infinity Engine, including the pathfinding system, it was impossible to implement certain 3rd Edition rules such as Attacks of Opportunity (which is played up for laughs in some of the dialogue), so mechanically, Icewind Dale II was also a bit behind the curve, despite the engine being "gutted" and significantly overhauled by the game's development team. Perhaps tellingly, an "Infinity 2.0" version of the game engine was conceptualized, with a higher video resolution, bigger character portraits and more expressive visuals, but the idea was ultimately left on the cutting room floor due to budget concerns and for fear of pushing the game's release date even further.

Despite all the engine limitations and technical problems, a quick development cycle of about a year, and Interplay's financial troubles, however, Icewind Dale II was a surprisingly good game in the end. Further moving in the direction taken by the Heart of Winter expansion, Icewind Dale II took another step away from its dungeon-crawling roots, with a larger town to explore, more side-quests and dialogue, and a more expansive setting which went far beyond the icy caverns, temples and towers of the first game. Moreover, despite the limited implementation, Icewind Dale II's switch to 3rd Edition rules substantially overhauled the character system, allowing for far more variety in character creation - organic multi-classing and unconventional race and class combinations were now possible for players interested in doing so, and the introduction of Feats and Skills further opened up potential for players who wanted to keep away from the cookie-cutter parties of the 2nd Edition rules (at least in the Infinity Engine context).
Rather than involving an ancient evil, a tiny hovel of a town far from civilization, and only the ice and snow for company, the story of Icewind Dale II is a bit closer to standard Forgotten Realms fare, involving a dark army called the Legion of the Chimera, led by two revenge-seeking demonic twins. Furthermore, the world of Icewind Dale II is one bustling with life and activity, whether that's the large and fairly developed port town of Targos where the adventure begins, the significantly more developed town of Kuldahar, or cultist-infested temples made of solid ice, or thick jungles jungles, or mountaintop monasteries inhabited by warrior-monks, or drown encampments within the Underdark, or huge fortresses full of orcs, goblins and bugbears alike. Instead of a haunted, bleak and desolate land, Icewind Dale II portrays a greater sense of epic adventure which, while perhaps less unique, also make the story feel more important, puts it on a grander stage, and keeps the ball moving forward at all times.

Another distinctive feature of Icewind Dale II is its difficulty. Although not quite as consistent as its predecessor, no doubt owing to the more rushed development period, the game featured some of the most tactically challenging combat of any Infinity Engine title, with some of the most interesting and varied encounter design to boot. It was rare to spend too long fighting the same enemies at once, and most of the ones on offer require unique or interesting tactics to excel against, whether that's in trying out different elemental damage spells, changing party formation and positioning, or making use of the environment to funnel enemies into certain doom. Certain boss fights, including one against a massive dragon guardian, were as difficult to win as they were rewarding. The Infinity Engine games usually replicated these aspects of the pen and paper game fairly well, but Icewind Dale II was the game to make it an absolutely necessary component just to survive. The mark of a good RPG combat system is when every victory feels earned, and Icewind Dale II managed to nail that for the most part.

Ultimately, Icewind Dale II's critical reception was surprisingly strong for a game with such a difficult development, and coming out of a publisher who was very much on its last legs at the time. Even so, Black Isle weren't completely satisfied with how the game turned out in the end. In the words of Josh Sawyer,

    "[T]he cancellation of Torn and the development cycle of Icewind Dale 2 really burned the division. While there may have been some BIS guys who would have been happy to make Infinity Engine games forever, I sure didn’t know any. Instead of developing new properties and new technology, we were stuck re-hashing old stuff on super-short schedules. You can still make fun games that way, but it isn’t really what people dream of doing when they get into games. "

Icewind Dale II failed to garner the same sales or long-term fanbase of the first game, nor the modding community support of Baldur's Gate, much less the first Icewind Dale. Though all in all a good game, it was, in a way, the victim of its time period, its outdated technology and the larger financial problems at Interplay. One distinctly gets the sense that it could have been so much more, given a greater opportunity.

Rebirth on the Horizon?

One of the more persistent rumors floating around the Internet over the last year has been that the Icewind Dale games will, indeed, be reborn, this time at the hands of Obsidian Entertainment, most well-known for their repertoire of ex-Black Isle staff. Today certainly seems like the perfect time to bring back the isometric and tactical gameplay the series is known for, and not at all unrealistic either. Although nothing explicit has been stated, Obsidian have apparently been pushing for a chance to revisit Icewind Dale for a long time already, and given that Wizards of the Coast seem set to push D&D in a big way with the flurry of new Neverwinter-based games, the marriage seems one that is all the more plausible.

It's worth considering, however, what form or shape such a product would take in the modern gaming world. Given today's technology, possibly even Obsidian's own Onyx Engine (most recently used for Dungeon Siege III), it's fair to say that Icewind Dale's stunning landscapes could be realized in even more detail and with more life than ever before. However, given recent job postings at Obsidian looking for 2D character artists with Adobe Flash familiarity, it seems even more probable that such a game could be released across multiple platforms, or even in a browser-based format. Both possibilities hold a lot of promise, especially as a Flash-based option could make for a game that's playable on everything from smartphones, to tablets, to desktop PCs, and it's ideally suited for the point-and-click gameplay that touchscreens are able to support.

There are a few flies in the ointment, however. First are newer hints revealing that Obsidian may not actually be working on anything D&D-related at the moment, but rather, something entirely different - namely, a "leading animation franchise" according to further information. Whether that's connected to the recent job posting, however, remains to be seen. Furthermore, according to recent speculation, Wizards of the Coast may be set to overhaul Dungeons & Dragons once more, this time in the form of a 5th Edition, which seems plausible in the wake of the tepid reception the 4th Edition received. If an Icewind Dale III were ever to see the light of day, one wonders whether it would use the more CRPG-friendly, but simplified, MMO-like rules of the 4th Edition, or the more complex rules that the 5th Edition is rumored to re-introduce.

Suffice is to say that Icewind Dale is one of the less-celebrated legends of the late-90s, early-2000s "golden age" of CRPGs, overshadowed by titles with both bigger budgets and bigger reputations. Nevertheless, it has had a staying power which has transcended its relatively humble origin as a catalogue-padder for Interplay, thanks due to the dedicated community surrounding the Infinity Engine games, the glut of proper D&D CRPGs over the last five-odd years, and digital distributors like Good Old Games to keep the franchise alive. On a personal level for me, it captures a lot of the old-school dungeon crawling the earlier CRPG days were made of, and brings substantially more evocative visuals and music to create one of the most memorable settings seen in any RPG. While there is no sure bet we'll ever see a return to Icewind Dale, there's no question that the tales of icy caverns, permafrost-baked tundras and spiraling, wind-carved mountains will live on for years to come.