Icewind Dale: The Past, Present, and Future

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).