Icewind Dale: The Past, Present, and Future

27 Oct 2011

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.
 
 

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