Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Beamdog
Developer:Overhaul Games
Release Date:2014-10-30
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Introduction

Icewind Dale was released by Black Isle Studios in June of 2000.  It is a part of the "holy trinity" of role-playing games that use BioWare's Infinity Engine.  However, unlike Baldur's Gate (1998) and Planescape: Torment (1999), which either focused on story or maintained a good mix between story and combat, Icewind Dale was all about combat, and it turned into a nice vehicle for gamers who were more interested in creating the most powerful party possible rather than learning all about of the motivations of the game's end boss.  It also helped that the action RPG genre hadn't really gotten into full swing yet (Diablo II was released at the same time, but its numerous clones didn't come until later), and so Icewind Dale filled a niche that wasn't otherwise being served.

Now Icewind Dale is the latest game from Beamdog to become enhanced.  The Enhanced Edition includes Icewind Dale and its two add-ons, Heart of Winter and Trials of the Luremaster, plus a slew of improvements.  The engine has been retooled to work better with modern computers (as well as handheld devices), the interface has been improved to make the game friendlier to play, all of the new spells and character classes added to the Baldur's Gate enhanced editions have been incorporated here as well, lots of new equipment has been sprinkled throughout the game, multiplayer functionality has been added, and some content removed by Black Isle Studios prior to the game's original release has been restored.

That is, unlike the Baldur's Gate enhanced editions, which contained a fair amount of brand new content, the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition (EE) is mostly just an update of an old game, like a lot of the "HD" titles that have been released in the past few years.  In fact, if you own the original Icewind Dale and don't mind installing mods, then there's little in the EE that you can't get for free elsewhere, which begs the question: is there any reason to bother with the EE at all?  I'd say yes, but you'll have to keep reading to see if your answer is the same.

Finally, while the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition is now available for PC, Lynux, and Mac platforms, and will eventually be available on handheld devices, this review (like all of my reviews) is for the PC version.

Starting Out

Icewind Dale takes place in a less-than-balmy portion of Faerûn along the Spine of the World Mountains.  You start out as an anonymous adventuring band in the small town of Easthaven, but soon enough you're recruited to do all sorts of things.  In Icewind Dale's original campaign, you discover that the nearby town of Kuldahar is being plagued by bad weather, monster sightings, and missing people, and you're tasked with finding out what's going on -- and putting a stop to it.  In Heart of Winter, the local barbarian tribes start gathering for a war council, but their leader has just returned from the dead, and he might not be who he says he is -- and so you have to put a stop to him, too.  In Trials of the Luremaster, you're lured to a haunted castle, and all you have to do is figure out how to escape.  For the most part, there isn't much to the stories of these three campaigns.  You're just given enough information so you have a reason to visit crypts, towers and dungeons, and fight the creatures that you find there.

Before you can play any of the campaigns, you have to create a party of up to six characters.  Characters are defined by their race, class(es), and attributes.  There are seven races available in the game: Dwarf, Elf, Gnome, Half-Elf, Halfling, Human, and, new in the EE, Half-Orc.  Each race has some pluses and minuses associated with it, and the races restrict which classes you can pick.  For example, Dwarves gain a bonus to Constitution but have a penalty to Dexterity and Charisma, and so they're intended mostly for melee classes.  They can only be Fighters, Clerics, Thieves or Barbarians.

The EE includes 11 classes, including old standbys like Fighter, Thief and Cleric, and new options like Sorcerer, Monk and Barbarian.  Some classes allow for sub-classes or "kits."  The original game only had specialty mage classes for this, but the EE includes 29 kits plus an additional specialty mage class.  As an example, if you decide to make one of your characters a Paladin, then you can choose between Cavalier (a "classic" Paladin with bonuses against demons and dragons), Inquisitor (bonuses against mages), Undead Hunter (bonuses against the undead), or Blackguard (an evil Paladin).  Human characters can dual-class two classes together (where they start out as one class and then later change to another), and non-humans can multi-class up to three classes (where they're all of the classes at the same time, but their experience is split between them, causing them to level up more slowly).

There are also six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma.  You're allowed to roll the attribute scores of your characters during character creation, and it's a good idea to take your time with this so your characters are as powerful as possible.  One nice thing about the EE is that along with the attribute scores, the interface also shows you their total.  Since you're allowed to redistribute the scores (up to the maximum and minimum allowed for each race and class), the total score is the most important number, and not having to calculate it each time makes the rolling process much friendlier.  You can also store a roll and then recall it later, which is convenient.

As you play through the campaigns, there are a few places where having a certain race, class, or attribute value makes a difference, but for the most part you're free to create any sort of party you want, and this is only enhanced by the new options available in the EE.  So you can play a ranged party or a melee party, a magic party or a physical party; you can concentrate on swords or clubs, crossbows or darts, fire damage or lightning damage; or you can mix and match and try to include a little bit of everything.  The nice thing about the game is that it gives you a lot of options for creating your party, and it has a lot of replay value as a result.


Gameplay

The Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition is played using an isometric view.  You're not allowed to have your characters on two different maps at the same time, so you have to keep them together to some extent, although it's always a good idea to have your thief scout ahead for traps.  Most actions are performed using the mouse.  Left-clicking moves characters, attacks a target, or causes you to talk to an NPC.  Right-clicking typically gives you more information about something (such as a spell or a piece of equipment).  You can press the spacebar to pause the game, you can roll the mouse wheel to zoom the view in or out, and there is a hotkey bar for each character where you can place a few spells or inventory objects for easy access (sadly, the EE uses the same restrictive hotkey bar as the original game; this is a place where Beamdog could have done some modifying for better results).

There are a few towns in the game where you can go shopping and talk to people, but most of the time you find yourself in the field with enemies lurking all around you.  Combat proceeds in "rounds," but this is just how the game measures time, and all fighting is actually done in real time.  Characters can fight with an equipped weapon, they can use spells or skills, or they can use inventory objects with charges (like wands).  If you want to, you can control every action of your party, but I found that the fighting moved along quickly enough -- and usually involved so many enemies -- that I had to rely on scripts for my characters, or else I'd risk belatedly realizing that some of them were standing around doing nothing.  The game comes with 25 scripts built in, including specific ones for Clerics and Mages.

Along with combat, there are also numerous quests for you to complete.  Most of these quests require you to kill some creatures, but in others you might need to find some objects or (in the add-ons) solve a puzzle.  To help you out with the quests, Beamdog improved the journal in the game.  Now when you open it up, you can simply click on the name of a quest to instantly go to information about it, rather than having to scan through all of the notes to find relevant text.

As an example of a quest, early in the game you stumble into an ogre named Ghereg.  He tells you that he has a headache and he asks you to help him with it.  You can "solve" the problem by killing the ogre, but if you have a druid in your party or wait until you meet a druid later in the game, then you can learn the recipe for a headache remedy and relay it to the ogre.  Either way you earn some experience points, but if you follow the more involved path, then you earn more.

What's New

If you've already played Icewind Dale, then I haven't mentioned much at this point that you didn't already know.  So let me take the opportunity now to list some of the differences I noticed between the original game and the Enhanced Edition.  In no particular order:

  • The weapon proficiencies have been reworked so that they're for more specific weapons.  For example, instead of having "large swords" as a catch-all, there are now proficiencies for long swords, bastard swords, scimitars, and katanas.  There are also proficiencies for four weapon stances -- single handed weapon, weapon and shield, two weapons, and two-handed weapon -- which give you a bonus regardless of the weapon you're using, as long as you're in the right stance.  Among other things, the stances mean that dual-wielding is now possible in the game.

  • Three classes and 30 sub-classes were added to the game.  So now you can play as a barbarian, monk, or sorcerer, or as a variation on one of the more traditional classes.

  • New equipment was added.  From what I can tell, this was mostly to support the new proficiencies and classes, so you can now find wakizashis, katanas, and monk gear.  Beamdog didn't want to mess with the balance of the game though, so there's still a scarcity of cloaks, helmets, boots and gloves.

  • New spells were added.  Just for clerics there are at least 24 new spells, including Zone of Sweet Air, Mass Cure Light Wounds, and Shield of Archons, and mages and druids received a similar treatment.  Plus, some spells are now restricted to certain alignments, so good clerics can't cast Harm and evil clerics can't cast Heal.

  • Some previously removed content was restored.  If you've seen the restoration mod for Icewind Dale, then this appears to be roughly the same thing.  As an example of the restored content, when you reach the lower part of Dorn's Deep, you meet a soul-infused suit of armor called the Voice of Durdel Anatha.  The armor keeps showing up and trying to block your progress, but like a lich you can't kill it.  After a while, it just gets back up and tries again.  However, eventually you free the soul, which puts the armor out of commission.  The restored content is pretty minor, but it's also interesting, which makes it worthwhile.

  • Various tweaks were made to the interface to make the game friendlier to play.  Some examples for this that I haven't mentioned yet include colored borders for spell scrolls, so it's easy to see if you've already learned the spell or not; an increase in the stack size for arrows and bolts (from 40 to 80) so rangers don't have to waste as much inventory space; new annotations on the maps to show important locations like exits and quest NPCs (now Beamdog just needs to give us the ability to add our own annotations); a menu to reconfigure most of the hotkeys; a slider to change the size of the game's text so you can keep it readable; and the ability to play the game using any modern screen resolution whether it's wide screen or not (and unlike the wide screen mod, all screens in the game use the resolution, not just the main screen).

    However, something that got removed from the interface is a key to highlight the interactive objects in the world.  This was a very handy tool in the original game because Black Isle liked to put containers in unusual places, and the key was the easiest way to spot them.  I have no idea why Beamdog removed the option.  I probably missed a lot of good stuff by walking right past containers without noticing.

  • There is a new Story Mode difficulty setting, where your characters can't be killed.  You can change the difficulty at any time, so I guess Story Mode is a possibility if you get blocked by a fight that you can't seem to win.  Still, it's disturbing to me that anybody might actually use this mode.

  • You can now play the game cooperatively over the Internet, regardless of the platforms being used by the players.

Otherwise, the EE is roughly the same as the original game, with the graphics, sound and text unchanged, at least as far as I could tell.


 Bugs

One of the downsides to primarily writing walkthroughs these days is that I don't play as many games as I used to, and I still haven't gotten around to playing the enhanced editions of either of the Baldur's Gate games.  But from my understanding, those games were released with a lot of bugs that all but negated the improvements Beamdog added.

My experience with the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition is completely different.  I didn't encounter any broken quests or graphical glitches or crash bugs during the 50+ hours I spent with the game.  The closest I came to a bug was in Trials of the Luremaster when my party fought a djinni who cast the Whirlwind spell -- and the whirlwind effect never disappeared.  I had to leave the tower room I was in and then re-enter it to get the spell to go away.

So if you heard bad things about the first two enhanced editions and decided to stay away, that might have been the case then, but it's not the case now.  The Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition worked great for me.

Conclusion

It's interesting going back and playing an old game.  Icewind Dale isn't wildly old, but even so it came from a time when developers didn't cater their games to the masses.  Just sitting down and playing a game didn't give you any sort of guarantee that you'd be able to finish it.  Many parts of Icewind Dale are extremely difficult -- even without the Heart of Fury mode, where monsters are smarter and more powerful -- and that's just not something you see any more.  So going back and playing Icewind Dale was a treat, even if sometimes I wanted to throw my mouse at somebody.

So if you haven't played Icewind Dale yet, then you should definitely give the Enhanced Edition a try.  The Infinity Engine games make up one of the cornerstones of CRPG history, and they're all worth playing.  But if you already own Icewind Dale, then the answer is a little more difficult because most of the enhancements are available for free from mods.  As I was playing the EE, I was sort of wondering why anybody with bother with it when they could just play a modded version of the original game, but then just like with my recent review for Xenonauts, I went back and tried playing the original game again, and I figured out the answer: the interface.

If you look at the screenshots for the EE, then its interface looks like it's exactly the same as the one for the original Icewind Dale, but it's not.  There are myriad improvements, some of which I've listed in this review, and combined they make playing the EE much more enjoyable than playing the original game, and without the need of installing mods and trying to get them to work together.  This makes it easy for me to recommend the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition whether you own the original game or not.