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Review by: Chris Harding
Published: July 31, 2000
Renown wildlife expert Steve Irwin says he’s at his best when facing the world’s deadliest creatures. He’s known to refer to his time spent with crocodiles, cobras and rattlesnakes as his Element — a time where he’s one with the Outback. This “element” Steve refers to is not unique to crocodile hunters; athletes know it by many names — in basketball it’s the Zone, while in baseball it’s labeled a hot-streak. Sony Pictures’ “Jerry Maguire” co-star Cuba Gooding, Jr. made up his own word, calling it the “Quan.” Even the ancient Druids of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms refer to it as balance — a harmonious relationship between man and nature. Whatever you choose to call it, “It” is a state in which an individual, team or group transcend beyond normal abilities and achieve supernatural results.
Interplay’s Black Isle Studios, in partnership with developer BioWare, entered one such zone more than 18 months ago when they released their “RPG of the year” winner Baldur’s Gate. Following up that wildly successful throw-back to the Gold Box Edition fantasy games, the internal development studio within Black Isle released another five-star Reviewer’s Choice Award winner Planescape: Torment a year later. Torment, along with the official add-on to Baldur’s Gate Tales of the Sword Coast, which shipped last year, solidified Black Isle’s dominance of the genre. With three standout products in less than two years, there’s no question Black Isle has found their Quan. The question remains, however: can they do it again?
Icewind Dale, the newest release by Black Isle Studios, actually began development just after Baldur’s Gate completed. The newly released RPG borrows heavily from Baldur’s Gate, namely its engine, character creation system, and overall functional gameplay. Like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale takes place in the Forgotten Realms, but you won’t be travelling along the Sword Coast this time. Set in the Northernmost part of Faerun, the region of Icewind Dale lies within the Spine of the World Mountains. A brutally cold and harsh place, the small villages of the region are home to a vast of array of good and evil. These small villages, referred to as the “Ten-Towns” are home to the nomadic Barbarian tribes, as well as bands of class-driven societies, such as the Druids of Kuldahar. Kuldahar is a wondrous valley and quaint town wrapped in and around the Great Oak Tree, a tree that symbolizes the Druid’s unity with nature. The village of Kuldahar, like all of the Ten-Towns, is full of personality. Whether it’s the interesting NPC’s that you meet there or the landscaping itself, Icewind Dale is fascinating, and an excellent choice by Black Isle for their next AD&D tale.
The storyline in Icewind Dale has the player and his/her party investigating a great evil that is ravaging the region. The Great Oak of Kuldahar has begun to show signs of death, the dead walk the caves, crypts and canyons of the mountains, and storms more wicked than even the elders have witnessed plague the lands. Inspired by the Icewind Dale Trilogy books written by R.A. Salvatore, Black Isle’s offering delivers a solid storyline to the player, especially to those willing to engage in its numerous side quests. Through the multiple chapter single-player campaign, fans are treated to the history of the area and told of the great wars fought between the Barbarians and Mercenaries ages ago. Icewind Dale does a nice job of incorporating the lore associated with the Spine of the World into its gameplay, and those familiar with the many tales of Faerun will revel in many of the story’s references. Perhaps the best thing about the evolution of the story is that it acts as a great vehicle for combat and exploration.
Icewind Dale is by its very nature combat intensive, much more so than any of Black Isle’s previous AD&D releases. While the overall experience in terms of character interaction and dialogue aren’t as in-depth as Torment for example, the storyline is nonetheless adequately suited for its responsibility — and that is giving the player’s party a good reason to explore and fight. But to regard the plot as nothing more than a prelude to combat wouldn’t be fair. In truth, I’ve found the storyline more to my liking than I did that of Baldur’s Gate. It’s a little cleaner, easier to follow and isn’t nearly as strung out. The campaign begins in narrative form, telling the story of the Mercenary-Barbarian wars long ago. It’s an intriguing tale of desperation and the lengths men would go to in order to prevent their defeat. The evil archmage in charge of the mercenary army that invaded Icewind Dale and attempted to enslave the Barbarians centuries ago, faced with certain defeat, opened up a portal to the lower plains. His selfish act brought forth all manner of demonkind and hellspawn, forcing the remaining of the living to join ranks. Mercenaries and Barbarians combined their armies and faced the demons, but had little success. Then in an instant, in an act of courage or cowardice, the Barbarian Shaman Jarod plunged his body into the portal and sealed the gateway with his blood.
Over the course of the adventure, the player will uncover what has been happening since the end of the great war. Through non-player character (NPC) interaction, the player’s party will learn the common strands that unite the current events with its past. The narrative is well delivered, enough so that completing chapters is an exciting event because you’re interested in what will be offered next. While the cinematics aren’t in the same league as the ACT scenes in Diablo II, I still found them quite entertaining.
Building its foundation on a solid storyline, Icewind Dale‘s main focus is character management and combat. At the beginning of the campaign, players are given the opportunity to create up to six characters. The generation system offered is very similar to the one found in Baldur’s Gate. It uses AD&D 2nd Edition character creation standards, and while the system allows you to generate less than six characters in lieu of adjustable difficulty, it’s not recommended. Having a good balance of classes in your party will make the experience more enjoyable, allowing you to obtain a greater number of the bountiful spells, weapons and artifacts found in Icewind Dale. I played around in the first chapter with multiple parties using a wide range of character types before making my final decisions, and I recommend this tactic for anyone not entirely sure what type of party they want.
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