By Paul Cockeram
The classic Infinity engine retires in style with Icewind Dale II, the sequel to the original AD&D hack-and-slash adventure. Thirty years have passed, and the events of the first instalment have begun receding into legend, taking their place in the story-rich history of the Spine of the World mountains. Your band of humble mercenaries, interested in adding their own names to the tales of heroic valor, comes to Targos to help disburse a goblin siege. In the process they unwittingly step into the middle of a conflict between freaks and normals that threatens to destroy the Ten Towns for humanoids everywhere.
Icewind Dale II's story is even more epic than the first, covering more terrain with a broader scope. Black Isle reports that the sequel is bigger than the original and both its add-ons combined-this game will keep you busy for a long time. However, don't be surprised by an occasional feeling of deja-vu. There are definitely some familiar elements in IWD II.
The Infinity engine still operates pretty much the same way it always has, though it hasn't aged well. Standing IWD II beside this season's other mammoth RPG Neverwinter Nights is like comparing a Honda Civic to a Ferrari: they both get to more or less the same place, but one drive is noticeably sleeker and more stylish. The Infinity engine just can't support the kinds of animations IWD II's storyline asks of it, so that brewing a potion or poisoning a water supply looks a lot like picking up treasure or visiting a store.
In the end, however, this is a minor drawback to a relatively great game. The most important change IWD II brings to the table is its use of third edition rules. The new rules open a long list of freedoms to players, allowing wizards to wear plate male or clerics to pick locks. Particularly notable is the Feats system, which offers a long list of skills to characters as they get more powerful-when the air sizzles with lightning and the ozone stench of magic missiles, the spells can penetrate further or, with spell focus, gouge deeper. A fighter can pound his sword harder with a power strike, or a thief can emerge from the shadows and neatly cripple an enemy's hamstring. Characters begin with less potential for superhuman strength or intelligence, but regular attribute points get them to superhero status in no time. And without a noticeable experience cap, wizards and clerics have a fine selection of powerful ninth level spells at their disposal, while fighters can become truly legendary warriors.
And those spells and hacking swords look just like you remember them-pretty but not gorgeous. If the graphics are standard, however, there are other refinements this time around. A noticeably larger number of characters are given a voice, and as usual with a Black Isle studios game, the voice acting is exemplary. The storyline is richer as well, leading characters through both familiar haunts and exotic locales, with plenty of puzzles to solve and major battles to wade through. Also on offer are invaluable carrying aids like gem bags, scroll cases, potion satchels, and bags of holding that can actually hold loot. Even with all this added space, characters' backpacks will burst with a diverse array of powerful weapons, armor, talismans, girdles, bracers, and rings. Behind most items is a story worth reading, making IWD II one of the most narrative rich games I've encountered. To be a traveler through this world is to happily lose one's way, both dallying in the details and taking in the enormous snow-swept spectacle.
The six-character-party system in IWD II is a nice counterpoint to Neverwinter Nights' single character focus, allowing players access to an assortment of specific abilities. However, this larger number of characters diffuses some qualities of the role-playing experience-there's no main character with whom to identify, no singular personality to cultivate. Thus, the role a player inhabits in this role-playing game is more coach than player, ordering all characters around equally instead of inhabiting a single character who commands a party of NPCs, as in Planescape: Torment or Neverwinter Nights. It's by no means an inferior role-playing experience, offering as it does a fine sense of detachment or, conversely, the chance to cultivate a group rather than individual personality-just a different one. This point doesn't necessarily apply to the multiplayer experience, which offers support for up to six players, so that each can truly play her or his own character.
If you have plenty of time and concentration to give it, Icewind Dale II will reward your attention with an engrossing story, challenging puzzles, a richly furnished world, and plenty of hard battles to strategically wind through. Its morally complex conflict also promises to satisfy, allowing you the freedom to remain an indifferent sellsword, become an arm of evil, or declare yourself a defender of righteousness. If you're a fan of the genre or interested in getting started, if you're familiar with the first instalment or were just intrigued by your friends' descriptions of it, you can trust Icewind Dale II to sit you down, open its world, and tell you the best kind of story-one in which the main character is you.