Blog 452: Return to the Dale

Baldur’s Gate was the first Infinity Engine game I played so long ago: before I knew anything of this magic they call “Dungeons & Dragons”, before I knew anything about games and engines and how they worked, before I was a rampant modder…

(Though some time after I had taken R. A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy from the library, completely oblivious to its significance as a small boy. When I finally got Baldur’s Gate, and found Drizzt, I was all “trololo?”).

It’s only fitting that, almost a decade after playing the first of the Infinity Engine games, I play the last.

Icewind Dale 2.

Welcome to The Party

Icewind Dale 2 is very obviously on the more modern 3rd edition D&D ruleset than its predecessor. Added to the mix are feats like Toughness and skills like Diplomacy that players of 4th edition will be familiar with, not to mention adding racial sub-0ptions like being a human/aasimar or human/tiefling rather than a bog-standard. All this customisation makes building your party a lot slower, and there is (alas) no more continuous die-rolling to get totally broken stats.

The party was formed thus:

  • Erika the Aasimar Paladin of Helm (I wish she would bloody well stop refusing rewards, but as The Charismatic One she must remain leader)
  • Kordrad the Human Barbarian
  • Nagiak¬†the Shield Dwarf Fighter
  • Amy the Half-Elf Cleric Morninglord of Lathandar
  • Annaka the Half-Elf Rogue
  • Slait the Moon Elf Wizard

Naturally I avoid tiefling for all its dark past nonsense (and BG2‘s Haer’Dalis is really annoying, even if the planar prison is a pretty cool level).

Still sort of miss just wailing on my main character and finding NPCs later, but such is life.

My Beautiful (Inter)Face

Interfacially, the game has taken a number of leaves out of Planescape: Torment‘s book and crammed the entire interface into a rectangle at the bottom, though they thankfully avoided the terrifying far-flung-ancestor-of-the-radial-menu setup in exchange for an only slightly annoying customisable quick bar (I keep accidentally blanking buttons and assigning specific spells or abilities to a button is a nightmare of shift-clicking).

I'm not sure if I prefer the side-bars over the single bottom-bar.

The journal, alas, remains a single unending stream — luckily you don’t need much to track quests that much. I do hark back to Planescape: Torment‘s journal, which had good management of active/done quests and even included a monster manual; how can one argue with that? Even Baldur’s Gate II managed some rudimentary active/done split (even if the interface layout was a bit bonkers and I could never follow it).

All over, actually, for being the last Infinity Engine game, IWD2 feels more like the original Baldur’s Gate than anything more recent. Though the in-game sprites are all BG2 shiny, the terrain backgrounds are back to the slightly more gritty, almost painted, style of BG1, and the fog of war is back to being broken (unless you put the graphics down to 16bit with Software Mirror BLT on). Since that broken fog of war heralded some spriting horrors for larger creatures in BG, I am a little concerned.

Say what you like about whether you prefer BG1 or BG2 — you can’t deny 2 had an improved Infinity Engine. IWD2 must have been on a considerably divergent branch.

The fog's a bit gritty, but it 'snow problem.

Smug-Looking Barrel

Icewind Dale II thankfully eschews the instant huge-orc-war-party destruction of its prequel, instead throwing you into a much more manageable goblin raid (at least for a level 1 party).

Then there is the obligatory fetch-quest-and-farting-around intro at the Targos palisade. Luckily, in casing the rest of the town before even getting to the palisade, I had actually completed some of it already. The characters around the camp are slathered in classic Black Isle humour, which, unlike the humour of some recent title I could mention, is actually funny. I mean, you spend a frightening amount of time fighting barrels.

Sure, it still does put you through the fetch-quest wringer, but it does it with aplomb.

There are only two ways this can end -- and in both of them, you die.

The Quirks

Okay, so it’s not perfect. The AI has been improved — a bit. If you give your people ranged weapons as well as their melee weapons (you know, so they can attack things behind blockades et cetera), they will auto-select their ranged weapons when necessary. That’s all fine and dandy until the bad guys are all up in their faces and they don’t ever switch back to melee. I believe they would only switch back when engaged directly, which isn’t actually that often as they always chose to paste Erika (the least tanky of the tanks).

There is also a frequent inventory-screen crash. It seems to occur at specific points in the game, but when it’s in the mood you can kiss goodbye to doing any inventory management. Yes, when all your ranged people have run out of ammo and there aren’t any healing potions left in the quickslots, this is when the game will decide to throw a hissy-fit whenever you so much as look at the inventory. Luckily it seems to snap out of it… after a while.

The Puzzles

Some of the puzzles are a bit nasty. The Fell Wood, later on in the game, is the classic lots-of-little-areas maze — unfortunately, several quests require you to navigate without anybody actually having told you a correct route to reach any one of your goals. Since randomly wandering always either left me in an infinite loop or coming safely out the exit, I ended up scouring a walkthrough for the answers to this part.

Even after this, the Eight Chambers are a bit of a dick-move — you play the game as a party of six, optimised for teamwork and all that. Then these damn monks require a single character to solo several challenges without any equipment. Apparently if you have a monk this is really easy (them being optimised for soloing things without equipment), but otherwise you’re pretty much shafted. Some of the chamber puzzles are also rather opaque.

Like chivalry, the 2.5D isometric RPG is an elegant game genre from a more civilised age.

Overall

But basically, unlike its predecessor, Icewind Dale 2 is not finely distilled masochism. It actually makes you… want to play it.

That doesn’t mean it’s a total push-over. Fights are still difficult enough (especially when you didn’t realise you’d acquired level 2 and 3 spell slots and are sitting on pure Magic Missiles when you could be dropping Fireballs), but so far never seem insurmountably so.

Could I recommend IWD2?

Yes, I think so. Apart from the horrifying Fell Wood puzzle and some other minor moments of consternation, it is pretty nicely done.

The game compels me. Unlike IWD, whose every waking moment was a trial,¬† IWD2 taunts and teases but ultimately relents — some victories are easy, some are hard won, but never do I feel I have reached an impassable blockade.

And its glorious obsession with barrels.

Do a barrel roleplay!

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