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SummaryOld times recaptured
The GoodReleased roughly at the same time as Diablo II, Icewind Dale was Black Isle's effort to present a deeper alternative to simplistic action-based combat in role-playing games, at the same time not shying away from basing a game on simple dungeon crawling. In reality, Icewind Dale is much closer to old AD&D Gold Box games than to Diablo: it focuses on party management and tactical combat much more heavily than on character customization and item-collecting.
The game deliberately distances itself from its "older brother" Baldur's Gate, being much less story-driven and much more combat-heavy. While it's easy to dismiss it at first as a dull plot-less version of Baldur's Gate, the fact is that Icewind Dale excels in other areas. It is closer to Might and Magic in that party creation and subsequent management is in the spotlight, and the addictive fun comes from all those countless combinations you can achieve by creating your ultimate band of heroes. Neither Baldur's Gate, nor any other RPG of the "Renaissance" era (or any other that was based on Ultima, for that matter) allowed you to do that. You lose character sub-plots and inter-party bantering, but gain more control and deeper role-playing of your own characters.
AD&D rules are quite restrictive, so character creation cannot compare to, say, that of post-sixth Wizardry games, let alone the obsessive depth of Darklands, which makes Icewind Dale a less intimidating, but still reasonably hardcore RPG. It is very easy to get into and start playing. You won't be humiliatingly beaten during your first battle just because you failed to do some complex math while creating your spellcaster, but your ability to manage your party will be challenged at all times.
The main fun in the game comes from combat. Hands down, Icewind Dale has one of the best combat systems around, mixing tactical thinking and reflexes in just the right proportions. The balancing is frankly better than in any other Infinity engine game, and the difficulty level is just right. Preparation, positioning, movement, delicate balance of buffing, status ailments, offensive and defensive spells - everything plays a role, and is a joy to experiment with.
While Icewind Dale is a linear game, its dungeons, where most of it takes place, are beautifully large and allow plenty of internal exploration. The game also has marvelous old-fashioned 2D graphics that convey plenty of atmosphere. You won't be stuck in depressing mazes that look all the same - you'll be gradually advancing through haunting, lovingly detailed areas, accompanied by a sweet soundtrack starting with the unforgettable "Nordic" theme of the game's opening location.
Even though there are very few friendly areas or characters to talk to in the game, what little there is of the dialogue is surprisingly well-written, and almost every conversation is a pleasure to read.
The BadIf you expect a large world, rich story, plenty of choices, interaction with many NPCs, etc., you won't find any of that here. This is a dungeon crawler and not much more. As such, it is excellent, but a fan of open RPGs would be severely underwhelmed. The game is basically about exploring huge dungeons and killing enemies. There is little to do outside of the dungeons - it's as basic as it gets.
The game is very linear, the main quests are always the same and you have very few sub-quests - actually, no sub-quests worth mentioning. The story is paper-thin: there are a couple of nice twists, but the plot isn't very involving and is also quite slow-moving. You can't decide almost anything during the game, you'll have to kill everybody you are supposed to kill, and you can't kill anybody you are not supposed to kill.
In short, Icewind Dale is a throwback to old times - a really well-executed one, but a throwback nevertheless. Your final evaluation of this game would entirely depend on how much you like to see an old-school dungeon crawler revitalized with a superb engine.