The last few years have seen a resurgence of the computer role-playing game after almost a decade spent wandering in the wilderness. One of the games that led this revival was 1998's "Baldur's Gate", a traditional isometric RPG based on the 2nd Edition AD&D rules and set in the Forgotten Realms, a world familiar to many role-players from "back in the day".
With the success of Baldur's Gate, it was perhaps inevitable that a whole string of spin-offs would result. The first was the excellent "Planescape Torment", which used the same "Infinity engine" as Baldur's Gate, but was set in the bizarre worlds of the "planescape" and had a darker, more adult feel.
The next game to be released based on the Infinity engine will be "Icewind Dale", and with the game due to arrive in the UK at the end of June, we took a look at a preview version to find out more...
Icewind Dale sees you return to the Forgotten Realms, but this time you had better pack your long johns, as the setting is the frozen wastelands of the far north! This region was brought to life in the books of the "Icewind Dale trilogy" by R.A. Salvatore, and it is these novels which have served as the inspiration for the game's developers.
The game is set some eighty years before the first of Salvatore's books. An ancient evil is threatening the region, and it is up to your party of brave adventurers to thwart it. In the process you will journey into the Spine Of The World mountains and fight your way through all manner of crypts, ruins, caves, and ice tunnels. The emphasis is firmly on good old fashioned dungeon crawling, with over 125 levels of assorted underground settings to explore.
Although there will obviously still be some degree of role-playing involved, the focus in Icewind Dale is more on hack 'n' slash action. There is still a storyline to keep the whole thing moving along, but there is far less talking and far more killing than in Baldur's Gate or Planescape Torment. This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but as games like Diablo have proven, it can be a very successful formula.
Six Of One
The game starts with you creating an entire party of six characters, which can be a rather tedious process. If rolling virtual dice isn't your idea of nirvana though, fear not! The game will also include a number of pre-defined characters that you can import into your party to save time.
Once you have put together your merry band of adventurers, it is time to begin your quest. Your starting point is the town of Easthaven, where you will be recruited into a mission to travel to nearby Kuldahar, which is apparently under threat from some unspecified evil.
Of course, things soon go pear-shaped, and an avalanche buries the rest of the group, leaving only your own six characters to travel on to Kuldahar and save the town...
Don't you just hate it when that happens?
The Infinity engine which powers Icewind Dale is now two years old, and it's beginning to look a little rough round the edges. The rather pitiful 640x480 resolution really isn't enough to do justice to the gorgeous scenery and wide range of monsters and characters which the game features.
On the bright side, the engine has been tweaked in several other key areas. Most importantly, the AI seems to have been improved somewhat since Baldur's Gate. The original game was virtually ruined for me thanks to the poor path finding and intelligence of your characters, which often left them wandering lost around a dungeon, colliding with each other in tight corridors.
As Icewind Dale is almost entirely set underground, it is something of a relief to find that the AI has been overhauled. Characters can usually find their way from A to B in even the most labyrinthine dungeon without getting lost or stuck in between, although you do occasionally still see one of your characters go astray.
The spell effects are also being spruced up, making them more spectacular than ever before. And as your characters have a higher experience limit than in Baldur's Gate, your mages and clerics can also use more powerful spells by the end of the game, which makes for even more pyrotechnics.
Add to this more magical items and weaponry, bigger and more varied monsters suitable for the new setting, and you have a real treat for the eyes, even if it is somewhat limited by the low resolution graphics. There is even support for 3D acceleration of some of the effects, which is a little odd as the game is strictly two dimensional, but there you go...
While Planescape Torment's conflicting character motives and labyrinthine plot made multiplayer support for that game unfeasible, Icewind Dale might have been designed with multiplayer in mind.
Focused on combat rather than a complex plot, and centered around an entire party of adventurers rather a single character, the game should prove to be an even bigger hit online than Baldur's Gate. From two to six people can play together, splitting the six characters that make up the party between them any way they see fit. With MPlayer support out of the box, as well as support from server browsers such as GameSpy no doubt, finding people to play with should be easy.
But if you would rather not adventure with a group of total strangers over the internet, you can also play the game with friends and family over a LAN or serial connection in the comfort of your own home.
In this age of spiralling costs and endless delays, amazingly enough Icewind Dale has taken only a year to develop, which puts the protracted gestation of Diablo II into perspective.
While we are still waiting for the long-overdue sequel to Diablo to finally appear this summer, Icewind Dale looks set to provide graduates of the hack and slash school of role-playing with the dungeon crawling fix they have been waiting for. The game's developers at Black Isle Studios are no strangers to the role-playing market, and members of the team have worked on classics like Fallout 2, Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment over the last few years. This could be another hit in the making...