Roll the dice to see if I'm getting drunk!
I think I have finally come to grips with what a nerd I was as a kid (and what a full-grown, strapping dork I have become). I mean, let's face it - the cool people never played Dungeons & Dragons, even if some of the very best and smartest people did. The true geeky-ness of pen-and-paper D&D has recently been demonstrated to me in such sharp, full color, 3D graphics that I cannot deny it any longer. No, I'm not talking about Icewind Dale yet (don't worry, we'll get there). I'm talking about this brand new little movie (15 MB download, and well worth it) made by the folks developing Summoner for the Playstation 2.
In between bouts of rolling around on the floor laughing, this movie gave me startling flashbacks of my hours spent meticulously painting little leaden miniatures of elf warriors and frost dragons, carefully drawing out dungeon maps on sheets of graph paper (1 square = 10'), and getting together with my friends to 'roll our dice and move our mice' through the Vault of the Drow (Someone give him a wedgie. Please. Quickly. - Ed.)
When I became a man, I put away my childish things. Well, not really. But I did exchange my bag of dice and THACO charts for a computer screen. I began with Wizardry, Might and Magic, and The Bard's Tale and moved all the way to Ultima Online, Diablo, Baldur's Gate and now... Icewind Dale.
The Spine of the World, the vast mountain range bordering the far north of the Forgotten Realms, is a harsh place in the best of times. War-like barbarian tribes resist the control of the southern cities. Ice trolls, frost giants, yetis, and worse prey on the unwary. But the fierce, sudden storms and the long dark winters are the most deadly enemies of all. To make matters worse, these are not the best of times.
The weather has suddenly become even worse than the normal freezing cold. Strange new monsters have appeared. People and caravans are disappearing on a daily basis. And you are stuck here with your little band of untested, intrepid adventurers. Things are going to get much worse before they get better.
Icewind Dale is the latest from Black Isle, the makers of Baldur's Gate. Like Planescape: Torment, it uses the revolutionary Baldur's Gate engine to bring the complex rules of AD&D to the computer and make them transparent. Armor Class, Hit Points, Mages, Clerics, Thieves, +1 Daggers, Elves, Dwarves and everything else is here just like it used to be, minus your geeky friends and a bag of Cheetos. The more I think about it, the more impressive that really is.
The gameplay is essentially the same as in Baldur's Gate. Combat is set in real-time, though you can pause the action at any point to issue specific commands. So in reality, the game is turn-based. This is a terrific system and I'm glad to see they kept it intact.
However, the same Baldur's Gate engine means those same old graphics, too. The characters are fairly chunky looking sprites and don't show much variation other than color. However, the graphics do get better. The monsters are more detailed and better animated than your heroes, and the pre-drawn backgrounds are very good.
While only average on the eyes, Icewind Dale is an absolute treat for the ears. The music is great, perfect for the setting. But it's the environmental noise that truly stands out; the wind on the snow, the clash of metal, the battlecry of a troll, the chant of a spell - it's nearly flawless. It's also all done in 3D audio, for those of you with surround sound.
And if you're lucky enough to still be in touch with some of your geeky friends, the Internet Multiplayer is pretty easy to use. It works in exactly the same fashion as Baldur's Gate. You need to appoint a group leader, and each player can control as many characters as they want (up to the total party maximum of six). The real trick here is trying to get your group all together at the same time for several hours at a time. Especially since you can no longer offer them complimentary Mountain Dew.
The biggest difference between Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale is that while Baldur's Gate tried to mimic an open world with unclear goals and non-linear gameplay, Icewind Dale is a more traditional dungeon crawl. With clear goals and a linear story progression, you'll never stray too far off track. Although you will want to keep an eye peeled for the side quests to gain that much needed extra experience (and maybe a magic item or two).
In fact, Icewind Dale is so straightforward that anyone who has ever played an RPG should be able to pick this one up and start hacking and slashing almost immediately (gotta create some characters first). The interface is laughably easy to use and streamlines the complex AD&D rules in a way I would have never guessed possible.
Simply put, this is classic D&D gaming. It doesn't try to do anything new or revolutionary, and as a result, is remarkably fun and easy to play. If you've been moping around ever since you sold your Monster Manual for fifty cents at a garage sale, go pick up a copy of Icewind Dale, sharpen your sword, prepare your magical reagents and do not forget to cast Mordenkein's (SP?) Faithful Watchdog.