Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Icewind Dale

I've almost finished with Icewind Dale. I was actually a bit confused about the pacing of the game. I kept thinking i was playing through an extended introduction and aaaaany minute now things would get interesting. However, when i noticed that my characters were hitting level 10 and computer D&D adaptations tend to run to about level 18-19 in the main campaign, i finally realized that was it. That repetitive, linear series of aggravatingly scripted combat encounters is the whole game.

For once, i don't want to be too harsh in my criticism. I dislike Icewind Dale at the moment mainly because i am unfairly comparing it to Planescape: Torment and they were simply intended to be diametrically opposed in terms of development focus within the D&D rules. Torment was story and atmosphere; Icewind Dale is combat. In that, Icewind Dale has suffered much more severe weathering when compared to later RPGs. Good writing is still good writing. Inevitably, improvements in game engines brought about improvements in gameplay mechanics. The later D&D-inspired games i've played became gradually easier on the eyes, more slick and less glitchy, through NWN 1&2 to Dragon Age which did a thorough job of trimming away the unworkable or useless parts of pen-and-paper RPGs in a computer adaptation while keeping the D&D feel. After being spoiled by Dragon Age, Icewind Dale felt punishing to play through.

There's no reason to even address storytelling or role-playing, as it features only tangentially in the campaign. You go from one fight to the next in a succession of telegraphed fetch/kill quests. Given that the only choice you usually have is between doing a quest or missing out on that section of the game, Icewind Dale fails as miserably at forcing you to role-play as Torment excelled at it. The few moral choices you make have no real impact.

Icewind is still quite interesting however as a study in game design. Given its singular focus on combat mechanics, it contains very interesting attempts to work pen-and-paper mechanics into a computer adaptation. I haven't yet gotten around to complaining about RPG wizards being reduced to fireball-tossing, but i did post on the subjects of Thief/Rogue oversimplification.

Icewind's spellcasting is actually slightly more interesting than in the later NWN games, largely because spell effects are so punishing that hard counters become a necessity. Dispel, Silence, Cure this-and-that and the "Bless" line of buff spells are crucial to your party's survival. There are plenty of monsters immune to various effects and i found my death mage almost useless in some areas while being the party's workhorse in others. The only way my caster-heavy group survived the early portions of the game was by charming a goblin here and an orc there to thicken my front line a bit. Ghoul Touch and IceLance turned ettins into easily-kited, harmless target practice. Large encounters which would've easily overwhelmed my group became easy money through my druid's Entangle spell. Overall, despite all the fireballs and cloudbursts and skull traps, my spellcasters' best source of outright damage was the constant stream of hits from slingshots and darts. This is how it should be. Magic should not be just a stand-in for a sword or gun.

Better yet, this is the only D&D adaptation i've played so far in which my rogue's ability to scout ahead was crucial. Only Dragon Age came close. Spell range exceeds vision range and most AoE spells spread pretty wide, so having my rogue as a spotter for my casters made initiating a lot of fights much easier. Stealth meant more than a damage bonus for my first attack. Yay!
Just as important is the rogue's frailty and relative weakness. In NWN 2, i annoyed my online D&D old-timer acquaintances to no end by telling them that my main combatant was Neeshka, the party's rogue, and it was true. I made her into a WoW rogue, just because i could and because there was no other use for a rogue. I could buff her to be as powerful a melee combatant as a fighter. In Icewind Dale, my fighter was the undisputed lord of hack'n'slash, as it should be, while my cleric was able to take a few hits and my thief stood waaaay back and peppered enemies with her shortbow. Again, the thief's main use to the party should be sneaking. Yes, there is a lack of variation in what a thief can do, but at least the focus was right.

The most important part of the game is having a balanced group. You will need several melee combatants, a trap disarmer and both divine and arcane spellcasters in Icewind Dale. I avoided multiclassing since it seemed much less interesting after NWN2's more complex implementation. My party was:
Thief (gnome, no large weapons)
2 mages (one Enchanter for mind control and death spells and one unspecialized for magic missiles, extra buffs/summons)

Given that there is no way to prevent spell disruption aside from not being hit and this made my cleric much less dependable, i quickly found that my group was paper. My game experience has been a constant scramble to shore up my front line with charmed monsters or summoned creatures or keep enemies controlled with roots and slowdowns. And i loved that part of it. It was my choice to play that way and i should damn well be punished for it, just like someone who creates a fighter-heavy group should have to pay a cost. Unfortunately, as is the case with these games in general, the large number of enemies makes a party of brainless thugs endlessly hack'n'slashing a much more viable alternative to a group of nerds in dresses. Three or four fighers and one divine, one arcane spellcaster with a thief multiclassed somewhere in there would really yield the easiest gameplay. As things stand, i'm not ashamed to say i played Icewind Dale at -1 difficulty. With a relatively unresponsive interface, a general lack of defensive options for casters and monster AI that tends to be impossible to peel off a weakened target,  squishiness results in too many saved game re-loads.

There are many flaws in the design. Aside from being somewhat of a grind, many of the encounters make somewhat too frequent use of monsters appearing out of thin air all around you when you reach the middle of a room or having to go through doorways which drop you into instant melee combat. Encounters for which the player cannot prepare, which are mainly defeated by reloading a saved game with the knowledge of the "surprise" as your main weapon, should be used only on the rarest occasions. This game's full of them. Also, the Infinity Engine's limitations did not allow for much leeway in designing functional environments. There is a thin line between 'subtle' and 'invisible' and this game, unlike Torment, falls on both sides of it. Many of the doorways, ramps, walkways etc. in the campaign tend to be featured as shapeless blobs blending into the background.

Overall, Icewind Dale is not worth playing. Its best features are hampered by the age of the game engine. Unless you're a die-hard fan going through all these old titles, do yourself a favor and play an RPG where characters aren't sliding along the ground and constantly shifting a few steps this way and that during combat because it was the best method available for handling collision a decade and a half ago.

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