Friday, 16 December 2016

Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition Review

Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition Review




It's Winter! And that means it's time to venture forth into the Frozen North, the Spine of the World...


Hi guys! I just finished replaying the original Icewind Dale by Black Isle Studios (2000) followed up by Beamdog's IWD: Enhanced Edition. So yeah, I played them back to back. They were both patched to their latest versions; that is, 1.42 and 1.4. As I did for Baldur's Gate, I might write up an in-depth retrospective on my blog in the future (Update: here it is), but I just wanted to tell you a couple of things about the differences between the original incarnation and Beamdog's Enhanced Edition.

   D i f f i c u l t y  C o m p a r i s o n   

I played both the original and EE on Insane difficulty, the latter with No Difficulty-Based Experience Bonus set to On and No Difficulty-Based Damage Increase set to Off. Well, I can tell you that the original is much harder than the EE. There are several reasons for that, which I'll endeavor to enumerate here. Pls note this is a high-lvl read for experienced players so I'm not gonna explain the "why" of what's listed here, which is self-evident to my readership.

• BG2 Races & Prestige Classes. So now you have access to passive resistances and activated blanket immunities, buffs, and debuffs, that just trivialize the encounter design and make itemization and spell selection less of a concern. Here is what was added from BG2:
—One new Race: Half-orc. For those lost souls who think starting with 19 Str & 19 Con is awesome. ;) One playthrough of the original would only allow you to have one char with perma 19 Str (the Girdle of Stromnos, found late-game) and maybe one other char if you found the Potion of Life Transference (+1 Str, -1 Con). But that potion only bumps your Str up to 19 if you had 18/00 already and you only had a 1% chance to roll 18/00 in chargen. Ergo, most ppl are gonna just settle with 18/91-99. I mean, it can take a fair bit of rerolling just to hit that (10% chance). The difference between 18/91-99 and 19 is +1 to-hit & +3 dmg, which is notable in the early stages. Anyway, the common way to get >18/00 Str was through Cleric self-buffs like DUHM Righteous Magic, which take time to receive from your god, and further time to scale with your lvl.
—Three new Classes: Sorcerer, Barbarian & Monk. Barbs get Rage that gives that Half-orc 23 Str & 23 Con at first lvl (+5 to-hit & +11 dmg at first lvl is INSANE!) — and that with blanket immunities! Plus dmg reduction, later, to stack with the many powerful +DR items found already in the campaign. Sorcs gain access to certain I WIN spells long before traditional IWD mages, who instead are forced to rely on the stingily-itemized spell scrolls. Who cares about Monks? But yeah, they are OP at higher lvls.
—One new Specialist Mage: Wild Mage.
21 Kits (aka Prestige Classes):
FighterBerserker, Wizard Slayer & Kensai. Enrage grants Berserkers blanket immunities and Kai grants Kensai maximized weapon rolls which makes for optimal backstabbing.
Ranger: Archer, StalkerBeastmaster. Archers are sort of like ranged Kensai. Enough said.
Paladin: CavalierInquisitor & Undead Hunter. Great newbie classes. You'll find Pale Justice, too.
Cleric: Priest of Talos, of Helm & of Lathander. I've never liked pure Clerics, but these are more powerful than stock.
Druid: Totemic Druid, Shapeshifter & Avenger. More classes I've never liked, but again, they are more powerful than stock.
Thief: Assassin, Bounty Hunter & Swashbuckler. Powerful PrCs that you can do all sorts of cheesy stuff with.
Bard: Blade, Jester & Skald. These are epic classes for IWD. The highlights are Skald for its combat song and Blade for Defensive Spin (wearing a Free Action ring, ofc).
—Not to mention Beamdog's EE additions:
Fighter Dwarven Defender: It's like the best of Barb & Berserker. But the inability to Grandmaster means it "only" achieves 9 ApR. Boo-hoo!
Paladin: Blackguard: Dorn, anyone? Pretty straightforward anti-pally PrC.
Thief: Shadowdancer: Stealth time-stop. Is effective in both backstab or Sneak Attack modes.
SorcererDragon Disciple: Fire-based breath weapon that scales with lvl. Lots of fire resistance. I don't like this PrC outside of Neverwinter Nights.
Monk: Dark Moon & Sun Soul. Isn't the base Monk class  unique enough?
Cleric: Priest of Tyr & Priest of Tempus. Again, do we really need access to a fourth and fifth Cleric PrC in IWD?
Increased spell scroll range from BG2. How about access to +90 arcane spells and +30 divine spells? In addition, Sequencers, triggers & contingencies made it in, as did Find Familiar for all your arcane spellcasters, including Bards. How about Shapechange and Regeneration? Yep, they are also in!

• Dual-wielding. The original IWD had fake dual-wielding and it was just for the Ranger class. All that did was give you an extra attack if your ranger had no shield equipped in their off-hand, but you could see how powerful it was already. Well, IWD:EE employs the BG2 weapon proficiency table, meaning you have access to Two Weapon Style, not just for Rangers, but for many other classes, too. In fact, I ended up with four dual-classed, dual-wielding warriors with 10 ApR each (Kensai/Mage, Kensai/Thief, Berserker/Cleric and Berserker/Druid) [1]. By the time the party reached the Heart of Winter expansion, they waded through the hordes with ease using Beamdog's incredibly efficient auto-pilot scripts (on Insane difficulty), with two Bards singing the War Chant of Sith Skald Song behind them. It was a lil' yawn-inducing, tbqh, since I only rarely needed to cast AoEs or anything like that. Just set and forget, with a lil' adjustment here and there. I topped up my wine occasionally as the one-sided fights raged on.
[1] Dual downtime of four chars is tackled by dualing them at different lvls (7, 9 & 13), knowing where the experience point "bombs" are, and knowing how the second class levels (f.e, Druids & Thieves lvl quicker than Mages & Clerics). While it's harder to achieve in the original, 10 ApR is possible to get in both versions thanks to IWD True Grandmastery, the availability of +1 ApR weapons, and the Haste spells that double your attack rate. In the original IWD, Haste doubles the attack rate of all units in the AoE (i.e, the whole party) and inflicts fatigue when the spell wears off, whereas in IWD:EE only Improved Haste (from BG2) doubles attack rate - and only of a single unit per casting - but inflicts no fatigue when the spell wears off. 

Double capacity quivers. 80 arrows in a quiver instead of 40. I guess this one is a bit of nitpicking but IWD had already doubled quiver capacity from BG1, which had just 20.

Detect Illusions. (Non-Bounty Hunter) Set Snares are a joke but Detect Illusions is a powerful round by round utility ability that thieves now have access to.

So yeah, the IWD campaign simply was not balanced with this added content in mind. And it would take an SCS-like overhaul to thug out the encounter design to match what the player can unleash on the hordes.

   P e r f o r m a n c e  &  S t a b i l i t y   

• Well, the EE has slightly quicker loadtimes on my laptop than the original: they are instant instead of taking half a sec. Alt-tabbing is slightly quicker, too. Big deal. But when there are lots of mobs on the screen and the game is getting busy, the original had better performance! No, I am not shitting you. It also seemed to have a more consistent framerate across the board, something I quite value in gaming. Maybe this is due to the extra scripting overhead that comes from IWD running in the BG2 engine or something, I dunno.

• At the end of the base campaign my characters were auto-exported and I could start the Heart of Winter expansion without any issues. But at the end of EE my characters did not export properly. All of my dual-classes had dozens of their HPs missing. In addition, my Kensai/Mage's THAC0 was majorly nerfed and many of her scribed spells were deleted from her spellbook. She was just completely fucked. Then, when I reloaded to do further tests, suddenly my party members no longer exported after killing Belhifet! They weren't in the Character folder, they were nowhere. This meant I had to manually export/import each party member, one by one, which is basically manual labor. The EE even forced me to select every single cleric spell on my priest scroll, one by one, during the import process! Duh fuq? Why? On the other hand, the original exported my party perfectly and they were all intact and ready to roll.

• I had one CTD while playing through the original. I had over a dozen while playing through the EE, mainly on the menu screens. The CTDs for EE were more annoying because they locked up my laptop for several secs and I couldn't do anything but wait for it to resolve itself, allow me to accept the crash message, and finally reload the game. Grr..

• EE Yxunomei sometimes just wouldn't die. She should have died in a few rounds, the amount of damage I was inflicting on her. Other times, she dropped like a sack of shit like she should. It was just inconsistent. Likewise, Pomab glitched out for me and wouldn't drop until I reloaded. I was on the last Pomab and inflicted over 2,000 damage and he still just stood there, jittering like an idiot instead of getting chunked in one hit. This never happened in the original, which I have played countless times.

   P a r t y  A r b i t r a t i o n  ( o r  l a c k  t h e r e o f )   

• Aside from the obvious game balance issues, this is my biggest criticism of the EE. To my dismay, Beamdog did not add a Character Arbitration button to the left sidepanel! Now, just like in the original BG and BG2 (which, unlike IWD, weren't designed around the concept of "full party creation"), the player is forced to employ a clumsy workaround: they must create an Mpsave folder in their ..\Documents\Icewind Dale - Enhanced Edition folder, copy their current single-player savegame into it (from the normal Save folder), load that savegame as a multiplayer game in order to display the Party Formation menu that allows them to recompose their party (del/add char); then, save the game, copy the modified savegame back into their Save folder, and finally load it to play with the recomposed party! Such rigmarole just to add a Bard or something!

Right: The Character Arbitration button, located at the bottom of the left sidepanel in the original IWD.
Below: This is the Party Formation menu in the original IWD, which is accessible in-game from the Character Arbitration button. It allows you to recompose your party, on-the-fly, at any time during the campaign. Want to add a Bard? Go for it! Want to del that gimped Mage? You can! It is of great convenience in a campaign that is built for "full party creation". This menu also appears each time you load a savegame. But, in the EE, this menu only appears in multiplayer games! I really missed this KEY feature while playing the EE.


   D i r e c t  U I  C o m p a r i s o n   

A picture says a thousand words. Click the top image to enter Light Box mode, and mouse-wheel down and back up to compare.
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What those pics won't tell you is that the EE user interface is far more responsive than the original. Clicking to call up menus and modes is just smoother and quicker. Dialogue can be clicked through much quicker, though not as quickly as in Siege of Dragonspear. But the spacebar cannot be used as a short-cut to clicking the continue button (another convenience of the Siege of Dragonspear UI), meaning you have to physically move your mouse-cursor down from the dialogue section to click the button (and then back up again to choose your next response). Please refer to Part II of my User Interface Evolution series for more info on the original IWD user interface.

   C o n c l u s i o n   

So basically, you can see that my biggest issues with IWD:EE stem from IWD being shoved into the BG2 engine with little thought given to game balance and preserving in-game party recomposition, things that made IWD a great campaign to play through and EZ to experiment with. Btw, I'm not saying original IWD was perfectly balanced on golden scales, but there were some checks in place to keep things on a more even keel.

To be fair, the EE has added A LOT of content to IWD. And not just from BG2. Beamdog have restored content, fixed many bugs and oversights, and made the game more accessible to the masses by including in-game "How to Play" tutorial movies and increasing compatibility on current gen PCs. They also included well-written documentation for the newbies (see Survival Guide to the North, Mastering Melee & Magic and Feature Guide). Good on them for that. Here is a summary of key features:
• 60 new items (many of which accommodate the BG2 weapon proficiency table; f.e, katanas)
• More than 400 spells & abilities
• Hundreds of combinations of classes, races & kits
• Five restored quests (3 hours of extra content)
• Five restored music tracks
• New Story Mode difficulty setting
• Improved Journal interface
• No more loading screens
• Modernized game-play features like quick-loot, adjustable fonts, high-res artwork, map notes & playing field zoom function.
• Fully functional cross-platform multiplayer (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android)
See also: 1.4 Release Notes.

The above-listed features are going to appeal to a lot of people, both new players and veterans alike. But, for me, I just prefer to stick with the original CD or GoG Complete version. Afterall, it runs just fine on my Windows 8.1 laptop and I value game balance and in-built party recomposition more than Beamdog's additions. Plus, if I really want to overhaul IWD I could just install the G3 Fixpack, Tweakpack, Unfinished Business and Item Upgrade mod, myself, and that would be good enough for me.

But whichever version of Icewind Dale you choose to play, I know you will enjoy its polish & pacing, its solid dungeon & encounter design and its professional soundtrack, voice acting and art direction. Icewind Dale is just pure fun and a beautiful game from an aesthetic point of view. Enjoy! - and consider using my in-depth IWD retrospective as a companion to your playthrough.


Well, that's it for the review. Special thanks to Rogueknight333 for leaving an insightful comment, JuliusBorisov for promoting my review on the official Beamdog site, and kmonster for pointing out a couple of errors in my critique! Cheers guys!

   E o P   

5 comments:

  1. It does appear from this account that, unfortunately, the main thing the EE changes have done to Icewind Dale is wreck the class and combat balance. The BG2 kits worked in BG2 (more or less, some were a bit OP even there) because BG2 encounters were designed with their capabilities in mind.

    In the original IWD combat and class balance were quite good (as a general rule admitting a few exceptions) and they needed to be since IWD is a game that is all about the dungeon-crawling and combat, with minimal attention to story and role-playing. Of the three great Infinity Engine RPGs it is at the opposite extreme from Planescape Torment, which focused on story and role-playing rather than combat, while Baldur's Gate went for a balance of both. Encounter design in Planescape often left much to be desired, but that was no big deal, since that was not what the game was about. In IWD, that is what the game is about, so how the combat and class balancing is handled is absolutely crucial.

    To be fair, even in the original you could expect combat to be yawn-inducing if you have a Bard singing the War Chant of Sith, as that song has always been game-breakingly overpowered, a rare exception to the generally good design. The first time I played IWD using a bard with access to that, I determined that in future playthroughs my parties would either not include Bards, or, if they did, I would just pretend War Chant of Sith did not exist and never use it. I recommend that anyone who wants the proper IWD experience do the same.

    In a similar vein, I suppose, theoretically, someone could use IWD EE just for the crisper visuals or something and just avoid using most of the OP additions, but it seems questionable whether that is worth the trouble. Now if someone were to produce a version of IWD that added all the extra BG2 capabilities and also reworked the encounters to take them into account, that would be worth trying out, though of course such a project would involve a massively impractical amount of work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for leaving that insightful comment. I have updated the post in a few places and added a summary of Beamdog's additions.

      Delete
  2. The one advantage to IWDEE is that it's compatible with more mods that overhaul the gameplay system. Haven't had the time yet to test whether they can be used to improve the difficulty (which is something both versions are somewhat lacking at), but scales of balance is on my to do list.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, it would be good to have some kind of SCS for IWD and IWD:EE. Something like Tactics4IWD2, I suppose. I guess I'll keep an eye out.

      Delete
  3. Looks interesting. Just started rereading Forgotten Realms, which always makes me turn to Icewind Dale.

    ReplyDelete

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