Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Icewind Dale: In-depth Retrospective on the Original Incarnation - Part I

Hi there! And welcome to the first part of my in-depth retrospective on the original incarnation of Icewind Dale, an RPG developed and published by Black Isle Studios and released in the year 2000. The following comments, criticisms and pro-tips pertain to version 1.06 of Icewind Dale; that is, just the original campaign (OC) itself without the Heart of Winter & Trials of the Luremaster expansions installed (i.e, version 1.42). That said, I may dedicate a future post noting how Heart of Winter imbalances the base campaign despite its thugged out encounter design and itemization nerfs. In addition, for the purposes of this retrospective I am unconcerned with community-made mods and the Enhanced Edition, an overhaul by Beamdog that has modified the game, for good and for bad. Please refer to my separate Enhanced Edition Review for info on the differences between the Black Isle & Beamdog versions of IWD. I also refer the reader to my ongoing Baldur's Gate Blathering & User Interface Evolution for more info on the Infinity Engine because I won't be repeating what I have written there.

Part I: Overview | Part II: Easthaven | Part III: Kuldahar | Part IV: Vale of Shadows

Overview


For Icewind Dale, the developers eschewed the deep role-playing and reactivity of their own Planescape: Torment (1999), and the non-linear exploration and questing of BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998), in favor of a campaign focused on dungeon crawling & tactical encounters. The dungeons and their denizens will receive in-depth treatment in this retrospective.

In another shift from its predecessors IWD features full party creation; that is, instead of creating one player character and recruiting companions into the party during the adventure, the player creates each and every party member that will constitute their party during the chargen process (there being no in-game companions to recruit). So yeah, there is no equivalent to the Nameless One or the Bhaalspawn in IWD. The impersonal party of adventurers are the protagonist.

Player reception to these two shifts was mixed. On the one hand, many players branded IWD as a hack n slash affair cast in the mold of Blizzard's juggernaut, Diablo II, with which its release coincided. They disliked the concept of full party creation and the lack of exploration and role-playing choices offered to them. To these players, IWD was bland and lacking in depth. On the other hand, many fans embraced the focus on combat and noted that IWD was a polished, well-paced dungeon crawler that made no pretense of deep role-playing and storytelling.

Setting & Scope

Icewind Dale is a barren and inhospitable polar region situated north of the Spine of the World, in the Frozenfar of Northwest Faerรปn. So yeah, far, far north of the Sword Coast in which Baldur's Gate was set. Some parts of Salvatore's Icewind Dale Trilogy of novels were also set in this region, but the events of the (non-canon) game precede those of the novels by about a century or so. Still, a few similarities exist between the first novel and the game, such as the Crenshinibon artifact granting both antagonists the means to amass immense armies with which to conquer the Dale.

Despite its mid-range level cap the IWD campaign is epic and sweeping in scope. From humble beginnings in the quiet fishing village Easthaven, the party travels the length, breadth and depth of the Dale in search of the source of evil threatening the region. A shadowy vale and tomb of the spirit of a barbarian king, the bowels of a volcano guarded by a Maralith demon, the five-spired Seldarine fortress of a mad Baelnorn Archmage, and the sprawling Dwarven stronghold of Dorn's Deep: these are the highlights of IWD dungeon design.

The heroic party battles all manner of powerful and exotic denizens, many of which are not only new or upgraded from Baldur's Gate, but also encountered in far greater number and represented by larger sprites; for example, yetis, trolls, yuan-ti, umber hulks and giants. But the TROLLS: so many people cried about them back in the day. Not to mention the Maralith & Baatezu bosses — Yxunomei, especially!


With a few exceptions such as the legendary Durlag's Tower (which, tbqh, is in a league of its own) and the Dead NationsDrowned Nations Warrens of Thought that comprise the Catacombs in Planescape: Torment, neither of the preceding Infinity Engine titles blew my hair back in regard to dungeon or encounter design. What set IWD apart was its number of sprawling multi-level dungeons (which gave you the feeling of being deep down and far away from the comfort of town), the quality of their design, and the sheer number of higher-HD monster waves packed into them (by mid-campaign we are not gonna be up against ogres and bandits, but rather swarms of trolls and yuan-ti).

Ok, most of this retrospective is to be given over to an area-by-area analysis that showcases IWD's dungeon and encounter design, itemization and reactivity (yes, there is some!); interspersed with pro-tips and random remarks on story, lore and aesthetics. But first, I need to cover some basics of the engine and ruleset as employed in IWD.

Ruleset & Chargen

Icewind Dale was the third AD&D 2nd Edition RPG hosted on BioWare's proprietary Infinity Engine, an RTS-like engine upon which the seminal Baldur's Gate was built. I have already covered the ruleset implementation and 8-step chargen process in my Baldur's Gate retrospective, so I refer the reader to that for some basics. But, as mentioned above, the major difference in the chargen process is full party creation.

Creating all six characters from scratch can seem a lil' daunting and exhausting at first. But the virtue of full party creation is that it allows for greater flexibility in, and control of, party composition; i.e, Want a holy party of Paladins & Priests to smite the undead legions lurking in the Vale of Shadows? Go for it! Want an order of Druids & Rangers, out to protect Kuldahar against the monstrous hordes brewing in Dragon's Eye? You can do that, too (of course, new players are advised to adventure with a balanced, traditional party, but more on that later).

Yes, full party creation is also possible in the Bhaalspawn Saga, but access to the option involved a clumsy workaround because it was designed for multiplayer only [1]. In IWD, full party creation is standard and the Party Formation menu is accessible in single-player mode from the Party Arbitration button nested at the bottom of the left sidepanel, allowing players to recompose their party, at-will, and at any point during the game. This was great if you gimped your character and needed to replace them with another, or if you just wanted to try out something new, mid-campaign. But new additions to your party do not scale to the level of their companions (as BG companions did to a degree), so you will have to accept your first level scrubs and wait for them to grow, a process that cheesy players can accelerate by training the party on respawning mobs, such as the cold wights in Dragon's Eye.


The "flaw" of full party creation is the lack of party personality, companion-based reactivity and intimacy of role-playing a singular protagonist. Many players find adventuring with mere "combat units" to be quite a dull experience without companion quests, histories, rivalries, friendships, romances, banters and interjections to spruce things up. The ability to write biographies for each combat unit (as IWD allows you to do) could never make up for that because it didn't affect what happened in the campaign; it was just fluff.


[1] I call it "single-player multi-player", a mode of play which also noticeably impacted game performance.

Some ruleset differences I've noticed

True GrandmasteryGrandmastery, that is, five stars or "pips" in a weapon (*****), was not attainable under the 161,000 experience point cap of BG: ToSC. However, it is attainable in base IWD. And it is True Grandmastery, unlike BG2. 

IOW, +3 THAC0, +5 dmg, +1 ApR (TGM) as opposed to +2 THAC0, +4 dmg, +0.5 ApR (NERF). This is notable! 

However, presumably for game balance reasons BiS decided to allow only Mastery in Bows, which I think is an unnecessary ruling in a campaign in which archery is not all-powerful and OP (as it was in BG). Yes, the Messenger of Sseth is a guaranteed find that bestows +1 ApR; and yes, Acid Arrows remain unnerfed at 2d6 acid, but the number of enemies and their hit dice are majorly increased from BG, and Acid Arrows are rarer finds (Lehland & Nym each offer 80 for sale whereas Halbazzer offers 420 in the base BG campaign).

• Weapon proficiencies have been expanded; f.e, Great Swords are separate to Large Swords. So what? Well, it means you need to spend more Proficiency points to cover them (if you want to). Also, Bastard Swords fall under Great Swords rather than Large Swords proficiency. In BG, there was only Large Sword and Short Sword for Swords.

Racial traitsElven & Half-elven chance to resist sleep & charm negative status effects (90% & 30%, respectively) have been implemented as standard in IWD (in BG you needed to install aVENGER's Racial Traits fix, which is now part of the G3 Fixpack).

• The Ring of Free Action cancels the Boots of Speed movement increase (unlike in IWD:EE), but it doesn't cancel the movement increase or doubling of attacks under the effect of the Haste spell.

• That's right, IWD Haste doubles your attack rate! In BG, it only granted you a single extra attack. So, in IWD your max is 10 ApR whereas in BG it was 5 ApR. This is very notable indeed! Note that in both campaigns Haste inflicts exhaustion when it wears off.

Summons are limited to six in total whereas in BG summons were uncapped. Again, very notable!

• The quiver capacity has been doubled (IWD: 40, BG: 20). It was doubled again to 80 in IWD:EE.

• Many new spells have been added. These will be covered in a dedicated section later in the retrospective.

General changes from Baldur's Gate

YOU MUST GATHER YOUR PARTY BEFORE VENTURING FORTH has been muted. ๐Ÿ˜Œ
Rest Until Healed has been added as an option. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ This degenerate, newbie feature reduces the need for clerics & consumable use.
• Accessing the area map does not pause the game. ๐Ÿ˜Š
• The pathfinding routine has been greatly improved. ๐Ÿ˜‚ Plus, area design has spared us from nightmares like the Firewine Ruins & Thieves' Maze. In a further improvement, combat units will bump each other out of the way in order to get where they need to go, without sticking together and jittering violently.
• There are no overworld waylays. ๐Ÿ˜ช
• You can find a portrait for a female dwarf. In fact, there are two. Arguably three! ๐Ÿ˜Š

Ok, I didn't reserve a section for ApR in my BG retrospective, so here it is for IWD:


Attacks Per Round (ApR)

This is the number of attacks a character can perform in a given round of combat (i.e, attack rate). It is an especially important stat in a campaign that reduces the viability of direct-damage spellcasting and features waves and waves of enemies susceptible to physical-based damage. In addition, many itemized weapons inflict chance-based on-hit negative status effects such as stun, fireball, disease — and even effects akin to vorpal [2] — so, it stands to reason that the more often you can attack, the more often these devastating effects are going to trigger. Three melee units attacking at a rate of 5 ApR, and inflicting stun on a regular basis, is just TOO good.

Summary of plentiful ApR sources:

• Every character receives one base attack at first level, aka 1 ApR.
• Warrior classes (Fighter, Paladin, Ranger) can Specialize in a weapon for +½.
• Fighter Grandmastery grants a full attack (unlike in BG2 where it was nerfed).
• Warriors also receive +½ at 7th and 13th levels.
• Rangers receive an extra attack if their shield-hand is free ("fake" dual-wielding).
• There are several items that grant extra attacks, though most of them are randomly drawn from preset pools consisting of several other items, and are therefore unlikely finds. In my many, many playthroughs over the years I have NEVER found the coveted sword, ring or bow used in the examples given below. For many years I didn't even know they existed!
• Finally, the Haste spell doubles ApR.

Here is the breakdown for a Fighter:

• Base ApR: 1 (1 ApR)
• Specialization (available at Warrior 1st lvl): +½ (1 ½ ApR)
• Grandmastery (available at Fighter 9th lvl): +1 (2 ½ ApR)
• Warrior class 7th lvl bonus: +½ (3 ApR)
• Warrior class 13th lvl bonus: +½ (3 ½ ApR)
• +ApR item (e.g, Long Sword of Action +4): +1 (4 ½ ApR)

Wait! Four-and-a-half attacks? How does that work? Turn on Autopause at End of Round to see for yourself: the character will perform four attacks in the first round followed by five in the second.

• Haste (a third circle arcane spell that doubles ApR): (9)

Now, items that bestow +ApR "stack" with each other up to the ApR hardcap of 5; for example, let's say you already have 4 ½ ApR courtesy of the Long Sword of Action +4 (+1 ApR weapon). Then, you put on the Ring of Reckless Action (+1 ApR ring). Do you have 5 ½ ApR now? No, you only have five max. The other half is wasted. But the Haste spell doubles that to 10 which is the absolute maximum ApR the Infinity Engine RPGs are capable of representing.

You will note that it seems you're only getting 5 ApR with Haste when Autopause is set to End of Round, but you when you turn off Autopause you're actually getting 10 ApR because the animation speed is doubled for hasted combat units.

The Long Bow +4: Hammer is a random drop that bestows +4 ApR and stacks with ApR bonuses, meaning a character with just seven warrior levels and Specialization hits the hardcap of five ApR. Or even an un-Specialized Fighter (2) Mage (3) Dual-class reaches 5 ApR if they wear the above-mentioned ring in addition.

Note that Haste inflicts fatigue when it wears off, meaning that the party receives cumulative to-hit penalties and complains bitterly about being tired until they rest. For those reasons, I generally don't cast Haste unless the party is facing off against a boss and I'm going to rest afterwards, anyway. In normal encounters, I much prefer to have my Mage's third circle spell slots loaded up with the underrated AoE debuffer, Slow, which reduces the movement speed and attack rates of large groups of enemies to half, and also inflicts +4 penalties to their AC & THAC0! Its duration is the same as Haste (3 rounds + 1 round/lvl).

Btw, my party-wide arcane buffs are generally limited to the fourth circle Emotion: Courage & Emotion: Hope, which, when taken together, bestow +3 THAC0, +5 damage, +2 saves, and +5 HPs for five delicious turns; that is, 50 rounds or 5 mins. Needless to say, those spells are BEAST.

But more on spells later in this retrospective. I have a lot to say about them.

[2] The Snow Maiden's Reaver is a two-handed sword that chunks the enemy into icy bits. Likewise, Ol' Withery is a dagger that inflicts Finger of Death. The chance in both cases is just 2% but it's very satisfying when the "vorpal" effect triggers on your first hit of a high-HD enemy, ignoring their deep HP pool. Melee weapons flaunting the "hammer" property are more highly sought-after due to their 5-20% chance to stun enemies, including top-tier undead. However, with but one exception they are all drawn randomly from pools, so good luck finding the ones in which your party members are focused!

Continued in Part II: Easthaven.


EoP

17 comments:

  1. Excellent retrospective, especially that you're writing about the vanilla Icewind Dale that may be forgotten by many nowadays. Personally, I didn't enjoy IWD at first for the reasons that you mentioned (too combat focused, no freedom in exploration and party as a protagonist), but also I tend to dislike monster encounters/fights. For that reason I really enjoy combat in Tyranny (as opposed to many players/reviewers), where even minor fights have enemies that I can talk to and have some sort of personality.

    There's a little error in your retrospective: in BG1 you can swap armor mid-combat, BG2 has that limitation.

    Where IWD shines in my opinion, is the multiplayer. I did complete the game twice before, but only during the multiplayer sessions with my friends I started to really enjoy the game. Even the in-game lag (that I think is present in all IE games) didn't bother me at all. It may be due to controlling just one character, but that was one of the best multiplayer experiences that I had.

    IWD also has one of the silliest weapons that I have encountered: the magical axe that deals bonus damage against dwarves (+ THAC0 as well), but.... there are no dwarf enemies in the whole game (you can attack innocent NPCs, I guess).

    Anyway, great retrospective, can't wait for the next parts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for commenting and picking up on that error, Tuth; I've removed the offending line.

      And yeah, IWD didn't impress me too much coming off BG & PS:T, mainly due to the lack of companions and the lifelessness of the Easthaven & Kuldahar hubs. Just an example of the latter: NPCs didn't voice anything when they were idle and "clicked on", like in BG. That may sound a bit silly, but I really enjoyed all NPCs voicing something, no matter how trivial.

      Delete
  2. Full party creation is perhaps the main thing that makes IWD distinctive today, though in even older RPGs, like those made in the 1980's, full party creation (and very minimalistic story-telling) was actually the norm in RPGs. The disadvantage, as mentioned, is that it makes it difficult to give the story or character interactions much depth without a clear protagonist or pre-made characters. It does offer a few advantages though: power-gamers can focus on building the ideal party of complementary characters, rather than just power-building one character, adding a bit more strategic depth, and on the role-playing front, as you suggest, one can also use it to put together themed parties of various sorts, or groups of characters presumed to have some pre-existing relationship of one's own imagining. There are a few people who actually prefer full party creation, as proved by the work-around to use it in BG being thought up.

    Another advantage of the full-party creation and character arbitration screen that you do not mention is that it makes it possible to replace deceased characters if one is playing in a no-reload "Iron Man" style.

    Nice explanation of how APR works in IWD. The game manual is often less than clear about such things, and 2E rules can be confusing and obscure at the best of times.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Apart from the IWD series Sir-Tech's Wizardry 8 also allows for a party of six, though Storm of Zehir and Temple of Elemental Evil need to be modded if you want more than four player-created characters. Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor allows for just four.

      And yeah, the IE manuals could have really done with a section on ApR; it's a very important stat.

      Good point on IWD being more Ironman friendly.

      Delete
  3. Just popping in to say thank you for your hard work! I am not the best reader, as I rarely give feeback, but I appreciate all the time and effort you've put into your writing, and that you are willing to review old games and fan made mods.
    :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, chimaera. I hope to review more mods in the future, too.

      Delete
  4. Always enjoy reading your blog, even if I think we might be on opposite ends of the "What kind of RPG do you like?" spectrum. :P Even if we do both enjoy Aielund. (Maybe that's it's real brilliance. It can draw from both the 'Never hack too much' crowd and the people who want deep character, lore, and story.) IWD never held the place in my heart it does many others. IWD2 was...dull. And I can't finish Storm of Zehir. It's not the full party creation. I actually enjoyed imagining what brought my band together and what their goals might be. But honestly, I've never thought encounter design Black Isle/Obsidian's strong suit. (Ironically, I think Planescape's greatness is overdone as well, given that for so much of the game, combat is entirely without drama. Give me Fallout 2 or Arcanum for the balance of RP and combat any day.)

    I've been playing Pillars of Eternity, and it's the same issue as I had in IWD. Trash mobs be faceroll trash. Right into a difficulty spike the plot railroads you into. Even better if you play a squishy damage dealer, because it does the, "Here, let's end the cutscene where 10 fighters and a mage can all attack your unbuffable glass cannon at once," trick. Because that's what a crafty, high intellect character would do. Walk into the middle of the throne room and throw down like a thug. *facepalm* But what redeems PoE is the depth of role play. Your character background being written based on your answers to your first comrade's questions. Decisions impacting personal quests and reputation influencing how the world views you. It does all the RP things right (other than the classic Obsidian adherence to the Jedi code. You shall not know love, Main Character.)

    So for me, while IWD was alright, it didn't carve a niche like Baldur's Gate (for all its flaws), or Fallout 1 & 2 did. Because it focuses on the side of the game I've never been convinced they do well. Now could they remaster Arcanum, please?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, my fave RPGs go something like this:

      Fallout
      Fallout 2
      Arcanum
      Baldur's Gate
      Mask of the Betrayer
      BG2
      Deus Ex
      Vampire: Bloodlines
      System Shock 2
      IWD2

      So yeah, my preferences are probably not all that different to yours. I think Swordflight has changed my view on RPGs, in that, along with its reactivity and role-playing it puts emphasis on resource management and tough combat encounters.

      Planescape: Torment is indeed overrated. I have enjoyed IWD & IWD2 much more over the years.

      But I'm not sure I want anyone messing around with Arcanum, not even the original devs.

      Delete
    2. Flip FO2 and FO1, BG2 above BG1, Mask of the Betrayer right behind Arcanum. Then let me insert Morrowind (and ONLY Morrowind) out of the Elder's Scrolls. Because that game is open world perfection, and while the story isn't in your face, it's rooted in almost every book and shrine you visit. Sure, the combat system was easy to break if you chose. But that's better than having bandits in full Daedric armor holding you up for 50 coins at level 20. *facepalm* And Neverwinter Nights has to go in just for the absurd toolset goodness. But yes, Mask of the Betrayer is the ONLY reason NWN2 is on my hard drive still. Even if the end game 'assault on the wall' is perhaps the most absurdly simple final sequence I've ever played.

      Deus Ex was great just for the absurd number of ways to play. And I don't want Obsidian to change any quests or go messing around with the system for Arcanum. Just update the graphics so it'll run on Windows 10 without reverting my system into the Stone Age. I'm afraid the 5 year old laptop won't come back. :P

      Delete
    3. I prefer Gothic and Gothic 2 to Morrowind, though I acknowledge the advantages of the latter in regard to open world, chargen, lore, and the sheer possibilities of play on offer. I sank a lot of time into that game back when it first came out. But I don't go in for open world games so much these days.

      The Aurora toolset is probably the greatest gift a dev has given to the computer role-playing public. Striking the perfect balance between power, flexibility and ease-of-use means basically anyone can whip something up that is worth playing. And adventures, campaigns and other forms of custom content are still being churned out, over a decade later, that continue to raise the bar. I guess the only thing comparable would be Unlimited Adventures, by SSI. At least, from what I've read about it on the community forum (I have no direct experience). Might be something to look into in the future, but the NWN platform seems to be inexhaustible at this point, so I doubt I'll get around to it.

      Delete
    4. NWN didn't exist for me for over a year because of Morrowind. It wasn't until Hordes came out that I actually sat down with it. The scope of Morrowind, with the Tribunal and Bloodmoon expansions, is still jaw-dropping. The only other series I'd consider on the list is the Witcher. But it's in a strange place for me, at times it seems more like an interactive extension of the novels than an actual RPG.

      Delete
    5. It took a while for NWN to mature, anyway: expansions, patches, and especially the custom content side of things.

      I resisted NWN for a long time because it was a great disappointment to me coming off the Fallout series and Infinity Engine games. I mean, I played the official content and tried out a few mods but I never really got into the community during its heyday.
      I was happy enough to just replay and mod the classics from Interplay, Black Isle, Sir-Tech, BioWare and Troika. Oh, and Diablo II.

      The late-90s to mid-2000s was the best era for gaming. Sure, everyone says the era they grew up in was the best. Difference is, mine actually was. :P

      Delete
    6. Best era for RPGs to be sure. Strategy games were best in the early 90s. Early Civs, Colonization, Master of Orion, the original X-Com. *sigh* Europa Universalis is grand, but those were amazing games. And as much as I like some of the newer RPGs, the isometric era was the best on computers.

      I can say that, because when *I* was a kid, it was the era of TABLETOP RPGs. :P No one had a computer smaller than the WOPR.

      Delete
  5. AnonymousMay 18, 2017

    Any plans to do similar retrospectives on Heart of Winter/Trials of the Luremaster and IWD2?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi. I've made some headway with my IWD2 retrospective, yes. It's a great campaign and I like it more than IWD, mainly due to its 3.0 ruleset. I've already covered its UIhere, btw. As for HoW/ToLM, I found them pretty boring, they were never really popular, and I'm not nostalgic about them at all, so there is not much motive to treat them.

      Delete
  6. I'm playing Icewind Dale these days with my solo blackguard, i am at the end of Dragons Eye reached 10 level.

    ReplyDelete
  7. are there high level abilities in icewind dale?

    ReplyDelete

Return to Index of lilura1 content

Thank you for commenting!

Full comment stream is viewable here

1. Anonymous/Unknown users may posts comments, but you are encouraged to sign with some sort of identifier so that I can get to know you.
2. Blog is moderated due to influx of spammers, trolls and other unsavories. I have acute troll detection senses so don't even bother. Comments of a personal, political and religious nature are ignored; as are posts with "isms". Blatantly off-topic comments are ignored.
3. Remember to use the zoom function of your browser to make the blog more readable. In Chrome, that's Ctrl and Shift and +.

Have a lovely day!