The highly anticipated sequel to BioWare's hit role-playing game Baldur's Gate is just a few months away, and its publisher, Interplay, released Icewind Dale to tide over role-playing game fans while they wait. But Icewind Dale isn't just a pastime; it's an excellent game in its own right. Though it's based on the Baldur's Gate engine and is also set in the same Advanced Dungeons & Dragons universe, Icewind Dale's originality and fast pacing make the game uniquely satisfying.
Icewind Dale is self-consciously similar to Baldur's Gate: Both games take place in the Forgotten Realms, and Icewind Dale recycles not only Baldur's Gate's engine but also a good deal of the older game's graphics. Specifically, your six player characters are represented with the same small, animated sprites from BioWare's older game, and you might quickly recognize a lot of the equipment that was carried over.
Otherwise, Icewind Dale is a good-looking game that has an especially noteworthy original symphonic soundtrack by composer Jeremy Soule. The sweeping score seems to lend purpose to everything that goes on in the game. Icewind Dale also uses an effective storytelling technique in which the game's six chapters are broken down into narrated cinematic sequences detailing the game's events as chapters in a beautifully illustrated tome. Unfortunately, some of the player-character voices sound really bad, especially compared with the rest of the spoken dialogue in the game: Icewind Dale features many exceptional voice-acting performances for the game's major nonplayer characters. The game's main villain is especially memorable.
Aside from its contextual similarity, Icewind Dale actually has little in common with Baldur's Gate. You'll rarely if ever get caught up in solving various puzzles or finding miscellaneous trinkets for townspeople. Instead, you'll fight monsters, find powerful artifacts, and explore some very interesting environments. Over the course of the game, you'll fight huge quantities of an even greater variety of different creatures. Your small squad of characters will gradually grow from mere weaklings into stupendously powerful warriors and magic users, and the game is deftly balanced so that you never advance too quickly or too slowly, but are always well prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Several species of classic AD&D monsters that didn't appear in Baldur's Gate, such as trolls, umber hulks, and giants, are just a few of the many different foes you'll face over the course of Icewind Dale's epic quest. The game is suitably long, but the best part is that there's virtually never a dull moment: Each area in the game is exciting to explore, like the city nestled in the warmth of a huge life-giving oak, or the frozen subterranean aquarium.
In spite of its generally fast pacing, Icewind Dale gets off to a slow start. You begin by creating six characters from scratch, using standard second-edition AD&D race and class combinations. You must come up with a well-balanced team that can dish out damage as well as take it, and also be able to adapt to new types of situations. Creating your characters is a laborious process, as you not only need to randomly roll up and redistribute your attribute points, but you also need to choose the character's weapon proficiencies, his portrait, and even his voice. Like Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale lets you import your own pictures and sounds into the game, and it even lets you write your character's biography if you so choose. However, it's unfortunate that there's no way to get some guidance during the crucial character-creation phase; the game instead assumes you have an intimate familiarity with the nuances of the AD&D class system, though it does let you import a few basic pre-generated characters into your party if you'd rather get started more quickly.