This weekend, while my fight with Interplay over my missing Baldur’s Gate CD continues, I’ve started playing Icewind Dale II. Don’t ask why I keep playing the sequels when I never played the originals. ;-) Here are some initial impressions:

  • The game design – i.e. the “in-the-RPG-world” experience – is excellent. I like the fact that thinking is as valuable as fighting. I’ve had to negotiate with a balky merchant and fix a broken crane and get all manner of valuable information by talking to people the right way, and that’s fun. Even the battles are more enjoyable when there are factors like placement and effective use of spells/missiles and tactical withdrawal to consider.
  • The user interface – i.e. the “in-the-real-world” experience – is terrible. There are way more steps required than there should be to do things as simple as transfer an object between party members or quaff a healing potion. There are no warnings, even for obvious mistakes. There’s no visual indication that a character lacks proficiency in the weapon they’re wielding, even though doing so carries a significant penalty. If you tell a character to use a missile weapon for which they have no ammunition, they happily rush forward to attack with bare hands instead. There’s no warning when you accidentally attack a member of your own party. Apparently little consideration was given for people who don’t consider memorization of every single rule and modifier to be an enjoyable part of the game…which brings me to my next point:
  • The game can be just plain overwhelming. There are so many races and classes and sub-races and sub-classes and skills and “feats” and weapons and spells and things to worry about, it actually detracts from the game experience. I just recently – well into the second part of the game – realized how important it is to tell your characters to rest occasionally, because they don’t heal otherwise. Of course, there’s no visual indication that a particular place would or would not be safe to rest; you have to try it and see. I’m still wondering whether my party’s operating under some hidden handicap because they haven’t eaten since I started…or maybe they’ll all just keel over and die without warning. I’m beginning to understand why Dungeon Siege advertised the absence of RPG micro-management as a feature. Fortunately, the documentation – both in-game and printed – seems quite comprehensive.
  • There are some definite glitches in game balance. Even at the easiest level, the ratio of monsters to healing potions seems worse than it should be. Enemy spellcasters always seem to have perfect aim and timing, and your characters never make saving throws against them; your own spellcasters are more of a danger to their allies than a threat to their friends because their aim is always off and the enemy always makes their saving throws. Non-player characters who should be neutral instead seem surly or arrogant or unaccountably hostile. Most egregious of all, certain powerful and fast-moving monsters will deliberately target the weakest member of your party and cannot be distracted. They’ll persist to the detriment of their own chances for survival or escape, just to make sure that you lose someone. That serves no useful purpose with respect to realism or game balance; it’s just the designer’s way of being a sadistic jerk.

That all sounds rather negative, I know, but it helps to consider the relative importance of various aspects. The game-play is by far the most important thing, and that’s well done even if the interface and other issues make the result less satisfying than it could be.