Urquhart of Winter
Delving into the world of Icewind Dale 2 with Feargus Urquhart.
Wednesday May 1, 2002 | Prophet
By Andrew S. Bub
Black Isle Studios, and its fearless leader Feargus (Urquhart), have put out some of the finest computer role-playing games of recent years. They brought back the post-apocalyptic RPG with flair and finesse in Fallout and Fallout 2, and were in the perfect place to capitalize on BioWare's reinvention of the genre and refining their Infinity engine. They answered Baldur's Gate with the, many think, far superior Planescape: Torment, and pre-empting Baldur's Gate II with their own more action-packed romp Icewind Dale. Some say Black Isle stumbled a bit with the Icewind Dale expansion titled Heart of Winter. It was just too short, too hastily put together, but they listened to fans and released, free of charge, an expansion to the expansion called Trials of the Luremaster. Interplay may have fallen on hard times recently, and BioWare took Neverwinter Nights to Infogrames (with, reportedly, some acrimony) but Black Isle is still there and poised to give Interplay a much-needed hit game. That game just could be Icewind Dale 2, coming at the end of May. We chatted with Feargus via email recently to get the scoop, and he granted us some exclusive screenshots as well.
GS: Black Isle is owned by Interplay, a company that's certainly in turmoil. As Interplay's most successful studio what's the atmosphere like over there? Tense? Are there high expectations for you guys?
Feargus: It can be hard from time to time. We've been both luck and unlucky at the same time when it comes to developing and producing successful titles. Lucky in that the projects were successful, unlucky in that Interplay has depended on those games shipping when they did to help the company stay in business - which means there has been a lot of pressure to get things done as quickly as possible. I try to balance the pressure and give us the time we need to get the games done, but also get them out when Interplay needs them out. It doesn't always work; the bugs we shipped Fallout 2 with are an example of pushing too hard. I think over the past couple of years, we have been able to balance it pretty well. I would have liked to put some more time into a couple of the games, but that just means that we need to plan better in the future so we don't back ourselves up against a wall.
GS: Will you be able to import your IWD or BG2 characters? Or is it "just like starting over".
Feargus: You won't be able to import your characters for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is an entirely new story, so you would have to bring your characters over as starting characters. The second is that since we have upgraded the engine to use the entirety of the Third Edition D&D rules - people would be missing out on a lot of the new character choices.
GS: IWD had characters go from 1st Level all the way up to the big numbers, is it difficult to keep a game challenging over that huge of a power arc?
Feargus: We can do a number of things to keep the game challenging. While the easy solution is to just increase the stats of the monsters that can get a little boring after a while. So, we try to throw puzzles and more strategic battles at the player. Setting up an encounter with a couple of fairly high level spell casters can make a battle a lot more challenging rather than just dropping down a few Super Goblins in a room.
GS: Are you incorporating any 3rd Edition D&D concepts into the game?
Feargus: Actually as it turns out were implementing pretty much everything there is in the Third Edition rules. We've also have been able to be almost completely true to the rules. We've only taken liberties when we've had to adapt the rules to a real-time setting. We've included a bunch of feats, skills, Forgotten Realms races and over 300 spells. We were even able to make it possible for the player to cook up crazy character combinations like being a Bard/Sorcerer/Cleric/Rogue - if they really wanted to. They get all their separate spell books and all special abilities from all the different classes.
GS: Give us the scoop on the storyline this time out. Does it tie into the original Icewind Dale, the expansion, and the free add-on?
Feargus: The succinct story is that another threat has come down from the north to threaten the Ten-Towns of Icewind Dale. The town of Targos has put out a call for mercenaries and the player's adventuring party has taken a ship there. The adventurers land in a city under siege and are quickly asked to help the town in repelling goblin invaders. From there the player must find out what is driving the goblin raids so as to help protect Targos and the rest of the Ten-Towns from being razed to the ground.
GS: You're using the Infinity Engine, right? What modifications have you made to it since BG2?
Feargus: Well, the engine is sort of a combination of BG 1, Icewind Dale, BG 2 and Torment. We've taken what we can from all the different versions to do what we have needed for Icewind Dale 2. The biggest modifications have really been the Third Edition rules and an almost complete overhaul of the interface. In Icewind Dale 1, we followed the Baldur's Gate interface relatively closely - this time out though, we've change a whole bunch of screens and done them all in 800x600. So, we've been able to add an extra
selection box here, more detail there, and a bunch of other things.
GS: How big is the game? How many hours would you estimate? What's the Level range?
Feargus: I think we are looking at somewhere between 40 and 50 now. Early on we estimated a little lower, but with all the stuff we've been able to cram in there we are pretty sure that it falls in that range. As for levels, we've balanced the game so you can go through it the first time and get to somewhere between 14th and 16th level and then go through again in Heart of Fury mode and get all the way up to 30.
GS: Icewind Dale was (justly) praised for its music (by Jeremy Soule), is he involved in this sequel? What about portrait artist Jason Manly? Do you have any celebrities doing voice work for this game?
Feargus: It was great working with Jeremy Soule, but with his busy schedule it wasn't really in the cards this time around. So, we have Inon Zur doing the music, who was the composer for both Torment and the Baldur's Gate 2 expansion pack. We've been very impressed with what he has done and are hoping he'll work with us again in the future. As for the portraits, Jason Manley decided to leave Black Isle late last year, but did a number of portraits before he left. After Jason left, we asked Justin Sweet, a long-time Black Isle artist, to fill in and come up with more portraits. Justin has done an amazing job and has really captured the feeling of Icewind Dale in the portraits that he has done. Some people might recognize Justin's work from the Magic of Faerun and Forgotten Realms Dungeon Masters guide from Wizards of the Coast. He was responsible the cover artwork on the Magic of Faerun and pretty much all the artwork that can be seen on the DM Screen.
GS: Will Icewind Dale 2 be the last Black Isle D&D game? Or does your license allow for more? Do you plan, or would it even be possible, to license, for example, the Neverwinter Nights engine for a future game?
Feargus: Our license currently gives us the rights to create more D&D games, but Black Isle has not announced any plans yet for future games. As for engine licenses, we will have to see. I think using the Neverwinter Nights engine would present us with a great opportunity, but as of yet, I've never talked with Ray and Greg about licensing it.
GS: Can you tell me about your next game? You know, Planescape Torment 2.
Don't be coy!
Feargus: The funny thing is as time goes on I think more and more about us making a
Torment 2. I don't know if it will ever actually be in the cards, but the game did better commercially than a lot of people think.
· Icewind Dale 2 screens
· Black Isle Studios
· official site