Rambling on about one of my favorite games. Nerd alert.
It's funny you know, I have this amazing gaming PC at home (my work machine on the other hand is a Mac) and despite it being able to put my xbox 360 to shame I find myself regularly loading up a 2D based RPG released almost 4 years ago by a legendary, though now defunct studio. What has me playing Icewind Dale 2 instead of Oblivion (which is a great game that I still haven't finished)? Party-based gameplay, best of genre strategic combat and the most varied character creation of any game ever released. Years later I still can sit for hours thinking up clever names and picking portrais for my sad band of pixelated hereos.
I remember seeing Greg give it an 8.3 all those years ago and completely agreeing with the score. It was a great game, but there was virtually no story and even then its Infinity Engine graphics were below par for the time. Neverwinter Nights was released around the same time and IWD2 was seen by the press as this last gasp funeral for people that just couldn't let go of games like Baldur's Gate. NWN and Bioware were supposedly taking us to the future of RPG gaming that would bring the genre to the mainstream. Little did we know that it would be another old-time stuido, Bethesda, that would usher us into that new era with Morrowind and Bioware would start making neutered Star Wars games.
Since 2002 I have played Morrowind twice, NWN and it's expansions once and Icewind Dale II six times. I have played virtually every single-player PC RPG released in the past 4 years and found that nothing comes close to IWD2's depth or fun factor. Somehow this old "8.3" game has provided enough replayability for me to load it up year after year and take a party of 4 to 6 characters (with silly names like "Kelgar", "Dash" and "Vicor") across a bloodied tundra of 40 hours of non-stop fighting.
At this point I've figured out why I love IWD2 so much and why I've continue to come back to it. The game is both very hard and very fair at the same time. Unlike most hard games you don't feel like the game is cheating you or unfairly assisting its monsters in some way. When you lose in IWD2, you lose because you made a mistake or you weren't thinking about how to attack a situation. This is true regardless of your party's composition, and because of that it is always fun to play. Of the six times I've played it through, I've had a completely different party that needed to utilize different strategies to get through the same difficult scenarios. I've died dozens of times on the famous "bridge fight", a battle that finds you flanked on both sides, running out of spells midway through the fight and relying on some clever positioning to keep all your characters alive.
The best way that I can describe the variety of combat to someone who is used to RPGs, but may not have played IWD2 per se is that in IWD2 your most powerful spells have nothing to do with damage. Although there are a lot of RPGs out there that give you lots of spells most of them end up being worthless; you end up just spamming the high damage spell trying to kill a single character. Not so in IWD2, your most powerful spells are things like sleep, color spray, grease and ray of enfeablement. While you'll use that fireball at some point, it's only after you've neutralized your enemy that you'll even bother to attack them.
Why is this strategy (which is super fun and stressful) so common in IWD2 but not other games of its type? Simply because in this game its not uncommon to fight over a dozen enemies at a time. If you tried to just attack them you'd be overwhelmed. Unlike Oblivion you can't just run around the arena with your shield up casting fireballs at those 2-3 powerful guys, there's no where to run in this game, the enemies are coming at you in large numbers and there's nothing you can do about it but lay down some debuff spells, hold that holds half of them off and then concentrate your damage at what is now a pretty fair fight.
The tension and skill you find that comes out of these types of battles is intense, and because your party is always so different with each new game, your way of combatting the situation will always change.
It's a hell of a ride and one I will likely return to again next year. If you aren't afraid of a challenge and don't mind looking at a bunch of sprites I highly recommend you check it out. That 8.3 might have been true for its time, but like a good wine, Icewind Dale 2 has aged quite well.