Shivers. That's what I got when I saw the first screenshots of Baldur's Gate back in the late 90's. The previous games in the AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) series were rather lacking in the graphics apartment but the newly developed Infinity Engine delivered amazing graphics (at the time) and intuitive user interface. I played the game for months, maybe even years. Shivers. I got those again when I installed the newly released Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition. Revamped user interface, support for HD resolutions and more importantly the game works on newer rigs without issues. But is all that enough to make you wander the plains of the Sword Coast again? Let's have a look. Baldur's Gate veterans can skip directly to the 'So What's New?' part of the review.
The game takes place in the Forgotten Realms fantasy campaign setting, more precisely the Sword Coast area on the continent of Faerûn, created by the Canadian writer Ed Greenwood. The story starts when your character is summoned by his/hers foster father, Gorion. The only thing Gorion reveals to you is that you have to depart from your childhood home Candlekeep. As you prepare for the journey ahead, you're attacked by people who obviously want you dead. Left clueless as what's going on, you leave the safety of your home with your foster father. While travelling to Friendly Arm (a place where you're supposed to meet the friends of Gorion) your entourage is attacked by bandits led by an armored figure. Your foster father shoves you aside as he desperately defends you. He manages to kill the bandits but their leader is too much for him. You can't do anything else but watch as the man you called your father is brutally slain in front of your eyes. I wonder if there are any good therapists in Faerûn? Your friend and sister-of-sorts, Imoen, witnessed the event and together you start a perilous journey towards Friendly Arm. This journey is full of unforgettable characters, epic encounters, larger-than-life emotions and talking chickens.
When you start a new game, you can either select a pre-made character, create your own or import a character you have previously made or exported. When creating a new character, you can choose it's gender, race, class, alignment, abilities, skills and appearance (not to forget the name). Gender is self-explanatory. There are 7 different choosable races in the game; human, elf, half-elf, gnome, halfling, dwarf and half-orc, each with its own up- and downsides. The half-orc for example has extra strength but don't expect any intelligent dialogue with it. The classes in the game represent the proficiency of your character and include old classics; you can choose either fighter, ranger, paladin, cleric, druid, mage, thief, bard, sorcerer, monk or barbarian as your class. Each class also has a selectable class kit that further defines the class. The fighter class for example has berserker and wizard slayer kits. The classes are race-restricted so don't expect to create a half-orc paladin. The skills and abilities depend on the chosen class; sorcerers for example can't learn any weapon skills and their abilities focus on intelligence and wisdom. The full set of abilities are as follows: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom and charisma. Each ability affects a certain aspect in the game; strength affects the maximum damage your character does with weapons and constitution affects your hit points and base armor class for example. The skills section allows you to distribute points to various skills which include weapon proficiencies for fighters, spells for spellcasters and special thieving/lockpicking skills for thieves. The alignment is a special aspect of the Dungeon & Dragons ruleset that represents your character's morality. The possible choices are lawful, neutral or chaotic and each of the three 'moral codes' has three sub-selections; good, neutral and evil. Players who want to play as a good-doer should choose lawful good, players who aren't afraid to embrace the Dexter inside of them should go with chaotic evil and the rest of us (who aren't quite sure which way to lean) should choose true neutral. The chosen alignment affects the game in numerous different ways; the quests you'll receive, how your party members perceive you and the dialogue choices you'll have when talking to NPCs. Once you're satisfied with your character, it's time to start exploring the Sword Coast.
The game is played from an isometric view in realtime. You control your character(s) by selecting them and clicking on the spot you want them to move to. Talking to other characters and examining objects is done the same way, simply by clicking them. The game can be paused at any given time to help with giving commands to your party of adventurers. You can also set the game to automatically pause the gameplay when certain events occur (one of your characters spots a trap, your weapon becomes unusable or your target is gone for example). The auto-pause feature is very handy and ensures you won't get killed by accidentally walking into a trap. The combat is handled the same way as the rest of the game; you click on the enemy you want to attack and the selected characters start attacking it with their primary weapons. You can use the pause feature to help you with casting spells and using items (or just to take a breather). The combat follows the 2nd edition AD&D rules which include things like THAC0 (to-hit armor class 0), critical hit chance and other fancy stuff. Luckily you don't have to understand jack shit about the extensive rules the game has; every roll of the dice and calculation is done by the game engine in the background. To further help you with the combat, you can assign AI scripts for your characters. These scripts determine what your characters do in any given situation; you could assign your cleric to automatically heal any wounded party member for example. The enemies are varied and plentiful and include classics like kobolds and ogres along with rare and weirdly named (Forgotten Realms exclusive) monsters like Aarakocra and Zaratan, my favourite being the Ixitxachitl (just try pronouncing that when you're a bit tipsy). As with every other role-playing game, killing enemies grants you experience which allows you to level up your characters.
The magic in Forgotten Realms is a bit different than in other role-playing games; to be able to cast spells your spellcasters have to first memorize the spells you think are necessary. This is done by selecting the spells (up to a maximum of 5) from your spellbook and resting in an inn or in the wilderness. It's always a good idea to keep your most important (especially healing) spells ready for use. The spells are learned through leveling or by writing them from scrolls to your spellbook. Sometimes the writing might fail though, spending the precious scroll. The spells are pretty basic and include direct damage (magic missile and fireball for example), supportive (bless and monster summoning for example) and healing (cure light wounds and neutralize poison for example) spells which are divided into two categories; priest and wizard spells. The amount of ability points spent on either category defines which spells the spellcaster can write in their spellbooks. Your spellcasters are essential when dealing with difficult enemies; few swords or bows just simply won't be enough. Some monsters can also cast spells and the toughest enemies usually are high-level spellcasters.
The weapons and armors found in the game are also your basic fantasy stuff; you have swords, axes, leather armors and spiked helmets for example. The damage done by a certain weapon is represented by dice, a sword might do 1d8 damage for example which means you'd roll a single, 8-sided dice to determine the maximum damage you'll do with a single attack. The amount of protection a certain piece of armor provides is represented by AC (armor class); the lower the number, the better the protection. There are armor and weaponsmiths all around the Sword Coast who sell you equipment and purchase any excess gear you might have lying around in your (rather small) inventory. Luckily each of the characters in your party has his/hers own inventory. There are also enchanted weapons and armors in the game which grant the character wearing them special abilities and/or bonuses; some armor might give you protection against fire based attacks and some weapon might do more damage against the undead for example. Most enchanted gear you'll find are unidentified first so you must take them to a smith to be identified for a fee or have your spellcaster identify them using a spell.
The game world of Baldur's Gate is gigantic and it's divided into areas; exiting an area takes you to the world map which allows you to travel to the next area. Travelling takes time and quickly fatigues your characters so you need to rest occasionally. Resting also heals your characters and takes a lot of time; if you have a character that's seriously wounded, you might end up resting for days. The game features full day/night cycle and the most gruesome enemies appear at night. Keep this in mind when resting for prolonged periods of time. Your rest can also be interrupted by monsters so you might end up defending yourself with a beaten-up party. This can (of course) be avoided by only resting at inns but you can't rest there for free. The areas are covered in the famous fog of war and have some very gorgeous sites to explore; ancient ruins, small farms and other points of interest you'd expect to find in a fantasy game. There are also towns and bigger cities littered throughout the world map. The cities are full of life; you have peasants and farmers strolling around, commoners going on about their business, you name it. Most of the game's literally hundreds of quests are received from NPCs in dire need of assistance. (Current generation of gamers be aware; the game has no quest markers which point you to the next objective, you only have your journal and it's vague hints on where to go next.) These quests vary from fetching a simple item from another city to slaying a huge giant terrorizing a small town. The (mostly written) dialogue in the game is excellently written and it features some pretty witty humor. Bare in mind that the game has a staggering amount of written dialogue so be prepared to spend most of the time reading.
As I stated before, there isn't much spoken dialogue in the game; only the most central PCs speak their dialogue. The voice actors are amazing (especially the voice selections available to the player during character creation are exceptional) but the responses your characters give when commanding them (especially in combat) get boring fast. When you've heard "Tonight we bathe in blood" for a hundred times, you're ready to disable the spoken responses. The ambient sounds support the feeling of being in a fantasy world; birds singing in the middle of a forest, wolves howling in the middle of a night, absolutely fantastic. Sounds aside, one of the most important things in a fantasy game is it's music. If there were Academy Awards for games, Baldur's Gate would win the Oscar for best music, hands down. The game is full of instant-classic fantasy tunes composed by Michael Hoenig.
The graphics were amazing back in the days and they're still pretty good; especially the backgrounds look great. The background art looks like a painting, hand-drawn by an artist. All PCs and NPCs (along with the monsters) are simple 2D sprites that look rather lame in today's standards. Still, you have to remember that the original game was released 14 years ago. The spell effects also look very outdated and lack any glitter or filters modern games have. The game has simple weather effects (like rain) which adds a lot of atmosphere.
Even though the game is meant to be played alone, there's multiplayer in Baldur's Gate. You can directly connect to your friends game using his/hers IP address. Needless to say, I don't have many friends who currently own the game so I didn't have a chance to try it out. According to my resources the whole campaign can be played with up to 5 friends cooperatively, each player taking up a character slot in the party. How good the pause feature works in multiplayer is guesswork although the concept of exploring Faerûn with friends is tempting.
So What's New?
Being an Enhanced Edition, you'd expect the game to be enhanced. This is only partly true. The first thing you'll notice as soon as you launch the game is the new main menu. You can select between the Enhanced Baldur's Gate, a handy tutorial for new players and a totally new adventure, Black Pits. The main game remains unchanged but with subtle (and very welcome) enhancements; the interface size has been increased to allow the game to be played with higher resolutions. This means the main issue that plagued the original game is now fixed; you can see a lot more of the areas you're exploring. The gameplay has also been streamlined and the game feels a lot less 'chunky' than it did back in the last millennium.
The original game's notorious difficulty has also been tweaked: the game has multiple different difficulty settings ranging from an easy cakewalk to a difficulty that has even the scarred veterans crying for mommy. This is an excellent addition since I had numerous sleepless nights trying to figure out how to defeat a certain enemy. Now I might actually have a chance to finish the game. The original difficulty setting can also be selected. Along with the difficulty tweaks, the game also features a tutorial for new players. The tutorial covers the basics of the game but unfortunately it's very bugged; I couldn't finish it. This might be an issue with the press release version and most likely fixed in the final release.
The Black Pits is a new adventure that starts when a group of 6 adventurers (all of which you can select/create) wake up in a dark dungeon. You quickly realize you've been taken prisoner and your captor wants you to fight in an arena. You have no chance but to do what your new master tells you. You're given some money to buy some starting equipment for your characters. After you've purchased everything you need, it's time to start fighting in the arena. After each victorious battle your characters gain experience and some extra money. The battles get tougher and tougher as you keep winning them and you'll eventually unlock the Tier battles which are one of the most hardest fights you'll ever fight in this game. There's also a story hidden in here somewhere but I didn't notice it since I kept dying in the Tier battles. I guess I should have selected a cleric in my party...
The multiplayer also received a facelift. Although unavailable at the time this review was written, the new Enhanced Edition features an in-game multiplayer browser that allows you to easily see the ongoing games and easily join them. No more messing around with IP addresses or posting them on public discussions hoping for someone to connect (an efficient way to test your firewall also). The game also features new original score composed by Sam Hulick (best known for his work in the Mass Effect trilogy).
In these days of ready-chewed games that almost automatically play themselves to the finish, Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition feels suprisingly fresh. No artificial markers showing where to go, no one giving you automated hints when you stand around for 5 seconds and more importantly, no worries about your rig being unable to play the game. The new additions feel a bit unnecessary but especially new players should appreciate the lowered difficulty level along with the tutorial. Veterans of the original game should be pleased also; I enjoyed the game a lot and the new tweaks made the game feel as it should've been. Hours and hours worth of content, good optimization and low price ensure I can recommend the game to anyone who isn't afraid to read a lot of dialogue or who's eyesight hasn't been spoiled by today's graphics. Just be prepared to say goodbye to any social life you might have once you get inside the story. You have been warned.