When Beamdog brought out the first Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition last year I distinctly recall reading the reviews and thinking to myself what a tough time the writers must have had in coming to an opinion on balancing their subject matter: on one side of the colon you have Baldur's Gate - one of the finest RPGs ever made, a pinnacle of the genre; on the other side: Enhanced Edition, which brought with it a bevy of new trappings for our delectation and a shiny new price tag to boot.
With the recently-released Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition the very same conundrum rears its head once more...
To the young, the uninitiated, to the console die-hards and to those of you living under a rock for the past 12 years, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is one of the finest PC RPGs ever created and for many the pinnacle of its genre. A faithful adaptation of the rules of 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the game continues the plot of Bhaalspawn saga begun in the first adventure, managing to weave a tale more satisfying, gripping and mature than PC games had (arguably) ever known before. Setting the tone from the beginning as you awake in the grim torture dungeon of the sinister wizard Irenicus, you take on the role of the fated protagonist, forced to reckon with his or her murderous heritage.
The game masterfully balances the forces of narrative and purpose with a marvellous feeling of freedom and nonlinearity, which begins to unfold as you begin to explore your surroundings after the opening few scenes. Travelling as a party of up to 6 characters, players are able to complete quests, slay monsters, search for rare loot and level up their team - pretty well all of the tropes you'd expect to see in an RPG. What strikes most of all with BGII is just how deep the experience is. Want numbers and statistics? You got 'em! Good luck figuring out THAC0 on your first play through. Character creation is similarly rich too. Take my character for example - Gaffer Miyagi, Halfling Kensai/Mage multi-class. Never afraid of entering the fray, Gaffer scrambles into the fight wielding a magic katana in one hand, absolutely no armour, and more than a couple of fireballs in the spell book for good measure. He's morally neutral, for balance, wears a yellow robe, and is a tonne of fun to play. The other party members, of which there are over twenty to pick and choose from are largely very well written indeed, with some already ingrained in fan folklore, such as clear favourite Minsc, the somewhat unstable ranger who goes into battle with his "miniature giant space hamster" Boo.
Some aspects of the game offer a fascinating reminder of why we need to revisit these old titles. Take the difficulty, for example: BGII is hard and the enhanced edition is no exception. It's a welcome change from the modern fare that all too often take you by the hand and point you at the next quest. Preparation for combat takes time and forethought- get too trigger-happy with the magic missiles or overestimate the armour of your fighter early in a dungeon and you'll be wishing you hadn't. There are no obvious "HERE BE DRAGONS" signposts telling you to heal and save, and nasty critters will often jump you right as you enter a room. Smart tacticians will employ formations, timely buffs and potions, and know how to prevent their Elven mage from getting mobbed by Kobolds.
What, then, does the Enhanced Edition bring to the party? Well, quite a lot, it turns out. Visuals have been ramped up to modern standards of resolution and the highly detailed backgrounds now look really quite beautiful. Players can now even zoom in and out for trickier sections, although the pixels don't hold up quite as well on closest inspection. A handy quick save button and help menu are a must to those that like to play long, fulfilling games, and the UI is generally looking more spritely. The arena mode from the first enhanced edition has also been, well, enhanced, offering more glorious, senseless carnage for those tired of reading. Critics could well point to the availability of mods that do much of this tweaking for free, and for the price being asked it's a good job that Beamdog have added a bunch of new material of their own. Four new characters complete with lengthy sidequests totalling several hours of gameplay come bundled in with the Enhanced Edition. Three have back-stories carved out in the first game, while the newest, evil thief Hexxat, offers the series' first exclusively same-sex female romance option. Being evil though, she won't stick around for long in a band of righteous, fluffy do-gooders. These new quests and characters are woven pretty seamlessly into the game's fabric, and it has to be said that it's a huge improvement over Beamdog's previous effort.
I didn't experience any instability while playing BGII:EE, although crashes and glitches have been reported in the new material by some players, in most cases causing the game to crash to desktop. There are still a few annoying hangovers from the original title too: path-finding, especially in some of the game's notoriously narrow corridors and dungeons, can be abysmal, and that refreshingly challenging difficulty you heard me crowing about earlier can be a wee bit inconsistent at times as a result. One point that does seem worth making is that, when one considers that the original package - coming, as the Enhanced Edition does, with the expansion Throne of Bhaal clocks in at 130+ hrs of content - I wonder whether the time to enhance the game might have been better spent addressing areas like the aforementioned path-finding, which for some considering getting into the game, may be even more of a gameplay barrier than figuring out why negative armour values are better than positive ones.
Having said that, it is still an outstanding pickup for anyone looking to get into an RPG with a little more teeth than they're used to, and a rejuvenated, reinvigorated return for those old dogs remembering how much fun they had the last time around.