My review of Beamdog's ressurection of the classic PC RPG game of 2000, Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition, was just published over at ExtraContinue. Obviously take a look if you're at all interested in such things. And if you are, you're free to continue following my regular updates and editorials at ExtraContinue, where most of my gaming-related writing will occur henceforth.
*(Updated: ExtraContinue seems to be experiencing hosting/ownership issues challenges, so I've posted the review here) *
It's been a while since I've returned to the shores of the Sword Coast, but Beamdog's latest effort has made the trek a rewarding investment (35+ hours in and I still hadn't even rescued Imoen, reminding me of how deeply satisfying this game is). Having already magicked their way into the hearts and minds of Baldur's Gate fans through their restoration of the original game last year, they've valiantly followed through with the Enhanced Edition for Baldur's Gate II -- easily the best of the series (and I'll add my name to those who claim it as one of the greatest RPG experiences in gaming history).
The Only Thing That’s Aged is You
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn was originally released in 2000 two years after its predecessor by the defunct-but-now-not-defunct Black Isle Studios. The game continues to weave an intricately layered narrative wound in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting (based on the Advanced D&D 2nd edition rule set). It’s a tactical, party-based game, which means you either customize your party members or stumble upon them in unlikely places. You’ll find trekking difficult without building an A-class team of well-experienced, well-equipped adventurers who’ll follow you across brutal fields of combat and ludicrously entertaining multi-dimensional fetch quests. It may be rank as one of the longest sit-down sessions of your life (total game time for just one complete play-through clock in around 200-250 hours, though without Steam’s magical playtime counter, I never could verify a decade ago and can’t today, either, because I neglected to get it on Steam; wtf). Add in the expansion (which comes free in this package), and you have something to last you a few seasons. So you’re probably thinking: oh, this is repackaged 13-year-old game that looks almost identical to its original incarnation?
Yeah yeah, you know, I’ve done the whole “jaunt through the GOG.com archive” and yeah, those older games are all amazing, but hell if they’re not dated. So how does Baldur’s Gate II, ye oldie, hold up after all these years? Pretty good, actually; thanks for asking. As it was back in 2000 it remains today: Baldur’s Gate II is an absolutely must-play game. The story, gameplay, and experience come at the highest recommendation possible. But graphically? How about sound, music, voice-acting? You’d be right to state that gaming and computing power have come a long way, and expectations for these sorts of RPGs have risen considerably. Beamdog hasn’t exactly re-invented the game mechanics or updated the graphics in an obvious way. This is still — flesh and bone — the same conceptual game you may remember installing when it was first released. You’re going do a lot of reading. A lot. (But not nearly as much as Planescape Torment, for the record.) To quote that tangentially-related game’s Nameless One protagonist: “It insults the dead when you treat life carelessly.” Well, I’m happy to say that Beamdog has treated this dusted-over game with careful consideration for its history and origin, crafting something very special and respectful for the modern era.
Instead of rewriting the entire Infinity Engine from scratch, Beamdog has essentially kept the graphics, mechanics, sounds, and voice-acting essentially the same, but repackaged them in a more respectable user interface for the modern gamer (and added new music from composer Sam Hulick to boot). I can’t stress how much of a welcome improvement the updated interface and resolution settings are to the welfare of the experience. Small updates that seem minor are hugely welcome coming from a gamer who played the original incarnation:
The left-rail menu now includes a quicksave button
An option now exists to bring up a help section for gamers to refer to the controls
The magical button for picking up loot that makes it logarithmically easier to pull those inconveniently, minute-sized piles off the corpse-strewn ground
Widescreen support (and updated resolution support) permit way more visible range for BGII’s huge environments, providing welcome breathing room
Zoom function is a neat feature (and works really well with my Mac’s trackpad), though the details oftentimes become blurry messes reminiscent of a poorly photographed Jasper Johns painting
Character screens have been redesigned with added accessibility and use of space (thanks, widescreen support)
Full widescreen support (just look at how much more you can see in a single screen! Less clicking makes Boo a happy hamster).
Several under-the-hood refinements (I can attest to a massive increase in gameplay speed: it runs like melted butter on a 90-degree slope and that’s on a Mac)
Updated features aren’t the only thing Beamdog has added. They’ve also included a follow-up to their gladiatorial combat arena game, The Black Pits, as well as four new party members (a continuation in their narratives from Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition), and, finally, dead-easy multiplayer online capabilities. And as aforementioned, you also get the expansion, Throne of Bhaal. Even with these enhancements, though, the game is still played in its classic, zoomed-out isometric view. It still has meticulous inventory management. It still has pause-and-play combat. And it still has those funky formation buttons that I never, ever use properly. But the astonishingly detailed, pre-rendered game environments still hold up today. Sure, they oftentimes need a bit of imagination to bring them to life, but I find myself just as engrossed as I was more than ten years ago. The sounds of the taverns, the crescendo of combat music, the towering voice of Jon Irenicus. It’s all there and it’s all still convincing — 3D gaming be damned.
‘Just Like Old Times — Well, Except for the Torture and All’
As it stands, the Beamdog’s Enhanced Edition is the best way to play Baldur’s Gate II in a modern hardware context, but the additions to the actual game aren’t anything astounding. This initial version released also carries a few bugs (which I’m sure will be remedied by the time you read this or very shortly after). Things like NPC pathfinding, incorrect movements across magically-sealed doorways, and a few hiccups in dialogue over correctly-attributed pronouns occur, but nothing detracts so significantly that it damages the gameplay and story. A bit of extra polish and it should be a finely-tuned experience by the second or third patch.
Part of the appeal of the Baldur’s Gate series is that it feeds you long, complex quests in the most unexpected of places, and you’re allowed to play virtually any way you like so long as you’re prepared for morally-reprehensible difficulty and consequences thereafter. This time around I played less like a deranged mercenary and more like a humble, inquisitive ranger. In actual play, this meant I didn’t jump to conclusions like straight-up slaughtering the wolves and the wolf-witch Anath when she was accused of marauding the nearby village; instead, I took her word that she was pursuing this fellow called the Shade Lord and spent the next several hours continuing a quest deep beneath the forest in a labyrinthine dungeon. It’s less about black and white decisions than it is about explorative ones. Are you curious about what may actually be happening in any given situation, regardless of your alignment (which, yes, you do choose for yourself and discover with your party members)? Will it affect your reputation? Will you miss the opportunity for additional experience points? Will party members leave you for helping some perceivably wretched scum? (No one in their right mind wants to piss off Minsc.) And so the way is not always so clear-cut, but in the name of experience points, I’m always down for the longer, more savory adventure.
As a sequel, Baldur’s Gate II towers above its predecessor in every way. Sure, the main quest is laid out rather clearly in the early parts of the game (whereas the original slowly revealed itself in each new chapter), but it’s the scope of the many side-quests that give you tens of hours of tangential plots and feel-good (or feel-bad) storyline satisfaction. Some of these evolve into epic, heroic endeavors (such as the wonderfully complex Firkraag quest), while others operate as world-building backstories. It’s an achievement unto itself that a game this big can always be engaging (and while that’s the original developer’s accomplishment, Beamdog does nothing to deviate off that pedestal). Even the party members you choose and involve in your quests have improved over the original game’s rather stoic, one-dimensional personalities. They tend to chat more frequently while traveling around maps outside of combat, slowly revealing histories, dispositions, and satisfactions (or dissatisfactions) of your decision-making. You feel elated when Minsc jubilantly commends your efforts in making the right moral choice for a given quest (save the village from evil, butt-kicking, leaving no crevice untouched — that sort of thing). It’s that kind of camaraderie and relationship-building in-game that raises Baldur’s Gate II to such magical heights.
And multiplayer? Forget it — this is a masterfully fulfilling single-player experience. Tuck yourself into a warm blanket and spend endless winter weekends playing this solo. While I could leave the Black Pits 2 game mode on the drawing room floor, the addition of Throne of Bhaal is a most excellent way to round out this package. I actually never got around to playing through the expansion back when this game originally came out, but having it here to conclude the storyline adds a tremendous amount of value. And if the expansion still doesn’t satisfy the value of this monstrous, time-vacuuming heavyweight of a game, old (and new) community mods appear to be working with this version of the game. You can find a continually updated list of these at this Baldur’s Gate Forum thread.
‘Live by the Sword, Live a Good Looooong Time’
While Beamdog’s resurrection of this classic title isn’t overly ambitious, it doesn’t need to be — it’s a solid enough effort that brings new characters, new quests, and a much-needed interface update to provide one of the grandest gaming experiences to a new (and nostalgic) generation of gamers. Yes, I know, you can get the old version on GOG.com for less than half the price, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Stick to the new, even if it’s 13-years-new.