Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance takes the monster-hit PC role-playing series into new territory – the console platform. And thankfully, the game is more than worthy of its namesake.
Hardcore PC role-players should note that Dark Alliance is at its core, a console game. While not every quest is solved with combat, for more than 90 percent of the game you will probably be slaying something. But where other console ports like Diablo failed, Dark Alliance really shines. The flavor of the Forgotten Realms comes through perfectly. People you chat with look realistic, even when zoomed in, and all the voice acting is top notch.
Probably the greatest thing about Dark Alliance, or at least the most noticeable, is the way it looks. This is without a doubt, one of the best looking games we’ve ever seen on the PlayStation 2. The graphics of Dark Alliance kick the PC’s series’ graphics to the curb, and I never thought I would be able to say that about a PC/console comparison. Every conceivable detail has been added.
The first time your character finds a still pool of water, expect to hang out in that room awhile. When you step into the water you create realistic waves that sail to the other side of the pool, before returning as smaller waves. You can run around pulling a wake and even make little whirlpools if you run fast enough in circles. In levels that are covered with water, like in the sewers, you can get an early warning of monsters moving around off the screen if you watch for the little waves they make. Sometimes moving water is the only way to detect and fight invisible creatures later in the game.
And the game is full of other effects that will keep your eyes popping. You can see clear waves of heat above torches and fires, you leave footprints in the snow as you walk and objects and people cast realistic shadows.
The interface is very easy to pick up too. Basically your left joystick on the PS2 controller moves your character around the map. Your right joystick rotates the map so you can always see into the corners of darkened rooms. A few levels, mostly outdoors ones, do not allow you to rotate the map, though wilderness travel is pretty straightforward so it’s not very necessary. You view the world from a top-down perspective, and the rotating map makes this work perfectly.
The upper left control pad or directional buttons arm your "active" spell or ability and the main X, O, triangle and square buttons do various functions like attack, launch a spell and jump. It’s all very easy. The R1 and L1 buttons are quick keys for drinking healing or mana restore potions, so you don’t have to monkey with your inventory in the heat of battle if you start to take a beating.
You get to choose one of three characters to play, Vahn the arcane archer, Kromlech the dwarven fighter, or Adrianna the elven sorceress. Each one is significantly different from the others. The dwarf is basically the straight forward fighter. He can use just about every weapon you find in the game and is best at just plowing through people hand to hand. The archer is pretty good at hand to hand combat too, but has the added ability of being able to fire magic arrows from his bow, which is great in a fire fight where charging ahead blindly is going to be painful. Adrianna, the sorceress, is obviously the magical character and conquers enemies mostly by blasting them with ice, fire, electric or acid.
The spell effects are incredible. When Adrianna uses her burning hands spell, the entire room dances to the light of her magic flamethrower. Enemies burst into flames and at higher levels this is a great way to hold a doorway or clear a room quickly. Vahn’s shots are also nicely done, especially his lightning arrows that reach out to zap anyone even near the flight path. Even Kromlech can get some nice effects, but mostly his power is cleaving huge creatures in one blow.
As you explore you will find weapons and armor that you can either equip or sell in town. Gold can be used to buy better weapons and equipment as well. And there are some heavy duty weapons in the game, like flaming swords that do between 80 and 100 points of damage per blow.
Besides just equipment improvements, you also gain experience for going on quests or killing monsters. When you get enough experience, your character gains a level. You can then improve existing skills or spells or buy new ones from a list of about 15 or so. Some skills and spells cost more than others, so you can elect to save your improvement points until you gain a new level to buy an even greater ability. For the sorceress character, this is a key strategy because her most powerful ability – the meteor swarm spell – is very, very expensive to purchase.
So the game is good all around, however, the best feature of Dark Alliance is cooperative play, where two people can play at the same time. Both characters are on the screen at the same time, with none of that maddening split screen stuff. Of course this means that you really have to explore the world together, but with almost any combination of the three characters you are going to compliment strengths, so having your buddy right there helping is great. My wife and I solved the game with Vahn and Adrianna, and the combination worked great.
And just so you know, my wife does not like to play computer games very much, but she actually asked each night if we could continue our adventures in Dark Alliance. This is a tribute to how easy the game is to pick up and play, and how seamlessly multiplayer works.
The only complaint I have with the game is that it was over too quickly. It took about 15 hours of play to complete in multiplayer, or several nights of gaming. That’s not really too bad for a console game. It’s just that the title is so good I wanted to see it last longer, and of course I am used to the PC series taking weeks away from my life.
Once you solve the game you can play a "run the gauntlet" scenario where you play the famous ranger Drizzt Do’Urden trying to escape a dungeon full of monsters. If you do that you can play the game in "extreme" mode. If you still beat it, then the game unlocks Drizzt as a selectable character complete with all his famous magical equipment. So there is a lot of replay value, even with the somewhat shorter main plot.
Snowblind Studios and Interplay are to be complimented for creating one of the best PS2 games of the year. It marries the action gamers have come to expect on the console platform with the role-playing aspects of the Baldur’s Gate series. It earns a perfect 5 GiN Gems, and should be a popular addition to any PS2 game collection.