There are two ways you can spend the holiday season. The first involves dinner with the family, huge lipstick-smeared kisses from aunts you barely know and riveting conversation about how in the old days people walked to school in the snow and it was uphill both ways.
And then there is the fun way: Baldur’s Gate II.
It was almost a given that the sequel to the winner of the GiN RPG of the Year would be awesome. About the worst thing that could have happened is that nothing at all would have changed, and even then Baldur’s Gate II would have been a good game.
As it happens, the folks at Black Isle have gone out of their way to make sure that while some of the quirks of the original Baldur’s Gate have been fixed, that the good points have either been left alone or greatly enhanced.
Lets start with the most important part of any RPG, the role-playing aspects. Lets face it, this is why we play these games. While the original had a complex storyline that involved your evil half-brother and your lineage, BGII is down right Hitchcock-like with plot twists and turns, side stories and political and social intrigue. It will have you on the edge of your seat, trying to play for just a few more minutes as you search for some obscure or hard to obtain information.
The real strength in this area is the social intrigue that is tied to your characters. If you really felt you knew the characters in your party before, wait until you start to interact with them now. At seemingly random points during the game, each will offer insights into their personality, often asking for advice from you – represented by your main character. The game really encourages you to change out party members as well, as new blood offers more of this social interaction. Though I would never part with old friends from the first game, a few others often rotated into and out of my group.
At one point there was even a bit of a love triangle between my character and two of the women in the group. This kept building up until a decision had to be made as to which one of the women I would continue to court, though if done correctly the other will remain in the party nonetheless. I could not believe the level of social interaction within the party. Characters in your group have personalities and are a lot more than just a picture with a few catch phrases. You will actually find yourself missing your group when you are not playing.
Along the lines of gameplay, the interface is largely unchanged from the first game, and this is a good thing. You can drag your selection lasso around a group of characters to get their attention, or select them individually by pressing on their picture.
A major improvement for gameplay however is the journal and logbook. You can group your quests – you will get many during the course of the game, often at the same time – by the date they were received, when they were last updated with new information or by whether they are completed or still unsolved. You can even enter your own information into the logbook. Although I still had a notepad of information I kept for my own use, having the electronic quest keeper was a huge help, and often contained valuable clues.
You also have the option of setting the difficulty levels in the game, which can be a huge help for people not used to the genre or who really don’t like the combat aspect of the game. This lets you tone up or down the power of the monsters. You can go back and change this level later on, so if a fight seems impossible you can give yourself a bit of a boost. I did find however that every fight in the game was winnable at the normal level of play, though sometimes you have to load a previous game and try a bunch of different attacks and defenses. One particularly difficult fight beat me almost 10 times. Then I went back and relearned different spells, put my characters in slightly different starting positions and changed my tactics. It made the fight almost too easy. Sometimes brains beat brawn, but there is a crutch too if you need it.
Although the game is realtime, the pause feature again comes in quite handy. BGII is based on the Dungeon and Dragons pen and paper game after all, so you should be given some time to think about your next combat move. When you pause the game, you can consider how the fight is going, and make tactical decisions. You can also set up a series of autopauses, such as when a character gets injured or a single D&D round is completed. I found that most of these just get in the way, though I did like the autopause option for when a monster is sighted, because sometimes your characters will see an enemy and you won’t.
The graphics of the game are very similar to the original. You can now play the game in 800 by 600 resolution or 640 by 480 mode. The former gives you the advantage of having more of the area you are exploring on the screen, though I preferred the lower resolution mode because it gives more of a blown-up detail as to what is happening.
As to the quality of the graphics, I personally did not see a lot of difference between the two games. The original was beautiful for a 2D interface and this one is the same way. There is a lot of detail to see on every screen, so much so that just walking around and looking at stuff is a real joy as you soak up the artwork. The spells are a lot more detailed, sparklier in some cases and more vividly colored in others, though mostly when you are casting spells there is a lot more to worry about, like big ugly trolls trying to bash your skull to goo.
The sound is much improved, and the ambient effects like hawkers in the market, rats in the sewers, birds in the forest and echoes in caves all add wonderfully to the environment. You might want to turn the music levels down a bit though, as they can sometimes overpower the environmental effects. The music itself however is top quality, and crescendos at just the right moments. It does an excellent job of setting the mood, no matter what mood your characters happen to be experiencing.
In the end, you will find yourself playing this game four hours on end. You won’t want to go to sleep, or to work or to any of those holiday functions if it means leaving the game world. I think the developers knew this because one of the hints that come up when you load or save a game is, "Although your characters don’t have to eat, remember that YOU do. We don’t want to lose any dedicated players."
That said, an excellent holiday plan is to get a huge amount of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, dressing and gravy and take it into the computer room. If you bring enough food, you might be able to holdout long enough to put a dent in the game.
Baldur’s Gate II gets a perfect 5 GiN Gem score, because it accomplishes its goal of improving on a near-perfect original, and lets us forget about the real world for a while. It’s simply the best RPG for the PC on the market today.