It has been a long time since I’ve journeyed to the Sword Coast via the magic of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Computer RPGs have never really been able to capture the flavor of a pen-and-paper role-playing, with several friends sitting around a table drinking sodas, eating chips, solving problems and slaying dragons. (well, only occasionally slaying a dragon)
But that all changed with the release of Baldur’s Gate. Black Isle studios, a development arm of Interplay, has a great deal of experience with computer RPGs, and for the first time, someone has gotten it right.
Most computer RPGs, especially those with fantasy settings, are little more than dungeon hacks, with not a lot of thought going into the overall plot, and almost nothing geared toward character development. Baldur’s Gate breaks this mold, hopefully changing the way people think of computer RPGs forever.
As a role-player myself, I’m fairly critical of computer RPGs, but I can’t find much fault in Baldur’s Gate. It follows Advanced Dungeon and Dragon rules to the letter, and lets you develop your characters pretty much how you like.
In the single player game, you are allowed to create one central character and pick up non-player characters (NPCs) along the way to fill out your six available party slots. Whether you want to play an evil band of brigands or a group of heros, there are enough good and evil characters sprinkled around to allow you to build your party up pretty much how you choose.
The combat is all in real-time, which is at times a blessing and at times a curse. Nothing made me madder than the Wizardry-like games, where you approach a group of 12 foes and they go first, winning initiative and completing their attacks while your group of heros just stands there turning the other cheek while waiting their turn. That won’t happen in Baldur’s Gate. When you get close to someone or something that wants to attack you, they will, and your characters are free to respond at the same time. Often, your characters with ranged weapons will fire their bows at approaching enemies before you, the player, even realize the danger.
Smartly, you can pause the game at any time by hitting the space bar on your keyboard. This makes the game more like the pen-and-paper variety of role-playing, where friends can plan out their attacks. You can pause the game, give your people tactical orders like telling your mage to cast a sleep spell on enemies in the back ranks, moving your armored fighters to the front and having your archers pick off anyone who tries to flank you. Then you can resume the action, watching the combat in real-time until you think you should deliver new orders.
There is also a fairly intuitive artificial intelligence that you can use to program your characters. For example, you can tell your mage to automatically cast his most powerful offensive spell at the first hint of trouble, then draw his darts, but keep away from the main fight, throwing whenever he has a clear shot. While this normally works, sometimes the characters following their AI scrips will do something stupid, or at least not very tactically smart. I’ve found it’s best to give your players exact orders at the beginning of every combat, and I’m thankful that Black Isle allowed this. In Fallout 2, the other role-playing game of note from Black Isle, NPCs on your team would often get killed because you could not give them exact orders for combat.
Combat itself is realistic as far as AD&D goes, though you can make the game harder or easier depending on your tastes. You can expect your starting party to pretty much trounce minor monsters like Kobolds, but to be in for a good fight against Ogres for instance. There are also some thinking puzzles mixed in, which provides an overall balance.
The plot of the game is very good, and also well hidden. You learn a lot of what is happening in dream sequences between chapters of the game. You don’t really learn why people keep trying to kill you until later in the game, and the suspense is as killing as the assassin’s blades you keep running into in taverns and along the kingdom’s wooded roads. Also, you are not forced to follow the main plot path, as many side quests and plots that have nothing to do with the main quest lead to interesting objects, strange places and increasing reputations.
The world itself is beautiful. From long shadows hanging off trees in the forest, to the twinkle of waterfalls, or the lively fire of a county inn, this is one of the best looking games I’ve seen. You can tell the programmers worked long and hard rendering each little nook and cranny of the game. Occasionally you will run into a peasant’s house that looks similar to another you have visited, but all major areas are completely unique.
Voice acting also adds a level or realism to your characters, and humor to the overall game. You might catch your ranger yelling "Go for the eyes Boo!" to his pet hamster before a big battle, or your comely thief advising that "You are a queer fellow," when you ask her to perform some unusual task. As your characters gain experience they gain new abilities in a progression that follows AD&D rules. That process is painfully slow, but when you finally have a powerful character, you will really feel like you earned it.
You can also adventure with up to five of your friends in multiplayer mode, one for each of the free slots, plus yourself. The multiplayer interface is identical to the single player mode but unfortunately, so is the plot. When I started playing Baldur’s Gate I was quickly hooked by the plot and gameplay, and continued playing the single player mission for a long time. Playing multiplayer was great because I only had to worry about one character, but following the same plot was not too interesting. I wish there was a separate set of missions for the multiplayer game, or at least some randomization to keep you on your toes.
All in all, Baldur’s Gate is without a doubt the best computer fantasy RPG ever created. Fans of RPGs should flock to it in droves, and it’s good enough to entice others into this realm as well. There is still no equal to pen-and-paper role-playing, but Baldur’s Gate is nearly as good. Just add chips and soda, and be prepared for many sleepless nights.
Baldur’s Gate gets 4 1/2 GiN Gems. With the rumor of add-on mission packs in the near future, that rating could go higher in the coming weeks.