Roll for your life.
Has it really been 15 years? It seems but a moon ago that I first heard the battle sounds pouring out of my neighbour’s window, the clanking swords, mages’ incantations and the grunts of dying creatures piqued my curiosity. I dropped what I was doing and jumped over the fence over to see what all the commotion was about.
My neighbour was entrenched in a Dungeons & Dragons setting on his PC, but instead of a single hero versus the world (like that seen in the Ultima series and the original Diablo), the protagonist was aided by five other characters, all hacking, healing and otherwise decimating the red circled sprites on the screen. This was my introduction to Baldur’s Gate, arguably the best RPG of all time and certainly one of the most celebrated. If you have ever played Dragon Age, Dungeon Siege, Mass Effect or pretty much any other party-based RPG, it was more than likely inspired by Baldur’s Gate.
It was not long before I obtained a copy for myself. As I dived into the Forgotten Realms, setting out from the Candlekeep monastery and forming alliances with other battle-hardened travelers a world of strange creatures, quirky characters and dangerous dungeons awaited. There was always a surprise around the next corner and saving to quit was about as easy as putting down a Game of Thrones novel. There were no restriction on where you could travel with your party, save the higher level of monsters you would inevitably encounter that needed higher classes of armor, weapons and magic to overcome.
The original Baldur’s Gate, developed by Bioware and using their in-house Infinity Engine, was completely moddable and is still available on Good Old Games for $9.99. Now 14 years after the original release, Overhaul Games (a division of digital distributor Beamdog) has ‘overhauled’ the game with new content and presented it as Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. To clarify, BG:EE is not a remake (all the graphics and gameplay mechanics stick closely to the original) but more of re-release with new characters, an updated interface an core game improvements that optimises the game for modern platforms and apparently solves over 400 issues from the original version.
So how does it play? Overhaul did not want to detract from the original experience at the cost of upsetting the BG cult fan base, so the pause-and-go blend of real time and turn based combat remains. It takes some time to adapt to a 14 year old D&D engine, so players that have gotten used to modern RPG interfaces may need to brush up on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules. For example, a defender’s Armor Class is subtracted from the attacker’s THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class 0) to give the number that you have to roll with a twenty sided die to hit. This is old school people, you may need to keep a notepad and pen handy for those quick combat calculations.
Old Habits Can Die
It was somewhere around this point – when I was trawling through wikis to figure out how to leverage which characters against which enemy – that the novelty of playing this classic RPG began to wear off. Maybe I just don’t have the patience for such complex squad-based tactics anymore, maybe I need to invest a few more dozen hours into the game to figure it out again or maybe I’ve just gone soft with my old school hardcore RPG skills. In any case, Baldurs Gate: Enhanced Edition is a game for the old fans and not really accessible by curious newcomers.
The addition of The Black Pits (an arena style battle) was a way of enticing players to experiment with combat tactics, but doesn’t add much to the experience.
Though Beamdog claim to have solved over 400 bugs, some startling ones remain. Pathfinding through caves and forests was always an issue with a single party member sometimes electing to walk off on their own and getting eviscerated by a horde of jackals in the process. Entering small rooms will often cause party congestion with the weak mages up front taking the hits while your armoured tank stands helplessly boxed in by his cohorts. The nostalgic “You must gather your party before venturing forth” was fun to hear again the first time, but soon reminds you of the incredible frustration one experienced playing all those years ago.
The addition of The Black Pits (an arena style battle) was a way of enticing players to experiment with combat tactics, but doesn’t add much to the experience. The first few levels are fun but it doesn’t give the same sense of reward as wandering through the countryside in search of the next big fight.
The story however, is as engrossing as ever with immersive narrative and clever characterisation, not unlike a classic David Eddings’ fantasy novel. The rag-tag group of five companions that end up joining you on your quest all come with their own personality, agendas and melodrama. Mixing good and evil traits in the group will inevitably lead to a confrontation and if your deeds are consistently out of line with certain party members philosophies they will either leave in a huff or turn on you in rage. The plot weaves a good story, but the interactions with your characters and NPCs is where BG shines.
The graphics and sound remain relatively unchanged and should be commended for being ground breaking at the time. Though not without issues (rain and snow effects sometimes cause screen flickers) the outdoor environments during sunlight hours do encourage you to stop and smell the pixelated roses. The pitter-patter of your party’s feet changes to splash as you wade through shallow water, the creak and jolt of a closing door as you pass through rooms and an attack on enemies will prompt battlecries from your warriors with believable emotion.
But this is a review, not a Retro Reflection, so we must ask ourselves: is the game worth $20? With the original version available for half the price and many of the mods available free of charge, it’s hard to say yes. There are just so many games out there for the same price that won’t get bogged down in 15 year old game mechanics. However, for the collector it packages all the trimmings with some extra content to boot and will indulge old fans with its complex tactics.
A review code of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition was provided courtesy of Atari.
Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Review – Revival Spell
Baldur’s Gate is not a loot fest nor is it hack and slash, it’s a game that speeds up the age old die rolling of D&D into a somewhat fluid experience. If you are a fan of BG and don’t already own the modded original, this game will take you back to the good old days. If not, save yourself the trouble of learning an outdated play style.