Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
A stunning game that still plays well today, especially if you score an enhanced edition.
Highs: Incredible immersion; solid storyline; improved graphics and sound. The best RPG to date (when it released in 2000) hands down.
Lows: Requires a lot of time tinkering and reloading; some minor bugs. Also, some of the conversations lead in one direction no matter what response you choose.
Final Verdict: A consummate RPG in every sense of the word. It might not be a tremendous leap from the previous game, but it improves upon its predecessor in all the right places and delivers over 200 hours of true gaming enjoyment. With near-seamless integration of the 2nd Edition AD&D; rules, a tight storyline and a good deal of action, I really can't think of an RPG to date that betters it.
In such an imperfect gaming world, I think I can honestly say I am ill prepared to handle a game of unerring quality. Sure, I have witnessed my share of gaming greatness, but I have to tell you, most of the titles on my all time list date back many years, secured behind the double-sealed door known as Windows 95, when computer gaming changed forever.
Now, I am not trying to sit here and say that Win95 ruined gaming (okay, I am) I am just trying to point out that most of the great games I have witnessed have come before Bill Gates and his minions got his hands on our gaming code.
So, when a great game is bestowed upon me, I have to constantly second guess my opinion, just to be sure that what I say about the game is as accurate as possible. Which brings us to the latest hunk of plastic that has found its way onto my desktop. To the uninitiated, it is known as Baldur's Gate II - Shadows of Amn. To those who know more, it will be known as Gaming Heaven. Bold words, I know, but I am a man with bold tastes, bold clothes, bold breath, and bold opinions when it comes to my games. Read on, I think you might actually agree with me on this one.
It started in 1996. At that time, the folks at Bioware, a small development firm in Canada, decided to do an RPG. They had minor success with Shattered Steel, a mech-style game with somewhat of a cult following. The interest in doing an RPG came from extensive experience playing both pen and paper and computer RPGs. The boys at Bioware have cited games like Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, Ultima Underworld, and such as sources for their inspiration. The idea was to take the great things from Computer RPGs, and meld them with the high points of a pen and paper RPG session. Even the greatest RPGs to date lacked any real pen and paper feel, including Dungeons and Dragons' own games released by SSI.
Baldur's Gate was supposed to be the epitome of a balanced RPG, and I think I would be repeating known information by saying the game was a success. Bioware did an expansion pack, Tales of the Sword Coast, which was another success. On top of the fact that the expansion pack sold well, it started a positive trend by not only extending the game, but by also fixing problems with the original release. It's all about innovation, baby.
The most impressive aspect of Baldur's Gate was its engine, dubbed The Bioware Infinity Engine. Black Isle Studios / Interplay saw the way that this engine offered above average graphics, smooth gameplay, and near-perfect implementation, and decided to make two other games based on it. Without Bioware's development help, they created Planescape: Torment (arguably the best RPG ever) and the more action oriented Icewind Dale, an excellent RPG in its own right. Both games offer the same level of immersion, further touting the beauty of this now two-year-old engine. And, interestingly, both Black Isle games offer a glimpse of what's to come in Baldur's Gate II. As a matter of fact, Baldur's Gate II is an almost direct melding of these two games. But more on that in a minute.
With the original Baldur's Gate selling a ton of copies, the pressure was on Bioware to deliver a sequel worthy of its predecessor's heritage. After over completing this 200-hour quest, I can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have succeeded in this mission. Baldur's Gate II is the perfect continuation of the series, and it excels in the minor details that make a game go from great to spectacular. Now, onto the game.
Baldur's Gate II picks up just a short time after your adventures in Tales of the Sword Coast. (Didn't play that, or the original, for that matter? Don't worry, there is an introduction movie that brings you up to date). After your victory over your half-brother, you are mysteriously captured by a powerful wizard Jon Irenicus, who wants to do 'experiments' on you. He is enthralled with the fact that you are a child of the God of Murder, Baal, and you must escape his lair before his experiments get out of hand. There to help you is Imoen, a mage / thief from the first game, and most likely, your main female squeeze, if you know what I mean. Imoen frees you, and then decides it is time for you to gather what your greedy hands can grab, and hit the proverbial road. Before you go, you can save two of your other Baldur's Gate 1 friends, Jaheria, and one of the best game characters of all time, Minsc. After the rescue, you must gather whatever gear you can find, and go bash some skulls.
Your first experience with Baldur's Gate II is not exactly overwhelming, and I think, in retrospect, this is a good thing. The area that you start off in is small, and doesn't really do the enhanced engine justice. The graphics are much cleaner, thanks mostly to the support for 800x600 resolution. At this resolution, the viewable area is widened, and the rough edges are smoothed out. There are other, unsupported modes for the display, that will go up to 2048x1056, but I don't suggest using anything over the 800x600, unless you have a huge monitor. The problem with the higher resolutions is that the characters become so small you can barely decipher between them and the enemy. Actually, if you have anything smaller than a 19" monitor, I recommend staying at 640x480, or possibly the 800x600, so long as it suits your taste.
Other than that, the graphics are really amazing this time around. The difference between this game and the original are immediately apparent. There are more 3D spell effects and crisper animations. Only, you don't get to see this game in its full splendor within the first area. The wizard's lair is plain and small, barely hinting at what's in store.
You will escape from the lair, with all of your friends intact, and come upon the city of Athkatla where you have a confrontation with Irenicus. Actually, you have no control over this. Imoen, your childhood friend who underwent the same torture you did loses control and gets into a magical battle with the wizard. In a second, four mages teleport in and inform you that Imoen and Irenicus have violated the code of the city of Athkatla by using magic without a license. In a nutshell, Irenicus and Imoen are taken prisoner, and thus begins your journey. You must save Imoen, and then confront Irenicus, who claims to know how you can unleash your true potential.
Once in the city, you get a better feel for the true power of the Infinity Engine. Some enhancements have been made, and the sprawling city is a perfect example. All the colors are rich and bright, making this one of the more beautiful RPGs to date. Many people might say that it is time for an engine upgrade, but this engine, unlike the one that runs the Might and Magic series for instance, has still got plenty of allure. After seeing what they can do with this game, I would be staunchly against a 3D Baldur's Gate. Everything here works, and works well. It's more believable this time around, and, well, prettier.
Then again, RPGs are not about graphics. This game is supposed to bring a pen and paper RPG experience to life on the PC. Bioware has stuck by the rules rather strictly, with almost every action, encounter and happenstance in the game relying heavily on the dice. They had to make certain modifications, but other than these few things, this game plays true to the D&D experience. The computer acts as an excellent Dungeon Master, and delivers you an experience unlike any you have had, including the original Baldur's Gate.
One of the major enhancements made to this game from the original is in the character creation. In my opinion, character creation is the most important element of an RPG. If I am going to spend 200 hours with a character, then I want to have an intricate hand in his creation. Baldur's Gate II handles this well, and throws more options at you than you can handle.
There are three new character classes, several new sub-classes, and some new races as well. For instance, you can create a half-orc, a superhuman class in the area of strength, and make him a Berserker, who, um, well, goes berserk in battle. It's sort of like jacking up a large biker on a ton of caffeine, and then putting him in a room with a bunch of lawyers. Wouldn't be pretty. You can also fine-tune your character. If you want a fighter, but want a specialist, that's no problem. You can have a Palladin, a Mage Slayer (they kill mages, I think) or just about anything else you desire. I chose to be a Blade, a bard who is an expert with a (you guessed it) sword.
The sound in this game is more immersive than any previous Infinity-based game. There is support for EAX extensions, and if you have a SoundBlaster Live! card, activating this option will deliver you an aural treat. Character's voices rise and fade depending on how far away they are; there are echoes in large caverns, and a superb musical score that reacts to the situations in the game. Spell casting sounds particularly creepy at times as well. Also, the voice-overs are done superbly, adding an extra sense of realism to the game. Some of them are so good, I hear them in my head when I am not playing. Sick, I know, but true nonetheless. Again, RPGs really don't rely heavily on sound. Actually some of the classic RPGs had horrible sound. This game doesn't, further adding to its appeal.
This sequel plays like a combination of Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. It takes the action-intensive battles of Icewind and melds them with the heavy reliance of conversation of Planescape. While both of those games went to extremes in these categories, Baldur's Gate II is a perfect blend of action and story, but this certainly doesn't make the game easy.
Because you start off at a high level (13 or so) the battles are instantly intense and require a lot of strategy. You'll spend plenty of time reloading saved games to succeed in certain battles, and this happens pretty much from the beginning. You have to prepare for your battles, and rest a lot as well. There are several different classes of monsters, and each one has its special characteristics. For instance, the magic spells that worked to wipe out one group of monsters might be useless against the next. What I am trying to say here is that this is not a game for people who don't want to invest a lot of time. This is no hack and slash, but you'll need a strategic mind to succeed. Also, there are plenty of situations where conversation skills will come into play, and the decisions you make will affect how the game unfolds. Half the time, after an important conversation, I worried about whether or not I made the right choice. This can be frustrating, but it also illustrates how well this game incorporates conversation.
There are a wealth of choices that need to be made in this game, and all have their consequences. You will make the decision between good and evil often, and most times, you won't even be aware of which path you took. On top of that, once you add the characters from the previous game, you have three empty slots and about seven playable NPCs to choose from. Each NPC adds a different aspect to your party, and each one will affect your ending, one way or the other. Choose wisely, because once you get past a certain point in the game, most of those NPCs will be unavailable to you. You will also have dozens of subquests to embark on, and you'll be forced at times to complete one and forgo another. Again, choices.
Not only is this a superb single player RPG, it incorporates excellent multiplayer as well. In this part of the game, one player gets to be the Dungeon Master, and you can play along with up to five other people into your party. You can set a variety of different options, giving you full control over the game. Multiplayer is free, but it isn't perfect. Even over a cable connection, it runs slowly at times. I can attribute most of this to the whole idea of playing a deep, action-intensive RPG over the current Internet. Still, with the choppy play, multiplayer Baldur's Gate II is fun, and it extends the life of this game.
As you can probably tell, this game requires a lot of thinking and a lot of time. Like I said before, this is a minimum 200-hour quest, with many more hours on top of that if you want to get the maximum amount of experience by completing the subquests. That's a lot of value for your gaming dollar, and the best part about it is that every aspect of the game is enjoyable. After I completed the game, I felt empty. This game occupied so much of my time, that I don't know what to do with myself anymore. Not many games can boast such immersion, but Baldur's Gate II gives it to you in spades.
What really brings everything together for this game is the incorporation of in-game movies (both CG and engine-based) that help move the story along. At key points throughout your quest, you are alerted to the actions of your enemy, giving you some information that helps you plan ahead. I also must say that the ending of this game is one of the best I have seen, and though it might have been slightly predictable, it still is excellent.
Baldur's Gate II is by far the most involved RPG I have ever played. It's also one of the best. I have been partial to Planescapeas my favorite RPG of all time since I played it earlier this year. After completing this game, I have to admit that it does more than give Planescape a run for its money. It's a much longer game, it has just as good a storyline, and it offers more action and multiplayer to boot.
The guys at Bioware really know how to craft an RPG, and this one is going to be an instant classic. It will be one of those games you will remember for years to come. If you enjoy RPGs, this is an absolute must have for your collection.