Baldur's Gate (BG) and its official expansion pack, Tales of the Sword Coast (ToSC), are largely responsible for reviving the RPG sector of the gaming market. They have done so for one, good reason: they are both wonderful games. BG is a huge adventure in itself, and the "expansion" delivers more gameplay than a number of complete games I've purchased. Released at a time when the first-person shooter (FPS) and real-time strategy (RTS) games were king, BG and ToSC took this gamer back to his roots, back to the days when I would play Qwest for hours on a 300 baud modem. The primary difference being, of course, that BG and ToSC are thoroughly modern products and make good use of today's technology, as will become apparent from the following discussion. Throughout the remainder of this review, I will mention ToSC only when relevant; assume that any comments made about BG apply generally to ToSC as well.
The visuals in BG are very good. They would be positively excellent, I think, if only a different overall artistic line had been taken. Don't get me wrong, I think the game is great. The graphics are just a little too "cartoonish", for my tastes, for a serious AD&D adventure in the Forgotten Realms setting. More troubling still than the theme of the artwork is the relative inflexibility of the settings; i.e., BG runs at a maximum resolution of 640 x 480. For crying out loud, folks, it's now officially the twenty-first century! Let's move on from basic VGA already, shall we?! Sheesh. I suppose I should cut them some slack as the game was released in 1999, but not that much slack.
Despite those two flaws, however, the game is filled with wonderful eye candy. The environments are incredibly detailed, as one might expect from two-dimensional, hand-drawn artwork, with a great number of interesting touches and variety. Each character's appearance changes with the armor he's wearing, the weapon he's wielding and so forth. The game even supports customization of little things like hair and skin color. In short, the artwork is truly top-notch, and it makes for a very pleasing setting. Some of the outdoor environments are so pretty that I found exploring doubly rewarding simply to look at the scenery.
It's also clear that a great deal of time was spent on the character models and cut-scenes. While some of the cut-scenes are really not up to the standards set by some other developers (e.g., Blizzard), they are nevertheless well done and help move the story along nicely. Similarly, the character models are done well enough that all of the various animations work well, regardless of the outfit and weapons any given character is using.
The special effects also bear special mention. The weather effects are some of the best I've seen in a video game to date, complete with driving rain, lightning flashes, snow, and a very nice dusk/dawn color shifting. Better still are the spell effects. Even a simple spell like magic missile is nicely animated, and many of the other spells are worth casting for the effect alone. Everything from color spray and burning hands to stinking cloud, fireball and other heavy-hitting spells is handled beautifully.
The audio in BG is as good or better than the visuals, with a couple of minor complaints. The music is utterly beautiful. I truly lament the lack of an audio CD or anything like that for the game, as I could listen to some of the pieces used as background music at no small length. The repetitive yet hauntingly beautiful a cappella choruses played in the various religious sanctuaries, for example, are positively sublime.
The sound effects are equally well done. Everything sounds like it should. There isn't that much variety in the combat sounds, so they become a bit repetitive after a while, but for the most part everything is very easy on the ears. With the Creative Labs EAX enhancements enabled, they sound even better. Footsteps and dripping water echo in the deep places with surprising clarity. It truly lends to the suspense to hear the party's footsteps heading into the unknown.
The character dialogue and voice acting is equally well done. The developers clearly spared no expense in hiring the audio talent. Each of the characters is well realized, and several of them—most notably Minsc and Tiax—are worth having in your party just to hear them speak! Truly, it's a rare thing in the gaming world when characters are so well crafted that their more memorable lines stick in the mind as they do with BG. "Butt kicking for goodness!" just never fails to bring a grin to my face. The special conversations that can erupt between characters in the party are also utterly priceless.
My only complaints with the audio involve the positional audio and the character selection sounds. Regarding the former, with the EAX extensions turned on, spell effects are bizarrely uneven. I can see a particular character casting a spell, for example, but the sound of his voice, the sound of the spell and so forth are often muffled and faint. It's not a show-stopping problem, but it was annoying enough that I played through some portions of the game without EAX simply because I missed the crisp, clear sounds of combat, spellcasting, etc.
Regarding the latter, though the developers do give the player a way to specify with what frequency characters will pipe up and say their lines when clicked, they don't seem to mean what the settings would indicate. I got very tired of hearing the three lines my party leader said whenever I selected the entire party, so I ended up specifying "never" as the frequency with which he should respond to selection. Though that did radically decrease his mouthing off, it didn't stop it completely. The same is true of the other audio settings. The audio is well done, but with as often as one selects the party and tells them were to go, the setting labeled "never" really should mean what it says. Trust me.
Overall, the interface is quite good. The controls are well-themed, functional and pretty simple to use. They dominate too much of the screen, really, but that likely wouldn't be such a problem if the game could be played at a higher resolution. The use of the mouse to specify party facing is also a nice touch; it made giving movement commands easier than in other, similar games I've played previously.
My only substantive gripe about the interface is that it's kind of schizoid. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the FPS genre, but I expect to be able to change my keyboard settings and the like in the game. Instead, BG ships with a powerful, though rather ugly, utility to configure the hot keys, specify the game's caching parameters and so forth. To their credit, the developers did design it so that changes made in the configuration utility are reflected immediately in the game, so both the game and the utility may be run side by side under Windows. But as any user of Windows knows, switching from a running game can be like playing Russian roulette; i.e., one never knows when the operating system itself is going to take a bullet to the head and die.
A minor complaint, I suppose, is that the journal really could have been more useful. I hated scrolling back and back and back, trying to find that quest that I couldn't quite remember how to finish. Having the journal further subdivided into open quests, notes and so forth, or at least having some mechanism to get information about the open quests, would have been a very nice addition to the game's interface.
The game mechanics are spectacular. Or at least, that's how they seem to an old pen-and-paper RPG diehard. I can still remember being a teen, playing the first-edition Dungeons & Dragons rules with the best friends of my youth. We had hours and hours of fun, rolling up characters, adventuring through various dungeons and other environments—most of our own creation—and so forth. While no computer-based RPG made to date truly captures the feel of pen-and-paper gaming, BG captures the "feel" of the second-edition AD&D rules exactly. If anything, it might make use of the rules a little too literally. That is, some of the challenges later in the game are so difficult that minimal hit-point rolls, failing to write a high-level spell and so forth can be simply unacceptable. I'm sure I'm not the only one who rolled and re-rolled far too often to make sure a multi-classed character had at least some hope of surviving. It would have been really nice to be able to tweak the rules a bit more.
There are a few elements that deserve special attention. The way orders are handled, for example, is perfect. BG, knowingly or otherwise, copies the same system as my previous favorite RPG, Darklands. Darklands was years ahead of its time, in its scope, in its mechanics and in lots of other ways as well. The ability to pause the action completely to give each character detailed orders sets the standard for all such games as far as I'm concerned. Having that feature in BG was wonderful. Without it, it would be quite impossible, I suspect, to make any good use of the myriad of spells, magical items, and other such toys the game provides. It would have been nice to have some good way to force a fighter to switch from a two-handed bow to a one-handed weapon and shield, but I suppose making the player hunt and peck through the inventory screen in real time (in the single-player game, at least) does provide something akin to the terror of trying to switch weapons on the fly in real combat.
The handling of party formations, including the user-definable buttons, is also quite wonderfully implemented. Though the AI wasn't quite up to the task—more on that later—all of the important formations were there, allowing the player to put forth his strongest tanks at the front lines more often than not. I can't tell you how many times my spellcasters have died in other games simply because they are out of position.
A relatively substantive complaint concerns the economy, which was clearly unbalanced. The mechanics of selling all the loot collected on one's journeys provided more gold than I knew what to do with. Seriously, my party was about as well equipped as it was ever going to be roughly halfway through the game. That blunted the drive to explore and conquer insofar as all that was gold didn't glitter once nothing remained to be purchased. Similarly, the rules that prevented rings of protection from being used with magical armor, or non-magical but really special armor (e.g., the armor made from the carapace of Ankhegs), were really a drag. It really takes the fun away from the game if finding another +1 ring of protection is meaningless because nobody can wear it.
My greatest complaint with the game mechanics, however, is that the inventory management was horrible. This was the thing that kept me from finishing BG until years after its release. Heck, I had the sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn sitting on my desk waiting to be installed before I finished the original! The reason was that the inventory management provided a serious barrier to play. I always knew that if I was going to sit down to a gaming session, I was going to be spending a long time just shuffling things around in my inventory. I realize that characters really can carry only so much, and I realize that it's realistic to force them to go back to town and sell the things they've found. But this doesn't prevent the developers from innovating! In our old pen-and-paper campaigns, my friends and I always made sure to bring a horse, a pony, a mule or some other appropriately strong and helpful beast of burden along for exactly this purpose. Here's a note to game developers: don't ever make me spend time managing inventory. That's not what the game is about, and it isn't any fun to do.
An almost equally egregious flaw was the walking speed of the party. The scenery was beautiful, and I did often stop simply to look at the artwork and appreciate it. But there were also plenty of times when I simply wanted to get somewhere, and walking across the large, open outdoor areas got really old really fast. Perhaps the developers should have implemented running? Or time compression? I don't know what the solution is. I do know, however, that walking across a large, open map is the purest form of tedium. The seeming correlation between my desire simply to get where I was going and a great increase in the statistical frequency of random encounters with monsters along the way didn't help. It seemed like every time I was trying desperately to get back to town, I would inevitably run into encounter after encounter.
A more minor flaw is the way the developers handled the respawning of monsters after a load. I do understand their reasoning. They didn't want players to be able to get past really tough situations by using the game-saving feature as a sort of "cheat". That is, they didn't want the players to kill one monster, save, kill the next monster, save, and so forth. They wanted the players to focus on playing the game. Their solution to this problem was to have monsters respawn in certain places when the game is reloaded. What they apparently didn't realize was that this can make certain areas of the game an utter nightmare.
In one case, for example, my party got into a really bad situation along the coast, caught between a group of dangerous sirenes and a large group of pretty tough hobgoblins. I won the fight, but I had to call it quits for the night, and I forgot about the respawning problem. When I loaded my game the next evening to continue playing, I found myself between three sirenes and a dozen or so hobgoblins. My party got killed rather quickly. I reloaded, and things only got worse. This ultimately forced me to lose some of the progress I had made just to break out of this irritating cycle. That's not good.
To summarize, lest one think that the overall mechanics fail, BG is a great game. It brings new life to the RPG genre, and it gets more right than it gets wrong. The flaws stick out so obviously, I think, only because the game is so good. They become irritating because one is willing to invest the hundred hours or so that are necessary to see and do it all. As such, my negative comments about the game mechanics must be taken in light of this larger truth.
The story of BG is a bit predictable, but it's a good one nevertheless. From the first moment I heard the wise Alaundo blathering on in the central area of Candlekeep, I knew that I was one of the mortal progeny. It was just obvious. Similarly obvious was that Imoen would turn out to be my sister. It always works that way in such stories; writers simply cannot resist it. It was just obvious, and I'm talking Luke-and-Leia obvious. It wasn't confirmed anywhere in the game that I could tell, but I'd bet my bottom dollar it will be one of the first things introduced in the sequel.
Despite its relative predictability, however, the story is a strong one, and I particularly liked the way it was presented. I never knew when I was going to be confronted with another really cool narrated sequence upon waking from a dream or something like that. It really made me want to keep playing, just to see how the rest of it all unfolded. That the main character continues to receive new, innate powers throughout the game only helps set the stage for his eventual revealing as one of the children of the lord of murder.
Though it gets off to a slow start, the way the story unfolds, particularly in the later chapters, is really worthwhile. The plot twists with the dopplegangers, the Iron Throne, Sarevok (a.k.a. Koveras) and other characters really lent a spirit of intrigue to the game. By the time one gets to the big I-must-kill-my-own-brother-Sarevok finale, the justification is there for putting him to the sword. And though the final battle is very difficult, the ending is simply all the more satisfying as a result.
The content is simply staggering. BG is one of the best gaming values to come along in years. A determined player could probably work his way through all seven chapters in a matter of forty hours or so. But to see and do it all, I would estimate it takes more like one-hundred (or more) hours of focused gameplay—probably one-hundred forty or more with ToSC installed. BG is simply a huge game. You don't even get to the big city until chapter five, and if you've done everything else by that point, you've already done more than any two other games offer! And need it be said, the city is huge and has tons of stuff to do as well. In short, BG is a whopper of a game.
Throughout the course of the entire adventure, the player will end up exploring caves, dungeons—including a particularly nasty one if the ToSC expansion is installed—forests, plains, mountains, a long-unused bridge, coastal areas, several different towns, the enormous city of Baldur's Gate, and even an island with ToSC. There are a number of different places to visit, each of which has its own set of challenges, inside and outside the arc of the story. In short, BG is as utterly packed full of content as any reasonable gamer could hope.
I do have a few complaints with the content, however, and they do detract from the experience. First, the AI is really irritating. Though a number of different formations are provided for party members, they don't bother maintaining formation while walking. This wouldn't be such a problem if the path-calcuation AI were better, but it was awful. The result is that characters end up walking stupidly off to their doom when they cannot get around the annoying party member who just stepped in front and won't move. In certain places, I spent more time fighting with the AI for control of my characters than I spent fighting with monsters! The Gullykin dungeon is a perfect example. It's incredibly narrow corridors make fighting with the AI a way of life, and if that weren't bad enough, hordes of nasty monsters keep spawning. If I ever play BG again, you can bet I'll never venture down into Gullykin. It was a nightmare. Oh, and if you ever head down there, don't ever reload! The ToSC expansion does improve this a bit with the ability for characters to "nudge" each other out of the way, but it's only a band-aid to cover the gaping sore, not a cure for the wound.
Second, the pacing is kind of uneven. The first time I played through the game, I tried to stick to the story-line. Thus, I found myself facing Mulahey at the bottom of the Nashkell mines rather quickly, and I was barely able to beat him with a tremendous effort. When I ventured out of the mines, I was thus beat up pretty badly, and I wanted only to get back to town and rest, to recuperate and sell off all the loot I had found. Unfortunately, I ran into a pack of vampiric wolves who wasted me immediately. After reloading, I ran into some mustard jellies who were essentially invulnerable to anything my relatively low-level party could drum up. Just getting back to town was a ridiculous nightmare. This wasn't the only place I ran into such uneven content, but it was surely one of the most annoying. It would have been much better if the game had some way of adjusting the encounters to fit the current party strength, but I suppose that's an innovation that will simply have to wait for another game.
Third and finally, many of the quests are as overly simplistic as they are irritating to finish. That is, many are of the fetch-this-item variety, and that wouldn't be so onerous if the item weren't several map sectors away! I really don't have a problem with such a quest if it's more epic in scope. But only a few of the quests felt like anything more than simply one more item to find and return. Perhaps this is simply a limitation of any computer-based RPG game, but I can't help thinking the developers might have been able to do better.
My thoughts about the multi-player aspect of the game are mixed. On the one hand, BG easily accommodates multi-player gaming, even over a modem connection. The different permission levels make it possible, though admittedly with some work, to set things up so that gameplay is a fun, not frustrating experience. BG is the first modern computer-based RPG of which I'm aware that truly provides the flexibility to have a serious AD&D adventure with a group of friends.
On the other hand, however, the game can be quite frustrating unless all of the right settings are in place. If more than one person has the ability to pause the action, for example, gameplay can be awful as people fight to control the action. Worse, any dialog freezes all of the players. It's pretty obvious that the multi-player aspect of the game was not well considered from the outset. Or at least, I can only assume that the dialogue limitations are in place because the developers did not adequately prepare for them from the beginning.
Still, if these are the most significant complaints the multi-player aspect deserves, then they hardly provide a reason not to play. If you can find some good players on-line, BG is a blast to play cooperatively.
My experience with BG dates all the way back to the beginning of 1999 when it was released. I bought the game very shortly after it came on the market, fired it up and started playing as a gnome illusionist. It wasn't long before the inventory management and other such issues dampened my enthusiasm enough that I moved on to other games, leaving the story somewhere in chapter three or so, if I recall correctly.
I came back to the game after a hiatus of some length, and I decided to start over as a paladin. I had always wanted to play a paladin as a boy, but I just never managed to work one into the campaigns my friends and I enjoyed. I got off to a better start this time, but again, the sort of issues that had dampened my interest the first time eventually caught up with me, and BG went back on the shelf to collect dust. Not surprisingly, I had stalled at roughly the same place I had stalled before.
I came back to the game yet again after almost a year had gone by, and this time I came back to it with a good idea of some of the cool things I had been missing. I had heard a few things about the events in the later portion of the game from some friends, and I felt like I was really missing out. Thus, I started all over again, this time with a multi-class character, a cleric/mage by the name of Jonn Arthur. Unfortunately, this time I got frustrated for entirely different reasons. In retrospect, I was playing the character like a complete idiot. The game seemed almost impossible to me, for whatever reason, as poor Jonn Arthur kept getting killed again and again and again. I put the game away in disgust and moved on to other things, again leaving the game at roughly the same spot.
Finally, after a week or two away, I realized that I had to learn the play to the character's strengths. And when you're a cleric/mage, your greatest strength in combat is your ability to scream to the fighters for help in the high, shrill voice of a little girl! Seriously, once I started playing to the character's strengths, the game became much easier and much more rewarding. In fact, the only disappointment from my fourth attempt at the game was that the early chapters seemed really boring; how many times can one really kill Mulahey, after all, and still find it interesting?
Nevertheless, Jonn Arthur persevered, and he managed to make it through all, and I mean all, of the content in the entire game, including all of the areas in the ToSC expansion. Again and again, BG delivered wonderful, immersive gameplay. In a way, I'm kind of sad it's now over (I just finished today). I'm kind of tempted to run through the game again with that paladin I've been meaning to develop for more than two decades. But alas, Jonn Arthur has already found his way into trouble in Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. I can't wait to see where the story heads next. In the meantime, if you're a fan of RPGs, the original BG is a no-brainer buy. Pick up a copy, along with the expansion, and start enjoying it.
Reviewed by Phileosophos