[20 December 2013]
With so much to say about Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition, it is difficult to know where to begin. Originally released in 2000 by BioWare, which was based on the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeon & Dragons role-playing system, Baldur’s Gate II became widely praised as one of the greatest role-playing games of all time and created the mold for western role-playing games that came to follow. Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition was developed by Overhaul Games, a subsidiary of Beamdog, and includes Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows on Amn, Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, and The Black Pits 2. I must admit this is my first time playing through the renowned classic. Coming to this enhanced edition with fresh eyes and no prior experience of the original release will restrict my observations to Beamdog’s re-release.
The first thing I noticed about Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition is how far role-playing games have come since its original release thirteen years ago. “How far,” of course, being relative. Despite advancements in graphics, simplified combat mechanics, and the more accessibly streamlined storytelling of modern RPGs, Baldur’s Gate II holds up remarkably well.
Something old, something new. Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition is a game with one foot firmly planted in the past and one foot pointed toward the future of game design. It is also a difficult game to get a handle on. There is a steep learning curve related to both its legacy and its design. The inclusion of AD&D 2nd Edition rules exemplifies this issue. Creating a character alone becomes a feat, trying to understand THAC0, armor class, and ability restrictions. Still, Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition allows the player to delve as deep into their character’s role-playing creation as they wish. The player can choose to make a straightforward class or can combine classes with a multitude of choices. Then there are special abilities, saving throws, and weapon specialization to consider.
The complexity continues long after character creation. The redesigned interface isn’t exactly intuitive but is serviceable and in time can become a process that is like a second nature to perform. Controls consist of “stop, plan, and go” strategizing. The real-time combat can be paused at any time and most effectively is set to pause whenever an enemy appears or action in combat is executed. The game offers a great deal of flexibility. Players can set their party companions to react according to preset AI programming or can choose to tactically stop the game and manually control each character, more akin to a turn-based game. Learning to control your entire party smoothly may take some time, as each class has their strategic strengths and limitations. However, given enough playtime, the player will develop a rhythm with the system.
Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition also offers no tutorial on its game play mechanics. This no-handholding approach is part of its endearing charm, however. In many ways Baldur’s Gate II is similar to a classic roguelike. While it does not implement permadeath, the uninitiated will die—and die frequently. Quick saving is imperative and will become an early-learned strategy. And if a favorite party member dies, you will be scrambling to carry their belongings to the closest temple to have them revived.
Graphically, though, is where Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition begins to feel dated. From a distance, the locations are beautifully detailed. Locales vary from dark dungeons to lush landscapes and exotic ruins. When exploring with your party it looks as if you are moving through a living painting. The newly expanded widescreen works wonders to fill out modern screens and creates the illusion of an ever-expansive universe. When it comes to battle however, the distance of the isometric perspective works against the game. It is difficult to see what is happening in the heat of battle. Keeping your mages and ranged fighters strategically away from the focus of battle helps but doesn’t alleviate the issue entirely. There is a zoom function, but when used, sprites become further pixelated and equally difficult to see. This isn’t to say that the sprites aren’t detailed. In fact, they might be too detailed, especially in proportion to the space they inhabit on the screen. From a distance, every screen is a masterpiece, but up close, the painting becomes muddled.
The writing of Baldur’s Gate II really shines. It is easy to see its influence on the writing of modern RPGs. And like modern RPGs, side quests and companion quests outshine the overarching story line, a storyline that often sets its sights too broadly. It is easy to get lost in the extensive world building that BioWare originally crafted from the Forgotten Realms setting. However, like many good RPGs, how deep the player chooses to delve into the lore is strictly up to them. That said, any fan of RPGs or high fantasy will want to explore as much as they possibly can in a single play through. The writing style spans from playful to dour, but still carries a gravity that never underestimates the player’s intelligence. The new content added by Overhaul Games blends seamlessly with the original text written over a decade ago.
What would a role-playing game be without its cast of quirky characters, though? Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition does not disappoint on character development. Fans of the original Baldur’s Gate II will welcome back beloved characters such as the emphatic Minsc and his companion, the space hamster Boo, or the icy dark elf cleric, Viconia. The three additional characters from Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition also return in this edition. Neera the wild mage, Dorn II-Khan the blackguard, and Rasaad the monk are again recruitable to your party. Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition adds another character, the mysterious thief Hexxat. All new characters are romance options for your created character—but interestingly enough—Hexxat is the only character that can be romanced strictly by female characters. This bold choice points towards modern day BioWare games, where same sex relationships are common.
Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition lives up to the legend it that has always been reputed to be. Although like many classics, it is beginning to show its age. However, its lack of modern production values and technology may be its greatest strength. When we aren’t inundated with flashy graphic displays and cut scene after cut scene, we can concentrate on what makes a game, a game. Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition distills gaming to its core tenets: challenging but satisfying design, engaging writing, and a sense of adventure.