Remember the first time you played a roleplaying game that drew you into its world so completely you ceased to notice the traffic outside, the rumble of your stomach, and the gentle beckoning of sleep? If it’s been a while, or you’ve never been in that zone of Gaming Greatness, perhaps you should try out Baldur’s Gate. Set in the Forgotten Realms universe, the most popular campaign world for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventures, Baldur’s Gate will astound even the most fanatical RPGer with its attention to detail, character development, story lines, combat system, and overwhelmingly vast game world.
The game follows the AD&D rules as closely as you could hope for. You start off by creating your main character -- you choose sex, race, profession, weapon proficiencies, alignment, and even what color outfit he or she wears. Even at this pre-game stage, plenty of thoughtful touches are evident -- you can customize your character even further by importing a custom-built picture for his/her on-screen portrait, and even import your own dialog (saved as simple WAV files).
Once you’ve built your character, the game proper begins with you standing outside an inn in the scholastic city of Candlekeep. All you know at this stage is that your foster father, Gorion, wants you to outfit yourself for a journey, and then meet with him at the center of town. By exploring the city, you’ll run across several simple quests and fights that will prepare you for the big, bad world outside. From this rather auspicious beginning, you depart on an adventure that will take you south and then north along the Sword Coast. You’ll run into hundreds of NPCs, some of which are friendly and will join your party, and others that would just as soon slit your throat as speak to you. As you travel, you can let five more characters join your party, for a total of six adventurers.
The graphics are just beautiful. The action is viewed from a slightly skewed top-down perspective, and every background is hand-crafted, so the level of detail is astonishing. You move your characters about with a simple point-and-click system similar to a real-time strategy game. Actually, the real-time strategy comparison is a good one, since the game proceeds in real-time throughout (compressing an AD&D round that is normally 60 seconds into a game round six seconds long). However, at any given moment you can hit the spacebar to pause all the action. With game time frozen, you can check your characters’ status, issue commands, prepare spells, and plan strategies. Once you hit the spacebar to unfreeze the action, each character acts on the commands you gave them. You can also tailor the game to auto-pause after certain events, like when a character gets hit, spots an enemy, or ends their round. This system gives players unprecedented control over every aspect of their party during combat, but keeps things from slowing down every time there’s a fight. Strategy is a key element to combat, especially at the end of the game where players have to face some really tough opponents, and the pause feature lets players control every second of game time.
Each character under the player’s control can also be customized with scripts that determine their actions in a fight. The game comes with several pre-made scripts that reduce the number of commands you have to give your characters, and in most cases, the characters will fight enemies without you having to tell them what to do. These scripts are also completely customizable by using the programming language and a compiler that comes with the game. You can give each character universal rules, such as always use a mace against skeletons and a sword against gnolls. The programming isn’t easy, but with some patience, most users will get the hang of it. However, you don’t even need to look at this additional feature if you don’t want to -- the pre-built scripts cover most of the common actions. The fact that you can tailor your party this way, however, sets new standards in character customization.
Any commands you want to issue are only a few mouse-clicks away, and it’s simple to either use an item, weapon, spell, or perform more advanced actions like guarding a person or area. The character inventory screens are straightforward, and let you set up items for quick use, equip weapons and jewelry, drink potions, and identify items. You equip items by placing them on a "paper doll" of your character, which reflects any armor or weapons you’re carrying. The weapons and armor are also reflected in the main screen, so you can really admire that new helmet you picked off a skeleton’s corpse.
Baldur’s Gate has an automap that keeps track of where you’ve been -- each map is a picture of the entire area, and as you explore, the areas covered in black become visible. However, it would’ve be nice if there was a feature that let you annotate structures and houses -- sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what’s what, especially in the city of Baldur’s Gate itself. As you encounter characters and gain quests, your journal is updated so you can keep track of what everyone asks you to do. Most of the quests are pretty plain -- fetch this woman’s ring or that man’s pair of boots -- but some of them are more interesting, like taking down a mad magician or finding and capturing a captain of the guard who’s gone insane. Even the more plain ones will keep you on your toes, especially when they require you to make moral decisions or judgement calls that affect your reputation within the world. Your reputation determines how NPCs respond to you, whether certain characters in your party want to stay with your party (if you have a good reputation, evil characters won’t stick around, and vice versa), and item prices in stores.
The game also contains another roleplaying first: multi-player options. Using IPX, TCP/IP, or serial connections, you can journey with as many as five friends through the single-player game. The host determines what characters the players control, whether they can initiate conversations, pause the game, etc. Internet games work well, although lag is something to watch out for. Also, when one character initiates dialog, every player suddenly switches to the same scene, even if they’re on the other side of the map. While it does a good job in making sure everyone sees what happens, it’s rather frustrating if you’re in the process of fighting or robbing someone. However, if you gather a few close friends together who are serious about playing, it can truly bring back the nostalgia of tabletop AD&D games. The game ships with software to play over SegaSoft’s HEAT network, as well as a version of GameSpy that lets you find other servers on the Internet, so it’s really easy to get up and running out of the box.
The interface, beautiful hand-drawn graphics, and intriguing story line combine to make this the best roleplaying game to hit the PC in years. Even the manual is superb, providing comprehensive background on the AD&D rule system and the game world. But that doesn’t mean Baldur’s Gate is perfect. As with most games nowadays, there are a few bugs that need to be worked out, such as the occasional crash on some systems. Although nowhere near as bad as some other RPGs to come out recently, the bugs are enough to warrant downloading the most recent patch, which should be available on Interplay’s web site by the time you read this. As of press time, Bioware has released a beta patch that fixes many of the problems, including one of the biggest complaints of most players -- character pathfinding. Nothing is quite as frustrating as watching your characters walk the wrong direction in order to reach a spot you’ve clicked on, and some of the dungeons leave little room to maneuver. However, the latest patch lets you adjust the AI of the characters to improve their pathfinding skills.
Even with its few flaws, Baldur’s Gate is every roleplaying gamer’s dream, and is an excellent game to introduce non-RPG fanatics to the genre. It reigns supreme over every RPG currently available, and sets new standards for those to come. In other words, run out to your local software store and buy this game. Now.
-- Michael Wolf