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Spotlight Review: Baldur's Gate II

Bioware gives us an epic filled with mad—yet beautiful—ideas and gameplay

Lord of the RPGs

In the spirit of our upcoming 200th issue, allow me to add a new "great gaming moment": destroying a floating skull in Baldur's Gate 2.

In a game full of massive threats, both traditional (dragons) and bizarre (mind-flayers), a floating skull sounds, well, dinky. That is, until you realize it's a demilich — something usually slain by "Astral Mages" only or other uber-powerful individuals that you read about, but never get to play as, in your Dungeons and Dragons sessions. A demilich is so powerful, it doesn't even need a body; it kills by merely looking at you.

In my several battles against this damn skull, I alternated between a fanatical "must-kill" mentality, and hate-filled resignation. I played, I died, I reloaded, I strategized, and I died some more. I watched my party get hit by Imprisonment and Wail Of The Banshee repeatedly. But one night, I finally made good use of my spells. After flinging around Lower Resistances and Spellstrikes, and using "hit-it-with-my-swords" tactics, I finally put that skull down. I got a nifty ring, a bunch of experience points, and the satisfaction of destroying some unfair figment of D&D creator Gary Gygax's imagination.

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows Of Amn (BG2) is filled with moments like that. It pushes the limits of high-end AD&D gaming; it constantly throws surprises at you; it forces you to think and strategize. When it's all over, when you realize that you just overcame what is essentially a force of nature, you feel great. And it delivers these great gaming moments with style and polish.


Immediately after starting up the game, you'll notice the first real improvement Bioware made: the story. While I can't even remember the first three-quarters of the previous game, BG2 grabs you right from the beginning. Although you were revealed as a Child Of Bhaal (the God Of Murder) at the end of BG1, that didn't stop a powerful mage from kidnapping and experimenting on you. Circumstances fit together to allow you to escape from his laboratory into the humongous city of Athlatka, and you're off.

If anything, the plot style is reminiscent of The Lord Of The Rings; it's a story with a simple center, but with political intrigue, warfare, moral ambiguity, and lots of dark overtones surrounding that center. Each chapter in BG2 has a pointed, focused, and interesting goal, which immediately takes care of the "where am I going, and why?" aspect of the previous game. While it doesn't have the emotional or philosophical resonance of Planescape: Torment, it isn't the light-adventure fare of Icewind Dale either. It's a dark fantasy epic.

To progress through the story, you'll go forth on quests. This is where most RPGs degenerate into annoying tasks along the line of "deliver mine Idol Of Buggery to Shagadelic Elf, and ye will receive threepence and twenty points of experience." I cringed early on when some stuffy noble told me to go kill some ogres that were loitering on his property. Thinking I was going to play a glorified weedwhacker/FedEx man, I went to his property and, well, things were not what they seemed at all. A simple, run-of- the-mill, "go kill this now!" quest, through a series of twists and turns, became a neat little mini-adventure, one that probably would have been used as a major quest in another game. BG2 is full of quests like this that take our expectations about the genre and turn them sideways.

Of the game's seven chapters, the bulk of these quests lie within Chapter Two. Be warned: Once you progress along the main plot to Chapter Three, you're pretty much locked on-course until Chapter Six. So while this doesn't have the massive, outright freedom of say, Daggerfall or even Torment, I think it ultimately makes for a nice compromise. You can do as you will in Chapter Two, then follow the focused story for a couple chapters, finish off any loose ends, and plow your way to the end.

Fitter Happier

Such an epic plot and quests require larger-than-life heroes. Bioware pumped up the experience-point cap to nearly three million, resulting in characters that average between levels 15 to 19 (for comparison's sake, the overly-famous Drizzt Do'Urden is a level-15 ranger). You'll have literally ground-shaking fighters who crush ogres with their bare hands, mages who can banish their enemies to other dimensions, and priests who can channel the wrath of their god with but a whisper. Combine this raw power with some of the equipment you'll be running into (Holy Avenger, Dragonscale Armor, Staff Of The Magi, Crom Faeyr), and your group suddenly evolves from mere adventuring party to pantheon.

With such powerful characters, Bioware spiced up the overly-formulaic AD&D character-creation system. The traditional classes now have "kits," which are sub-classes with various advantages and disadvantages. When I imported my ranger from BG1, I could either keep him as he was, or choose to turn him into an archer (deals death-from-afar), a stalker (sneaky and backstabbing), or a beastmaster (he, uh, gets an "animal companion"). Bioware also worked in three classes from the new Third Edition AD&D rules: the hulky barbarian, the versatile sorceress, and the "my-hands-are-registered-lethal-weapons" monk. The net result is that there's a lot more flexibility and choice when it comes to character creation. Gamers have already started discovering insane power combinations, like kensai/mages or swashbuckler/fighters.

As in BG1, you only roll up your main character; the other five slots in your party will be filled by various NPCs you'll encounter. The stats and class choices that Bioware made for these NPCs aren't for power-gamers, they're for gamers who care about character. While BG1 had only a few scant lines of dialogue, the NPCs now have their own stories, rivalries, and personal ambitions. They will argue with each other, flirt, run off on their own quests, ask for help, give you advice, or simply hit each other. You can even choose to get romantically involved with an NPC; I was amused to see Jaheira and Aerie have a massive jealous argument over my stalker, Scooteris.

How To Disappear Completely

Since you now have a party of demi-gods, the bulk of your combat is no longer puny enemies such as goblins or orcs; you'll mostly face off against enemies you've only heard about. Vampires suddenly become normal enemies. Gigantic iron golems are everywhere, beholders start popping up frequently; and don't be surprised when you stumble onto packs of mind flayers (who can kill you in about two turns) just sitting around, devouring brains. You'll see first-hand why liches are so troublesome, and you'll meet more than one dragon.

And I haven't even gotten to the mages yet.

If anything, BG2 shows you why high-level mages are very powerful enemies. They don't just cast Magic Missile, they buff themselves up with spells like Stoneskin and Fireshield, then start hitting your party with Confusion, and then they might cast some offensive spells. Don't get me started on the really smart mages who have Chain Contingencies set up to cast Time Stop, and then throw several Globes of Invulnerability or Protection From Magical Weapons. The lich is the worst. Accidentally walking in on a lich and watching him do his work is, well, in a word, awesome.

Combat used to boil down to this: Mages cast Fireball, fighters walk in and hit things, and priests heal. Not anymore. With the more powerful monsters and the insanely-devious mages, high-level combat becomes much more tactical. You'll need to learn how to juggle ranged vs. melee weaponry, split up your forces, use summoned creatures properly, and what spells to cast when. Traditional, mindless combat is rare; you'll definitely put more thought into preparing and executing your battle plan. The "see what you're up against, and then reload to win" scenario does pop up more often, but it makes major victories even more satisfying.

Everything in Its Right Place

Just now, all I've been talking about is combat, character, and questing. I haven't even touched on other improvements in both design and technology. Higher resolutions, annotated maps and journals, scalable difficulty — these things are nice, but all I can think about are the vast improvements, and resultant gameplay, in those earlier details.

There are some minor issues that hurt the game. Like how the AI sometimes cheats (thieves blinking in and out of existence?), occasional quest bugs or random crashes, still-quirky pathfinding, some choices regarding the massive manual (great for spell descriptions, but light on character and/or enemy info), and sloooow battles despite 3D-acceleration.

But the good far outweighs the bad here. Baldur's Gate II creates the same sense of agitation and insomnia that other great games have inflicted on me. Even though I think of this as Game Of The Year or even Hall Of Fame material, I won't trap myself with the "best RPG ever" phrase. But it certainly ranks up there with greats like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and Betrayal At Krondor.

Unless some other game manages to top the idea of AD&D demi-gods rampaging through a Lord Of The Rings-style story, or you're just not a fan of the Infinity Engine, Baldur's Gate II is the best role-playing game you can buy today.

Baldur's Gate II

CGW Rating: 5 Stars, Editor's Choice

Pros: It's the massive, widescreen, AD&D epic everyone's been waiting for...

Cons: ...with some goofy design/technical quirks.

Requirements: Pentium-II 233, 32MB RAM, 4x CD-ROM, 750MB hard drive space, DirectX-compatible video and sound cards.
Recommended Requirements: Pentium-II 450, 64MB RAM, 1200MB hard drive space, 8x CD-ROM, 3D card.
3D Support: OpenGL
Multiplayer Support: 1-6 players (TCP/IP).
Publisher: Interplay
Developer: Bioware
Price: $44
ESRB Rating: Teen (13+); animated blood and violence, use of alcohol.
By Thierry Nguyen, Computer Gaming World   [posted on: Dec 05 2000 12:00:00:000AM]

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Copyright (c) 2000 ZD Inc. All Rights Reserved. ZDNet and ZDNet logo are registered trademarks of ZD Inc. Content originally appearing in Computer Gaming World Copyright (c) 2000 Ziff Davis Media. All Rights Reserved. Computer Gaming World and Ziff Davis Media are trademarks of Ziff Davis Publishing Holdings Inc.