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Baldur's Gate II: a First Look

Doofaeus, Kensai warrior, shares his first impressions

So the one question we all want answered about Baldur's Gate II is: Does it live up to the hype? The definitive CGW answer: We don't know yet.

Although we originally hoped to review the game in this issue, Bioware was still tweaking and refining it as we went to press, so we didn't have final code. We did, however, have a beta with most of the game on it—so what follows here are some initial impressions. Be aware that I only made it as far as Chapter 2, and if Bioware's estimation of total possible gameplay is to be believed, then I have about, oh, 190 hours to go.

What's My Motivation?

As in the first game, you'll start Baldur's Gate II by creating one character. This time, instead of being a spell-less, staff-wielding weakling, all starting characters will begin with 89,000 XP, which will put you at 5th to 7th Level, depending on class. You can also import your party from either BG or Tales of the Sword Coast, and your characters will be bumped up to the minimum 89,000 XP (though Tales characters could go all the way up to 161,000).

Most gamers are going to spend a lot of time on the character creation screen, because there is so much to choose from now. In addition to one new race (half-orc), Bioware has added three new classes (sorceror, barbarian, and monk), and best of all, a host of new kits that modify the classes in a variety of ways, allowing you to create much more specialized characters (see chart). The big bummer here, of course, is that you only get to make one character, which feels like a small letdown after being spoiled by the full-party creation in Icewind Dale. If the game is really 200 hours long, how many of us are going to replay it to try different kits? The good news is that, even as early as Chapter 1, you'll run into NPCs with kits who can join your party—so you'll still get to play around with them even if you didn't create them yourself.

And the fact is, it's a trade-off that BGII needs to make for the sake of the story, in which the NPCs play a huge role, with far more scripting than in the first game. I am going to refrain from giving plot spoilers here, because Bioware has really upped the storytelling, and there's one major twist involving one of your party members very early on in the game.

I'll tell you this much: The game opens just months after the end of BG, in which you have destroyed the evil Sarevok—and learned the nature of your own ancestry. Although you ended that game in glory, you start the sequel imprisoned in a dungeon, where you have been suffering brutal experimentation at the hands of an unknown captor. Also imprisoned: your old friends Minsc (and Boo), Jahiera, and Imoen. Getting out of this dungeon is the basic goal of Chapter 1, and while not exactly earth-shatteringly original, it highlights many of the new game's strengths.

Go for the Eyes, Boo!

First of all, there's the graphics. Screenshots can't really do it justice, but the switch to 800x600 resolution has made a huge difference (and gives a glimpse as to what might have been with Diablo II...). The level of detail is amazing—and coupled with some nice animation—has really made this world come alive. It also proves just how beautiful a 2D game can still be.

The interface changes are welcome, solid ideas across-the-board. They're little things, but cumulatively, they make a big difference. The Rest button, for one thing, is now prominently displayed on the left panel rather than being buried like it was in the first game. All three panels are now toggle-able, so you can play the game in full-screen mode, or with any combination of panels displayed. Hitting Pause will automatically bring up the panels you last had displayed—making it simple to get yourself ready for combat.

The journal is now so much better that it reinforces just how lousy the one in the first game was. There are now separate tabs for active and completed quests, critical path notes, and player comments. Yes, someone finally figured out that it might be nice to take notes in an RPG right inside the game. Similarly, the automap is now completely annotatable. You can mark key locations (like locked chests, or NPCs), which will then be flagged on the map. Again, these are small changes but help remove a lot of the frustration, guesswork, and busywork from the first game.

All of the Black Isle RPGs have featured stellar written dialogue and voice acting, and Baldur's Gate II, at least through Chapter 2, maintains that tradition. Written dialogue is now broken up into smaller chunks of just a couple sentences per screen, which will come as a relief to anyone overwhelmed by Planescape: Torment's daunting blocks of text. The voice work is outstanding as always, and those who loved Minsc in the first game will be happy to know that he is as ridiculously over-the-top as before.

For the Fallen

Combat works just as in the first game, but the combination of the new kits and the higher starting-level point make the early battles more interesting right from the start. My character, a half-orc Kensai warrior, is a phenomenal butt-kicker. He gets no missile weapons or armor, but his Kai special ability makes up for everything, allowing him to inflict maximum damage for 10 seconds, once a day, on all attacks. The first NPC I picked up, Yoshimo, was a thief bounty hunter with very high-level trap settings and the ability to set special traps.

It's too early for me to comment definitively on subquests, though I can say that through a good portion of Chapter 2, there is already much to do—and none are FedEx quests. Random wandering-around time seems to have been all but eliminated. And getting to the first town after the opening dungeon reveals another of the new game's joys: a town map with every key location already marked. Pathfinding, another of the first game's weaknesses, is greatly improved. I conducted numerous experiments, and in almost every case, every party member went the right way, making intelligent moves to get out of each other's way.

Final Answer?

But don't take my word on any of this. If you have this magazine's CD, play the demo yourself. I can't pass judgment until I see if the next 190 hours hold up to the first 10 I've played, but from what I've seen so far, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows Of Amn is going to be everything Black Isle fans have been craving and hoping for, and then some.
By Jeff Green, Computer Gaming World   [posted on: Oct 03 2000 12:00:00:000AM]

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