Another Look at Baldur’s Gate II
Why Baldur’s Gate II? Because You Don’t Really Need a Life, Now Do You?
Published by Interplay
Posted on 09/01/2000
Mmmmm, barbecue... Click here for more shots!

Dumped onto the doorstep in an inconspicuous plastic case, and spanning four CD’s, Interplay’s Baldur’s Gate II seemed innocent enough. Those who made it through the original, however, know better. After I gleefully rushed in to install the game, the day promptly seemed to vanish in a haze of Dungeons & Dragons-induced frenzy, of which there was little recollection beyond maniacal laughter and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Continuing where we left off…
So, after spending quite a few hours with the game, I’m ready to share a few important points. The first is that for gamers who had problems with the rather slow and meandering opening of the original—especially in the face of Planescape Torment and the recently released Icewind Dale—Baldur’s Gate II will prove to be a breath of fresh air. The game begins in an oppressively gloomy prison lab that seems well suited to Planescape’s surreal environments. The darker environment and instant involvement in the action enables Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn to grab you right from the start, which makes it far more involving than the original.

As a direct (and I mean direct) sequel to Baldur’s Gate, you can import your character from the first game, and continue his (or her) epic quest of demi-god-dom. Right from the beginning, you’ll be reunited with familiar faces like Imoen, Jaheira, and everyone’s favorite lovable oaf Minsc and his constant companion, Boo the mutant giant space hamster. These stalwart adventurers have found themselves trapped within some sort of deviant magical lab where torturous experiments are going on and angry monsters crash through huge test tubes to attack.

Shadows of Amn takes place around the southern part of the Sword Coast, in an area called, not surprisingly, Amn. Landmarks in this part of the Forgotten Realms that you might enjoy along the way include such exotic and mysterious locales as the Cloudpeak Mountains, the cities of the Underdark, the Elven forests of Tethir, the capital City of Amn, and Athkatla. You might also be sidetracked into an adventure in the Astral Plane and the ever-popular Abyss. Baldur’s Gate II picks up the story of the original several months later, and introduces an interestingly evil new nemesis—a powerful magical being who is interested in your characters in the same way a lab student might be interested in dissecting frogs. This unknown assailant leads you down a twisted path in a gleefully menacing fashion, and makes a very impressive fantasy enemy.

A RPG with personality and mass destruction
As in the original, you create one character, and then latch onto to other heroes to increase your party size. The gameplay is basically the same as in the other Interplay AD&D-based RPG’s, so fans can jump right in with nary a glance at the documentation. Since Baldur’s Gate II uses the Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, and includes a lot of the newer character kits and spells, familiar AD&D’ers will note some differences from the original. Most players, though, will be hard-pressed to notice any changes beyond a lot of new character options and some interface streamlining. On the flipside, gamers who didn’t play the original will be able to make use of a tutorial to get up to speed.

Expect to find adventure with new character classes including the Cavalier, Beastmaster, Undead Hunter, Monk, Barbarian, and even Assassin. On top of that, they’ve added Half-Orcs as a new race for those folks who want a fighter with extra oomph. Weapon proficiencies have changed somewhat as well. Instead of very general weapon groups, there is now more specialization…like the ability to allocate proficiency points to things like long, short, or two-handed swords, instead of a general "large blades" category. You can even specialize in dual wield, provided your character class allows it.

They’ve added 130 new spells to the array, making for a total of over 300 spells in the adventurers’ arsenal. You’ll finally be able to use high-level spells this time around…it is possible to gain enough experience to use seventh level Cleric spells and ninth level Mage spells. You’ll cast invocations like Chain Lightning, Time Stop, Disintegrate, Power Word: Kill, Blade Barrier, Meteor Swarm, Finger of Death, Resurrection, and more…not that they’ll do you much good at the start of the game, since the party finds itself in a town where magic is prohibited. This law is responsible for the incarceration of Imoen as well as the evil mage that trapped and tortured you, and upon whom you seek revenge.

Fighting the awfully pretty fight
As in virtually any RPG, especially an AD&D game, combat is an integral part of the gameplay. Baldur’s Gate II once again uses a real-time engine to recreate the turn-based rules of the tabletop game, and as veterans of the original know, judicious use of the pause feature is vital to success in major battles. Anyone going into the game expecting Diablo-like mindless combat is due for a quick re-education, as the higher nature of Baldur’s Gate II means that bigger, stronger, nastier monsters and more epic fights are par for the course.

Right from the start, the game shows off its graphic enhancements by throwing some pretty impressive opponents at your small party. One of the most important new additions to the tried and true Infinity Engine (Interplay’s most frequently used RPG engine) is the ability to set the resolution higher than 640x480. In-game options allow 800x600-screen size, but the game will go higher then that for those players who want to tweak the configuration file. Of course, resolutions like 1024x768 are only unofficially supported, but the difference is striking.

The other notable enhancement is the use of Open GL 3D acceleration. While the core engine is decidedly 2D, much like Diablo 2, the 3D acceleration helps make things like spell, fog, and water effects more impressive. Without a doubt, the enhanced spell effects and the higher resolution make magic-laden combat a treat for the eyes.

Cast a simple spell like Entangle, for instance, and the area becomes covered in an almost surreally beautiful mesh of golden glowing strands that crawl out of the floor at random in thick meshes of magical vines. Other spells trail through the air in shimmering blues and yellows, and the game enunciates damage-inducing critical hit strikes with screen shaking blows and gory displays of carnage. The downside of all this eye candy is that large battles can quickly become a confusing mass of moving bodies, smoke trails, lighting effects, and gore, making the ability to pause and calculate each move imperative.

As before, the pause feature only works on the main screen, so switching weapons and armor on the fly during battle won’t be an advisable tactic. Bioware has also gone to great lengths to assure that players won’t be at a loss for things to fight when the game is released. While the original had around 60 different kinds of monsters to battle, the sequel contains upwards of 130. Expect to do battle with the likes of Elementals, Djinni, Golems, Mind Flayers, Spectres, Trolls, Beholders, Umber Hulks, Vampires, Mephits, Wraiths, and other nightmares from beyond. Thanks to the engine enhancements, adventurers will also encounter huge unnamed menaces that actually can take up more than one screen.

Bioware has attempted to give the monster AI some tactical senses as well. Expect to see certain monsters that will try to flank your party, run away and then regroup, and there are even morale factors in combat. Lesser monsters might run from your party in terror, while another may plead for its life.

Helping people is nice, and sometimes so is hurting them
Aside from dealing with monsters, fans can expect even more in- depth NPC interactions. The factors that affect how others deal with your party members have advanced, taking into account things like reputation, alignment, and even a character’s gender. You’ll encounter a man-hating bartender who will only be helpful to female members of the party, flirty holy crusaders, and other odd characters amidst the usual array of shopkeepers, bar wenches, running children, and drunks of the realm.

Dialogue should prove more expansive than before, although its structure is basically unchanged. When talking to the many denizens of Ahm, you’ll be offered a choice of several responses just as before. The developers have tried to make the responses you’ll get more complex, however, and conversations will generally branch out more expansively than in Baldur’s Gate, allowing for more intricate and interesting dialogues. At times, other members of your party may chime in on conversations, and you’ll even be in circumstances where NPC’s initiate conversation with another member of your party, completely ignoring the leader.

Reputation will have widespread effects, and govern how most people react to you…something role-playing fans of not just Baldur’s Gate, but also the Fallout games are likely aware of by now. If you do good deeds, then townsfolk and guards will be more amicable toward the party. Of course, not everyone wants to play nice, and with the inclusion of assassin as a viable career choice, there’s plenty of opportunity to act out your darker nature.

For instance, one of the sub quests in the game concerns a slaving operation, and the player can choose to help the slaves escape, or help the slaver by actually killing the leader of the revolting slaves. Such moral decisions will abound in the game, and players can become involved in over a hundred different sub-plots and side-quests. Some of the quests are class-specific, however, so the game will be somewhat different depending upon the type of character you create.

There will even be major quests for strongholds. Though optional, these quests will enable fighters to earn keeps, thieves to acquire a thieves’ guild, clerics a temple, and a mage a Hall of Many Secrets. Since these are side quests, you don’t have to elect to go on them, and those who choose to ignore these smaller adventures and simply stay on the direct path through the game will find around sixty or so hours of gameplay awaiting them.

Playing through that way, however, will almost certainly ruin the fun of such a vast role-playing game. Players who opt to engage in the myriad of sub-plots and quests will be playing Baldur’s Gate II for a long time to come, and even expert players should be able to expect over 250 hours worth of game time. So, it would seem a certainty that role-playing fans will be getting their money’s worth here.

As in the original game, there is an experience points cap in Baldur’s Gate II. Characters will begin with 89,000 experience points, and they’ll start at either the seventh or eighth level, depending upon the character class. If, however, you are importing your party from the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack, you could actually start Shadows of Amn with upwards of 161,000 experience points…a little perk for devoted gamers of the series.

This time around, the experience cap is at 2,950,000, which is equivalent to the 17 level for classes like Wizards, Paladins, and Rangers, the 21st level for Clerics, the 23rd level for Bards and Thieves, and the 14th level for Druids. As any experienced AD&D’er knows, gaining that much experience is no easy task, so hopefully the lack of further progression won’t be nearly as major a criticism as many thought it was in the last game. On a side note, those gamers who like to customize their characters will also be glad to know that you can import custom portraits and even voices to make your adventurer more personalized.

Playing with Each Other
Multiplayer fans can rest easy knowing that not much has changed in Shadows of Amn. Just as in Baldur’s Gate, net players will essentially be playing the same quest as single player gamers. Up to six can participate in a game at once over the Internet and on a LAN, and there’s also support for direct connect methods like modems and serial cables. Fortunately, Bioware has tried to make the multiplayer game run a bit more smoothly by attempting to eliminate some of the major sources of annoyance in the original.

For instance, dealing with NPC’s or shopkeepers won’t force the rest of the party to have to sit and wait for you to finish. Now, players can talk to whomever they want, and the rest of the party can still continue playing without interruption. On a similar note, only the lead player can pause the game, so combat is essentially fully real-time when playing online, though with only one character to control, that’s far less of an issue than it would be in the single player game.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is on the homestretch as we write this, and from the looks of thing, it may well end up as the best RPG of the year (and then some). The higher level action, beautiful spell effects and artwork, along with the tried and true Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gameplay combine with an involving, dark story to make it almost a certainty that role-playing fans are soon going to have to kiss all their free-time goodbye. So consider this fair warning, and expect to disappear from society when the game hits shelves by the end of the year.

by Jason D’Aprile

Screens
click to enlarge

The welcoming gates of another fantasy town… Jobs are easy to find in darkened bars for adventurers looking to ply their skills for money. No bar is complete with a dueling chamber.
First a twilight dinner and then on to the circus! Your typical everyday character screen. In the seedy part of town, they just leave the bodies where they lay apparently.
She’s got the whole world in her hands, She’s got the whole wide... Everyone now, sing along! Ice Storm or leaky roof? You decide. Hooked on Phonics was a lot stricter back then.
Mmmmm, barbecue... The basement janitor is apparently made at the party for getting slime everywhere. Heated battles, slinging spells, and screaming floor tiles. It’s all too good to be true.
It’s a shame what people throw down the sewers these days.
©2000 Strategy Plus, Inc.

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