RPG Preview
Hands on with Baldur’s Gate
The Forgotten Realms’ Iron Deficiency
Black Isle Studios
Shot One

"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster…When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you…." This quote is by [a] Dilbert, [b] Winona Judd, or [c] Nietzsche. If you chose [c], you are eligible for a trip to The Forgotten Realms.

The quote comes from the lead screen of something we’ve been waiting a long time to get our hands on—a build (working [!?] program) of Interplay/Black Isle Studios’ forthcoming RPG, Baldur’s Gate. A three-disk copy of the game, which is being developed by BioWare Corp., arrived late last week and we fought to the mat about who would take it home for the weekend. As it turned out, we were able to share. What we’ll try to offer here is a brief description and impression of the title, without even a mention (well, almost no mention) of the existing bugs. After all, they have scads of time to fix them (depending upon whom you ask), and fully intend to. Note that any evaluative comments are based solely on the incomplete preview version.

Shot Two

Just in case you haven’t heard of it, (which would be next-to-impossible if you are a regular visitor to our site), Baldur’s Gate is a role-playing game developed by Bioware, Inc., and set in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms universe. Bioware’s joint CEO Ray Muzyka stated, "The basic story involves the regions around the cities of Baldur's Gate and Amn. These cities are embroiled in nefarious intrigue that endangers the entire Sword coast and may precipitate a war. Merchants are being attacked, especially if they happen to be dealing in the iron trade; the Zhentarim are being implicated and the Harpers are being forced to take action against this uprising by some force of evil. If the player’s character is for the common good, they need to unravel the stratagem behind this struggle for power, and to prevent the war which threatens to engulf the region—or, if not, the goal is to try and assume more power in the process.... To say much more might spoil the game."

Shot Three

The fiction dealing with this area of The Forgotten Realms has not been as well developed as that of other areas, so Bioware’s story and characters are somewhat unique in the AD&D world. TSR is so engaged with the project that there may even be a traditional AD&D module based on the game. That’s not to say that anyone unfamiliar with AD&D games will be put off by this title. Just the opposite. The developers have been careful to make it as accessible as possible to gamers whose cupboards aren’t filled to the brim with 4, 8, and 20-sided dice.

With this in mind, character creation is detailed yet painless as you choose type, race, spells, skills and abilities. For the AD&D purist there are even such choices as "Most Hated Race"—optional if you like, but there for the choosing. (An invitation for racism? Hmm…). If you know what you’re doing, you can create a character in about a minute, complete with custom-colored clothing. Changes in clothing, armor and weapons appear not only in your character screen, but on the main screen as well.

Once character creation is complete, you’ll find yourself in Candlekeep, your home, and a "safe haven" in which to begin the game. With a few mini-quests, and items to be found, this prequel to the story introduces you to the interface and simple task completion. Pop-up tutorial windows aid with the introduction. Finally, you and your foster father Gorion leave the keep, and before you can [plot withheld here], you find yourself in Chapter One. The game will span seven Chapters and take your new character through level six or seven. (They had originally planned for six, but level seven is when Druid characters gain shape-changing abilities; and this has been deemed "cool" and "a must" by all.)

Shot Four

The first thing you’ll notice is the environment’s stark realism. As a huge contrast to the color palette of the likes of New World Computing (bright, and pleasing and almost…pink), Baldur’s Gate’s world whispers resplendent authenticity, with richly textured, non-tiling, fully-pre-rendered 16 bit color graphics, in a top-down third-person isometric view. Natural lighting effects are just gorgeous, and both indoor and outdoor locations show extraordinary attention to detail.

The world is divided into individual map sections that are "fog-of-warred," and scroll in all directions. When scrolling away from where the individual or party was standing, it was often difficult to find them again—especially if they’d wandered off into combat. Locomotion is similar to many real-time strategy games where you drag a box around your characters to group them, and select a destination. Troop, er, character formations have been preset and you may select one on the fly, and watch your characters assemble as directed. There is also preset scripting (with an editor promised in the final version of the game), which allows you to choose how your character will behave. And speaking of behavior, the characters each have a unique personality and talk to you or amongst themselves at random (much like Jagged Alliance). A lot of the dialogue is humorous, but just how many canned lines the player will tolerate will have to be judged later. A particularly fun bug erupts when the verbal commentary is seemingly "queued," and it all bursts out at once as every single character bickers, complains, teases, taunts and exudes seemingly hundreds of lines of dialogue—all at the same time. They promise to fix this, although seeing it once or twice is good for a laugh.

Shot Five

Characters will react differently to one another depending upon their base compatibility, and will even go so far as to attack one another if provoked. Trying to set them upon one another does not work in the preview version, although other NPCs are fair game. Keeping track of where everyone is and keeping them out of each others’ way is a sometimes daunting task. Outdoors, several of them may be screaming their war cries as they engage a monster in battle in some undetermined direction from the current view. Getting them help, or getting them out is a challenge. With six in your party, the going gets a bit rough in indoor locations—it will probably be wise to send in only one or two in many cases. It will be interesting to see how pathing develops in the final version. When an NPC joins your party, his or her level will be an average of your other character’s levels to ensure a mostly peer situation. Shortly before the game ships, designers will release a list of suggested character combinations, for various styles of gameplay—or you can mix your own.

Some of the early characters you will meet are: Imoen, a babe extraordinaire, who would be so much sexier if she didn’t incessantly call everyone a "buffle-head" (yes, that’s "buffle-head"); Jaheira and Khalid, who wish you to accompany them to Nashkell (your probing mouse will evoke, "Yes, oh omnipresent authority figure," from Khalid); and Montaron and Xzar, a somewhat shady pair who are also on their way to Nashkell. Xzar looks like an angst-filled twisted individual, and consistently pleads, "Stop touching me!"

Shot Six

There are two map screens, one of the current map section, and the other of the whole world. When you reach the end of a section on the main screen, a locomotion cursor will appear, indicating that you may go to another area. If you choose to leave, you will select from the world map where you’d like to go next. In the final game, you won’t, as we did, encounter an area that prompted you to insert disk 4 of 3. This was a crash-where-you-have-to-power-off-the-system moment. In the final version, which will ship with five CDs, you’ll have the requisite fourth disc to insert. We hope.

You begin with one weapon based upon your class, and as per usual RPG fare, you find the rest at shops or from looting bodies. Body looting is often a pixel hunt, especially if your characters are clustered around the newly-demised. Early victims in the game include Gibberlings, Kobolds, Ogres and Wolves, to name a few (or you, of course). In early fights, you take some damage and, if victorious, often waltz away with all of one gold! Or two! It seems as though wealth accumulation may be slow and character-building very concentrated in Baldur’s Gate, especially since the entire game will only take your party up to level six or seven.

Shot Seven

As you progress, story exposition is handled in cut scenes and through conversation with NPCs, and it is soon apparent that something is wrong with the land’s iron supply. And you can help. Come October, you too can try to supply the Forgotten Realms with Geritol, when Baldur’s Gate starts jumping into shopping carts across the world, hoping beyond hope to live up to the hype. So far, it’s certainly intriguing. More later.

by Cindy Yans

©1998 Strategy Plus, Inc.

Baldur's Gate (AD&D Forgotten Realms) Windows 95 IBM CD ROM 12/98 $24.95