There are many devious traps that have felled ambitious RPG development parties. The group at Bio-Ware must have a skillful thief, for they have been able to detect and to avoid all of those dangerous, game wrecking traps that have collected the bones of games like Daggerfall. Baldur's Gate was highly anticipated, much discussed and delivers the goods.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
A major portion of the anticipation surrounding Baldur's Gate was generated because the game is an application of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule set. TSR's AD&D license is one that carries with it great appeal to all of the old dice and paper role players who have played AD&D, and provides instant name brand recognition even to those who have never tossed a die in anger. Baldur's Gate is the most accurate use of the AD&D rules ever. The crew at Bio-Ware know the game and even maintain an ongoing dice and paper AD&D campaign. The monsters, spells, character classes, races and even locations in Baldur's Gate are lovingly taken straight out of the AD&D source books. The player character can choose from six races: Human, Elf, Half Elf, Halfling, Dwarf or Gnome. All of the traditional character classes are represented: Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Wizzard, Cleric, Druid, Thief. Dual and multi class characters are also an option. If it is in the AD&D handbooks, it is in Baldur's Gate. The minor exceptions being a slight alteration to the system of spell learning and that the combat has been taken out of turn base and made real time; sort of.
The Much Ballyhooed Combat System
Whether or not the combat system of Baldur's Gate is exactly faithful to AD&D, is nearly a moot point. The fact is, the combat system works very well. Combat runs in real time but can be paused at any time. While the combat is paused, orders can be issued to each character in the player party and then when the game is unpaused, those actions are carried out much as a turn based system. Actions can also be issued real time without pausing the combat. The game requires that the player well manage their party inventory because the inventory may not be accessed while the combat is paused. If a character needs to rummage in her pack for a weapon or potion, the combat goes on unchecked while the player searches for that item. The excellent interface of Baldur's Gate allows for hot items and spells that can be readied before hand and cast from the paused combat screen. In multi player games, where each player controls only one character, the real time combat works excellent and it was obviously the multi player aspect of Baldur's Gate that led to the design decision of going real time with the combat. The combat system of Baldur's Gate takes the real time action of Diablo and adds to it the depth of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, while still being manageable.
The biggest triumph of Baldur's Gate is in the depth of actual role playing that the game encourages. First of all, and most difficult for many players, is that unless a player cheats and plays a multiplayer game all by themselves, the player only generates one character. Choosing between a Halfling Thief, Elven Mage, Human Paladin, and so on is very difficult and makes a large difference in how the game is played. Even more influential to the gaming experience is the choice of alignment. Playing the game as a Lawful Good Paladin with lots of charisma is a very different experience from playing as an uncharismatic Chaotic Evil Thief. If a character ignores and acts out of their chosen alignment, their alignment may change. Evil NPCs will be disgruntled with a doo gooder and good NPCs will not stay long with a n'er do well. They may even turn on and attack the characters in the party that annoy them. There is a wealth of NPCs in the game and if one is slain in action, another can be found to replace them. Only the main character must be kept alive at all cost. If the main character is killed, the game is over.
In many ways, Baldur's Gate is more reminiscent of the online RPG that the Bio-Ware crew would still like to make than it is of many story-based RPGs. Baldur's Gate has little of that linear, puzzle solving, strategic party building that has so long characterized computerized role playing games. Rather than building a four or six headed monster/party and solving a puzzle piece by piece, Baldur's Gate feels like the player has assumed an identity which must be explored and discovered in a rich world. There is a main story to the game, and it is divided up into a series of chapters. Within each of these chapters are very numerous side quests but it is often unclear which is which. Players are more apt to choose actions and to explore quests that interest them through the game and to let the main quest advance as it may.
One of the game design decisions that allows this variety of quests, is that character advances and level occur at a true AD&D pace. Much adventuring must be done to advance a level of ability. Unlike games like Might and Magic VI, where characters advance 100 levels over the course of a game, Baldur's Gate awards experience and character advancements very stingily. Second level characters are able to take on quests through the mid point of the game. The world of Baldur's Gate is populated by many different kinds of monsters, but all of them are low level. The adventuring party never becomes so powerful that the original monsters pose no threat and few of the monsters or quests are unbeatable with third level characters. Thus, it does not matter what, if any order of questing the party follows and the player is free to follow his or her whimsy. If the player wishes to rescue a damsel in distress, they may do so. If they wish to rob a mansion, they may do so. If they wish to go hunting Gibberlings or Gnolls, they may do so. If a player wishes to focus on the main quest, that also may be done. While the main quest is engaging, the world is interesting enough that exploring it and the available sub quests is at least as much fun as arriving at the end of the game. Again, this richness of environment and of possible things to explore is more reminiscent of online role playing games than it is of most single player RPGs that focus on driving the player to the resolution of the main quest.
Well Put Together
Baldur's Gate not only plays beautifully, but it is also marvelously constructed. The rendered backgrounds are spectacular and all of the animations are very good. Animations very clearly show what creatures are and what they are wearing or wielding as weapons. Effects, both visual and sound are equally well done. The game even supports EAX for those lucky enough to possess a Sound Blaster Live set up. The interface is very good, the game is quick loading even though it is on 5 CDs and the indexed manual is superb.
The main reason that Baldur's Gate shipped so late, was so that the multi player aspects of the game could be implemented. In a long term view, the wait was certainly worthwhile. It takes us one step closer to true multi player adventuring and perhaps that much closer to an online AD&D world. In the short term, the multi player experience of Baldur's Gate is not as brilliant as the single player game. First of all, the multi player game must follow the same story line as the single player game and once again, the main character must, at all costs be kept alive or the game is over. Everyone else in the party serves basically as porters and as body guards to the protagonist. When there is combat going on, the multi player gaming is excellent and the real time combat really shines. When there is no combat, the game can be very dull for all but the protagonist. If you had a dedicated group of friends to play the entire game through with, I am sure that the experience would be fantastic, but jumping in and out of games through HEAT.net or the game spy is less effective. I found that in the absence of a group to play the entire game with, the most fun way to play multi player was simply to go evil and attack everyone and have constant combat. It works great for gaining money and experience.
Another much discussed aspect of Baldur's Gate prior to its launch was the AI scripting for the NPC party members. Each character has a default AI scripting that can be customized. Every type of character has a set of options that basically boil down to aggressive (attack with everything you've got), defensive (hang around the main character) or passive (defend yourself but don't do anything serious without permission). If this could ever work, it would enhance even more the role playing experience, but like in Fallout 2, the results are less than stellar. Basically, the player will end up giving orders to the NPCs almost every turn. The AI routines just are not good enough on their own.
Out of combat, the interactions between the NPCs, although they serve to flesh out the characters, are very repetitive and grow tiresome if the player keeps the same group together for a long time. On the other hand, the enemy AI works much better and most of the bad guys are even a little bit unpredictable. They do not always do the same things.
The animated sequences and cut scenes are adequate but not as good as the rest of the game. The auto map and notes work well enough but get to be an unsorted jumble. There are some minor technical problems, but they are minor. I consistently got a weird ghost flicker of the character screen on world maps and I found a minor quest that I was not able to complete. I also encountered some rare network problems that result in crashes or game dumping. However; the most common network problem was getting enough people together to play and in the end I much preferred the solo game.
All That and a Bag of Chips
Baldur's Gate is everything that fans of AD&D have always wanted in a computer game. The only thing that will prevent it from being perfect for everyone is the very fact that it follows the AD&D rules so faithfully. The game is a little slow to get going and it may take a few evenings of adventuring to make character advances. Magic users are especially pathetic at first but become inordinately powerful if they survive long enough. There are few puzzles to solve. It is a Hack 'n Slash world. (When is someone going to equally lovingly bring my favourite RPG, Traveler to the PC?) Baldur's Gate is the new standard in role playing games. Buy it. Give yourself time to explore it at leisure. Baldur's Gate is a different experience from most RPGs. Approach it like you would an online game. Take the quests that interest you. Explore. Adventure. Replay it as a different type of character. You won't regret it.