Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear review
Seven years ago, I spotted an install of Baldur's Gate on a public computer in a friend’s fraternity. Why not, I thought. It was supposed to be a classic. Every self-respecting gamer had played it (in part, anyway). And I, for one, oozed self-respect. So I booted it up and created a 1st-level, AD&D-style wizard.
I watched the intro cinematic. I guess it’s cool, I thought. The game started. I stared at the screen for a full minute. I moved around a little. I quit the game and switched to the newly-released, chrome-embellished Dragon Age: Origins.
I relate this story not only to reveal my college-sophomore ignorance of games, but also to make the point that intended or not, Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is a game inextricably about nostalgia. Forget the themes of duty, sacrifice and redemption for a moment, ignore the larger-than-life heroic fantasy narrative, because that’s not SoD’s point. Siege of Dragonspear aims to be that guy you go home with not because you’re really into him, but because he (weirdly) reminds you of your first crush. Yeah, he may be funny and even kinda hot, but that’s not the point. The point is memory.
I never played Baldur's Gate as a kid. I fell in love with Planescape: Torment in my teens, but I didn’t try the mother of the Infinity Engine trilogy until I was in college, and only recently did I actually properly delve into the game (and then, the enhanced edition, not the original warts-and-all version). So I queried friends who had played it young, and who had grown up with it. What was so special about Baldur's Gate, anyway?
To Daniel Scribner, friend, IBM content strategist, and keen tabletop role-playing gamer, “Baldur's Gate was the first RPG that felt like I was playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends.” He wasn’t the only one who shared that sentiment. Trent Ward’s 1999 review of the game on IGN goes into great detail about how Bioware succeeded in their attempt to “recreate, as closely as possible on the computer, the feeling of playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
Part of that was the freedom of exploration and choice offered by the game. You could traverse the map (largely) as you pleased. You could play good, evil, or in-between. In Daniel’s words, “I had a sense of control over who I was as a character, and where the story was going.” Siege of Dragonspear tries to continue that legacy. People view you differently based on the choices you make. Even seemingly minor quest decisions become relevant at the end of the game.
However, in terms of map progression, SoD is much more linear than its predecessor. Rather than letting you freely travelling between settlements, whenever you visit a major location, that’s that, essentially. So make sure you mop up all your side-quests before heading out: you won’t get another chance.
The climax too, is a little railroaded. The option of siding with the baddies is tantalizingly dangled in front of you numerous times, but nope: in the end you just can’t. Because vengeance and justice and all that jazz. Is that forgivable? Well, considering the arc of the series as a whole, you might be able to overlook that blip in player choice, but that again depends on how rose-colored the rest of the game has rendered your vision.
But the most memorable thing about Baldur's Gate was undeniably its characters. For the most part, SoD maintains this trend. Your companions are great, even some of the new, non-nostalgic ones like M’Khiin, the goblin shaman with a deep suspicion of her own kind. The main villain, Caelor Argent, is particularly noteworthy. She’s a complex character with interesting motivations that aren’t the run-of-mill “take over the world and enslave the people, blah blah”, black and white stuff. Fairly early in the game, you actually see her personally writing letters to the families of her soldiers, informing them of their loved one’s death. How many videogame villains do that?
It’s true that some of the writing feels a little forced. Vicious murderers who are instantly converted to good by your words, criminals who turn themselves in to the city watch without question, they feel a little cartoonish. But to be honest, this kind of stuff didn’t bother me as much as it did some players. The Baldur's Gate series was never about philosophical or moral debates. Where Planescape: Torment was about “what can change the nature of a man”, BG was about fantasy and grandiose heroism, featuring acts of great valor and renown. I’ll forgive the occasional lapse of “grittiness”. And I mean, if we can accept companions joining your party after a mere two minutes of dialogue (like we do in literally every other RPG in existence), can’t we accept a little heavy-handedness in NPC behavior?
Any discussion of character in a SoD context will bring up Mizhena. The NPC priestess’s three minutes of fame have ignited the ire of the crusaders of gaming-purity everywhere, their righteous indignation at “Social Justice Pandering” (read: diversity) eclipsed only by their vehement protests that “that’s not really what it’s about”.
Honestly, Mizhena’s not a big deal. Yeah, she tells you she’s trans after only a few moment of interaction. Whatever, see my last paragraph. Yeah, she’s not a fully developed, elaborately detailed NPC. But you know what? That might be a good thing. Gaming needs characters who just happen to be queer, end-of-story. We don’t make a big deal about every straight, cis character’s gender or sexuality, so it’s nice when we extend the same courtesy to queer character, when we’re like “Great! You’re queer! Let’s move on!” Sometimes, as a queer individual, you just want your existence acknowledged, without fuss or fanfare. So Mizhena achieves that. As does another companion , when she casually reveals her bisexuality. No biggie. Though I do wish SoD had more gay romance options (here’s looking at you Voghiln).
Unfortunately, Beamdog’s stubborn worship of nostalgia isn’t all good. According to the SoD website, Beamdog wanted to “create a cohesive, old-school gaming experience that meshes with the parent games, and we wanted to bring people the experiences that only the Infinity Engine offers.” By that, they undoubtedly mean “yeah, the visuals are kinda janky, deal with it”. While players will notice some definite graphical and technical improvements in SoD, both simple aesthetic details like flying clouds of bats in underground dungeons as well as major computational changes like the ability to have mass combat, the game looks really, well, dated.
With confusing UI and downright ugly models when zoomed in, SoD leans heavily on nostalgia in the looks department. While my friend Daniel said he’d still pick up the game today even had he not played the original, I, as evidenced by my 2009 foray, would probably not. Maybe I’m just part of the annoying new generation used to more polish in my videogames, but games like Pillars of Eternity manage to look and feel old-school without being as…unprepossessing as Siege of Dragonspear.
It’s hard to divorce Siege of Dragonspear from its predecessor. Beamdog clearly made a strategic choice not to release a Baldur's Gate III: a built in (and fairly large) core audience and a pre-existing engine must’ve seemed attractive to the corporate powers-that-be. But would it appeal to a modern gamer with no emotional attachment to the original? For most, probably not.
If someone today wanted an old-school game, they’d probably pick up the sleeker Pillars of Eternity, or wait for either Torment: Tides of Numenera or Tyranny. You have to be willing to look underneath the surface and really commit to playing the original in order to enjoy the Baldur's Gate series’ depth. But once you do, you’ll be rewarded.
In the end, none of that really matters to Siege of Dragonspear. It doesn’t care for fads and novelty. It rests on the firm foundation of being linked to the classic canon of gaming, and nobody can snatch that away from Beamdog. “I've played it [the original Baldur's Gate] through at least six times before,” Daniel tells me, “but I still feel compelled forward by the story.”