Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition

"...for me, experiencing this classic journey with some new faces and abilities at my disposal was more than enough to warrant the price of admission."

The original Baldur's Gate was the game that stoked the flames of my passion for PC role-playing into a blaze. In a time when labels like "JRPG" and "WRPG" meant nothing to me (others refer to this period as "the 90s"), all I saw was a game that offered a vast amount of customization and a decidedly different experience than the Final Fantasies, Phantasy Stars, and Chrono Crosses that I had cut my role-playing teeth on. My history with Bioware's breakout hit isn't unique, though; Baldur's Gate was a massively well-received hit for an entire generation of players. That said, there's quite a bit of expectation involved when booting up Beamdog's re-release, which also packs in the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion. While the package is a good one, it's not without its caveats.

The story in Baldur's Gate, while a relatively simple one by today's standards, is engaging and exceptionally well-written. Each of your many companions (including three new ones specific to the Enhanced Edition) has a personality, likes, dislikes, and expectations for how you will carry yourself. Make them too angry, and they just might decide they're better off without you. Bioware's reputation for crafting fantastic and memorable characters got its start here, and that reputation is one that is well-earned. If you can't find something to love in the gigantic and very likely brain-damaged Minsc and his miniature giant space hamster, Boo, then perhaps Edwin's mania and narcissism will be more to your taste. Your childhood pal Imoen can be a bit of a pain, but learning about her history will illuminate much of your own. All of your interactions with these characters are handled with semi-voiced dialogue and a list of possible conversation choices that are affected by your statistics, alignment, and occasionally class. Additionally, your choices matter. If you're an evil, evil fiend, you and the maniacal Xzar will get along just fine. If you're a goody two-shoes though, he may just as soon put a dagger in your back (which, if you're a low-level mage with 8 hit points, will probably mean a swift death). Conversely, stabbing countless innocents will not likely endear you to Jaheira, and she may take to clubbing you in the cranium repeatedly.

I spend so much space discussing the character interaction, because it makes up a huge portion of what makes this game so special. These days, conversation choices, even in Bioware's games, are usually limited to two or three canned responses that, in most cases, are available to every kind of character. Seeing upwards of five two-to-three sentence conversation choices in Baldur's Gate will remind you that in our age of streamlining and mainstreaming, something has indeed been lost. It should also tell you that if you don't like to read, this is not going to be the game for you.

As I mentioned earlier, three new characters have been added to the game, and for me, they represent some of the most interesting new material on offer. With the addition of a number of specialized classes (and class kits) from Baldur's Gate II, Beamdog took the chance to create a few new party members to play around with. Surprisingly, they're actually fairly well-integrated with the original cast, and I had a lot of fun playing around with Rasaad yn Bashir the Monk and Neera the Wild Mage. Their abilities and new side quests were a fun and refreshing change of pace, given how many times I've already journeyed with the classic characters. I didn't have much of a chance to use the half-orc Blackguard, Dorn Il-Khan, but for players who like to walk the path of shadow, he seems as though he'd be a good fit.

Combat functions as it always has in the Infinity Engine games, with an isometric perspective and a pausable, real-time turn system. There are dice rolls going on under to hood, and low-leveled characters will spend more of their time in combat whiffing the air rather than cleaving flesh. However, there's a certain appeal to this style of game, and watching your party grow in strength and become deadlier and deadlier is incredibly addicting. There is a huge selection of classes from which to build your own hero, and with multi-classing options, there's plenty of flexibility for building your Drizzt-clone in any fashion you like. If you prefer the up-close-and-personal style of modern action RPGs, you might find the methodical pace a bit much, but if you enjoy some solid strategy and thought being a necessity for victory, this one'll be right up your alley.

As additions, Beamdog has done an admirable job. A quicksave button has been added to the (admittedly inelegant) main screen, and there have been tons of little tweaks and changes in UI feedback to make the game that much more playable. The journal is now organized in a modern, quest-by-quest fashion, which goes quite a long way towards usability. The small changes under the hood are far too many to count, and the developer has thus far been very committed to squashing bugs and supporting their game. There are a number of new events to come across, and even a few tongue-in-cheek references to other Forgotten Realms games. The new characters, their quests, and the Baldur's Gate II class and race additions are welcome and fit in nicely. Unfortunately, the Black Pits combat arena content was something I found completely lacking. Accessed from the main menu, this content is a stand-alone slice of gameplay that doesn't sync up with your main game party, which really took away much of the enjoyment for me. If you absolutely love Infinity Engine combat, you might get a few miles out of it, but with the entire main adventure waiting for me, I found it hard to stomach.

While there's been much ado about the fact that most of Beamdog's changes can be achieved with a copy of the original game and some mods, it's tough to argue with the "install it and play it" simplicity of this re-release, especially with the new characters. However, my fellow editor, Robert Steinman, found that he was completely unable to play the game with his ATI graphics card, apparently a widespread issue. It's undeniable that the game had a rocky start, but the team seems committed to making things right, so only time will tell how it'll all shake out.

Visually, there's no hiding the fact that this is an old game. The sprites are blocky, and the backgrounds, while detailed, certainly show a bit of age. However, there's a timelessness to the art design that shines through on a level that many modern isometric RPGs like Avadon have yet to match, at least in my estimation. The game now runs in modern high resolution, with the interface scaled appropriately to match. You're able to zoom in and out, which both makes things easier to click on and makes the whole game look awful, since the original assets weren't redrawn to keep pace with the zooming feature. The original game's abysmal cutscenes have been gutted in favor of hand-animated ones, which have a simple, if somewhat budget-quality vibe to them.

The sound is an entirely different story, though. First, there's the glorious music. The full original soundtrack is present and accounted for, from peaceful hamlet hummings to glorious battle fanfares. The tunes in BG1 don't quite match the power and intensity of its sequel and that game's expansion, but this is still quality fantasy music that many composers even nowadays struggle to keep up with. The battle arena in the game, The Black Pits, also features a complement of new music by the vaunted Sam Hulick. Sam's new tracks fit in nicely, which is no mean feat given the task that was set before him. The voice acting, ahead of its time when the game was released in 1998, is still quite solid. There's a few duds, especially amongst ancillary characters and the occasional "nyah nyah nyah"-ing among bit-part villains, but by and large the voice work is fantastic. When you hear the voice of the game's true villain, you'll be hard-pressed to forget it. Happily, the new characters are also very well-performed.

Beamdog has clearly worked hard on Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. There's a lot of love to be found, with the great new characters, ease of use, and general tweaks and improvements. Sure, much of what has been done here can be done with the original game, a few hours, and some mods. But for me, experiencing this classic journey with some new faces and abilities at my disposal was more than enough to warrant the price of admission, so if you're interested in trying out one of gaming's true classics, for the first time or the hundredth, this is a pretty darn good place to start.

Now then, go for the eyes, Boo, GO FOR THE EYES, YAAAAARGHH!!

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