Beloved are the early days of Role-Playing where a group of friends would circle around a table and, with one member at the helm, create a deep and diverse world of medieval fantasy and lore, full of ravaging beasts, powerful sorcerers, and a beautiful maiden. It is from these roots that modern RPGs have sprung. From this humble beginning came a revolution in the gaming world. And while the game of Dungeons and Dragons to which I have alluded may not be alive with all of its former splendor today, its memory still lives on. Now for those select few who hold D&D close to their hearts (and even for those who have never heard of it) comes a magical revelation. From the hands and minds of Black Isle Studios comes a game that keeps the spirit of D&D intact, and allows the player to relive (or live for the first time) the joys and perils of this period of fantasy in the privacy of your own home without the dice, without the DM, and without the goofy hats. Through the aid of one's home computer can you play the game called simply: Baldur's Gate.
Blessed are the innovative, for they shall inherit the earth
The only story that can be better than a fresh, innovative one is a story that is simply astounding in terms of depth and feeling. The story of Baldur's Gate is both. Starting from the comparatively small town of Candlekeep, the main character makes his journey through a world full of potential party members, NPCs, and villainous creatures, all the while learning more about the world around him and especially learning more about himself. Though stories often seem to be lackluster in non-linear games, Baldur's Gate is anything but hollow and almost shines more than the linear games. It has a few mandatory quests, as well as a base that you must follow in order to progress until the end, but there are still plenty of branches to take that make Baldur's Gate so re-playable.
Quests are available at almost every stage of the game. Though the first quests in Candlekeep consist mostly of fetching people and items and slaying less than threatening monsters, they get much deeper and more involved as the game progresses. Quests are kept track of by the in-game journal that is automatically updated when new possibilities present themselves. Though a search feature in the journal would have made it a lot easier (hunting through the journal for specific quest information can take quite a while and be especially burdensome if you tend to be forgetful), it is well organized and is a thoughtful addition for sure. While external quests are not mandatory, they certainly do make the game much more fun and deep and make the game infinitely more playable. Whereas some RPGs have you mindlessly slaying monsters that lurk outside of towns, Baldur's Gate sends you on quests to save towns from evil or rid caves of poachers making earning experience points and playing the game much more worthwhile and fulfilling. If you have the time, I highly recommend exploring and participating in each quest that presents itself in the game. They exist to make the game much more pleasing and the story substantially more interesting.
While several features enhance the story a great deal, a major crippling factor comes in the form of your party members. Upon joining your group, they give very little background information (the only exception is with a very small, select set of members), and they seldom grow in any way during their journey with the party. Death as it occurs in battle is anything but monumental and the only truly emotionally inciting thought is how you are going to be able to find a new thief. Little is thought about how the other characters must feel upon the death of a beloved party member. On the contrary, they do not seem phased in the slightest bit. The only real interaction that ever takes place between the members of your group is if there are significant differences in alignment, at which time the characters will squabble amongst themselves. Likewise, if you do something that goes against a member's alignment (slaying an innocent townsperson while a paladin is in your party, for example), you may hear a few unkind words.
No character history and extremely low in-party interaction equal zero emotional attachment to your fellow party members. Though some characters do sign on for reasons outside of circumstance, it seems as if the majority of members that follow you around have joined simply on the basis of opportunity, not necessarily to fight for the universal 'cause'.
However, the story of the main character is still very fun and interesting regardless of the two dimensional cohorts that follow him. The non-linearity in Baldur's Gate allows the player to construct a personal story for the main character as he or she slowly pushes him further toward the linear ending. It will keep you guessing the entire way through, and provide you with enough variation to make replay incredibly worthwhile. The storyline is strong, but I really would have loved to see the secondary characters become a part of it.
Elaborately simple and minimally complex
The gameplay in Baldur's Gate is so rich and deep that it would be impossible to explain fully to someone who has yet to experience it. Suffice it to say, anyone who has played Advanced Dungeons and Dragons should feel right at home, as Baldur's Gate did an excellent job of porting actual AD&D rules (alignments, multiclassing, THAC0) into the real-time world. Everything is incredibly deep and complex, and at the same time, simple enough for a novice to play out of the box without even a glance into the instruction manual (which, by the way, is equally as rich and deep).
From the start, you are greeted with a character-designing screen where you are free to model the gender, abilities, appearance, and even the voice of your main character. You decide what race you want to be, the class from which you chose to hail, and even what alignment you want to be. Whether you desire a lawful-good human paladin, a chaotic-evil Elvin mage, or anything else in between, Baldur's Gate gives you the freedom to be who you want. And though it has no real impact on the actual story, the way the game is played is very different depending on what combination of these elements you choose, again enhancing the replay value, and providing a playing style comfortable to the player. After the character creation screen, you proceed to roll dice and allocate points, something with which a Dungeons and Dragons player will be very familiar. I am happy to say, though, that this is the first and last time you ever need to deal with numbers and dice directly. The only problem is that the number of points available to distribute among attributes occurs randomly with the dice roll, and the reroll feature allows someone with quite a bit of time on his hands to reroll continuously until an unbalancing high number is produced. With your main character created to your liking, you are free to enter the expansive world of Baldur's Gate.
Battles occur in real-time, but can be paused to allow the player time to assign commands to his party. This allows a player who prefers real-time combat to play the way he likes, and one who prefers a more strategic approach time to think carefully about each of his moves. Also, you can activate features that will automatically pause your game when attacked, or automatically do so after each round of combat. This means that you could effectively make Baldur's Gate into an entirely turn-based combat system, which will have incredible appeal to those who dislike real-time battles. Weapons and items can be changed and used on the fly, but the game cannot be paused when you are hunting through your backpack for a specific weapon or healing item. Thus, if you do not keep the right items assigned to one of the three slots available in your 'ready pouch' (a box at the bottom of the screen that allows for quick use of items and quick change of weapons), you may end up losing precious seconds which may equate to your defeat.
Death is not an oddity and is rarely a welcome treat. If a party member dies, you do have the opportunity to revive him or her as long as he is not 'extremely dead'. If the deathblow dealt to your party member was substantial enough to lower the member's health to a large negative number (rare, but it does happen), his body will be ripped to shreds and he will be gone forever. Fear not, though. There are a number of acceptable recruits throughout the world who would be more than happy to join your quest and replace a fallen comrade.
Do not expect to finish the game with the same characters with which you began. Not only will several die, but you will often find an NPC who is infinitely more powerful then one of your weaker members. And with only enough slots to fit six party members, you may often need to let one go his own way. After all, you may find more use out of that mage apprentice that keeps pestering you for a position in your group than the guild reject you have been hauling around for the past few days.
A feature often lacking in games where party members may move freely while following the main character is a good pathfinding AI. Unfortunately, Baldur's Gate is no exception. In dungeons especially, characters have the tenancy to "wander away" and become stuck around a corner, which leaves the party without one of its members (and leaves that particular member extremely vulnerable) until that character can be lead back to the group. This gets incredibly tiring, especially in dungeons with corridors only wide enough to accommodate two characters, and party member fetching will become commonplace.
A great feature of Baldur's Gate is its multiplayer aspect. A group of people can get together either through a network or over the internet, and bring their main characters to meet the characters of others. This party could then go out for monster slaying, dungeon crawling, or any other feature available in the world of Baldur's Gate. This is a very fun way to pass the time and allows a group of players to come together and bypass the ridiculously poor AI of the typical party member.
Who says you cannot have beauty and brains?
Almost as variable as the storyline are Baldur's Gate's graphics. Even through there are numerous forest scenes through which you must march, never do you find any two scenes to be exactly the same. Every element, down to each little pre-rendered rock and tree is unique. In addition, the evil ambiance that so naturally occurs during scenes in underground caverns is simply wonderful. From the hustle and bustle in Baldur's Gate (the massive town from which the game earns its name) to the darkened hush in the dragon's cave, the graphics wonderfully accompany the mood and feeling of the location.
Also wonderful are the character portraits. These are simply beautiful. You are allowed to pick one for your character upon creation (dependant on the gender, of course) and the rest are given to potential party members. It would be easy to think that these portraits are somehow 3-d rendered or computer generated, but they are most certainly hand painted and have come out looking absolutely fantastic.
My only qualm in the graphics department is the fact that you are locked in at one resolution: 640x480. This normally would not be that bad of a thing, but the fact that the graphics tend to get slightly fuzzy and pixilated on bigger monitors does not help. But whereas other games are crippled by their lack of a diverse chose of resolutions, Baldur's Gate comes out only slightly scathed and still earns a high score.
The bubbling brook that actually bubbles
Coupled with the beautiful graphics, realistic sound helps to create an environment of surprising realism. Rivers slowly increase in volume as you get closer, and you could easily identify sometime from screens away by its sound due to the delightful realism. But the sound effects play a sub-role to the wonderfully appropriate music of Baldur's Gate. Never are you left bored with the score that accompanies your quest, and often times you may find yourself slightly jumpy from the music that softly escorts your trek through an underground mine.
Usually the nail in the coffin of games that chose to utilize it, the voice acting employed in Baldur's Gate is done wonderfully. You get your choice of six voices to use for your main character that defines all of your grunts, shouts, screams, grumbles, screeches, and a plethora of other guttural sounds. Above this, each character (and even each NPC) has his or her own unique voice complete with grunts, shouts, etc. as well. The battle noises made by the characters during a heated skirmish are far from the annoying effects typical of many games. In Baldur's Gate, they thankfully are used sparingly and have enough variation so as not to make you hear the same, generic palette of sounds repeatedly during your gaming period. This is a very welcome relief, and makes Baldur's Gate very pleasing on the ears.
It is not easy being the son of a god…but it is easy to control him
As I stated before, keeping a complex system from turning into a frustrating chore is not easy. Baldur's Gate, however, manages to make its deep and complex system simple enough for anyone to quickly learn and utilize. From a mostly mouse-driven interface, the player can do almost anything with relatively little instruction. And what may take a little extra learning time is conveniently taught to you from within game.
The pause feature is a lifesaver in early battle situations and in late ones as well. If you are like me and opt to take a few moments before entering into a heated battle, you will find the pause button a godsend. Alternatively, if you are like several other gamers who prefer turn-based combat to real-time, the auto pause features will be a true gift as well.
Not even the game's more obscure commands are hard to find and use. Changing weapons, using items, and casting spells can all be accomplished in a single keystroke, or in just a few mouse clicks. Saving, often one of the harder things to accomplish when immersed in a fantasy world, is also accomplished with a single press on your keyboard. And for those who have a tendency to allow themselves to become completely engrossed and have to replay hours of a game due to an unforeseen death or a power outage, the auto-save feature will be a blessing.
Baldur's Gate's interface is quite attractive, to say the least. On-screen menu buttons are beautifully drawn and intuitively positioned. If you ever find a situation where a particular button confuses you, simply mouseover the button and allow the tool tip to pop up explain it to you. As I have already said, a novice could easily play Baldur's Gate right out of the box without first having to read the manual, and in-game help inserted into an already smart system only reinforces this statement.
While battling the hoards of demons sent to batter your helpless party will not be easy for your band of adventurers, you certainly will not callous your hands when sending them into battle.
D&D nuts roasting on an open fire
Whether a die-hard player of Dungeons and Dragons looking for a game to emulate your favorite features from the classic, or a casual Role-player who has never even heard of the game and desires only to have fun, you will reap quite a bit of pleasure from this expansive journey into fantasy. If you have yet to experience the joy one can obtain from Baldur's Gate, I highly recommend you grab the game as soon as possible and find out what you have been missing. But before you delve in to deeply, remember to keep away from those giant spiders…sometimes they can get nasty.