Several years ago, Interplay and Black Isle Studios released Baldur's Gate. This long-awaited PC RPG was an instant best seller, and was an important part of the resurgence of PC RPG gaming. Set in AD&D's Forgotten Realms, the old-school gameplay, strong use of the AD&D Second Edition rule set, and the new and innovative Infinity Engine, Baldur's Gate was a breath of fresh air for the industry. While Baldur's Gate and the Infinity Engine spawned such great games as Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale, a sequel was inevitable.
Improving on virtually every aspect of the original, Baldur's Gate II proves to be the best Infinity Engine game yet - an impressive feat.
Who says being the child of a god is simple?
The original game had your hero discover the truth of his/her lost lineage - that he/she was a child of Bhaal, god of murder and destruction. The sequel starts out an unknown amount of time after you killed Sarevok, your evil half-brother. You awaken in a strange dungeon, prisoner in a cage, with no knowledge of how you came to be there. Thanks to the help of childhood friend Imoen, you manage to escape with companions Minsc and Jaheira. As it so happens, you're the guest of a mysterious mage by the name of Irenicus, who wants you captured for unknown reasons. As the game progresses, you find out more about Irenicus's past, his purposes, and how his actions could affect the entirety of the Forgotten Realms.
The main quest is lengthy, interesting, and very well done. There's always a motivating factor to go forward - whether curiosity or revenge. The variety of places you'll travel to are many, quite varied, and all highly interesting. In fact, the game flows much more quickly and smoothly than the original, due to the fact that places you can visit are shown on a map, and you don't have to travel around searching for them (as in the original game). There are some very interesting choices you have to make through the game, and they can drastically impact the growth and fate of your party - there are some interesting issues explored within the game.
There are also a tremendous number of side-quests available - easily a hundred. While some of them are acquired simply as you explore - from talking to townspeople and the like - many of them are related to your party. All the characters you meet have their own pasts and their own affiliations, and these are repeatedly brought forward as you progress. For example, Jaheira has a good many quests associated with her - her membership in a group known as the Harpers is tested repeatedly and changes as you go through the game.
The result of all of these side-quests is more than just a means of making the game longer - they really help to flesh out the game-world. You begin to realize that there's much more to the world of Amn than just your party, and likewise, you realize that your characters are more than extra combatants - they're people with real interests and conflicts of their own. The side-quests can be overwhelming in number, but you can take them slowly as you go, and they're perhaps the best part of the game - you get to explore the world of Amn much more in-depth than you normally would and are rewarded for your actions (though the exploration is reward enough).
Baldur's Gate II is a very long game - it can take easily over a hundred hours if you complete many of the side-quests, and there's a large amount of replay value, as you can make a different character class, take a different path through the game, or even construct an entirely different party - and the game will change to reflect your actions. The game is the perfect mix between linearity and non-linearity, and thanks to the wonderful journal that automatically records quest and plot information, you're never at a loss as to what to do next. Baldur's Gate II definitely excels in this regard.
Hamsters and Rangers everywhere, rejoice! *squeak squeak squeak*
Like in the original Baldur's Gate, each party member - and important NPCs - have voice acting for dialogue. Party members have additional speech samples for actions, combat, and the like. They're all done very well, and fit the characters extremely well - Jaheira has just a touch of arrogance in her voice, while Aerie sounds like the wide-eyed innocent that she is. Narration between chapters helps fill out the story, and in general, the speech in the game adds to the game, rather than detracting.
Sound effects are also pretty good, though nothing distinctive. The traditional combat sounds are here - the twang of a bow, ring of steel on steel, the explosion of a combat spell, and so forth. There are also ambient sounds present that help add to the environment - the bustle of a busy marketplace, birds singing in a forest, and so forth.
Last, but certainly not least, is the music. As in Icewind Dale, it's orchestrated, and simply wonderful. Many times throughout the game, you'll be tempted to pause the game and just listen to the score.
There are several combat themes to help prevent boredom, and none of the songs are truly annoying - they're all done very well, and it's not playing constantly, which helps to prevent them from wearing their welcome out. It's another masterful soundtrack from Black Isle Studios.
More pretty colors
The graphics in Baldur's Gate II are exactly what you'd expect. There are lush, visually stunning landscapes to travel across. Characters, monsters, and other creatures are distinctive, look like you'd expect, and are well animated. Spell effects are distinctive and appealing.
There are some improvements, of course. The first thing you'll notice is the resolution - finally, an Infinity Engine game can be run at a resolution higher than 640 by 480. 800 by 600 isn't perfect, but even so, being able to see more of the game world at once is a huge improvement over the other Infinity Engine games - and higher resolutions are available, though unsupported by Interplay. Enemy sizes are also implemented, a carry-over from Icewind Dale. It sounds relatively unimportant, but it's a very nice bonus - you can tell the strength of some enemies from their size (stronger, full-grown Beholder are much more powerful than the miniature ones) - and the first time you encounter a Dragon, you'll wonder how your minute characters can possibly triumph over such a huge opponent (good luck).
Other minor changes help keep things running smoothly - for example, cloud spells like Stinking Cloud and Cloudkill now feature hosts of small clouds rather than giant clouds, which prevents your machine from choking on the spell effects as in previous games. Indeed, as impressive as the on-screen action gets, very rarely do things slow down, which makes a huge impact in terms of gameplay.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
If you've played any of the Infinity Engine games, you know how to play Baldur's Gate II. The engine's been refined a bit, but there's nothing that will confuse veterans - and for those unfamiliar with the engine, it's very easy to pick up and to learn.
If you have your character from the original Baldur's Gate, then you can import him/her into Baldur's Gate II. Otherwise, you can create a new character. All of the previously available D&D character classes are available. However, there are new options. From the third edition rules, you can play a Barbarian, Sorcerer, or Monk, all offering new and unique abilities and experiences. Moreover, each of the pre-existing classes has three "kits" available, which offer different strengths and weaknesses - the Archer kit, for example, is a particular type of Ranger, who has amazing skill with bows, but can't become very adept with melee weapons or use metal armors. The variety in character classes is definitely welcome - there's a lot of freedom to choose what type of character you want to play.
The experience cap has also been raised, to nearly three million experience. Due to this, your characters become extremely powerful, and likewise, the enemies also become very dangerous. Because of this, the game can become very difficult - enemies such as Mind Flayers and Beholders are dangerous for any party, and hostile mages can hit your party with some truly fearsome spells. The game can be almost frustratingly difficult at times, but it's certainly possible to progress and to win, given some foresight and luck.
Multiplayer is also an option in Baldur's Gate II, so you can play with some friends. It also allows you to create a 6-person party and use those characters rather than the pre-made ones, if you so desire. While this allows you to fine-tune your party and create one that's much more powerful, you lose a lot of side-quests and character interaction. It's an option, though, for those that want it.
The quests are varied, and many allow you multiple ways to solve them. There's usually good and evil ways, as well as the option to complete some quests by guile and stealth rather than weapons and spells. Not all quests can be resolved peacefully, but for those who want to avoid conflict when possible, it's available - and sometimes the rewards are better.
There's not much else to say. Baldur's Gate II isn't perfect, of course - it can be unreasonably difficult at times, and the artificial intelligence and path finding flaws inherent in the Infinity Engine are alive and well. Despite these things, Baldur's Gate II is a lot of fun. It's got a great plot, a ton of gameplay for the money, and is, in general, the best game from Black Isle Studios yet. I don't know how else to recommend this game - just go pick it up.