Interplay's extremely successful string of Advanced Dungeons + Dragons games continue with Baldur's Gate 2, the fourth in a series of similar games, the others being Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment, and once again, they've produced a fine piece of software, taking their original engine and improving upon it while giving players a whole new country to stomp around in and experience levels they won't have seen before.
The story starts off shortly after the end of Baldur's Gate 1. Having destroyed Sarevok, you and your party leave the temple of Bhaal and return to Baldur's Gate, aiming to return to Candlekeep... and then the next thing you know, you've been imprisoned and a very, very sane mage is performing disgusting experiments on you and your friends. Suddenly, the building shakes as an unknown enemy attacks it, and the mage leaves to ward off the threats.
Suddenly, your cage opens to reveal Imoen, who has managed to escape her cage and has come to let you out. Joining up with her, you soon find Jaheira and Minsc in similar cages, and you manage to quickly free Jaheira. Minsc's freedom is rather harder to buy, but when you tell him you can't find any way to free him he quickly gets very annoyed at you. All throughout these initial encounters the characterization is flawless, from Imoen's fear of the mage to Jaheria's seriousness to Minsc's... well... Minsc-ness (together with a number of worrying thoughts about just how he managed to keep Boo on his person).
After this initial reconnaissance you set out to escape whatever dungeon you're currently in, and this is where the atmosphere of the game comes into effect. The initial stages of the game are dark and depressing and very, very tense, and the various revelations and commentary from Imoen about how you both were tortured, together with ambient sounds of faint battle and screaming, only help to increase this effect. This game knows how to put players on edge.
Very quickly, you'll have to arm yourself and run into combat, and here comes the first very pleasant surprise, especially for anyone who's played the previous games in the line - dual wield is now totally implemented, right down to the game displaying both weapons. Given that every game up until this one has either simply not allowed dual wield or got around it in some way (such as Icewind Dale's habit of giving Rangers an extra attack if they have no shield equipped) it's very good to see that they have upgraded the engine because you'd be hard pressed to notice any other changes.
Everything, from common controls to the spell system to the interface is all the same tried-and-tested stuff, and while that's a very good thing - the interface is simple and easy to get to grips with - it is, by the same token, so familiar it almost becomes tedious.
Upon escaping from the dungeon you encounter the mage surrounded by black-clothed enemies, and the power of your foe quickly becomes apparent by the way he casts a number of spells in quick succession, instantly obliterating everyone attacking him. As Imoen starts to throw spells at him, a number of wizards teleport in and take both of them away for casting spells. You're soon approached by a mysterious stranger who tells you he can hook you up with a group powerful enough to help you rescue Imoen. However, he'll need 20,000 gold, and from here you're thrown headlong into the region of Athkathla, looking for work.
An entire city to play with sounds fantastic, and indeed it is - you wander around the town, quickly getting requests for help from all directions - but this can quickly become daunting as you try to figure out which to do first and which to save until later when you're more powerful. The game could really have done with some method of warning you you're not quite powerful enough yet, but it's not too great a problem since most are made for pretty much any level.
As for how to accomplish those quests, it's good to see that they're not all hack and slash. Some require you to be diplomatic while some require you to be sneaky. Thankfully, though, you generally have the choice of doing it however you wish, with at least 2 optional solutions to most quests. There are a number of small quests within the city walls and a handful in external locations that usually net you the most experience and gold.
Also, thanks to the greatly increased experience levels, your character can qualify to receive a stronghold appropriate to his/her character class, where you have to deal with the day-to-day administration and the problems that may arise, with large rewards if you manage to deal with them properly.
The gameplay is the good old faintly Command-and-Conquer-esque style of play we've all come to know and love. The majority of the game is in a technically real-time system, with a round lasting about 10 seconds or so, while you enter commands by choosing one of your available abilities from the bottom bar and selecting the target, if applicable. There are, as ever for sequels, oodles of new skills and spells - rather obviously, since you're a higher level - going right up to top-level spells such as the old favorites Power Word: Kill or Meteor Storm.
The only problem is that at higher levels, there's more of these spells being flung about the battlefield, and with the new spell effects it can become very, very difficult to tell just what's going on - more than once I had to try to select different people and actually move to their character information screen to see just what they were being affected by. At the same time, though, it makes the battles that much more fraught with danger, making major battles simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking experiences.
A major annoyance that has endured from the previous game is the extremely irritating way that the game ends the very second your main character becomes incapacitated in any way, the explanation for this (revealed last game) being that your essence immediately returns to Bhaal. While this is all well and good were you to actually die, there are a number of higher-level spells that merely put your character "on hold", such as being turned to stone or having Imprisonment cast upon you, both of which are effects easily countered by any low-level mage or cleric, but that will still bring the game screeching to a halt should you get affected by them.
That said, however, the gameplay is as strong as ever, easy to pick up yet extremely strategic, should you take the time to explore it in depth - which you'll have to. This time around the enemies are playing for keeps, and they'll be vicious, often going for status spells such as Fear rather than straight damage spells. This forces you to think about what you're doing and to prepare for such encounters. It also ups the tension that little bit more, but can very easily make a battle seem utterly impossible. A large number of times I got so demoralized I literally had to stop playing to calm down.
The cityscapes and dungeons are as pretty as you'd expect from Black Isle's talent - beautifully rendered locations, immensely detailed - and the new monsters such as the dragons are imposing beasts, authentic to the series in every detail. Unfortunately, it's again a case of "we've seen it before" - there's no real improvement over every other game in the series, with the quality of both the artwork and the sprites and spell effects remaining pretty much the same. That said, it's still a winning formula, and a visual treat.
Spell effects are occasionally intrusive but pretty as ever. Thankfully the newer spells have distinctive effects as opposed to palette swapped copies, meaning that it's possible to learn which spells have which visual effects, thus making battles run that little bit smoother. Meanwhile, the circles around every target aid the clarity in battle while paused, appropriately colour-coded so you can see who's attacking you, who's on your side, and, of course, who's standing around saying "Eh," while you're getting beaten up.
As I stated previously, the environmental audio is top-notch, with the low growl of monsters in dungeons, the birds twittering while you're in the forest, and with the myriad chatter of townspeople going about their daily lives. At the same time, the voice-overs of the major NPC / PCs is also fantastic, with a frankly star-studded roster of voice talents. The only niggly problem is the spell chants - they're rather loud, overshadowing the rest of the battle's sound. They're always arcane (okay, a small point, but one that keeps annoying me when my cleric starts spouting mage words) and - most important of all - there are only about 4, total, making them get very annoying very fast.
As for the story, well, what can I say? It's dark, depressing and often violent, as you chase Irenicus through the Realms, attempting to extract vengeance for what he did to you and your friends. And as such, it's absolutely fantastic. Black Isle weaves a picture of betrayal at every turn, of being uncertain of whom you can trust, of being hounded because of your father's taint. This, combined with the greatly increased level of party interaction, the sheer volume of side stories and quests and the possibility of a love interest between the main character and a party member, makes for an enthralling experience as the story unfolds all around you.
All in all, Baldur's Gate 2 is at once a familiar and a totally new experience, providing you with new skills and locations within a familiar style of play. The story is much improved over the last game, and sighting old friends and enemies within the new setting is quite a kick, even if it does sometime provide strange dialogue responses ("I killed you near Baldur's Gate. Maybe this time you'll stay dead."). A number of niggly problems together with the relatively small amount of innovation do drag it down a little, but at the end of the day it's lifted well above all that thanks to the fantastic storyline and the addictiveness of just gaining one more level.
Baldur's Gate 3, anyone?