Dungeons & Dragons, the analog forefather of role playing games, has suffered religious persecution, media misanthropy, and an overwhelming social stigma. The game has survived this onslaught of adversity to become a multi-million-dollar franchise as well as a vogue amongst gamers. Throughout three evolutions, the pencil & paper juggernaut has spawned countless books, modules, figurines, PC games, even an animated series.
The Dungeon & Dragons world of Faerûn, synonymous with The Forgotten Realms, has been the most popular campaign setting for tabletop games and fantasy novels. When Black Isle Studios, a former division of Interplay, decided to create a PC RPG set in the sprawling city of Baldur's Gate, a legacy was born. After the phenomenal success of Baldur's Gate, the expansion: Tales of the Sword Coast, and Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn came forth to continue the legend. All of the games in the series were startlingly successful, pleasing both die-hard PC gamers and dice-rollers alike. Not content to rest on the laurels of the now flagship Baldur's Gate saga, Interplay chose newcomer Snowblind Studios to bring the series to the broader console audience.
Armed with the database of D&D 3rd edition, a library of Forgotten Realms lore, and the PS2's incredible architecture, Snowblind Studios has finally brought their vision of the Realms to light with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Coupled with the marketing muscle of Interplay and the brand recognition of Dungeons & Dragons via Wizards of the Coast, Dark Alliance stood poised to revolutionize PC-style next generation action-RPG's for the console generation. Can Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance satisfy the die-toting fanatic with a Dual Shock 2, or entertain the already fickle console RPGfan? Let's take her for a spin and see how she handles.
If Dark Alliance were an actress, she'd be Selma Hayek: wild, sexy, and curvaceous. Rendered in real-time polygons, Dark Alliance is constructed, painted, and animated with starling beauty. The game is played in a fully rotateable ¾ overhead isometric view with sprawling catacombs crafted with such painstaking intricacy that this rendered environmental geometry far surpasses the pre-rendered backgrounds of the PC original.
To further enhance the visual acumen, Snowblind Studios has added a plethora of environmental effects, imbuing locales with life and depth. From the gentle snowfall of the Sunset Mountains to the spectacular water effects during aquatic melee, the setting of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is stunning and technically awe-inspiring.
The character models in Dark Alliance are equally impressive. Lusciously rendered in real-time and lovingly animated, the player characters and NPC's (non-player characters) are so well crafted that CG for the in-game cinematics is unnecessary. While not as facially complex as the character actors in Shenmue, the models in Dark Alliance are significantly more complex in polygonal construction and motion animation. Once players meet the scantily-clad drow priestess, you'll not remember any of Ryo Hazuki's girlfriends. Impressive as the in-game models are, the designers spent an inordinate amount of time creating female characters with the most mesmerizing breasts this side of DOA.
Humanoids aside, the menagerie of monsters that were created for Dark Alliance were pulled directly from the D&D Monsters Manual and recreated with visceral grandeur. From the elusive Displacer Beast to the lumbering Umberhulk, the creatures of Dark Alliance are as beautifully animated as they are deadly.
Combat animation in Dark Alliance is swift, smooth and crimson. Critical hits will sever limbs; lesser blows will send chunks of flesh and vermillion flying to-and-fro. Elemental weapons are appropriately graced with graphical nuances; blades are licked with tongues of flame or shed snowflakes when wielded in battle. Spells are a bona fide bonanza of wild particle effects and dynamic lighting. To further wow and amaze the audience, Dark Alliance sports a jaggy-free vestment. The bane of the PS2 has been masterfully defeated as there is no visible aliasing to be found…anywhere.
While Dark Alliance throws gobs of sticky-sweet candy at your oculus, there was one facet that kept the window dressing from legendary status: size. For a game this breathtaking, the lack of a zoom feature seems unusual. Another visual disturbance lies within corpse positioning. When enemies are slain, their husks remain, and while this doesn't deter from the gameplay or slow down the engine, there is the odd floating effect of a carcass killed on an incline. Strange at best, this quirk serves as a reminder of the limitations of programming.
Overall, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is the definitive ¾ overhead isometric beauty queen. The jaw-dropping character models and monsters, slick combat effects, environmental enhancements, and gorgeous overworld will entertain and delight. Players with a penchant for scrutiny will need a magnifying glass to examine the craftsmanship of the tavern's door handles.
Dark Alliance suffers from the typical acoustic miasma of hack & slash action RPGs: forgettable music. The gameplay and cinematic pieces are well composed and accentuate the pervasive moods of darkness and daring-do. These classically European orchestral pieces are unobtrusive, but increase in tempo and volume with combat. Unfortunately, this valiant attempt at dynamic sound fails horribly, drowning in the cacophony of sword singing and guttural screams. The music tries desperately to stand-up and march alongside the swordplay but always plays second-fiddle in melee.
The sounds of steel-on-steel, the fires of brimstone necromancy and the guttural howls of slaughter are crisp, loud and impeccably timed. The rare battle cries of your characters are unmuffled and crystal clear, though low-key compared to the cadre of carnage calls.
The musical variety is decent, from the calm folkish tunes strolling around the city of Baldur's Gate, to the lilting melody of an elven ghost's song in the tavern. The music of dungeon and wilderness are equally befitting their locales, but are more ambient in nature. Those looking for powerful meter or catchy tunes will have to look elsewhere. The music, while fitting and well produced, is completely amnesiac.
Dark Alliance does achieve accolades for hosting an experienced vocal cast. Pulling from an already visited pool of seasoned film and game actors, Snowblind Studios' ensured that their tale was told in the most eloquent of tongues. The talents of Michael Bell (Soul Reaver 2), Cam Clarke (Metal Gear Solid 2), John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones fame, among other notables, breathe true life into Dark Alliance's uncanny digital actors.
With an impeccable cast of voice-overs, garishly exciting sound effects, and interesting, though lackluster musical medleys, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a respectable and occasionally enjoyable acoustic production. The downplaying of the orchestration and the lack of gripping thematic anthems keep Dark Alliance from achieving greatness.
Baldur's Gate fans will be disappointed to know that Dark Alliance is unrelated to the PC exploits of Baal's offspring. Thankfully, many classic Baldur's Gate and Forgotten Realms heroes make cameos throughout the game. Snowblind Studios' foray into the console market is a fresh attempt at a new legacy.
This tale opens with your character being unceremoniously clubbed by a group of cut-purses and stripped of your worldly possessions. Found and revived by the local constabulary, you are warned of a new batch of thieves in the city who are not only brazen, but powerful. The friendly officers point you in the direction of a pub of notable repute, for perhaps there, you may find the identity and location of your assailants.
Bruised and penniless, you trudge towards the bar known as the Elfsong Tavern, an establishment famous for the enchanting songs of a ghostly elven maiden that haunts its halls. You are greeted by the barkeep and owner, the beautiful and amazingly busty Ayleth. After hearing of your dilemma, Ayleth and her swarthy companion tell you of the emergence of a new thieves' guild in Baldur's Gate. This new band of rouges is intent on destroying the existing thieves' guild and is using murderous tactics in the process.
Apparently these felons reside in the sewers beneath the city, and are most likely the self-same perpetrators of your severe beating about the head. Ayleth offers you entrance to the sewers though her wine cellar, but only if you can exterminate the R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size) who infest the basement. You agree and after a few parting words with the other patrons, descend into the cellar to meet your destiny.
The rest of the adventure will take you over the hills and through the woods- into the hands of danger most foul, as the true threat to Baldur's Gate is eventually revealed. You will encounter friends of noble bearing, enemies of ill-repute and beasts of legendary evil along the way. Your simple quest for retribution will become a fight for your very soul and the lives of all who reside in Baldur's Gate before your journey comes to its conclusion, or does it? Baldur's Gate has always been a legacy, and Dark Alliance seeks to build its own console franchise.
Dark Alliance is host to an engaging and seemingly intricate storyline, but the quest is quite brief, spanning a swift 12 hours. I couldn't help but feel cheated at the game's conclusion. Though NPC interaction is extremely limited and the storyline is painfully linear, the quality of the storytelling is exemplary. The characterization of the NPC's in this drama are fleshed out well thanks to top-notch voice talent and well written dialogue.
Thankfully, the overbearing and heady language that plagued another gothic masterpiece, *cough*… Soul Reaver 2… *cough*, is absent. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is graced with stunning dialogue that is both eloquent and swift, unlike the tiresome diatribe of twirling prose that was Raziel's tale. The brevity of the vocal pacing in Dark Alliance is refreshing. Gamers can choose to pick the skulls of the NPC's for lengths at a time, or be short with them: gleaning only the necessary information for progression.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance takes a distinctly professional stab at storytelling through brief, yet riveting vocal performances, fantastic dialogue and well placed, though slightly predictable plot developments. Unfortunately the short quest was a severe disappointment from a game of such pedigree. Dark Alliance teased me with greatness, only to hand me a rain-check.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a gaming mélange that has been tried-and-true since the days of Gauntlet. As a 2 player action RPG based in a heavily plot-driven universe, Dark Alliance had an interesting dilemma: balancing an engaging storyline with the frenetic action of real-time combat. Thankfully, Dark Alliance perseveres through excellent design, though limited execution.
Players begin by choosing one of three characters: A human archer, a dwarven fighter, and an elven sorceress. Dungeons & Dragons purists may be appalled at such a limited selection of characters and a seemingly inflexible class system. For a game of this genre, additional classes would have been a nice feature, but are quite unnecessary. Snowblind Studios has done an admirable job of keeping the feats and abilities of each character as close to the D&D Player's Handbook as possible.
Due to the nature of the game, the leveling and experience systems were streamlined as were spell casting and the performance of feats. Dark Alliance's plethora of magical items was also taken directly from the Dungeon Master's Guide.
Once your player character has been chosen, you are taken to the Elfsong Tavern in the sprawling metropolis of Baldur's Gate to begin your adventure. The tavern serves as one of the game's hubs. From these hubs you may gather information from the inhabitants, purchase and sell equipment, and set out for adventure.
The game takes place across three acts: each with their own hub, which serves as your base of command for that adventure. Each act consists of information gathering, equipment shopping, and dungeon crawling. Lather-Rinse-Repeat. Though there are side-quests to accept, these are little more than dungeon fetch-quests that net you additional gold and experience. These romps do very little to advance the storyline and are executed without any divergence from the beaten path.
Even more to my dismay, they are all but absent after the game's first act. The decided lack of ancillary characters, besides the central NPC's, is disappointing and only adds to the game's incredibly linear nature. Strolling through the crowded streets of Baldur's Gate was impressive until I realized that the local populace was either extremely rude or mute.
The bulk of your adventure is spent fighting across copse and tundra, crypt and sanctum. The locations are sizeable and varied, though there are no puzzles to be found, save finding the ingredients to thaw a deceased dwarf.
The combat is always exciting as you slash-and-spell your way through a veritable horde of monsters. The customization of your character during level-up is a nice touch, allowing you to spend points to purchase and upgrade spells or feats. Every few levels you may even increase one of your attribute scores, making leveling-up a very satisfying experience. Finally being able to cast Lightening Ball after 4 hours of hoarding level-up points was exhilarating.
The ability to play through the adventure with a friend greatly enhances the replayability of the game as well as making the game more enjoyable. To sweeten the pot, you may even import your higher level character into another game, regardless of difficulty setting or story progression and resume with all of your items and attributes intact. This is a great feature for trading magical items with friends, or bringing your character over to a buddy's place. The flexibility and dynamic nature of this save-game feature is something that a lot of developers could learn a lesson from.
As your adventures continue, you will come across items of pedestrian design and those rare baubles of mystical import. Only weapons are class-specific, and all equipment is displayed appropriately on your character. The programmers were gracious enough to provide you with an excellent status screen view of your rendered character in their accoutrements, though why they allowed you to strip your characters to their skivvies eludes me. Eerie shades of dressing room voyeurism ensue.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance flows smoothly from NPC questioning to questing without skipping a beat. Though the scope of the game is small, there are numerous locales to visit. The short adventure and limited side quests were disappointing, bringing this score down considerably. The dungeons are diverse, but without significant environmental interaction, are little more than combat arenas.
Player growth is remarkably well balanced, making trolling for experience a worthwhile endeavor. The ability to bring a friend along for the ride, coupled with the flexibility of the character import features make the game a delight to play. Though these features are standard fare for games like Blizzard's Diablo, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance does very little to stand out from the crowd of already functional PC style action RPGs on the market.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a blast to play! Snowblind Studios has done a remarkable job of mapping all the necessary components to adventure to the Dual Shock 2. You may fight hand-to-hand, block, restore health and mana, choose and cast spells, perform feats, view your location, interact with objects, and rotate your camera without having to stop the action for a sub-screen. Every button on the Dual Shock 2 is used, and though a few minutes are necessarily for familiarization, the control quickly becomes second nature.
The response of each character is extremely swift, making combat a breeze. The potion hotkeys along with the quick translucent spell menu make complex actions, natural. You can restore mana, change spells, cast and rush forward to strike with your blade within seconds. Small combos can be performed with melee weapons based upon button timing, and most spells can be recast instantaneously. Bows even come equipped with in-game laser sighting. With all of the action moving at breakneck speeds, you'd be hard pressed to find a combat interface as streamlined, smooth and intuitive as this.
The GUI (Graphic User Interface) is fantastic. All menus and maps that are displayed on the play screen are semi-transparent and collapsible with a few quick button presses. The main menu is visually oriented and tab-based, expunging the need for lengthy item descriptors and copious subscreens. You may check your statistics, items, equipment, quest log, and abilities by simply pressing left or right on the L3 analog stick in the menu; pressing up and down on the L3 analog stick explores each screen's selections.
The only issue I found with the GUI was with the on-screen automap during a two player game. Even in its smallest incarnation, the map was sandwiched between each player's status windows, intruding significantly into the action. Though you may remove the automap from the screen, it is a necessary feature that you will have to look at time and time again. During a one player adventure, it sits nicely where the second player's window would be in the top-right corner of the screen. In this position it is not only present for quick reference, it doesn't disturb your view of the playfield. Other than that small flaw, the control and GUI are perfect.
Though the initially bewildering button mapping of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance may frighten gamers used to the classic three button style, the speed and ease of control will hasten your mastery of the button arts. Snowblind Studios' organic approach to addressing the predominantly clunky configuration of PC-style action RPG's has payed off in spades. Dark Alliance will amaze you with its well-conceived GUI, swift control, and impeccable button-logic.
When all is said and done, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a worthwhile console romp through popular Forgotten Realms settings. From the blisteringly beautiful graphics to the frighteningly perfect control, Dark Alliance is a sweetly brief distraction from the console norm, though the music could stand some originality, and the adventure is over too soon, making me hunger even more for the next installment.
Dark Alliance is a joy to play in solitude or with a companion. Although the game doesn't break new ground, it has set the high-water mark for PC-style console action RPG's to come. Hopefully the next incarnation of this budding console franchise will take larger steps. In my humble opinion, Snowblind Studios has the series going in the right direction.
Though Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance may be frowned upon by D&D devotees and PC purists as being the bastard offspring of a legendary saga, this is the most entertaining red-headed stepchild I've beaten in years.