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Platform: Xbox
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Genre: Action RPG
Format: DVD-ROM
Released: US 1/20/04



Scorecard
Graphics: 86%
Sound: 90%
Gameplay: 85%
Control: 95%
Story: 88%
Overall: 87%
Reviews Grading Scale
 
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"Hi. I, umm... seem to be lost."
 
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Fighting green lizard men just never gets old.
 
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The water ripples still look great
 
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Yes, the Necromancer actually carries a book as a weapon...but he can summon cool monsters, too.
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Mike Bracken
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II
03/03/04
Mike Bracken

One of the biggest hurdles facing sequels in just about any medium (be it film, games, etc.) is maintaining continuity. Few projects are actually planned to spawn a sequel, and hence they tell a complete story in one installment. Trying to add to that story with a follow-up can be a recipe for disaster (as anyone who's seen Halloween II can attest). The pitfalls become even more dangerous when the creators of the original aren't brought back for the second installment-a change in director or developer can change the entire aesthetic vision of a project and it's always a gamble as to whether that will turn out to be a good or bad thing. Imagine, for example, someone other than Francis Ford Coppola directing The Godfather Part II-odds are, with someone else at the helm, it wouldn't be the classic film Coppola made. As far as games are concerned, one need look no further than Devil May Cry II for an example of just how disastrous switching developers on a sequel can be...

Like anything, though, there are exceptions. Irvin Kershner took over the directorial reigns from George Lucas for The Empire Strikes Back and many fans consider it the best of the Star Wars films. To be fair, Lucas was still intimately involved with Empire, so it's hard to imagine his artistic vision getting lost in the change of directors...

All of which brings us to Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, the follow-up to 2001's action role-playing game that appeared on all three of this generation's consoles. The first Baldur's Gate was a successful title that merged the world of Dungeons & Dragons with the hack-and-slash gameplay of Diablo. Developers Snowblind Studios were responsible for that game, and since it featured a cliffhanger ending, fans were eagerly awaiting a second installment.

Things got interesting when it was announced that Snowblind wouldn't be doing the sequel-instead, the studio had been lured away to work on Sony's own attempt to cash-in on the dungeon crawling craze with the forthcoming Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest title.

Fan worries were quickly allayed when it was announced that Black Isle Studios would be taking over the development duties for Dark Alliance II-the studio was no stranger to successful RPGs and it certainly appeared as though the title was in good hands.

Dark Alliance II serves as a nice example of the fact that a game can have a different developer and still succeed. It is not, however, without some flaws as well. It's hard to imagine many of those flaws being present if Snowblind had stayed in charge of the project...

The game picks up immediately after the first has ended. The three heroes of the first game have destroyed the black tower-or so they think. They're soon captured by a new enemy with designs of his own for the tower and its shadow gate portal system.

Since the original heroes are locked away in a dungeon, players will have to pick an entirely new avatar for this adventure. Character selection is still fairly paltry, although players will be able to choose from five characters this time out instead of three: the barbarian, the dark elf monk, a cleric, a dwarven rogue, and a necromancer. Unfortunately, these characters can't be customized at all-their sex, appearance, and base stats are all locked in stone from the outset.

After choosing a character, players set out on the game's main quest. This involves a lot of dungeon exploration where the gamer will encounter hordes of enemies, treasure, and even a few puzzles. Killing baddies leads to leveling-up, which makes the character stronger, and allows for some customization in the learning of feats and skills. Each level-up earns a number of skill points, which the player can then insert into whatever skills he chooses. While the illusion of customization is present throughout the process, it's not as though the character can be entirely tweaked to the player's choosing. In other words, no one will be able to make a monk who can cast cleric spells or things of that nature.

Instead, the game allows players to decide which skills of the class they've chosen are most important to them-and level them up accordingly. Some are, of course, more valuable than others. People playing the monk will want to level-up their unarmed combat skill immediately, for example.

The game will take players all along the coastal area of the game world, with movement done on a world map screen. The standard hack-and-slash areas are all here, including the forest, various towers, the lava area, and so forth. When not questing, or in need of supplies, players can return to Baldur's Gate. Here, they can speak to a few of the locals (who will offer up sidequests), buy and sell weapons and items, and progress the main story. Unfortunately, Baldur's Gate feels more like a game hub than an actual city-it's filled with people, yet players can't talk to the vast majority of them.

The game's one innovation is the inclusion of a new workshop feature at the store. This allows players to smith their own customized weapons and armor. When a player finds a weapon or item of fine quality or higher, they can take it to the workshop. Here, they can add up to three different kinds of stones to the item (in various increments) that will increase its stats and give it special extra abilities. For example, adding a runestone and jade to a sword will make it a stronger sword with the added benefit of an acid attack. Taking a ranged weapon and adding poison or acid to it can make getting through tough areas of the game much easier. Armor and rings and amulets can also be customized as well, and to get through the game, players will need to spend at least some time in the workshop.

What's disappointing is just how expensive making things in the workshop can be. Creating uber equipment costs a lot of gold-probably more gold than most people are going to have until very late in the game. Even then, I couldn't upgrade everything my character had-and I explored every nook and cranny in the game for extra cash...

Dark Alliance II uses the same game engine as the original, and while that engine was pretty impressive back in 2001, it's starting to look a little rough around the edges this time out. Graphics are still relatively sharp and detailed, but the isometric camera view puts the player so far away from the action (even at the closer setting) that they never really see their character or the enemies up close and in detail. Because of this, character models and the animation are less impressive than they are in other games on the market. It should be noted, however, that the water still looks great...

The game's controls are tight and responsive, and Black Isle has actually fixed one of the major complaints leveled at the first title. Now players can hotkey four different feats or spells to the face buttons for quick access instead of having to scroll through a large list while the action rages on around them. This is a welcome improvement, particularly for those who play the more magic-oriented classes.

What's disappointing is that the game still remains a one or two player experience, despite that the Xbox sports four controller ports. Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes managed to work in four player cooperative mode, so why can't this title? The other flaw is that this game still features no online component whatsoever. I can't help but feel that the lack of an online portion to the game will be what makes this title pale in comparison to the upcoming Champions of Norrath. The ability to play online with other people is becoming an increasingly popular element of console gaming-and when a game like this, one that begs to be played with more than one person, fails to include online play it's something of a strike against the game as a whole.

While there's certainly an air of "been there, done that" running throughout Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, the game isn't as much of a let-down as some review outlets have made it out to be. The departure of Snowblind Studios is certainly a disappointing one, but Black Isle stepped in and filled their shoes quite admirably-proving that while switching developers in the middle of a series is always a risky move, it can be done with a fair degree of success.



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© 2004 Blake Isle Studios


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