Imagine a world with nearly infinite possibilities. Imagine that it includes complex characters with meaningful relationships. You can be anything you want, although it’s up to you to live a life that will cause it to happen. Now imagine being thrown into that world as a full-grown adult with no context for any of that infinite possibility and being required to have that learning process whether you lived through it or not. All of a sudden, being able to be anything might not be such a good thing.
This was my experience with Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition. I didn’t play the original Baldur’s Gate I or II, and I have never had the opportunity to play tabletop RPGs, so although I’m certainly aware of the ways in which the D&D ruleset has influenced video game RPGs, there’s an awful lot that I don’t know. When I rolled up my dwarf, did I give him good stats for the way I want to play him? Should I have dropped his charisma from 11 to 10 because that extra 1 point doesn’t do anything for him? I had no idea, but my success over the next few hundred hours of gameplay hinged on my having gotten it right.
Sadly, my experience when creating my character was not the end of the problem. Once I started playing, I found loot, but I didn’t know how to prioritize it. When I ran out of inventory space, was it a good plan to drop my third extra short sword in order to pick up that book, or did I just throw away some cash? Could I sell gems, or would I need them for crafting later on? Having watched the included tutorials, I knew that my mage needed to memorize spells and rest before she could use them, but why couldn’t she identify this item in her inventory even though she had the Identify spell memorized for the day? Once new party members became available to me, should I have changed to them or stuck with my current team? There were no answers to be found, and so it was that my every moment playing this legendary game became a frustrating chore.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad, even for those of us who struggle with the complexity of the gameplay. Combat, inventory management, and other such elements are easy to work with thanks to a control system that should be easy enough for any PC gamer to work out. Keyboard and mouse are required, and most things can be accomplished using either. Combat can be paused at any time to issue new commands to your party members, and since fights move quickly, this becomes very useful.
The Enhanced Edition’s version of BG2’s story remains intact. It begins some time after the story of the first Baldur’s Gate, and you play as a party of characters from that game. You begin the game with a childhood friend named Imoen as well as Jaheira and Minsc… and a hamster named Boo who lives in Minsc’s pocket. You start out as captives of an evil wizard, but the real story begins once you escape his clutches. The developers claim that there are 60 hours of gameplay in the main quest, plus 300 hours’ worth of sidequests, and I have no reason to call them liars. If you’re able to get past the game’s cliff-like learning “curve,” there is almost no end to the story available to you.
The sound is likewise just as good as it always was, and high-quality music combines with great voice acting to provide an excellent aural experience. Unfortunately, the graphics are something of a mixed bag to the modern eye. BG2 employs a fog of war effect that only allows you to see enemies if your party members can see them, and this effect works well. The characters and environments are detailed, but despite the increase in resolution over the original, they still appear grainy, and characters can be difficult to find on certain backgrounds.
It hurts me to give a mediocre score to the updated version of a game widely considered one of the all-time greats. I can absolutely see that it has merit. It has a great story and sound, and although the graphics and controls aren’t quite up to that same standard, they do successfully support the game’s star elements. Unfortunately, Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is a game targeted at a few very specific audiences: those who played the original, those who have significant experience with tabletop role-playing games, and those who love diving headfirst into a complex system without a net. If you are not among one of those groups, playing this game will leave you tired, frustrated, and perhaps wondering what other gamers love so much about it.