Do you remember the sadness you felt when you read the last word in that book that simply enthralled you? That's just how I feel having just completed Baldur's Gate. It's been a long haul, more than two months of solid game-play, but I have been absolutely engrossed by every minute! Very few games earn such an accolade from this reviewer.
Baldur's Gate (BG) is the latest RPG offering from Interplay. Set in the Sword Coast of the popular Shadowdale series of Fantasy Novels, it takes you on an epic journey of magic and adventure where familiar characters from the novels will make appearances, including the Sage, Elminster, and the Ranger, Drizz't Do'Urden. You will find your role-playing skills stretched to their finest and every new location you visit will involve you further in the plight of your characters.
You find yourself an orphan, safe in the guardianship of your foster father, Gorion. However, you quickly learn to stand on your own two feet when you are thrust into a threatening world. A world where such fundamental questions as your own identity become tales of high-adventure. Hunted by foes and friends alike (if you play with a less than noble intent) you will face a myriad of challenges ranging from simple quests and battles to far-reaching conspiracies that threaten the very world of FaeRun itself!
Upon starting the game you have the option of creating your own character or using one of the pre-defined characters. I, of course, always create my own. Choose race, gender, and a variety of skills and vocations, roll up some statistics, and you are away. BG is a "true" RPG in that you must manage your statistics and inventory, taking into account variables like encumbrance and potential-damage, to be most effective. Throughout the course of the story you will have the ability to recruit new characters (up to 5 others) into your party; and some, though it rends your heart, you will have to let go.
Each of the characters has a distinct personality, and some may fight amongst themselves if placed in the party together. Alignment plays a large part in the game, both with respect to your characters' interactions and in relation to how townsfolk and "the law" treat you. Step too far out of line and you may find yourself on the most-wanted list (of course, this gives you the opportunity of fighting every law officer you meet and earning all those experience points as well as running the risk of frequent death) it's all up to you.
You can also play BG with a friend over Modem or Network, which is a fantastic co-operative experience. You'll need to know your friend well as co-ordinating those battles with more than one player (up to six on a Network) can be a complex strategic challenge. Multiplayer mode is almost more engrossing than singleplayer, so if you have a modem and a friend, give it a try!
BG uses a new interface the like of which I have never seen before. Part real-time and part turn-based this innovative system will allow you a wide range of actions and still limit you to commonly accepted AD&D rules. The game is real-time, or at least close to real-time, however, you may pause it at any stage and issue new orders to your party as a whole, or to individual characters. This allows you to send those stalwart warriors into the front-line of battle while keeping your powerful (yet vulnerable) mages and clerics at the rear to provide magical and divine assistance. Once you master the control interface, which is almost wholly mouse-based, you will wonder how you could ever revert to any other system. There is, however, quite a learning curve. You will have the chance to practice your skills before meeting with certain doom, but a careful eye on those characters of yours is absolutely necessary. I once had a safely invisible mage obliterated by a horde of kobolds as she sneaked past them because she took it upon herself to sling stones at the hairy monsters!
Conversation is present a-plenty in BG, passing townsfolk talk among themselves as you wander the streets and all kinds of monsters and foes will snarl and growl as you catch their attention. Some characters will approach you directly and seek your conversation, while others will actively avoid you and may turn hostile if pressed. All conversation is accessed via a list of appropriate questions and answers and all important discussions are displayed as text, only the "sound-effect" speech will be missed by those with impaired hearing.
The game is divided into seven chapters, each of which may contain any number of sub-quests. There are so many you will likely find it impossible to complete all, certainly some quests may just seem too difficult or too far out of your way. Faced with the decision of rescuing a mage from the clutches of a band of gnolls, or investigating the strange desertion of a respected guardsman, which do you pursue first? There are certain quests which you must complete, but you will be well informed of these when they arise. Only a few carry some form of time-limitation, but this does not include the main quests, so don't worry too much. Take your time and build up those characters because the later chapters have some serious challenges! The story might also change around your party as you play along. Lead a kind and virtuous existence and expect to receive gifts and tidbits of information; lead a life of devilry and mayhem and be prepared to have to shake the gold out of passing townsfolk as you certainly won't earn those rewards!
You will find threads of the main story scattered everywhere, all leading to the big question - Who are you? As you attempt to foil a major conspiracy you are brought face to face with new revelations about yourself, your companions and your foes. Friends will seem like enemies and enemies will disguise themselves to win your affections and effect your downfall. You will need every skill at your disposal to unravel this tangled tapestry that is your character's life.
You have access to an absolute riot of spells! Some will seem almost useless (why would I ever wish to know the alignment of those around me, wait, is that my father I see in that shady doorway? Urk! One arm-length of rusted steel later you find yourself reloading the game slightly wiser). Other spells will have immediate use, Magic Missile, and the perilous Fireball. Remember, this game is basically real time, and enemies can casually saunter out of the way of a poorly aimed fireball, and your friends can equally easily wander into its area of effect! Simply put, and purely my opinion, mages and clerics are essential.
The graphics and sound are excellent. The landscape around you is pre-drawn, so no tiling or seams are visible. Every location is drawn in painstaking detail, and all are exceptionally executed. Though quite small, your characters will look different with each article of clothing they wear, down to colour and different styles of cloak, helmet and armour. Your foes are drawn in equal detail, you can see the whiskers on their faces as they sneer and fling a poisoned dart your way. There is really only one way to describe BG's graphic detail ... beautiful! The sound effects are quite well done, but the voice acting is what really shines. From the overheard comments of the noblewomen through the high-pitched yip of a kobold to the cultured tones of the nastiest foe this side of the Underworld, the voice talent is exceptional.
Copyright © Adrian Carmody 1999.
All rights reserved.
Minimum: Pentium-166, 16MB RAM, 300MB HD space, Windows 95 Direct-X 5.0, 2Mb Video card.
Recommended: Pentium-200-MMX, 32MB RAM, 600MB HD space, 4Mb Video card
Reviewed on: PentiumII-400, 96MB RAM, 8MB Video card, Windows 98.