Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
By rights this review should have been finished at the end of last year because I'd already been playing Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn for several weeks. I did consider zapping out a review but I'm glad I didn't because I would never have done the game justice. Maybe I could have finished it quickly but I wouldn't have explored half the nooks and crannies, done half the good deeds or had half the fun. So that's my excuse for this late review which means I'm compelled to begin with a dire warning ... this game could consume you too ... it could change your life. Good news on one level but even if it's bad news and all your friends and family disown you ... there's still a silver lining. This game is value plus for money!
It's Baldur's Gate II so it follows on from the first game and it also has a multiplayer mode which was not sampled for this review. If you haven't played the first one don't worry because you'll get plenty of snippets to roughly fill in the gaps. For the benefit of players who have graduated from Baldur's Gate there have been a number of 'improvements' made to this episode: more character choices, more character interaction, more story elements, more spells, higher experience cap, etc. etc., but it plays basically the same. You can import your Baldur's Gate character or create a new one which you can keep to move on to explore more wide and wonderful worlds.
The first chapter in this series allowed you to explore miles of rocky coastline and acres of green hills and meadows. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn shifts to a more claustrophobic world with maze-like prisons, imposing cities, dingy castles, and other dark, underground locales, although these locations are mixed with a few hills and dales where you can glimpse the blue sky.
If you haven't played Baldur's Gate or another BioWare product, creating your character (male or female) is very simple as you are guided gently through the process. Before you begin there is a useful tutorial to teach the basics, and don't worry, you don't have to face this entire adventure alone as you'll meet up with around a dozen other characters who will be happy to tag along. There are some familiar faces to welcome back including Imoen, Jeheira, Minsc, Viconia and Edwin plus a collection of new faces. The going can get tough so you'll likely want to keep the full compliment of five helpers in tow at all times.
When creating your character as well has having a good selection of races and classes (mage, fighter, priest, thief, druid, ranger plus extra subclasses) you must choose a portrait, distribute a few ability and proficiency points and select the alignment of your character - good, neutral, evil with an array of permutations in between. This latter choice might in turn influence whom you ask to join your party although early on some choices are made for you. If you decide to stick with all goodish characters total comfort is assured as everyone is caring and understanding. Throw in an evil character, however, and your party dynamics will pick up considerably. At one time I had a character wringing her hands and lamenting the 'condition' of the poor whilst another smartly commented that they deserved all they got. Another time whilst roaming the green hills my evil fighter growled that he'd burn all the tree-huggers and daisy-eaters. Some of the asides are quite amusing and so are some of the situations you come up against. I chuckled at the prospect of aiding the poor, unfortunate Ogres who yearned to be left alone and not be persecuted for simply being Ogres.
And there's more you can sample of real life on this journey as there's a dash of romance if you play your cards right and follow the right conversational leads. I do believe you can follow the cues to their ultimate end, with more than one partner, and then end up juggling jealous companions. I can't comment further because my mighty mage didn't have time for such frivolities, and anyway, for me fantasy (I'm talking Epic fantasy here J) is about swords and sorcery not about frolicking between the sheets.
Fortunately Shadows of Amn is less about romance and more about fantasy. It's the story of your questionable ancestry and your chase after an evil adversary who has purloined someone (and something) near and dear to you. The tale is brimming with swords and sorcery with many, many tough battles to get through and a range of difficulty levels to suit players with different levels of experience. Even on the 'Insane' mode (strictly for the insane I would think) you can opt to change the difficulty setting to win the unwinnable battle.
As with other BioWare products combat can be pretty much how you want it to be. You can opt for real time (another one for the insane J) or study the options menu and have the game automatically pause at significant points, i.e. after a combat round or when a party member is hurt, etc. Alternatively you can just press the space bar and control the stopping and starting yourself. All this means that you can intricately work out battle strategies and manoeuvre your characters step by step. Very satisfying although it does require some patience as there are some very tough critters hiding in the dark.
It also takes some patience to grapple with all the spells in this game. There are around three hundred of them so just browsing through the list in the manual can take a while, not to mention the fun you can have experimenting and admiring all the colourful effects. There is also a lot of serious treasure hunting to do to collect caches of coins or magical weapons and armour that will make life easier. In this game there is the added incentive to hunt down several elusive weapons that have been split apart with different pieces hidden in different locations. Find a mysterious sword hilt or bowstring and the imperative is there to watch out for the matching blade or bow. These extra touches are a real bonus for players who appreciate treasure hunting.
And there's more to this game than treasure hunting and fighting, indeed many confrontations can be amicably sorted out without losing face and without inviting experience-point penalties. There are lots of conversations, many characters to meet who will provide crucial information or an important artefact. Of course, most of them will beg a favour before handing anything over. Also, some doors require magical keys before they will open or sometimes you must search for other items such as a light source. The problems are quite varied, on one occasion you must co-opt hostile characters to help you out and there are also several areas where you are faced with a collection of riddles or maybe you have to go in search of information to successfully carry out a task or perform a ritual.
And this is just the beginning J, wait until your characters start showing their true colours and run into their friends and enemies along the way. Hence whilst about your business on this journey you might also find yourself rescuing a kidnapped party member, repaying old debts, fulfilling long-held desires and even saving the forest, solving a murder, and the list goes on. The game wisely comes with a journal that automatically keeps track of where you are and you can add your own comments if need be.
I must confess I thoroughly enjoyed this little romp even if it did consume me. The game ran perfectly, the graphics are superb and the music and sound effects are equally good with all dialogue subtitled. The only real problem I had was with the pacing of the game. With the antics of my party members I thought I was never going to get out of Chapter Three. Along with most of the side-quests' mentioned above there were sudden disappearances to hold up progress, estranged wives to help, sick siblings to heal, and unwelcome suitors to dispense with. I seemed to be running around forever sorting out personal problems. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so noticeable if I wasn't such a tidy person ... I hate frayed edges, I like everything sewn up nice and neatly. Hence the main plot came to a complete halt whilst I took care of other affairs.
This, of course, highlights the linearity/non-linearity debate. Some of you will love running around 'doing your own thing' and although I certainly want to be doing a lot of things I don't necessarily ache to be doing 'my own thing'! Whatever the merits of non-linearity (less structure and more freedom for the player) it always strikes me that deviating from the main plot weakens the story because it disappears into the background. This is what happened to me in this game. I somehow felt that doing extraneous things undermined the urgency of the story and worked against it being richer and more complex.
Nevertheless, I can only end by saying that I've had a great time. Even when I lost track of the story I had a lot of fun filling in my time tying up all the loose ends tightly ... well apart from a couple of kids who must still be running around the Unmar Hills as drunk as skunks and in peril of tripping over their sharpened swords ... I'm a bit worried about the little experiment!
Copyright © Rosemary Young 2001.
All rights reserved.
Required: Pentium II (or compatible) 233 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Windows 95/98 with DirectX 7.0 or higher, 750 MB of Hard Drive Space, 4X or faster CD-ROM, DirectX Certified Video Card with at least 4 MB of video RAM, DirectX Certified Sound Card, Keyboard, Mouse
Recommended: Pentium II (or compatible) 400 MHz or faster, 64 MB RAM, 1200 MB (or more) of Hard Drive Space, 8X (or faster) CD-ROM, 3D video card (optional - for use with 3D spell and background, effects)
Multiplayer Minimum: Pentium II (or compatible) 233 MHz or faster, 64 MB RAM (64 MB for the Server/Game Host for 2 people, for more than 2 people - 128 MB RAM for the Server/Game Host) 1200 MB (or more) of Hard Drive Space - Recommended Install or Full install is needed. Cache Size of 300 MB minimum.
8X (or faster) CD-ROM, 3D video card (optional - for use with 3D spell and background effects)