#432 Baldur’s Gate II

Posted: 30th April 2011 by Jeroen in Games
Tags: , , ,

50th game played so far!

Genre: Role-Playing
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 2000
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Interplay Entertainment

Here we go then, possibly my favourite game (at least at the moment) – Baldur’s Gate II. BALDUR’S GATE II. As it says, it’s a sequel to the first game, which actually took place in Baldur’s Gate. It’s probably the best example of western RPGs out there, and is generally seen as a big one in the genre. It’s got it all – flexibility, character options, plenty of side quests, a good story that, to be fair, doesn’t always matter much because you spend so much time doing other things… and it’s just great fun. But is the enthusiasm shared?

This game uses the same engine as Icewind Dale, Icewind Dale 2 and a game we covered earlier – Planescape Torment.

Our Playthrough

After going through the tutorial (something good to do if you don’t know the game series yet), the unfortunately Irenicus Dungeon and we managed to do the circus tent quest, and started on the de’Arnise Keep.  Basically, do some quests, interact with some people, and see some of the things out there.

Our Thoughts

I’m afraid it’s going to be hard for me to give a completely unbiased opinion on this game. Don’t worry, when you start to spiral into fanboyism (even more so) I’ll give you a nudge. I bet you will with a sardonic grin on your face.

But then let’s start there – what’s less good about the game?

The first hour(ish) was a bit dull to be honest. The fact that you are so constricted in the linear nature of the dungeon gets very trying. In the end I guess this serves to act as a counter-point to the relative freedom in side-quests available as you step blinking into the sun. If it was not for the fact that Jeroen was so much of a fan of the game (and played so many hours on replaying it) I would have become very frustrated with it. The first dungeon does not offer much variation and since you are still coming to grips with gameplay so parts are rather unforgiving.

The first dungeon is boring – not only is it linear, most of it is a focus on the most boring part of the game – walk around, defeat enemies, get loot. There are some good parts that show the character interaction and allow for minor choice, but it’s far less than the real game, to the point where regular players have created a mod (more on those later) to skip it every time. That is one thing that really did get to me… all the walking around. I am thankful for the Ctrl+J mod that allows you to jump across the map. It meant that I got to do a lot more in our traditional 5 hours. Also, since there are 6 in the party, one of them always seem to get lost along the way. A general cheat code, actually, that’s worth turning on to speed it up a bit. Not properly allowed, and walking through the area the first time can be lovely, but the backtracking you need sometimes can get boring. Such as helping out that djinn/genie where you have to trek for what seems like miles to find his blasted item. And have no way to really avoid that… with it being on opposite ends of one of the larger maps, that gets to you.

The only other slightly annoying thing is the walking animations where the characters seem to stop and start quite frequently rather than it seeming more fluid. Then again that is probably more to do with available technology than lack of coding prowess. Something I didn’t notice as much anymore, but could happen… these are simpler sprite-based games, which might have influenced things here. I guess that since you have played it sporadically for the last 10 years it is something you got used to. Then a pair of fresher eyes watches the walking (so…much…walking) and it jars a little bit. Quite possibly true.

Still, other than that, you seemed to be okay with the graphics. Some of the later artwork was great. I loved the look of the circus tent in the main town. Also some of the rooms were beautifully decorated.  In graphic terms this was leaps and bounds ahead of Planescape: Torment (helped a lot by allowing a higher resolution for the game). That is really seen in the player portraits on the right-hand side of the screen.  All of them, except for those lifted from the original game, are much better than how they made Planescape’s Nameless One look. Well, none of them were millennia-old immortals, that would explain part of that; but they allowed for nicer hand-drawn portraits suited for the individual characters (and far more fitting the actual characters than some in the original game). Some of them did give me the creeps a little bit as the eyes are slightly off, Aerie being the ultimate example of this.

A truely disturbed individual she is – she used to be a winged elf, but had her wings clipped as she was dragged around as part of a freak show. No wonder she was such a whiner. Unfortunately so. Most of the characters you meet have some story like that, often leading into subquests or even romances you can get into with them.

Now, the characters are probably one of the most defining features of the game – their interactions with the world and the people in it are lovely and create lots of different personalities – the chatty Jan, insane Minsc and Edwin (no adjective… he’s just Edwin) are all memorable and funny, while the stories of characters like Aerie and Anomen are more serious and feel sadder.

Minsc really did capture the hearts of the gaming community. Even those of us who used to confuse Baldur’s Gate with Dungeon Keeper (don’t ask okay) will have most likely heard of Boo. I mean this is a Minature Giant Space Hamster after all. It’s oh so fun to make him squeak randomly. As he runs away because he’s afraid of you. Without him, Minsc would be far worse off. He’d probably end up killing the rest of the party and making balloon animals out of their entrails. Sadface.

The voice acting helps as well, setting the tone and defining the characters, and often as memorable, whether it’s a bit-character or a major NPC. And for the geeks – apparently the game was interesting enough for Michael Dorn to put in an uncredited voice) I did enjoy the voice-acting, after I reduced the frequencies of confirmations I enjoyed it even more. There is a large variety of noises the characters make but due to all the stopping and starting they tend to get used up in the first 15 minutes. The dialogue, however, is very well performed and is quite emotional in parts. This is especially so with Imoen where you can hear her fear and melancholy. This is quite a change from the happy-go-lucky Imoen from the first game. Then again, seeing your friends murdered in front of your eyes would do that for you. And the knives… knives…

Next, there are the different options. I mentioned the amount of quests and side quests before – all next to the main plot, which you can go on with at any time – and the large amount of exploration you can do. But there’s also the customizability in the character creation, which is quite freeform, as seen in western RPGs. 11 classes, most with several kits, races, and all the options in spell choices and so on.

Since we played this as a two-player run-through one of us took a magic-based character and the other a more melee-based one. Of the remaining party members we then made sure both of us had enough variation that many of the classes were covered.  I really did enjoy firing acid arrows at trolls with my sorceress. Note that that increases the variation too – you have up to six characters with you, one of which (or more in multiplayer) you decide on yourself, and the rest you can pick out of the existing characters. And the spells are awesome – there’s lots of them, with graphics and their own effects. Not all as creative, but often great to use and quite powerful.

The main limitation with spells being that there is a finite number you can cast ‘per day’. In the middle of a dungeon this can get frustrating when you have run out of fire magic to finish off trolls. Although it obviously makes sense as a balancing mechanism, and makes you have to be careful, this is just as much about adding strategy to the game. As well as conforming to the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, this is clearly a D&D based game – the original being the first in a long time – and it shows all the way through. Mostly following the idiosyncrasies of 2E (low armour class being better), but having some 3E elements having been added, such as the already beloved sorcerer.

In terms of the Western RPG there are few games that can claim to be as influential as this. To many this is Bioware’s magnum opus which, in view of the critically acclaimed nature of their back catalogue, is no mean feat. Considering the scope of the game, and the fact that a lot was left out as the developers game under pressure to release it sooner, it is a remarkable piece of interactive story-telling.

Final Thoughts

What more can I say? Look, it’s a good game. The graphics have their dated moments and oddities, but using sprites instead of 3D models that would be dated by now help a lot – and I personally love the hand-painted backgrounds. The writing and voice acting is great, the music suitably epic. A lot of it is memorable and stays with you – but that could be because I’ve played the game that often. The main thing that makes the game, however, are the characters – in part the people you meet, but moreso the characters in your party, who comment on everything, have their opinions and do go their own way at times. If there’s a defining feature of the game, it’s that.

A note on mods. We played using the Gibberlings 3 Fixpack. There are lots more out there – rather than list them all, I’ll link you to the Infinity Engine Modlist again. One of the interesting solutions for covering the 500+ mods that are out there is the Big World Project. This set of utilities allows you to download and install all possible mods in the right order, applying some fixes and making it easier to do the whole thing.

There’s a number of modifications, although if it’s the first time you’re playing, you’ll want to avoid most of them, as they require expert knowledge or wouldn’t offer as many new things. Still, some could be useful. The tweak packs mostly offer some things to make the game easier – spells are more likely to be learned (else you’d save and reload), stacks are higher (meaning you won’t need to fill your inventory with arrows) and NPC interactions are changed slightly to occur  more reliably, with the downside being they may respond from the other side of the map. It rarely matters anyway.

Second, if you own both games in the series, there are two mods that allow you to play Baldur’s Gate (the original) in Baldur’s Gate II, giving you a better playing experience that is more expansive. The two options here are Tutu and Baldur’s Gate Trilogy. The difference is that the former converts your installation – you can only play the first game – including changing some rules to suit the first game (weapon breakage and experience bonuses being the obvious ones), while the latter preserves your Baldur’s Gate II installation, not just allowing you to play both, but easily facilitating the move from the first to the second game – no importing necessary, no information lost.

Mods to be installed are plentiful, and too numerous to list here – it’s probably best to try them, and shoot me a message somehow if you want my advice.  Just take a look and try it yourself!

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