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Flawed Beginning of a Respected Series
By: Lord Craxton
For a game that spawned two award-winning sequels, Baldur's Gate is surprisingly mediocre. BG is somewhat revered by RPG enthusiasts, and their reverence is not entirely without base. It has a marvelously compelling plot, some nice art, a large world to explore, and is very faithful to its AD&D roots. But there are also flaws- some merely annoying, some positively game breaking, that hold it back enough to qualify it as only a minor classic, instead of a true masterpiece.
Let's start with the good: First and foremost, the plot. The plot rocks, so of course I'm not going to tell you anything about it. Suffice to say, it involves an elaborate conspiracy, political intrigue, concealed murders, and a grand scheme to rule the city of Baldur's Gate, in addition to the usual fantasy bits about prophecies, gods, and destinies. Starting from attempts on your life and a mysterious iron shortage ravaging the Sword Coast, it slowly builds to a conflict of epic proportions. You lead your party from city to city, following a trail of clues that will eventually lead to a showdown with the mastermind behind all the scheming. Very X-filesish, and very well executed. The clues come slowly, each answering one or two questions and raising two or three more. This leads to a very immersive story, one that sinks its teeth into you and keeps you playing.
The interface is quite good- very intuitive, with buttons denoting subscreens along one side, and characters along the other. Everything is no more then three clicks away from the main screen. There's not a lot of configurability, but you can set difficulty, and, quite helpfully, set the game to auto-pause when you're attacked, wounded, or whatever. However, you do run into problems with pathfinding, especially in formation. You'll also have to remember to turn the AI off, because the scripts are horrible. But since you can pause at any time, it's no big deal to keep tabs on your entire party at once. Inventory management is a hassle- you have to contend with both weight and space limitations, often carrying around a bunch of trash that you need to trigger events later. And CD-swapping is annoyingly commonplace. Whoever decided that the streets and the sewers of Baldur's Gate should be on separate CDs should be shot. Fortunately, these are all minor quibbles.
Baldur's Gate is also extremely faithful to the Forgotten Realms setting, even including a cameo by fan favorite Drizzit Do'Urdan. But this is as much a minus as a plus. Forgotten Realms is about as close to stock-standard high fantasy as you can get, and nowhere is there one scene, character, or quest, aside from the main plot, that didn't strike me as derivative. And the central plot doesn't even pick up until the forth chapter. Prior to that you're traveling the length of the Sword Coast following up on subquests and putting up with an annoying cast of NPCs that criticizes your every move.
That's where we find the first real problem, the matter of your party. Your hero or heroine is a blank, defined only by your choices in dialogue. If the trees were as expansive, like in Fallout or Torment, this would work, but instead they're narrow chains of yes/no, agree/disagree, go on/get lost choices, with the occasional option to insult someone thrown in. The personalities of your comrades are no better. The best of them are bland, the rest are annoying and loudmouthed. This has got to be, bar none, the whiniest bunch of heroes ever. Virtually every voice sample from the early characters is insulting you or giving you lip. "A waste of my talents!"; "Less talk, more fight!"; "Yes, oh omnipresent authority figure?", and soon. The worst is Xan, who's given to yelling "Our quest is VAIN!" every five minutes.
In terms of presentation, Baldur's Gate is not bad, but nothing special either. Music consists of brief clips played upon entering new areas, which soon fades to ambient sound, and then back to the same clip after a few minutes. The visuals are unfortunately bland- forests, caves, dungeons, some generic-looking towns and interiors, blah. There's a distinct lack of bright color or atmospheric flavor to most of the areas. Spell effects are impressive, but not spectacularly so.
The main problems, however, lie not with characters or graphics, but with gameplay. The engine relies far too much on die rolls, especially early on where success or failure seems to be entirely up to chance. Once you have some decent equipment, things are easier, but since HP totals are low and weapon damage ratings proportionately high, a decent critical from your enemies can spell doom in any situation. Worse still, archery is incredibly overpowered, and a group of wussy kobolds or hobgoblins with bows can easily annihilate half your party before you're even ready for combat. Magic- especially incapacitating spells like Web and Stinking Cloud- are also overpowered, but at least you can use them just as well. If you run up against a half-dozen enemies with bows, you're screwed unless you have prior knowledge due to save-restore or a walkthrough.
Baldur's Gate also boasts some truly atrocious level design. The dungeon design leans heavily towards long, narrow corridors that are a pain to navigate with a party, more so since the pathfinding is so utterly atrocious. Your characters bunch together, completely unable to stay in formation or get out of each other's way. They'll sometimes be told to go one way and walk in the complete opposite direction. Outside dungeons, it's not so bad, but there are still areas where the designers have chosen aesthetics over navigability. The top of the Iron Throne tower comes to mind, throwing you into a tough fight while you're still boxed into a corner, trying to get into a decent battle order.
Then there's the matter of playstyle. I wouldn't say BG requires powerleveling, but you can't slouch either. Unless you play very thorough, combing each area for quests, fights, and encounters that will gain you EXP and treasure, you'll run into trouble later on when the battles start getting tough. After getting my ass thoroughly whooped in the later levels because I played through the earlier ones at a steady clip, I gave up. Perhaps I just didn't have the required tactical mind to deal with the situations I encountered, but I strongly suspect that the game's challenge level was calibrated toward the high end of the leveling spectrum. Either that or the enemies are so overpowered that the only solution is to be overpowered yourself. Inelegant, to say the least.
And this brings up the last problem. Baldur's Gate runs headlong into one of the oldest known video game design bungles: the last level where the designers throw everything they've got at you, with no regard for the difficulty curve. As if the vicious baddies along the cramped corridors in the final dungeon aren't enough, you also have to deal with an insane six-on-six fight with characters packing, among other things, arrows that behave like fireball spells. Then the final battle, against foes you can barely even hurt, in a room full of traps, with seemingly random web spells thrown in just for kicks. After 40 hours spent in the game, hitting such a stone wall really damages the replay value. More so when you actually start again and find yourself once more a powerless level 1 character.
Baldur's Gate is fun, and I wouldn't call it a bad game. But I wouldn't call it a classic either. As a story it's okay, but held back by thin and unlikable characters. As a tactical challenge its okay, but often frustrating. If you find it on sale, give it a try, but think twice before you pay more then $20 for it. Unless, of course, you plan to export your character to Baldur's Gate II, but that's a whole other story.
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