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Scar tissue that I wish you saw
As anyone who has read my previous reviews on the genre will know, I love a well crafted RPG. And to qualify, we need an excellent back story, interesting companions and fluid gameplay mechanics. I've reviewed Planescape awhile back, so continuing with the black isle studios theme, I thought it time to review the mighty Baldur's gate 2. Best of all CPRG entries in the forgotten realms.
Unlike films, where sequels are usually terrible, computer games do not necessarily follow the same pattern. Baldur's gate was a good, basic template for something that would become a whole lot better. Black Isle would try to surpass this offering with Icewind dale and the best-forgotten Lionheart, but never recaptured the same magic.
It all begins innocuously enough. Your character, one of the many spawn of Bhaal, the lord of murder wakes in a cage in a room with other cages. You are being tortured by the Elven Mage Jon Irenicus (memorably voiced by David Warner). What he's up to, you've no idea. But he is clearly fixated on causing you pain. A distraction allows you to escape with some old friends into the city of Athkatla, where unsanctioned magic is forbidden. Irenicus is close behind.
And so begins a 60-hour game. Yes. 60. Hours. At a time when developers seem to consider 12 hours a good investment for your hard-earned cash, all the side quests can push this into a much higher figure. You must try to rescue your half-sister, facing shadow thieves, serial killers, vampires, slavers, dragons, drow, mind flayers and more. And that's all before you get out of the city where the bulk of the game takes place.
Into the wild blue yonder
BG2 was the first CRPG to use Advanced D&D 2nd edition rules. Character classes and muticlassing existed before, though there are a few extra classes here. What was really new was the use of kits. Sub-classes that you could access once you reached the requisite level. These typically introduce greater powers, but further restrictions.
For example, a fighter class can't use spells but can wear armour. You can hone a fighter with the Kensai kit. This means you are deadlier with a sword. You will hit more often and do more damage, but can't wear armour anymore.
The main classes are:
Fighter (Any armour, be any alignment you wish, melee or ranged weapons. High hit points)
Ranger (limited armour, can use weapons in both hands, uses weak spells. High HPs )
Paladin (Holy warrior, lawful good only. Limited faith based abilities. High HPs)
Thief (Limited armour, not as good with weapons, can pick locks, disarm traps and back stab. Med-low HPs)
Bard (Musician. Buffs party and can fight and dress about as well as a thief. Fairly useless. Med-low HPs)
Mage (No armour, few weapons. Full range of spells. VERY low HPs)
Cleric (Any armour, most weapons. Good healing and other faith bases abilities. Medium HPs)
Druid (Natural Cleric. Abilities based around nature, otherwise same as Cleric)
Barbarian (Most armour, all weapons, highest HPs)
Monk (No armour. Few weapons. Gains increasingly divine-like powers. Medium-low HPs)
Sorcerer (Natural; rather than learned spellcaster. More daily uses of chosen spells, but fewer choices. Otherwise same as Mage)
Once you start to factor in the multiple kits, you can see just how specialised you can make your character. BG2 also introduced strongholds. You get the ability to have a base of operations all your own, with additional sub-quests and abilities. The really cool thing is that your stronghold will vary based on your class. All the fighter types get a castle. The mages get a machine capable of moving between dimensional planes. Bards get a theatre. Thieves, a guild. And so on.
The view is isometric. In English, this means portraying two-dimensional objects as if they were three-dimensional. Think looking at everything slant-wise, and you won't go far wrong. The backgrounds are varied, detailed and frequently beautiful to look at. The graphics of characters and monsters are by today's standards, rather primitive, but are something you can get used to if you try. This is a game that is over twelve years old, after all.
Selecting yourself and (up to five) companions is done using drag and click with the mouse. Selected characters can be directed to any point on the local map with a simple click. The game can be paused by pressing the space bar. It is a simple and elegant system that works.
Every local map has exit points. The global map has a number of areas that can be chosen from. There are a few examples of places you are locked into until that section is complete. Examples include a maze beneath an old asylum, the land of the fish people (no, really), the Underdark; where women running things doesn't result in the utopia feminists might expect. Oh, and Hell.
Hands off my stuff!
You can control your own and your companion's inventories. There's a lot of loot to be found, won or bought. One of the game's most powerful swords is in bits that require assembly (you have to find 'em first). Same with a bow that fires pure energy. Your avatars update accordingly. One of the most satisfying things in the game is a critical hit. There's a thump, the screen shakes and the thump-ee literally explodes into bits.
Deciding which companions to bring with you will depend partly on alignment, but also on who you are. If you play as a thief, you won't need one. If you play as a mage, ditto. Generally speaking, you will want two hand to hand fighters up front to soak up damage and protect your more vulnerable members, a cleric or druid for their healing and buffing abilities, a thief for seeking out and murdering enemy spell casters and the artillery. Two ranged specialists. Bows or spells.
BG2 was one of the first CRPGs to do companions well. Whether it's the slightly-brain-damaged Minsc, the grieving druid Jahiera, the exiled drow priestess Viconia or your half-sister Imoen. It also may be the first to introduce romance options. Your characters may bicker and fight among each other. You can try and assemble a party with Lawful good and Chaotic evil companions, but it will last as long as a pair of Jordan's knickers. They will leave or fight each other if they get unhappy enough. Dialog can be triggered at random or specific points. It all seems a bit threadbare now in comparison with Mass Effect 2, but in it's day it was unparalleled.
There is an enhanced edition of BG2 due later this year. It will have updated graphics and a few extra bits and pieces. Expect to pay around £20 for the privilege of a download. Given you can pick up this game and it's not-as-good expansion back, the slightly disappointing Throne of Bhaal for under £6 new, it may not be a difficult choice for the cash-strapped among us.
In summary, you will never, ever be able to buy as rich a story as this that lasts as long as it does for such a ludicrously low price.
This game is a sequel to the original Baldur's Gate - though you do not need to have played the original to get a huge amount of enjoyment from this computer game.
Like the original, it is a role playing game. You create a character from a variety of species and skill sets all with their own strengths and weaknesses. You can play either sex and this will determine which game characters your character can have a romance with. You get a choice of Evil, Neutral or Good morals along with how flexible and predictable your character is. All of this and how you and the group of characters you will pick up and discard during the game behave will determine how you are treated by other characters within the game - and how likely you are to be attacked on sight.
This game is a Dungeons and Dragons world and you do get to take on dragons during the course of the gameplay. You do not need to worry if you never played with the really big dice and are a Dungeons and Dragons virgin to play the game. I never played D&D but was engrossed by this game.
All that you need to know about what spells you and/or the non-player characters you use as part of the group you adventure with is explained in the very informative games manual and you will soon pick up the principles and be improving the characters armour and weaponry and teaching them spells so they will always know them. This makes your character and the one's you play the game with stronger so you and they can take on tougher and more challenging monsters, opponents and scenarios.
But this is not just a dungeon bash. As an incredibly long game this would get really dull no matter how badass the sword you just won is or the how hardcore the dragon-skin armour you earned after an incredibly tough fight is. What sets Baldur's Gate II and the expansion pack apart from other role playing game is the story.
The story is engrossing, twisty, turny and complex and is well complemented by the voice acting. The inter-relationships between the characters in the game shift and follow differing paths according to your choices and both story and relationships go to really interesting places.
While you do get to kill lots of kobolds, ghouls, wizzards and so on this is not a gore-fest. Gibs do not fly across the screen. The graphics are not grisly nor is this a first person shooter.
What is it is one of, if not the best, role playing games there has ever been.
One which will run on mid-powered pcs and does not need a fast internet connection to let you kill a dragon.
Which will set you back an incredibly reasonable £7.61 at Amazon. As it will give you weeks of gameplay, that is superb value.
Run, do not walk. Hack, slash and spell your way to hours and hours of engrossing gameplay.