Baldur's Gate is a game that truly merits the term 'epic'. Split over two separate halves, each of which has its own expansion pack that continues (and finishes) the whole story. Set in the Middle-Earth styled realm of Faerun, and utilising the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rule set, this game is as deep as it is long. The game as a whole is divided into Baldur's Gate and its expansion, Tales from the Sword Coast. Its sequel, Shadows of Amn, continues from just after where the first part ends, and its expansion, Throne of Bhaal concludes the story. With well over 200 hours of gameplay crammed onto four discs, be prepared to make a few midnight snacks to keep you fuelled throughout your adventures.
Developed by the excellent Black Isle studios in 1999, Baldur's Gate is one of three games they developed that utilised the 'Infinity' game engine, including 'Icewind Dale' and 'Planescape Torment'. Opting for excellent 2D graphics over lumpy, unrefined 3D polygons, they produced a game that has aged very well and is still enjoyable today, unlike its successor 'Neverwinter Nights', which played terribly then and looks even worse now.
The game puts you in the role of, well, you choose the name but it transpires that you are an individual with much mystery surrounding you. The first part starts off in the safe monastery of Candlekeep, you quickly learn that you have some inherent, evil powers lurking in you, waiting to be tamed or unleashed, depending on how you wish to play the game. After the death of your mentor and guardian, you are left to fend for yourself. With a terrifying murderer on your heels and a vast conspiracy to uncover, Baldur's Gate I has a compelling tale, but is a little slow in its telling. It culminates with you learning about your condition, and the story of the sequel revolves around dealing with your condition, and those who would wish to profit from it. I won't give too much away, as with all good RPGs it's the story that counts. Needless to say, given the evil that lives inside your character, the story forces you to make some tough decisions and question your actions.
The Infinity engine employs a top-down perspective of the gaming area, with various menus, side-bars and character icons on the side of the screen. These also include access to inventories, character stats and lists of spells, all of which are logically and plainly mapped out. The inventory screen shows a 'paper-doll' of the character, where you can manage the armour and clothes they wear, what weapons they wield, and all the other adventuring junk you find along the way for them to carry around in their rucksacks. Fortunately, items are kept in little slots for the sake of organisation.
Player types and skills:
There are myriad types of characters, each with different advantages and disadvantages. Warriors and rangers are strong and tough, capable of battering enemies with a variety of weapons, but can cast no magic. Magicians have access to spells, but cannot wear armour nor use most of the weapon types, and are usually pathetically open to being hacked to bits. Priests are very useful, as they can wear armour, use most weapons and cast spells. Thieves can crack locks and find traps, and even use stealth attacks to instantly kill victims. There are many more, and even multi-classed ones, such as fighter/thieves, so the options open to you to develop your character are infinitely varied, and there are many tools available to solve problems.
There is also a character-defining balance of moral leanings, such as good and evil, lawful or chaotic. By mixing these up, you get a feel for how characters would behave by their moral (or amoral) codes. It is even possible for your character to fall from grace by performing too many evil deeds, and good members of your party will object, whilst wicked ones will relish the prospect. All this adds to the depth of the immersion.
The world of Faerun is massive. Spread over hundreds of screens, there are many side quests to pursue alongside the main quest. Many of these are entirely optional, but provide much needed experience points (XP) to quicken your progression, and many useful items, powerful armour and pieces of information relevant to the main plot can be gleaned by doing them.
The locations are wonderfully drawn and reproduced in exquisite detail, from dank sewers and beast-infested caves, to thronging cities, dusty desert villages and weird, alien planes of existence to which you are sometimes transported. The imagination of the artists is to be commended, as although the game area is basically a 2-dimensional canvas with only certain areas free for your characters to move through, it does give a wonderful illusion of a hugely varied and detailed world.
This is one of the games main areas of weakness in the first part, and one of its strengths in the sequel. The interface allows you to have up to six people under your command, i.e. the player character which is integral to the story, and five extra characters to recruit. Since there is a massive roster of these potential adventuring candidates, you can choose who you wish to have accompany you with a great many combinations. BG I suffered from a lack of depth in this department - most characters were given just a few lines, little back story and no real sense of being anything other than auxiliary firepower that help in a tight spot. However, the sequel greatly improved on this, and different party members would strike up conversations with your character and other party members, and sometimes forge friendships and romances, or completely fall out and even duel to the death. They would also have their own quest(s) which would rise out of conversations with them, revealing issues from their past and give plenty of depth to the world.
They also inject quite a lot of humour into a genre not normally noted for it, and are very memorable. There is Minsc, your loyal sidekick who is built like a bulldozer and likes to smash orcs often converses with his pet hamster; Anomen, the pontificating knight who never understands why everyone finds him so irritating; Jan Jansen, the cranky gnome who constantly talks total rubbish about turnips in a manner reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson... all of these characters and more are vital in bringing this game alive. The voice acting is mostly great. Superb actor David Warner provides the best baddy voiceover to the antagonist Jon Irenicus in the sequel, but sadly a second villain, Melissand, is so woefully am-dram I was forced to switch my PC speakers off at one point. There are also a few too many jarring American accents as well, killing off the medieval atmosphere in an instant. However, you will end up taking a genuine interest in most of these characters, just as those in a good piece of writing will compel you to do so.
Combat, Magic, and Kick-Ass Moves:
As with any RPG, it has its fair share of monsters to whack. Baldur's Gate sports a fantastic adaptation of the D&D rules. Rather than forcing the game to a crawl during combat, the game keeps all those complicate 'to hit' rolls and probability calculations behind the scenes, allowing for smooth running but intense combat sequences. But it also allows the player a fair bit of freedom in tweaking the difficulty and options to suit your playing style. You can also pause the game at any point, which is handy for shuffling round weapons and equipment, giving players in your party orders, or casting magic.
In BG I, magic users are usually dangerously exposed and weedy. However, their patience is rewarded in the sequel, as higher-level spellcasters are capable of wreaking devastation on your enemies before they've barely drawn their weapons. Yet you will of course bump into disgruntled shamans and grumpy necromancers who can hurl equally potent death-dealing mega-magic at you, so learning the rock-paper-scissors game of spell and counter-spell can become pretty complicated at later stages. Thankfully, there is a complete breakdown of all the several hundred spells that can be learnt and used in the instruction manual, which is a vital reference tool mid-combat.
Magic is also used to heal party members, destroy monsters, and perform other useful tasks such as identifying magical equipment before being able to use it, detect traps and open locked doors, teleport across distances,as well as some weird effects like summoning genies to grant wishes. It's advisable to have at least one spell caster in the group.
Slaying monsters, exploring locations and completing quests are the meat and drink of most RPGs, and this is no exception. All of these will earn you XP, and when the required number of points have been earned to progress to the next level, you will be rewarded with extra hit points, spell slots, a stronger sword-arm and so on. However, all XP points are divided equally between your party members, so you must make the decision whether to go for small party/quick advancement, or large party/slow progression. The latter is the more fun though, as a bigger party means more squabbling, gossip and humour. Whilst there is quite a lot of combat, the game never descends into pointless dungeon crawls.
This game is also respectful of the player, and doesn't patronise them in the way some RPGs do today. Although certain areas are off-limits until the main story has been progressed, you are pretty much free to wander where you will. This means that, for example, you can take on a mighty dragon right at the beginning of BGII, and will almost certainly get turned into a toasty dragon snack within 10 seconds. But the designers know that you will learn from your mistakes and use the Save Game function, only to return later when you're more powerful and chop said dragon into RPG sushi. Finding your own way in the world of Faerun is an integral part of the story, and the gameplay wisely reflects this.
The first half of the instalment suffers from terribly dated screen-resolution, and most modern monitors will not be able to reproduce its limited 640x480 resolution properly. However, there are several fan-made mods that rectify this, and allow it to be displayed at 1024x800 or above, which breathes whole new life into it.
BGI also suffers from large, empty gaming areas with not much to do in them. In an attempt to recreate a vast wilderness to explore, the designers shot themselves in the foot. There are far too many of these yawn-inducing traipses around open country with too few quests to follow, but this was thankfully rectified. The add-on, Tales of the Sword Coast, is an intense romp through a massive multi-levelled castle and dungeon, piecing together the story of its demise. And the sequel throws so many quests and characters at you it's hard to know where to begin. The designers also sensibly opted for quality over quantity, as there are fewer locations to explore, but they are much more detailed and vibrant, with very little wasted space.
The options given to your character are also somewhat limited, and over time, a bit of a pattern emerges. Whilst it offers far more scope than its dumber cousin 'Icewind Dale' in terms of dialogue options and perceived character development, it ultimately boils down to a choice of, a), be lawfully dogmatic, b) be a pragmatic, or c) be rude or funny d) be evil. And even in this limited choice, the option for playing an evil is very limited throughout the game, which is frustrating given that you're meant to be one of the most potentially dangerous people on the planet. Option c usually leads to dead ends, so is rarely worth pursuing. Overall, your player character ends up being the least interesting one in your party.
Baldur's Gate is a truly classic series of games, with a string of merits that far outweighs its flaws. Whilst it has its dull moments and the occasional toe-curling bit of dialogue or hammy voice-acting, it is for the most part engrossing, epic, exciting, occasionally moving, compelling and well-written. If you are a fan of the fantasy RPG genre and haven't played this, it's a bargain at ten quid. At 200-300 hours of gaming time to be enjoyed, that's an hourly rate you can't beat. It's also got great longevity, as the combination of characters is so great you can jumble it up to tell a different story. And given the massive scope of character classes, each of which has its own unique quest, it plays differently enough as a female elven paladin as it does a grumpy gnome thief to warrant several replays (if you have the time, of course).
I highly recommend this Baldur's Gate compilation if you're looking for a sophisticated and epic RPG.