Reviewed By: Kirk Hiner
Review Date: September 18, 2000
I've never played Dungeons & Dragons. I've never done so because it's satanic.
Oh, no wait. That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of over-zealous soccer moms whose lives are meaningless but for interfering with mine. Is Dungeons and Dragons satanic? Sure, in as much as Skip-Bo can be when played with the right (or wrong) people. I once told a co-worker at the Surrey Inn in Ashland ("Someplace Special" claims the water tower), Ohio that I was playing Star Frontiers. After explaining to her that it was made by the people who make D&D, she warned me "Be careful, because satan is real and he's out there."
You know what? I do believe that satan is real and I do believe he's out there. I don't believe he's playing Star Frontiers with me!
So why, then, didn't I play D&D when my social status and choice of friends certainly should have led me in that direction? Simple. Because wizardry bores me. Keep your spells and your scrolls and magic amulets, I just want me a laser pistol and a Yazirian Battle Rage. Keep your Obi-Wan and your Gandalf, I'll take Han Solo and Boromir.
This was my only reservation with Graphic Simulations' Baldur's Gate, an RPG set in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game world of Forgotten Realms. I love RPGs and I love Black Isle Studios (Fallout is one of my all time favorite games on any platform), so would the game be good enough to overcome this personal bias?
Yes. Yes it would.
Baldur's Gate is amazing. It's one of those games that illustrates why computers were made in the first place (if not for games, then why?). Were it not for a few imperfections, it would already stand alone as my choice for game of the year. I'll get to those imperfections in a bit, but first lets set the scenario.
As with all RPGs, you start out the game by creating a character. The choices presented are more numerous than that to which I'm used; you select not only your gender, race, class, ability scores, proficiencies, and—to a lesser degree—appearance, but also alignment, racial enemies, and more depending upon the class you've selected. Your character is then thrust into the story, which sadly follows the same story as practically every fantasy ever written. Big, bad things are afoot, and they somehow center around you, the young hero, because of your history/destiny/lineage/birthmark/whatever. This was one of my favorite things about Fallout; your character was just some guy performing his job. But for some reason, all fantasy RPGs have to be coming-of-age novels; A Separate Peace meets The Lord of the Rings.
But hey, it's not that big of deal. Whatever your motivation (which you learn as you go along, of course), to make it through the game alive you have to travel to distant lands, making decisions along the way that affect the entire game world. You make a few friends, and you make a lot of enemies. You'll make some money, you'll steal some money, and you'll get robbed. It's what life would be like today if only we were allowed to carry around swords and hadn't harnessed electricity.
I won't get into the Dungeons and Dragons rules for interaction and combat. If you know them from the pen and paper RPG, you'll make your way through Baldur's Gate without difficulty. If you don't, there's not much I can do for you. Set aside a few hours to read the manual because the ongoing interactive tutorial throughout the prologue barely scratches the surface.
For instance, there are over 100 spells your characters can learn and use and nearly as many more traditional weapons (in as much as a halberd is traditional) and items of protection. Even more important than familiarizing yourself with these items is doing so with the people in your party. Throughout the game, various NPCs will offer to join you on your quest. Each, of course, has his/her own weaknesses and strengths, and learning to utilize these to the group's advantage is the key to survival.
Stop me if you've heard this before.
So what does Baldur's Gate bring to the table that we haven't already been served? Well, depth, first of all. The game is huge. Fallout was large enough on one CD, and Baldur's Gate comes on five. Five CDs full of graphic detail, ambient sounds, and enemies the likes of which you've never seen (unless you play a lot of D&D, of course). Whether you're searching for treasure near the Firewine Bridge, trading wares at the Nashkell Fair or fighting your way through the Cloakwood Forest, the environments are attractive enough to be printed and hung on a wall. Baldur's Gate features nearly 10,000 scrolling game screens, each with the detail of the one previous. Some of the interiors start to look repetitive, but the out-of-doors never ceased to surprise me. The ambient sounds cycled more quickly but were fun nonetheless. These especially shined in the cities where they instilled a real sense of energy...when they weren't a garbled mess, that is. Baldur's Gate apparently doesn't support USB speakers. When the game was played over my Harman/Kardon SoundSticks, both the sound effects and music often hissed and wavered like a warped audio cassette. It's too bad...the poor audio was like a bird dropping on a perfectly sculpted statue.
Yet the game looks great and a good majority of it is spent clicking your way through the environment. Aside from your main quest, there are dozens of subplots and myriad errands to keep you travelling. Plan on visiting every town, lake and mountain of The Sword Coast many times, because you'll never get everything done in one shot.
Back to the D&D rules for a moment, managing your party can be almost as complex as managing a family in The Sims. You have to keep track of their health, energy levels, inventory, experience, happiness...this must be why managers get paid so much. Luckily, you can't have more than six people in your party (including yourself). As long as you stay in the habit of checking their stats from time to time, paying close attention after every battle, you'll be all right.
It's especially important to keep your NPCs equipped for battle. Whereas you can stop the action to plot your points of attack, you cannot get into your inventory. The moment you do, the battle resumes and you have no control until you leave the inventory screen. This makes perfect sense, as not many gibberlings or ogrillons would be willing to sit patiently as you shuffle around for a larger sword or the Battle Axe of Mauletar that you know you have in your pack somewhere.
So what's missing from Baldur's Gate? Well, right now, multiplayer capabilities. The best thing about TSR's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (or Star Frontiers, in my case) was getting together with friends and hanging out until all hours of the night, eating Doritos and downing cases of Mountain Dew, discussing who will actually get up the guts to ask Megan Davis to the Prom (none of us ever did). Exploring exotic worlds and pounding away at skeletons just isn't the same with non-player characters. But GraphSim, at the request of their fans (and their bottom line, I'm sure) released Baldur's Gate before the multiplayer capabilities were intact. These capabilities will soon be released as a free patch to current owners, at which point I will update this review.
There are many other facets of Baldur's Gate that I could get into, but if I keep going here I'll have to charge Applelinks for two reviews. The game's setting is huge, but it has to be to contain the multi-layered story. The control system is complex, but it has to be to offer players the freedom of finding their own way through the game. Baldur's Gate is an epic, and finishing it is an accomplishment. You'll want to hold onto the box so you can put it up on the bookshelf alongside Tolkien, Lewis and Homer.
And hey, if satan wants to play Baldur's Gate with you, I say let him. Anything to keep him away from all that war and pestilence and stuff, you know?