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by Black Isle and Bioware

Snapshot

Ups:
Deep, complex and immersive RPG

Downs:  Graphics are still a little dated

System Reqs: PII 233, 32MB RAM, 800MB  hard drive

For the last several weeks my life has been on hold.  I can’t exactly pinpoint my most recent shower.  Last Tuesday maybe.  I have forgotten to eat.  My living room has a smell.  Days and nights have run together, and I’ve been terribly happy the whole time because the cause of my self-neglect has been Baldur’s Gate II: Shadow’s of Amn.  Yet again Black Isle Studios and Bioware are responsible for a game of such consistent quality and unparalleled excellence that I sound like I’m under contract, but this is an amazing game and well worth the hyperbole.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Baldur’s Gate story, BGII takes up right after the battle with Saravok in the original.  On your way from the city of Baldur’s Gate, unknown assailants lie in ambush, and you wake to find yourself the subject of experiments undertaken by an unknown mage.  The immediate goal is escape, but you soon find yourself trying to locate and confront this mage as well as define yourself in relation to your pedigree as one of the offspring of the god of murder: Baal.  BGII features a much darker storyline than the first game.  You have the option of being as evil as you want (unlike the BGI) and much of BGII’s tension comes from its psychologically driven narrative. 

The single most important part of the game is character creation and, if you took a look at my First Impressions piece, you’ll know that this is a complex and in-depth process.  You have the option of playing not only one of the traditional Dungeons and Dragons classes (mage, fighter, ranger, thief, etc), but of selecting a character kit (the kensai, stalker, swashbuckler).  BGII uses an updated version of the Dungeon and Dragon 2nd Edition rules and with the 3rd Edition rules already out, some RPG purists may find characters limited or otherwise dated.  However, the inclusion of kits adds so much depth to the process that I think such criticism immaterial.   Additionally, the monk, sorcerer, and barbarian classes have been added and as each different class gets their own optional stronghold quests as well, I think you can sense the immense replay value as you try out different kits/class combinations. 

Also improved over the original is interaction with Non-Player Characters.   Now NPCs have quests specific to them and interact with each other in interesting ways.  They fight, argue, and will disagree, sometimes vehemently, with ethical standards of other party members.  They recognize your sex and various romance possibilities have been included.  There are 16 NPCs that can join your party – from Keldorn Fircam, an Inquisitor, to Haer’Dalis, a tiefling Blade – and you will want to play with all of them in order to explore the side quests they make possible.  Each has extensive scripting which results in well-rounded, believable characters. 

I’ve mentioned quests twice now and that is the single biggest improvement in BGII.  The main storyline takes about 60 hours, but there are up to 300 hours of gameplay available in optional quests. BGII is massive.  While most quests in BGI were of the FedEx variety (getting items for NPCs), BGII asks you to spy, plant evidence, catch criminals, and talk reluctant divas into giving one more performance.  BGII isn’t as text heavy as Planescape: Torment, but the level of complexity coupled with the sheer number of quest opportunities makes every replay of the game a new experience.  There is always something overlooked.  Some surprise.   Some situation to play differently. 

Gamplay hasn’t changed much from BGI.  It is still in a isometric view, but now various pieces of the interface can be hidden and can be run at 800x600 resolution.  Additionally, the configuration utility is excellent, allowing the game to be tweaked with a high degree of specificity.  Under the hood, the infinity engine has been update to support 3D accelerators for some animations/effects (although I got better performance by turning acceleration off).   In my opinion, the infinity engine is such a great way to run party-based adventures (giving the gamer the ability to interact with the terrain and move party members individually while still providing the performance advantages of primarily 2D graphics) that the lack of fully 3D environment didn’t bother me.   

However, after seeing a game like Sacrifice, I have to admit that BGII’s graphics are adequate at best: a trade-off to play-ability.  They have been improved, more frames of animation and better spell-effects, but this really isn’t a game about eye-candy.  While many of the settings are beautiful – the temple of Lathander and Talos come to mind – nothing comparable to the visual excellence of Quake III is evident.  So while attractive, BGII doesn’t have the immersive beauty of other 3D games.  However, the BGII’s soundtrack is strong and voice-acting is superb.  It looks like a lot of work went into sounds effects as well as vocal performances, which result in moody landscapes and nuanced NPC dialogue. 

What I like the most about BGII is the vast number of variables that increase the replay value.  Not only are there a large number of optional quests with multiple outcomes, but different characters markedly changed my style of play.  I’ve put in over 50 hours with several of the class/kits and each one is a new experience demanding different strategies as well as different party configurations.  This is an RPG at it’s best in which a good portion of the fun isn’t simply in finishing the game but in determining what sort of character you will create in getting there.  And in a period when the crappiest game costs as much as the best, BGII delivers so much in proportion to its cost that you come away with an incredible bargain in terms of the cost to time-spent-playing. 

I have very few criticisms of this game because I’ve been having so much fun.  Little, beyond my real life, has jerked me out of my absorption in the story.  I wish there were greater depth in the type of NPCs that can become part of your party, but, on the whole, this isn’t so much of a problem as a challenge.   What we’ve got in BGII is a culmination of all the work that went into Black Isle previous games.  There is the dense, action-packed dungeon crawling of Icewind Dale, the dialogue rich moral development of Torment, and the well-designed interface of BGI.   I’ll go ahead and predict it gets RPG of the year (even with titles like Pools of Radiance II and Neverwinter Nights looming on the horizon).  To date, I haven’t played anything as immersive and addicting.  BGII sets the standard for what RPG ought to be.   I hope other production companies take notice. 

--Matt Blackburn