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by Interplay

Just when I think I’m out, they suck me back in. Those rotten developers over at Black Isle have ruined several summer weeks. I, by all rights, should have been outside enjoying the sunshine, playing Frisbee, or doing whatever it is people do when the weather is nice, instead I’ve been, once again, hunched in front of a computer screen tippy-tapping away. Throne of Bhaal, the expansion pack for Baldur’s Gate II that completes the story of one cunning son of a God, is compelling enough to make you want to play from the beginning but not good enough to satisfy in the end.

Throne of Bhaal (TOB) begins immediately after you’ve defeated Irenicus in Baldur’s Gate II. Unfortunately, several of Bhaal’s offspring, all as powerful as you, have raised armies and are warring with each other in an attempt to become the new god of murder. Starting play, you are transported to Bhaal’s inter-planer fortress, now yours, where a Solar explains what’s new as well as bestowing the ability to return to your new home anytime you like (an invaluable power). It doesn’t take a genius to see that you’re going to go out and kill a succession of powerful foes, either to become Bhaal yourself or to stop them from doing so, all the while coming closer to some grand climax. While a bit simple, the characters you meet, witty dialogue, and various subplots, including the absolutely stunning dungeon crawl in Watcher’s Keep, were, individually, compelling enough to maintain my interest.

Probably the most important aspect of TOB is the high levels your characters can achieve. BG II experience capped out around 2.5 million. TOB lets you go up to 8. That translates into level 40 for some classes. As the Dungeons and Dragons rules don’t provide many spells or abilities after level 18, Black Isle has added a host of new goodies to make those levels worth it. Fighters get Critical Strike, making every hit a critical, Whirlwind attack, giving them 10 attacks for one round, and Deathblow, a massive hit that kills anyone 8th level or below. Mages get new spells like Dragon’s Breath and Wish. Clerics can summon Devas and tougher elementals, while Rogues can set meaner traps and gain the ability to scribe scrolls. All of this is very exciting, but as TOB only includes around 40 new hours of play – about 1 level of experience every two hours – characters level up so fast that you have little time to experiment and enjoy these new skills.

A variety of improvements have been added to the infinity engine; the most important, in my opinion, is a feature that automatically optimizes game play; turning on an off animations and other effects to keep things running smoothly, but you are still going to need a fast machine to prevent annoying lag. Also, the interface has been tinkered with. A screen has been added to allow mages to view the details of their spell triggers and contingencies. Mage-clerics can switch between mage and cleric spells rather than cycling through all of them. Players can now erase spells from their spell books as well.

In my preview I mentioned the new Wild Mage class – a magic user whose power is often unpredictable, sometimes being more powerful, sometime less, and which can explode into completely unintended effects. On first look, I thought this class more a novelty then anything else. Playing one, however, has made me re-evaluate. The unpredictability of the class makes routine battles fun and well worth playing. With the experience cap so high, dual-classing characters – a great idea exploited by many players in BG I and II– becomes an option well worth looking into. (Combinations like the Kensai-Mage are devastating.)

What will get the most shrieks of glee from hardcore D&D fans are not the high level characters but some of the most impressive artifacts from D&D lore. You’ll get to fiddle with the Machine of Lum the Mad, play with a few other odds and ends of enormous power (no I wont say) as well as fight and kill some of badest monsters from the Monsters Compendium. Also, my favorite treat in BG II – collecting items and making new equipment like red dragon scale armor – has been expanded. You’ll spend lots of time finding bits and pieces to combine into evil-smiting implements of destruction (or good-smiting depending).

In terms of sound, voice acting is up to the usual standards and a new score has been written which is, in itself, not very impressive. New animations and spell effects will not exactly dazzle the eye but look pretty good as do the new area maps.

The final judgment of TOB does not lie in sound, animation, and new skills. For the past several years, hundreds of thousands have shelled out their allowances, their milk money, and their McDonald’s wages in order to track this story, and ultimately, unlike first person shooters or strategy games, that’s the core the Baldur’s Gate series: a very long interactive story mixing traditions of animation, cinema, and the rhetoric of computer games. And that story has been satisfying. But with TOB, the rapidity with which characters gain levels and the game itself wraps up that story leaves me a little cold. I understand that Black Isle wanted to retire the Infinity engine that powers these titles and move onto new territory. TOB will be what Baldur’s Gate fans will remember, though, and this ending is too perfunctory, too quick, and too simple compared to either BG I, BG II or Planescape: Torment, to really please. Where the Tales of the Sword Coast (the BG I expansion) added to the existing world, TOB adds and ends. For that to be effective, I think the last chapter needed to be more complex and detailed. The new weapons, enemies, battles, and abilities are cool but hollow as they finish out this epic. Few have claimed that, as of yet, commercial computer games have achieved levels of artistic excellence comparable with film, music, or literature, but that doesn’t mean that they wont. With TOB, good as it is, I think an opportunity for that degree of excellence has been missed.

Matt Blackburn   (07/10/2001)

Snapshot

Ups: New "Wild Mage" class, new spells, expedited levels, nice game optimization feature.

Downs: Too short, too simple.

Platform: PC

 


1995-2001
GamesFirst! Magazine