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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by Interplay

cup.gif (5516 bytes)Ups:Looks great, sounds great, plays great; is great!
Downs: Multiplayer concentrates too much control to one player.
System Reqs:
Pentium-166, 32 MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM, SVGA w/ 2MB.
gorion.JPG (18928 bytes)In the days of yore when I was a young, bald-faced squire, you could spy bands of role playing gamers roving the halls of junior high schools throughout the land. These kids were easy to spot; bundles of adventure modules bulging from under arms and tiny sacks of multiple sided dice dangling from cheesepuff stained fingers gave them away. They would imagine their ways through forgotten realms and dank dungeons at every opportunity: during lunch; between bells; in PE. Even though I was lucky enough to consider a few of these eccentric souls friends, I could never understand their compulsion to indulge fantasy to the degree that required one to assume an alternate identity and imaginary vocation for the purpose of gaining wealth, reputation, and a mastery of skills that seemed to have absolutely no relevance to the "real world." As for me, I wondered what these fellows would do when it came time to get responsible and work for a living. Of course, when these guys graduated from high school and endless weekends of marathon gaming campaigns and started software development and trading card companies, they had the last laugh on me. They’re still laughing, too, because I just bought Forgotten Realms: Baldur’s Gate and have been having a blast wandering through this digital Dungeons & Dragons world.

As indicated, Baldur’s Gate (BG) is indeed Dungeons & Dragons for the computer gamer. As such, it seeks to provide a real-time digital gaming experience that captures the essential flavor of the original RPG. One of the reasons I never got into D&D proper had to do with the time commitment required of players—I couldn’t justify blowing a weekend in a buddy’s basement jazzed up on Mountain Dew and bloated with delivery
pizza, trying to pick imaginary pockets and slay unseen monsters when there were newspapers to deliver, comic books to read, and cartoons to watch. And this scenario simply addresses the time required for gaming. Getting prepared to play D&D was also a grueling and time-consuming labor: choosing a race, an occupation, an alignment and so on took at least a day in itself. It seems ironic, then, that character creation and real time play make BG so much fun to play.

evil.JPG (12537 bytes)From what I’ve seen so far, the type of character players create for themselves at the start of a new game evokes an atmosphere and possibilities that will be unique to that particular gaming experience. As in the "analog" version of D&D, players choose every characteristic and attribute of their character, from gender to vocation to alignment to weapons; players can even pick the color of their character’s skin, hair, and clothing. In addition, players can choose a highly stylized portrait of their character or download their own images to flesh out the appearance of the interface. Of course, the race a player chooses for his character at the start of the game restricts his choice of vocations and abilities—e.g., a gnome can be a thief but not a ranger—but this limitation only adds flavor to the game. For example, a Tolkien fan from way back, I decided to play BG as a halfling thief. As a result, my character had a lot of charisma, which has made it easier to get adventurers to join the party and follow orders, but he was not very intelligent, which has limited the use of magical items or lore. Rick, on the other hand, chose a half-elf Ranger, an all-around good fighter with nifty weapons skills and a knowledge of woodcraft, as well as a special hatred of one particular evil race. Al chose a half-elf fighter/mage for his character, whose combination of unrestricted weapons choice and magic abilities makes him an especially formidable opponent. All of these choices have upsides and downsides—for instance, taking a dual-class character like Al’s splits your experience points between each class, which makes it more difficult to level up. Rangers, of course, have no magic abilities, and halflings are just too damn short and friendly and hairy to be very resilient. But some choices should be avoided by beginners. It’s best to avoid over-specialization, particularly with mages. In fact, any pure mages will find the early game a bit of a trial, and it’s probably best to go with some sort of fighter-mage combo, or start as a fighter and switch to a mage class after you gain enough experience to ensure your survival.

After generating your character, you’ll be sent to Candlekeep for the tutorial, which ingeniously enough is also the first chapter of the game. While your character wanders the environs of the screen, he or she will learn how to move, fight, cast spells, find and use objects, and communicate with other characters. While all this learning is going on, you’ll also discover what your first basic quests will be, learn a bit about the game’s background, and equip yourself for your first real adventures. You’ll be attacked a few times, but nothing you can’t handle. It’s a brilliant way to introduce non-D&Ders to the game’s basics.

church.JPG (20922 bytes)The game itself is just enormous; we’ve only played through the first two chapters, and the next five get progressively larger. Just to throw a few figures at you, the game serves up over 100 weapons, 3500 screens, 40 monster types, and over 25 distinct NPC’s that can join your party. And you get the feeling of the game’s enormity almost from the moment you leave Candlekeep. You’ll immediately (though briefly) be confronted by some of the game’s most impressive characters, and as you journey across the lands you’ll be flooded with information, place names, and quests—so many, at least initially, that the game can be a little disorienting. Thanks to a handy map that comes with the game and a very useful auto-journal that remembers all the stuff you’re likely to forget, all this comes into focus eventually. But the feeling of being a step behind never quite leaves you, and it’s best to just get used to it. You can’t do everything at once, and the number of possibilities available and your freedom to pursue what choice you will makes the game delightfully non-linear.

Your character won’t be able to complete the game on your own; an important part (probably the most important part) of the game is building a party of like-minded and compatible adventurers. You’ll have the chance to pick up characters as you search the land, and the weaknesses of your own character will need to be offset by the strengths of your party members. You also have to be careful about personalities. A chaotic evil mage is not likely to get along well with a lawful good paladin, and eventually one will either abandon you, or worse, start a fight with the other one. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the game’s audio--your comrades will pass comments to each other. Sometimes they’ll express admiration of each other’s abilities—but sometimes it will become obvious that you’ve got a troublemaker or a flake on your hands, and you need to get shed of them quick. It’s essential to have balance and range in your group: for example, my party at the moment contains a Ranger, a fighter, a fighter-druid, a cleric, a thief, and a mage, and we can handle most of what gets thrown at us. At least for now. Since you can only have six in your party, you’ll sometimes have to dump one character for another, and the choice can be difficult. Do you keep the fighter you’ve nursed since almost the beginning of the game, or trade him in for the shiny new mage with the oh-so-cool weapon? Or do you go with the guy with the hamster? You’ll also be able to arrange your party in a specific marching order—of course, you’ll usually want your tough guys up front, with your missile units and magic users in back. But the interface allows for many easy-to-implement formations, so you can experiment as you like.

barracks.JPG (21091 bytes)Gameplay itself is pretty amazing; the game’s interface is one of the best I’ve seen, and it’s impressive that so much information can be accessed so easily, and a party of six detailed characters controlled with so little fuss. It takes a while to discover the game’s depth, but a little patience and a lot of save and restore goes a long way. Let me say that again—a lot of save and restore. Baldur’s Gate is a complex and difficult game, and you will get killed a lot. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s played the game has been surprised by how easy it is to get whacked—at least initially, you’ll have to dodge a few fights until you get buff enough to handle the nastier beasties. The game does have a nice auto-save feature, but for a long time (due mostly to poor documentation) we thought there was no quick save. Suffice to say there is. Just press Q. (And thanks again, Spector!).

So far, the game’s AI has been a real strength. Pathing can sometimes be problematic, especially if you try to send your party of six all the way across a heavily-wooded or crowded screen in one click, but if you move your party in reasonable bounds, in works surprisingly well. Enemy AI is likewise impressive; the bad guys will often implement sophisticated formations and sneak attacks requiring quick, intelligent responses if you hope to survive. Neutral NPC’s cleverly assist or attack depending upon the ebb and flow of a given situation as well. For instance, many varieties of guards are present in all sorts of situation and almost all are at least tolerant of you initially. In some cases, if you’re attacked, they will come to your aid—in other cases, if you violate some rule or policy in place (possibly unbeknownst to you!) they’ll be all over you like flies on stink.

Though some have complained about the game’s real-time combat system, we like it, especially since the ability to pause combat at any time (with one exception) and issue orders makes the game a sort of turn-based/real-time synthesis. The only time you can’t stop combat is when you’re in your inventory screen. Since this screen is equivalent to your backpack, this reflects the reality that if you’re fumbling about in your stuff while being attacked, you’re gonna feel the hurt. Some players have grumbled about this, but it really shouldn’t be such a big issue, because most characters have several quick weapon, spell, and item slots that can be accessed without going to your inventory. We think it makes for a better game, since being properly prepared is rewarded, and not having it together gets you spanked.

mage.jpg (5775 bytes)Another compelling element of BG is the clock. Characters exist in a fantasy realm where days turn into nights, years pass, and the weather can effect the morale of a player’s party. In some of the most disturbingly convincing game play I’ve ever experienced, for example, a member of my party started to whine about fatigue in the midst of a wilderness where no inn or tavern was in sight. I realized that without rest or repast, my party was likely to get decimated in an ambush of merciless hobgoblins or slavering ghouls. Of course, unable to take effective action due to poor planning, my party got waxed, a cautionary reminder that in a game where fortune vacillates as arbitrarily as the elements, it’s wise to save often and plan ahead.

Graphically--even though the game lacks the 3D acceleration and the high resolutions some might wish for—the game is lush and colorful, and looks damn good. Terrain and architecture are beautifully rendered, and lighting and weather effects change throughout the day and will have an effect on gameplay and your character’s abilities. Each change you make to a character’s equipment is represented in their appearance on the screen, and the significant differences size between various men and monsters adds even more drama to the game. The first time you run into a pack of Gnolls, you’ll know what we mean. You won’t lose your party if they walk behind castles or trees, either, as a nifty translucency effect allows you to keep track of them.

Playing Baldur's Gate alone is a brilliant and complex experience; multiplayer, on the other hand, suffers from incorporating almost too directly many pen-and-paper AD&D characteristics.  Here's how it works; one player is selected to be the host (essentailly the Dungeon Master), and he or she determines who plays and how they play.  The DM not only controls actions like spending gold, initiating conversations, and general guidance of the group, but the game pauses for all players when the DM has a conversation or makes a transaction and if the leader dies, the game ends.  Period.  On the other hand, if you can work around the limitations of a mutiplayer game that concedes that much to a single player in the group, you'll find there are some benefits when it comes to spontaneous combat.

The thorough 160-page manual contains tons of information about every aspect of gameplay, as well as a detailed history of the Forgotten Realms. Though you can jump right into the game without reading the whole thing, eventually you’ll find yourself compelled to look up something, which can be accomplished with minimal fuss.

Baldur's Gate is lush, detailed, and complex.   For your money you get beautiful graphics, outstanding sound, excellent writing, and well over 100 hours of involving gameplay.  Baldur's Gate not only establishes itself as the best computer adaptation of AD&D ever, it also convincingly provides a deep yet accessible introductory experience for non-RPGers.  What Half-Life was to 3D shooters, Baldur’s Gate looks to be for RPGs—a game that takes a genre to the next level.

--Rick Fehrenbacher, Greg Matthews, Al Wildey