|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. Theyre still
laughing, too, because I just bought Forgotten Realms: Baldurs Gate and have been
having a blast wandering through this digital Dungeons & Dragons world.
As indicated, Baldurs 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 playersI couldnt justify blowing a weekend in a buddys 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.
From what Ive 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 characters 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 abilitiese.g., a gnome can be a thief but not a rangerbut 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 downsidesfor instance, taking a dual-class character like Als 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. Its best to avoid over-specialization, particularly with mages. In fact, any pure mages will find the early game a bit of a trial, and its 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, youll 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, youll also discover what your first basic quests will be, learn a bit about the games background, and equip yourself for your first real adventures. Youll be attacked a few times, but nothing you cant handle. Its a brilliant way to introduce non-D&Ders to the games basics.
The game itself is just enormous; weve 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 NPCs that can join your party. And you get the feeling of the games enormity almost from the moment you leave Candlekeep. Youll immediately (though briefly) be confronted by some of the games most impressive characters, and as you journey across the lands youll be flooded with information, place names, and questsso 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 youre likely to forget, all this comes into focus eventually. But the feeling of being a step behind never quite leaves you, and its best to just get used to it. You cant 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 wont 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. Youll 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. Its a good idea to pay attention to the games audio--your comrades will pass comments to each other. Sometimes theyll express admiration of each others abilitiesbut sometimes it will become obvious that youve got a troublemaker or a flake on your hands, and you need to get shed of them quick. Its 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, youll sometimes have to dump one character for another, and the choice can be difficult. Do you keep the fighter youve 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? Youll also be able to arrange your party in a specific marching orderof course, youll 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.
Gameplay itself is pretty amazing; the games interface is one of the best Ive seen, and its 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 games depth, but a little patience and a lot of save and restore goes a long way. Let me say that againa lot of save and restore. Baldurs Gate is a complex and difficult game, and you will get killed a lot. Everyone Ive talked to whos played the game has been surprised by how easy it is to get whackedat least initially, youll 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 games 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 NPCs 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 youre attacked, they will come to your aidin other cases, if you violate some rule or policy in place (possibly unbeknownst to you!) theyll be all over you like flies on stink.
Though some have complained about the games
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 cant stop combat is when youre in your inventory
screen. Since this screen is equivalent to your backpack, this reflects the reality that
if youre fumbling about in your stuff while being attacked, youre gonna feel
the hurt. Some players have grumbled about this, but it really shouldnt 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.
Graphically--even though the game lacks the 3D acceleration and the high resolutions some might wish forthe 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 characters abilities. Each change you make to a characters 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, youll know what we mean. You wont 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 youll 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, Baldurs Gate looks to be for RPGsa game that takes a genre to the