Everything old school just got new again
The overhaul of Baldur’s Gate by Overhaul Games scooped up many deserved plaudits for bringing a true classic to a new generation of gamers. But while it was a reminder of how great old games can be, it also demonstrated how much things had improved in terms of graphics and user interfaces.
I was expecting a similar experience from this enhanced and extended version of the sequel, Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition. It is after all, a similar package: the original game with its expansion, plus some new characters and their plotlines and an arena mode focussing on the battle engine.
So I was pretty shocked to end up comparing it to much more modern RPGs like The Witcher series. The graphics might not be directly comparable, but the original game looked stunning on release, and a little spit and polish has left it looking perfectly respectable today. And this is a much more party-based affair than the modern fashion for single-character focus.
But in most respects Baldur’s Gate II can stand toe-to-toe with its antecedents and come off proud. Vast amounts of content are crammed into the three gigabytes of download: horrible villains, lich-haunted libraries, and vibrant cityscapes.
There’s a varied cast of characters to people your party, most with their own sub-quests, and branch points in the story that lead to radically different narratives. You could pour hours upon hours into this and still not see it all.
Where the game does feel decidedly old-school is in its mechanics. It’s based on a long-defunct flavor of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game which was complex even for those, like me, who sucked it up like a drug during their teenage years.
Baldur’s Gate II makes no concessions to newcomers. There are some tutorial movies, but they cover only the basics, and the remainder is tough going for the uninitiated. To add to the learning curve, this is an adventure for high level characters, which means a seemingly endless waterfall of spell effects, magical items, and character powers to be learned, pondered over, and recombined to best equip your party.
If you can crest the hill, however, this is a game of enormous challenge and depth. Hideously powerful traps and monsters, from demons to dragons, get thrown at you around every turn. You’ll need to master the rules and the abilities at your disposal to beat them using a real-time tactical combat system which allows you to pause to issue new orders. It was a revolutionary engine when it originally came out, and it’s aged surprisingly well.
At the pinnacle of the heap of horrors is Jon Irenicus, one of the most memorably wicked adversaries I’ve encountered in my entire game-playing career. A sadist and torturer he may be, yet he has enough background and depth to elicit slivers of sympathy from the player.
Indeed it’s the characters generally that make both the original Baldur’s Gate and this, its sequel, stand out from the crowd. I remain vastly entertained by the puerile antics of deranged ranger Minsc and his sidekick “miniature giant” hamster Boo. And most of your other favorites from the original game will turn up again here.
The three new characters from the Enhanced Edition of the original also reappear, in rather more interesting guises. The Monk Rasaad was worryingly squishy in his previous incarnation, but the added experience turns him into a viable character here. Likewise Wild Mage Neera and wicked Blackguard Dorn are more entertaining with their added powers in effect.
There’s also a brand new addition for Baldur’s Gate II, enigmatic thief Hexaat. However silly her name, her sub-plot is worthy of the aura of mystery that’s built up around the character. All these additional NPCs have extensive new content in the game, easily enough for veterans of the game in its original form to pack their party with the novel additions and enjoy another trip through.
Those encountering the game for the first time might find the dizzying scale of content and obtuse underlying systems off-putting. But I would encourage them to persevere. By building on top of the colossal edifice of the tabletop RPG, Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition achieves a depth of setting and tactical play matched by few other computer role playing games, even over a decade after its original release.