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Review – Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition

Baldur’s Gate:  Enhanced Edition 

I don’t know if I should be happy or sad with Baldur’s Gate’s lack of setup problems.  I was pleasantly surprised that (unlike every other game I have reviewed) it ran without any complications.  This is a sixteen year old game that installed and launched with no issues.

I was then slightly depressed at the fact that  (unlike every other game that I have reviewed) it ran without any issues.  This is a sixteen year old game that installed and launched without any issues, something that the majority of the modern games can’t get right.

This sort of thing should not be even slightly surprising.  It should be considered normal.  I understand that new technologies are more complex and there are more moving parts that can malfunction, but technology should be making things better, not worse.  It seems that (just like the Window’s Operating systems) the further back in time you go, the more reliable and stable the software gets.

Admittedly this is the recent ‘Enchanted Edition’ and I’ve not played the original to know how it ran, but all games should aspire to perform like this.  Actually ‘aspire’ isn’t the correct word, ‘to be expected’ is what I meant.

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The Basics

Before embarking on the ludicrously lengthy game, you have the option to play through a tutorial.  This barely scratches the surface of the games mechanics, yet I would still consider it essential.  Having played some ‘Planescape: Torment’ (a game with similar mechanics and from the same developers), I knew there would be very little in the way of in-game prompts on how to interact with the world.  I wanted to avoid the hilariously awful start I had to Planescape, whereby the first dungeon took longer than literally any other part of the game, due to blindly guessing the purpose of items and spells and frustratingly inching my way to the end through trial and error.

The tutorial covers the basics of interaction and combat, with some information on the inventory and combat logs.  It uses in-game characters to do this, giving a preview of the world and people. Though no one seems to ask why training in very basic motor functions is necessary, I still appreciate the effort to implement the tutorial through the use of in-game characters and settings.  Other games have a habit of having either no tutorial, use floating text, or a voice over – all of which just seems out of place.  ‘Deus Ex’ also had it’s tutorial in-world and part of the story and to me is still the best tutorial of any game, as it fits so well into the first chapter and includes very relevant characters and information.  The music was awesome too.

Of course the tutorial could not cover all character classes as there are way too many, but it does give you an idea of the interface and framework by going through spells and abilities of the Thief and Paladin – which can be translated quite directly to other classes.

A Fresco on a Stamp

Playing the tutorial gives you the first glimpse of the aesthetic of the game.  If you didn’t know what to expect going in then you may be shocked.  Though not horrible to look at, it hasn’t aged too well.  However, (as with a lot of the games I have played lately), this is something to which you will acclimatize after you become familiar with what is on screen.  Given enough time you will no longer notice the dated look and will be able to enjoy the game.  Still, it’s very pixelated and suffers the common issue that older games tend to have – there is more detail drawn then what the resolution can fit.  It can be quite difficult to take in initially.  Understandably some people may find the graphics to be too old and grainy to be willing to continue, and this is a perfectly valid criticism, but I believe that it is worth enduring until you become accustomed to the aesthetic and can enjoy the game proper.  It would be a shame to miss out on what else the game has to offer.

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This is quite definitely a PC game – and by that I mean personal computer, and yes, that includes Mac, so if there are any voices that felt the need to cry out that ‘I played it on Mac’ or whatever, you can just stop now.  The point I’m making is that this game was meant for a computer monitor whereby the maximum sitting distance was no more than a few feet.  I attempted playing this on my main rig connected to my 32′ flat screen and to it was difficult to say the least.  The sprites, pixels and pretty much everything else are just too small.

In order to get a comfortable viewing distance I had to be in a position whereby I was practically sniffing the television.  Old software on newer technology is probably similar to a teenager trying to take a picture with an older camera that uses film roll – immediately turning it on themselves, getting a full face of blinding flash and an awful selfie.  Technically it worked, but the image is painful to look at.

This being the case with Baldur’s Gate, I took  the game to a more suited older computer of mine (which to be honest is still pretty capable – I got The Witcher 2 playing on it more or less comfortably) for an improved experience.

Pick your poison

As is typical to most RPGS, the character creation process is intensive, and not in the meaningless way where you spend 30 minutes shaping your eyebrows.

You need to pick your Race, Gender, Class and Sub-Class.  You must also distribute points between your stats and select weapon proficiency.  You can customize the general look and colour of the character and even it’s voice.  Almost every option in this process has a text box giving a lengthy explanation to what the choice means and how it effects play.  When highlighting a class or race, a brief history is given to how that race/class is considered by the other races world.  It can take while to get through (if you bother with it that is, there’s no reason it can’t be skipped) however, I found myself reading all of it.  It helped give a glimpse into the world I was about to enter and it’s lore.  Roughly 30 minutes passed from when I started the character creation process to completion.  Time enjoyed is not time wasted.

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The amount of sub classes is overwhelming and found myself unnecessarily stressed that a minor change would somehow ruin the entire game.  Main classes will branch off to more specialized ones, for example the Warrior Class is broken down into multiple sub classes of which you need to pick one for your character such as Paladin, Barbarian and so on.  A Wizard would be broken down into Mages, Sorcerers and variants of Mage specialists. I don’t know what went into making the Enhanced Edition, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they included everything that was added into the game after its initial release, such as new classes, builds, proficiencies and so on.  There is a lot to choose from and though it can be a bit intimidating the descriptive text should help you decide.   I settled on a Human Mage, a kind of elemental variant that specialized in Staves.  Probably because I’m spectacularly boring.

Gameplay

Before writing, I checked out the Steam store page for this edition of the game and it turns out that there is a manual available.  It also turns out to be a very large in-depth one.  Unfortunately I didn’t realise this when I started, so I discovered how the game mechanics work through online fan guides.  Arguably you could say that this was my fault for not being thorough, but I will immediately counter that by saying that, after reading the manual they still don’t mention the most important game mechanic, the rolling system.

This is going to be my biggest criticism of the game.  It isn’t at all friendly to players that are unfamiliar with the advanced dungeon and dragons rule set.  In fact after playing for 71 hours I’m still not sure I have it entirely worked out.  Here for what is worth is my basic understanding:

If a weapon has an attack statistic of 1d6 then it will deliver damage equal to 1 roll of a 6 side die, meaning the resulting damage will be between 1 – 6 inclusive.  If it’s 2d6, then there are 2 rolls of a 6 die (dice) so the first roll may be a 2 and a 5 on the second, making the total damage 7.  Or, if lucky, the first roll is 6, and the second is 6, resulting in a
total damage of 12.

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So far that sounds pretty straight forward, but where my mind began to melt is the Taco.  The delicious taco.  Actually what I mean is T.H.A.C.0.  At no point is this explained either in game or the manual, but this means ‘To hit against armor class 0’.

This means that if an enemy has an Armor Class (A.C) of 0, then you will need to roll higher than your T.H.A.C.0 .  So if your T.H.A.C.0 is 15 and the enemies A.C is 0, then a roll will be done, if the roll is less than 15, it is a miss, if it is above then it is a hit.  If it’s zero it is critical miss.

I had to streamline this in my mind so as to not over-complicate it and break something in my brain.  I made a rule of thumb when it came to armor:  The lower the number the better.  The lower your armor class, the higher the enemy needs to roll to hit you – this is because your Armor class number is added to your enemies roll.  The lower T.H.A.C.0 you have the better also as you will not need to roll as high to hit the enemy.  Leveling up will sometimes decrease these numbers.  There are also items that provide improvement.

To move on, lest I have some sort of mental collapse, if you are used to hitting things in games and delivering consistent damage to the enemy, then you will be a fish out of water here.  You really do need to adapt and familiarize yourself to a completely different combat system.  The mechanics aren’t bad, not in the sense that they are insufficient or frustrating.  It is however a lot more complicated than traditional fighting games and not at all welcoming to new players.

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Having said that, when you do eventually make sense of the rolling system, the armor class system and the chances to hit against other armor classes then things will get a lot more involving and add a considerable amount of strategy to the game.  Consider this a warning though, it helps to do some research, otherwise you will not have a clue why 5 out of your 6 attacks on a low level rat have missed.

This can be particularly confusing when starting, as you will be fighting with very poor stats and will find it both hilarious and ridiculous  when you have 6 party members attacking a low level mob and all missing with their melee weapons, spells and arrows for 2 out of 3 turns.  At this stage the enemies are weak and you can afford to take some hits.  However, as you level and your stats improve and your miss chance lowers you will find yourself more reliably hitting.  The enemies become tougher but that scales well with your increased ability to connect.  Weapons and armor will allow for more damage and some extra abilities, so when you do hit you will also hit hard.

It will take quite some time before you are confidently strolling into fights and for a considerable amount the game (quite possibly the first 10-20 hours) you will scrape by most fights, getting your face handed to you, barely surviving and having to rest and heal.  As annoying as this sounds, it does result in some of the more satisfying moments.  Reward comes from when you  approach a fight with a strategy in place, with  many spells learned, and proceed to absolutely annihilate the enemy, one that was previously causing a lot of trouble.

You will get used to the charge on spells, the delays in casting and the time it takes to drink potions, heal and so on.  Spells will also begin to reliably hit and when they critically strike, or hit lower level enemies then the effect is devastating.  There is a very evident sense of power where your once week mage can now wipe out a whole group of skeletons after learning it’s Area of Effect attack.

A Potential interruption in game play is that you will probably find yourself resting after every fight in a difficult area, which breaks the immersion somewhat as according to the game it can take a few days to kill 3 guys.

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Some difficult fights can get out of hand very quickly.  If there are multiple boss enemies then a tactic (that I’m not proud to say I used more than once) is to exploit the fog of war.  Zones will uncover as you explore them, so if you run into multiple difficult mobs then you can try exposing them one at a time, taking them on one by one.  I consider this an exploit because quite frankly it’s ridiculous.  Two enemies could be mere feet away from each other but the fact that you did not uncover that part of the map will prevent one from noticing the other is being attacked.  This could possibly be related to the technology of the time, in that if the enemy NPC wasn’t seen on screen then it wasn’t registered as existing (though they can take damage while unseen).

When you cannot use this tactic and have no other way but through battle, then planning starts to become a requirement.  Though it will not be for every boss or named encounter, you will get into fights that will seem impossible.
I ran into a few of these, however, after regrouping, taking note of the enemies abilities and setting up my spell book for counter spells and more useful ones, I was able to turn the fight completely around.

These were some of the most satisfying moments I experienced.  I think this is the type of feeling you can only have in a computer game.  You are not told directly what spells to use, but need to go through your spell books, items  and gear to see what would be best suitable to the job.  When you succeed you are genuinely proud of yourself.

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A group of Basilisks (crocodiles for the rest of the world) were giving me trouble with their stone gaze/petrify ability.  Which as it sounds, turns a party member into stone.  Unlike other RPGs I have played, this cannot be removed with any readily available spell.  The party member is removed from the group altogether and the only way to get it
back is to search the world for a scroll ‘Stone unto Flesh’.  This became problematic as the basilisk would almost always cast this first and by the end of the fight would have taken out many party members.

I found that my mage had a ‘Protect against Petrifaction’ spell that I had never used yet and overlooked.  After learning it 5 times to my spell book, I rested and then casted it on each party member.  It completely turned the tables as it removed the main treat of the fight and  allowed me to dispatch the monsters easily.

At one point I found myself in a large basement whereby cultists were attempting to summon a demon.  They of course succeeded and it was up to us to defeat it.  This caused me a lot of problems as I could not damage the demon and cultists fast enough.  They would kill me faster than I could them

I regrouped, learned some summoning spells to get a total of 4 additional monsters to help with the fight.  I then equipped my thief with ranged weapons, stealth and speed gear, who I then used to sneak into the basement and systematically take out the cultists.  Afterwards I charged in with the rest of the group, summoned 4 monsters for a total of 10 of us on the Demon allowing us to kill it quickly.

One particularly lengthy area is Durlag’s Tower, which can be accessed pretty much at any time, but the basement section only seems to appear later on in the game.  The enemies are high-level,  dangerous and each section littered with traps.  It is an optional area not related to the main story but I would still encourage it to be completed as there is a lot of experience and gear to be gained.  It is very challenging, but I would consider this the definitive dungeon as it encompasses everything, and rewards planning and creative thinking.

For example, a required runestone/key was only accessible after standing on a trap, and my thief (the one I used as a scout) would die too quickly from the triggered arrows to escape.  So, I gave her quickness boots to my tanking/damage soaking character Khalid, who ran up, grabbed the key and was able to survive the damage and escape.

The final boss of this Tower is a death knight that creates hostile duplicates of your party members via the use of a magic mirror.  I had my thief go invisible, sneak to the mirror and shatter it – causing it to malfunction and create an image of the boss instead, which the boss fights, allowing freedom to focus on the minions around it.  Short work was then made of the death knight as its health had been severely reduced by its battle with its doppelganger.

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You may have noticed (because I certainly did) that the thief was quite valuable for the above problems.  During my play through I found the thief to be considerably useful.  I can’t say essential as I do not know how I would have handled the situation without her, but she allowed me to avoid a serious amount of trouble.  I used her mainly to scout ahead, systematically checking each room detecting and disarming traps (one of few characters with the ability).  I equipped her with speed boots so that I could uncover areas quickly and also allowed her retreat to the party with haste if enemies were discovered.  She can pickpocket, which can avoid a lot of potentially difficult fights as there is no need to loot a corpse, when you can just steal the necessary item from the person.  She can also pick locks allowing for access to restricted areas and chests.

Sometimes this can backfire though, should you steal from a chest or person and get caught you will almost always find yourself in a fight.

The Party

One aspect of the game that I appreciate is that compared to other more recent RPGs I have played, your party members have independent personalities.  Take a game such as Mass Effect for instance, where even though the party will have issues with one another and my not co-operate effectively, there always seems to be a way to get the best out of them all, for them to co-operate and loyally follow you to the end.  This is something that I found in Dragon age Origins also and even Skyrim – whereby your followers would literally follow you off a cliff.

Not in Baldur’s Gate.  If you gain a new party member and your actions aren’t in line with their own goals and ambitions then they will leave, permanently.  If your actions offend or disagree with their principles then they may attack you.  If two party members are in disagreement then one may leave, or they will fight until one is dead.

This goes against the standard – you being the chosen one ‘and we will follow you to end’ ego feeding of other games.  Simply because you are the main player character doesn’t mean you are revered. It makes it clear that you are not the most important person to your party members and if they don’t like it then they will leave you, or even try to kill you.  Most party members want something and if they feel like it is in some way not being pursued, then they will not stay with you.

There are some situations where conflict is inevitable, where party members will not like each other, or you.  This can depend on their alignment (Good, Bad, Neutral) and how it compares to your own.  You will likely find yourself losing a party member during the game because of this.

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Another criticism that I have is, even though you can have 6 members in the party at any one time, there still feels like there are too many available to choose from out of the potential characters available.  After I had set up my main party I kept running into other characters who wanted to join and I wasn’t sure if they were story important or had some sort of major advantage or not.  There are many potential companions, but no indication of their importance.  I found myself taking them onboard (for which I had to remove an existing member) checking their stats, then removing them to put back the original character.  This certainly gives choice, but it always gave me a nagging feeling that I was leaving them behind or that that they have an important or rewarding quest.  I kept telling myself that I would go back and pick them up and play through their content, but in the end I never did.  There is quite frankly, enough to do in the game already.   After completing the game it doesn’t look as if this affected the main story at all.

Inventory

Items and gear aren’t the normal affair either.  Whereas in other RPGs you will generally find objectively better gear and stats, it is quite different in Baldur’s gate.  For the most part your Tanking/Damage soaking characters will have straight forward gear upgrades –  going for items that reduce your Armor Class mainly.  However when it comes to weapons, helms, rings, boots and pretty much everything else, it isn’t so clear.

For example, one weapon may be very effective against spiders and the damage it delivers will be based on the base strength of your character.  In this case you can very well keep the sword for the entire length of the game and equip it when fighting spiders. Another sword will be effective against shape-shifters so you can switch when necessary.

My main character, the mage, had a robe equipped that was based on his alignment.  So it would only work as long as my character was considered ‘Good’.  There were robes for Evil and Neutral too.  Some items will give a resistance to a certain effect,  or give a buff,  such as the speed boots that I kept on my rogue.

You won’t be constantly upgrading and selling your previous gear and you could very well be using an item you found in the first dungeon, in a fight in the last.  Enemies will drop basic gear, but after you begin to get magical items these will just be vendor trash.

Inventory management can be quite stressful.  It is unclear as to the usefulness of a lot of items.  For example, I obtained a sample of Ore that was tainted.  Part of the storyline involves an Iron Shortage and iron contamination, so this felt important.  However the ore was never required for anything and was simply dead weight.  There are also quest items that are not automatically removed after use.  For example you are required to create a Mallet to progress past a point in Durlag’s Tower, however after it is used it remains in the inventory and there is no indication if it is needed again (it isn’t).

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Other quest items can be easily lost if you don’t specifically remember what you did with them.  I had this problem with a lot of side quests, as many require you to kill very generic enemies, such as a slightly different coloured enemy or one with a slightly different name.  I found that I had killed the enemy and had sold off the required quest item as it wasn’t differentiated in any obvious way from other similar items.  Sometimes  I wouldn’t know if I had killed the NPC already, or if it was still alive, causing me to waste a lot of time searching for an enemy that wasn’t there.

Perhaps this is due to the age of the game and that certain design methods were common, but a lot of the side quests can be effected to the point of being impossible to complete, generally due to unclear instructions and little indication of the importance of item.  Luckily none of these missed quests seem to affect the main storyline.  They will just annoy you as they cannot be removed from the journal

The inventory can fill up quite quickly and characters become over encumbered due to the large amounts of items you can obtain, which may or may not be of importance.  I also had other characters stocking up on arrows for my rogue as it could not hold nearly the amount that dropped.

Either I’m mental or I’ve just been conditioned by every game up until now, but I am very hesitant to part with unique items.  Generally in games if items are not burned on use then they still have a purpose.  Baldur’s Gate doesn’t care though.  This wouldn’t be so bad if you had a storage area or stash to keep your items when they are not on your character, but there is no such place.  Instead lootable chests can have items placed into them.  Items should stay where you deposit them but I was never sure I would see them again.  There are containers everywhere, so it can be easy to forget where you put an item.

Death

Death is quite punishing.  When a character dies they drop all items where their corpse lands.  They also cannot be resurrected directly and if you want them revived you will
need to travel to a temple, usually outside a town or city (and almost always far away from where you are) to have them resurrected.  I hear that at higher levels you can gain a priest spell to resurrect, but apparently you need to reach a character level higher than what is obtainable in the games run through.

Some of the scenery can get repetitive with many area’s being open fields/planes or forests, especially if you spend time doing the side quests (which I did).  However, you will get the occasional dungeon to mix things up.  Each dungeon is unique and there isn’t any obvious copy and pasting of levels that I could see.

Some dungeons and indoor area’s can be quite difficult to manoeuvre, especially when there are tight corridors.  You have the ability to set the formation of your party.  I had mine in a triangle shape, 3 Ranged/Magic Casters in the Back, 2 Melee Fighters in the Middle, and my Tank up top leading the charge.  The problem is that the back 3 would try lining up side by side in a corridor that is only the width of 2 people.  The game would sometimes try to line them up by having 2 side by side, and the 3rd in the next room, technically in formation, but completely separated from the group.  You can select a character individually and tell them where to go, so it wasn’t the end of the world, but when it starts taking an extra step to keep your party together, it can get a bit frustrating.

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Story

The storyline is complex and compelling enough to keep you interested.  It begins with you fleeing you home with your mentor as an (unknown to you) enemy follows . As you progress through the world you learn about a crisis affecting the Sword Coast, (where Baldur’s Gate is the main city).  An Iron Shortage has occurred due to a contamination of the ore being mined. Bandit’s and mercenary organisations such as ‘The Iron throne’ are believed to be involved.  As you uncover this plot you are frequently attacked by assassins and meet enemies and companions on the way to the discover of the plot against your life.  Though it gets quite political, it does manage to maintain enough focus so that you can keep up and follow what is going on without too much trouble and is appropriately intriguing

An awful lot of work went into the game.   Most characters are named and you will only see generic NPC’s (such as ‘Commoner’ ‘Beggar’ etc…) as filler in the busier areas.  There are 100s of quests and items – offered by many NPCs whether they are significant or not, so exploration and speaking to everyone is encouraged.

There are a lot of items in game.  Some powerful, many useless – either deliberately so, or simply that none of your party are the appropriate class to put an item to use.  Other items are cursed and can cause debuffs if wielded.   There is flavour text on almost all items.  Some are funny, others give information on the item and the world.

There are many books that give history on the game world.  You don’t need to read these.  Though it may be unclear if these books will be part of a quest or not.  Which can be annoying as you might feel compelled (as I was) to read everything, just in case it may become useful later.  A lot of the worlds history is told through the books.  For the most part, you will get out of this as much as you like. If you are not interested in stopping game play to read a few paragraphs of in-game history, then you don’t have to, and for the most part can safely sell any books that you find.   However, almost all books (Bar 1 I believe) can be sold, though finding a vendor to purchase it can be tricky.

Which is another annoyance, Vendors will only buy specific  items from you.  Sometimes you will need to travel around the map as some vendors may or may not buy your unneeded weapons, some wont buy your junk items, or magical items and so on.  I understand that a blacksmith may not want a scroll, but the sacrifice of game play for this was a bit jarring as finding an appropriate vendor can be time consuming.

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There and back again, and again, and…

Baldur’s gate does the ‘refresh after the adventure’ well.  You will be familiar with this if you played any RPGs, and it’s when you return from a trip and heal, sell and gear/level up.  I find it very satisfying to spend a very long time in dungeons and returning to town, beat up with a full inventory and unloading it all at a shopkeeper, identifying items, resting and setting up gear again.  It really feels like a recoup before heading out again, all set for the next adventure.

Baldur’s Gate requires patience.  You can’t get a lot done in 10-30 minutes. You may be able to do some mid dungeon fights, but I only ever felt I progressed considerably when playing for longer periods of around an hour.  This is not the same type of frustration that you get with mobile gaming, or pay to speed up con-artist tactics from other pay to play games though,  you are constantly progressing with XP, Story, or just to next part of a dungeon – but to comfortably survive you will want to make sure your characters are configured in their group positions, have their potions and items ready and at a safe health to take on the next challenge.  Many fights will need to be redone and since it’s not easy to revive a character, you will likely reload on death.

This is not to say the game is boring, in fact I rarely ever felt bored, but does require attention to detail, be it fighting , solving puzzles or just spotting things on screen.   It took me a long time to finish this game as I am rarely in a position to play at 2-3 hours at a time.   However, when I could play for an extended length, I very much enjoyed it.

I would highly recommend this game if you are a fan of RPGs and can get over some dated graphics and game play mechanics.  You will need to put up with a very dated interface that’s not terribly efficient. It’s tough, long, and will beat you up, but the more thought and effort that a encounter, puzzle or fight requires, the more satisfying it is to beat.  Much detail has been put into the characters and personalities as well as the story and is generally a very satisfying experience to complete.

If you are looking for quick gratification and the catharsis of a game whereby you can just jump in and get going, then this likely isn’t for you.
Anybody in between should at least check it out, you may have found a classic that you didn’t know existed.