This is perhaps the first time I’ve reviewed a 14-year old game without writing it as a retrospective, so I’ve decided that there are three questions that need answering. First, does Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition look better and play better than the original? Secondly, does the new content “ruin” any elements of the game? And third, is Baldur’s Gate as good as it’s cracked up to be without the blinkers of nostalgia?
First, though, context. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t actually played Baldur’s Gate at all. My initial experience with the series was with Baldur’s Gate 2 back in 2000 and, after getting myself all worked up by reading hyperbolic reviews that breathlessly praised every single aspect of it, it turned out to be a massive disappointment. It was clunky and confusing, and the opening dungeon was extraordinarily boring. I gave up.
A couple of years later, I picked up Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, which was similarly lauded for its tone and non-linearity and brave design decisions. After spending a few hours with it, I’d formed an opinion of my own: “This is sort of like Baldur’s Gate, only a bit more rubbish.” I turned off Arcanum, reinstalled Baldur’s Gate 2, and – this time – it mysteriously clicked into place. It clicked so hard that I went through the entire game in two days and loved every single kobold-stabbing minute of it. (Well, except the opening dungeon. That really is bad.)
But I still never got around to going through the first game. I tried once, years later, but the enforced 640×480 resolution made my eyes bleed and the BG1Tutu mod (which ports the game into Baldur’s Gate 2, giving you the opportunity to play it with all the fixes and additions of that game, including support for higher resolutions) never functioned properly for me.
As such, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is simultaneously new and not-new to me. I know the story, not least because I’m one of the poor unfortunates forever scarred by the execrable novelisation, for which the only possible praise is “it’s better than the Planescape: Torment novelisation.”. I know the engine and I know the rules. But the sidequests, the characters, the locations, the conversations, the game itself – these are things of which I had no real first-hand experience until a few days ago.
So, those questions.
Does it look better and play better? Yes. Specifically, it looks the way I remember the BG games looking. If that sounds odd, bear in mind that we remember things through nostalgia-tinted glasses, and they tend to look a hell of a lot worse when we see with our eyes rather than our memories. The late-90s CGI cutscenes which looked so impressive back then are gone, pleasingly replaced by hand-drawn animations which I suspect will stand the test of time more effectively. Barring a few particular scenes, the game itself doesn’t look amazing, exactly, but it’s pleasingly familiar. It’s comfortable. It looks nice.
Then there are the engine updates. These offer things like, ooh, a quicksave button on the sidebar, which is an excellent addition because BG:EE is true to its roots and rarely autosaves, and forgetting to save can be a costly mistake in a game this hard. Proper support for high-resolutions makes both navigating areas and plotting out large battles a lot less frustrating, and also makes the spaces feel a fair bit bigger.
That said, there are some issues that have gone unfixed. The pathfinding for the party is – at best – crap, and it gets oh-so-much worse whenever you’re in narrow, confined areas. Like mines. Which the plot has you enter twice. Click to move your party! Watch as two of them go in the wrong direction and walk straight into a room of hobgoblins! Sigh! Reload!
Does the new content “ruin” the original game? No. I mean, I spent half an hour rerolling my protagonist’s stats, so it’s definitely Baldur’s Gate. But let’s break this down a bit further: some things in BG:EE are entirely new, while others are added because they were in Baldur’s Gate 2. Class kits are in this because they were in BG2, for instance, so if you want to run a Kensai or a Swashbuckler through the whole saga you can. And yes, katanas are in – but they’re exceptionally rare so they don’t really overshadow the more traditional weapons, in case you’re one of Those People that’s been up in arms about this.
Then there’s the stuff which is completely new. The Black Pits is the most immediately noticeable, being that it’s an entirely separate diversion which is accessible from the main menu. This has you create a full party of six characters, composed of whatever classes and stats you like, and then thrusts you into a series of escalating arena battles (with time to rest and shop in between, thankfully.) It’s primarily there to offer a series of tactical challenges rather than to add a huge amount of depth to the world, or to give you more ways to level your protagonist, but Baldur’s Gate‘s combat is enjoyable enough that it’s a neat addition anyway.
There are also the three new characters: the Wild Mage Neera, the Monk Rasaad, and the Blackguard Dorn. They’ve all got their own quests and are all (sigh) romanceable. They do, however, fit right into the world; the voice acting and charmingly over-the-top dialogue feel true to the original games, and being that they’re the only NPCs with those kits and classes, they’re also entirely unique and fun to play around with.
(As a quick aside: I hit a few bugs with regards to Neera’s quests and conversations, in terms of placeholder text and repeating scripts. Whether this is something that’s been fixed for the full release version, I don’t know.)
So, we’ve discussed what’s new and how well it works. Time for the big, all-important question: is Baldur’s Gate still a good game? Bloody hell, yes.
It is, simply put, an entry into a genre that hasn’t really popped up in quite some time. Dragon Age: Origins is the closest you’re going to get these days, what with its real-time-but-pauseable tactical party-based combat, extensive NPC chat-a-thons, and traditional fantasy theming, but even that’s leagues away from how Baldur’s Gate works.
Dragon Age: Origins has you create a character. It walks you through an early tutorial segment, introduces you to a bunch of important characters, has you slowly build up a party out of nine characters (all of whom eventually join unless you mess things up), and has you wander between approximately eight primary locations while occasionally getting into random encounters. While there are plenty of sidequests available, you’re generally led around by the plot. DA:O could be hard, but it was generally pretty friendly.
Baldur’s Gate has you create a character. It walks you through an early tutorial segment, and then dumps you in a forest where you will quite possibly be murdered by the first enemy you encounter. (Think I’m exaggerating? The very first monster I ran into was a Dread Wolf, worth ten times the experience of a regular wolf, which was probably more around my skill level. It utterly destroyed me.) At this point, you can do whatever the hell you like.
There are over two dozen potential party members that you can enlist into your party of six, all of whom have personality and character, and many of whom won’t get along. You can only fast travel to locations you’ve already visited, and every “square” on the map through which you travel is a hand-crafted wilderness zone. Getting from the general starting location to the southern town of Nashkel will require you to walk through at least three or four of these, each of which contains something of interest – a couple of sidequests, some unusual monsters, maybe a potential party member or two. Some of these offer the finest moments in the game; despite my rampant arachnophobia, the spider cave in Cloakwood sticks in my mind for reasons other than brain-blanking terror. There are plenty more of these zones off to the sides, and you’re not hamstrung by plot, either; you’re free to go almost anywhere right from the start. You might get killed by ogre mages, sure, but that’s half the fun because it means exploring feels like exploring. You’re treading into the unknown, and the fog of war just outside your vision range might be hiding something that you can’t possibly handle.
The fact that the game draws on an established world and the AD&D 2e rules is a bit of a blessing in terms of content, too, because there’s all sorts of insane shit thrown in. A cloak that turns characters into wolves? Sure, why not. Teleporting giant spiders? Okay. Spells accidentally going wrong and accidentally summoning pit fiends that accidentally rip your party apart in seconds? Well, that’s something exclusive to Wild Mages like Neera, but it’s present.
But this adherence to AD&D 2e also has a bit of a downside. While it means there’s a wealth of content, variety, and tactics (it is entirely possible to build whatever the hell party you like and succeed, as long as you’re playing cleverly – even if you’re going it alone and trying not to level up at all) it also means that those who aren’t immediately familiar with AD&D’s complicated ruleset are at a bit of a disadvantage.
I suppose what I’m saying is this: if you’ve been raised to believe that Baldur’s Gate is the bestest series of RPGs ever made, and you’re looking forward to finally getting a chance to play it, remember my first reaction to BG2. This is a difficult and fairly complicated game, and it’s not a big fan of holding your hand. It won’t explain how Hold Person works when an enemy mage casts it on you, or why that spell went through a Minor Globe of Invulnerability, nor will it teach you how to deal with a foe using Mirror Image. If you don’t know what THAC0 is, or that a lower AC is better, then you’ve got a bit of a learning cliff ahead. Hell, even going from a mana-based system to having to memorise spells when resting is likely to feel a bit weird at first. The tutorial helps prime you for some of this, but when it comes to the really complicated stuff, you’re on your own. Most of the information is there, somewhere, but you’re probably going to have to look.
So, speaking as someone who went through all that: persevere. You’ll learn reasonably quickly, you’ll figure out what you don’t need to learn, and – most importantly – your perseverance will be rewarded. There is a reason why this is lauded as one of the finest CRPGs in history, and it’s got nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s true that BG1 is more of an explorer’s game, with its sequel going a bit more into plot and narrowing down your paths, but even if wilderness wandering isn’t your thing this is a wonderful introduction to a fantastic series.
If you have Baldur’s Gate already, then you’ll likely already have an idea as to whether or not you’re going to buy this. I’d argue it’s worth it simply for the simplicity of getting everything working nicely without having to dick about with Tutu, and the additional content and fixes are icing on the cake, but that’s me; perhaps, for the $20 asking price, you want a bit more to pull you away from the original versions. If you’re a newcomer with no knowledge of AD&D’s arcane inner workings, then consider whether or not you’re willing to put a few hours into trying – and initially failing – to penetrate its mysterious rules before spending a lot of hours exploring this world. If so, then you shouldn’t hesitate. Go buy.
Tim discucess the game more in this week’s IncGamers vidcast/podcast.