Baldur's Gate Review

If you remember playing Dungeons & Dragons fondly (and who doesn't!), and have always wished for a good version on your own computer, your wish has been granted. You may have tried some D&D based computer games before, and come away dissatisfied. Baldur's Gate is worth another look, as it is a very faithful recreation of an extended D&D campaign, with your computer serving as the Dungeon Master, all of the Non-Player Characters, and all of your quest-mates. For those of you heathens who have not played D&D, you don't have to worry! Baldur's Gate has removed the need to learn books full of arcane rules. You no longer need to own a small bag of weird dice, or keep character charts, or detailed maps.

Your first task in Baldur's Gate is to roll up a character. The program walks you through a long series of steps on the way to creating your in game persona. First you pick your gender, and unfortunately only a few limited choices are available here. You get to choose an appearance as well, but this is from a much larger list. Next, you pick your race, which more properly should be called species, I think. Choosing the class of the character you want is next, whether you prefer fighter, thief, wizard, or one of many other choices and sub choices. The computer will then generate a random character for you, with some strength, intelligence, charisma, dexterity, wisdom, and constitution. If you like the character, you can save it, if not, just keep rolling. After you've finished rolling, you are allowed to transfer some points from the characteristics that you don't need to those that you do. As an example, if you plan to be a fighter you can trade those useless wisdom points for more strength! Finally, you can pick the alignment, special skills, and name for your character. You are now ready to begin.

As the curtain goes up, you start in the Prologue of the game, which is really a full tutorial on how the game works. All the characters you meet in the Town of Candlekeep are happy to instruct you in various forms of combat or in how to take various other types of action. You are given several little chores to do, and can gather some basic equipment ready for your travels. Eventually you find the way on to the start of the real game, and the beginning of Chapter One. Beautiful cut scenes mark the transition from chapter to chapter, and at some other key points in the game.

The rest of the game revolves around uncovering a hidden plot, and doing hundreds of little quests here and there. As you move along through the game, your character will advance in power and acquire better equipment. If you play well, you will be joined by up to five other characters. Together, you can become an impressive group, with the different strengths of each member adding up to more than just the sum of the parts. As you succeed in various battles and quests, you will all share in gathering experience, which will also make your party grow in strength and ability. Baldur's Gate gives you a lot of control over how each character advances, and in what that character can specialize.

As the leader of your wandering group, you will learn that managing your party can be tricky. The various characters in your group may have very specific agendas that need to be followed, or they may desert you or even turn on you. You must also pay close attention to alignment; characters that have a strong evil alignment will inevitably wind up hating any strong good aligned characters that you have. Battles within your party, or losing members at a crucial time, is not helpful to advancing in the game. You can read about the histories of each of your characters, and maybe get a better insight into how they will behave.

The most common way to get new party members is to bump into them in your travels. After a chat, they may decide to offer to join your group. You may choose to let them join, but if your group is made larger than six by the addition, you will have to let somebody go. In some cases, a pair of characters in your group is so strongly bound that when you release one, the other character may choose to leave your group as well. This is not too bad, as you can usually fill the gap by finding another character soon. Or perhaps your discarded party members will remain where you left them, and be willing to rejoin your party at a later time. This level of realism in role play is exceptional for an RPG.

As you travel, you will also meet characters who will not be willing to join your party, but who often have a quest for you to overcome, or some information for you, or a special object. There are so many little quests in this game that you have to be careful not to sign up for too many quests before you complete some of them, or you may become swamped in unfinished business. The characters you meet along the way do not have purely fixed interactions with your group. A lot of what happens will depend on how you conduct your dialogue with them, which really allows you to experience some true role-playing in the game.

The fighting system used in Baldur's Gate is excellent. You can let the characters Artificial Intelligence control all their actions, and just work your character manually in real time if you like. You can select from several AI scripts, or even write your own, if you are truly dedicated. If you don't want to go with the AI's decisions, you can go to a more D&D style of battle at any time. By hitting the spacebar, you stop time so that you can declare an intention for each of your characters. When time resumes, the characters will all start to try to do what you have asked, but they may not succeed, for example a wizard may not be able to cast a spell because he was hit while reciting it. If you charm an enemy, you can even assign an intention to him.

Internet play with Baldur's Gate is very similar to the single player version. I haven't done much online myself, but others report that the game is easy to play on the net. The CDs contain a version of GameSpy, a universal server browser that started by supporting Quake servers. GameSpy will help you to download lists of free servers and then let you enter a game by double clicking on one of the server names. You also get the HEAT network client, another way to find a free game. Games are saved on the server, and you can switch characters back and forth from single player games to online games.

As the party is traveling, you can control the marching order in many pre-defined formations. Two abreast works well in tunnels, a circular pack works better in open areas, and follow-the-leader works well through narrow openings. All the characters know their own place in the formation, and will try their best to get there. Just as with D&D games, any long trip may have a random encounter with some collection of bad guys. Make sure to keep your troops rested and healthy before going on a long journey.

Most of the game is done in a third person view, like many other RPG's that are around. But, unlike most other RPG's, the backgrounds are completely drawn by hand, so there is no tiling of backgrounds that can lead to repetitive scenery. The sound effects in Baldur's Gate were also terrific, from the individual "oof" and "yoicks" that the characters make when they were being hurt, to the sounds of the sea-side and the weather. With only two speakers, I didn't have support for Creative Environmental Audio, but the effect was still great.

The chore of mapping is taken over by the computer as well. Baldur's Gate is divided up into many towns and areas, and each section has a beautiful map. Of course, this being a relative of D&D, there are some tunnels to crawl around in as well, mine tunnels, passages in ancient crypts, and even some large and damp sewer pipes.

The monsters of Baldur's Gate are many and varied. There are blobs of jelly, giant spiders, ghouls and zombies, kobolds, carrion crawlers, and plain old human bandits. Most monster types come in varying strengths, which it seems as though the game selects to match your party strength, at least to some extent. The NPCs may also be out to get you to, either for a bounty or for some other purpose. Bring lots of healing potions with you!

As the requirements indicate, you are going to need a fairly powerful computer to run Baldur's Gate to it's best advantage. I ran it on a Pentium II at 233MHz with 128MB RAM, 2GB disk, 40x CD-ROM, 4MB SVGA, with Win98 with DirectX 5.0, and it was still somewhat sluggish with all the effects turned on. A good tip is turn off the weather effects if you are not happy with the game's response. After a little while, you get tired of seeing the rain come down anyway, and none of the plants seem to mind the unusually long drought. You will see a dramatic speed improvement.

Most modern games are large enough to require multiple CD-ROMs, and Baldur's Gate is no exception. The game comes on five CD-ROM's, which means that there will be some switching of disks. The game is laid out to minimize the swapping, but it is still a bother to have to swap disks in the middle of a long trek. If you are lucky enough to have a DVD drive, be sure to get the DVD version, which eliminates that problem altogether. If you finish the five CD's, an expansion pack, Tales of the Sword Coast, is now available.

-- Robert Norton