This just in: Wizard Devours Sea-Monkeys!
For all the oft-touted powers of the PC, I say it still cannot hold a candle to a good old stylus-and-parchment D&D gaming session. Sure, the computer eliminates unsightly wear and tear on your twelve-sided die, but this is hardly compensation for lack of general all-night hoo-hah.
Take the time my friend Angie (as Darcor the Wonder Wizard) got cotton-mouth from some potent, ahem, "Elvish Herb" and mistook my jar of sea monkeys for some tasty and refreshing ale. After drinking my experiment, I had her make a saving throw versus - what else - Seaman! Try simulating THAT on your computer.
Unfortunately, arranging late night D&D events is like trying to organize D-Day. It's much easier to take the path of least resistance and succumb to computer gaming. While good PC RPGs are few and far between, Baldur's Gate set a new standard by which all other noteworthy RPGs must be measured. When the sequel Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn hit the shelves, I, like many other D&D and RPG geeks, could hardly wait to get it home and lose myself in the world Faerun in the Forgotten Realms.
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The game takes place not long after Baldur's Gate left off. You are imprisoned with a handful of friends and are constantly being tested with magical torture. Suddenly - suspiciously - you are allowed to break free, liberate your comrades and wreak havoc throughout the dungeon as you scramble for the exit. Hundreds of quests and subquests await you as you traverse the Sword Coast attempting to unravel the riddle of your fate.
A hefty install across a massive four discs (slimmed down from the original's five), BGII:SofA has some pretty high end system requirements. Slow to moderate-speed CPU's may have trouble chewing on this and should expect slow load times (but hope for the best).
Superficially, the game interface hasn't changed much, but now the player can configure the screen to suit their preference. You can now jettison command and character bars and collapse the interface in a variety of ways. You can even get a full-screen.
The graphics are lovely, a modest though all around improvement over the original. The dismal dungeons and lush forests are rendered in nice detail and give the environments an element of great size and depth. That's all well and good. I love that part.
But I would also like to be able to see what my characters are doing. BGII:SofA does an amazing job of creating an interesting world in which to play, but why can't we get a little love with the zoom? Once again, we are restricted to the skycam for perspective. The pseudo 3D graphics make it possible to lose items and characters behind structures, pieces of furniture, trees...anything bigger than a toadstool. And because it is not truly a 3D environment, there's no chance of a rotate feature to allow you visual access to everything.
What the game lacks in perspective, it makes up for in character creation options. You can import your character from Baldur's Gate (sans possessions), create a new one using the original careers or select from the new character classes. You can now choose to play as a half-orc Priest of Lathander, for example, or a gnome Wizard Slayer. There's a fairly large variety of intriguing character classes to choose from. Because NPCs will react to you largely based on who and what you are, this adds a great deal to the replay value.
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Like the original, alignment is a big issue. You can choose each character's alignment from the get-go, which remains fixed throughout the game (like in original D&D...and unlike last year's RPG of choice, Planescape Torment). You're sort of herded into playing characters of good reputation or you'll suffer high prices and social indignities, the stigma of evil-doers everywhere within the lands of Faerun. I don't have a problem with the concept of reputation, but how can you get a bad rep from doing evil deeds if there are no witnesses? Evil-doers shouldn't get bad reputations unless they're doing evil badly.
Spells abound in BGII:SofA and their explanation takes up half of the 260+ page instruction booklet...er...tome (an index would have been a worthy addition to a book of this size). Spells are more plentiful in this one than they were in the original, and a bit more interesting. Mages happening upon the right spell, for instance, can summon a familiar, a companion with a few helpful abilities, not least of which is boosting the mage's total hit points.
Maximum Experience Points within the game have been increased to nearly 3 million. This allows for the creation of extremely powerful characters (upwards of Level 20 for some classes). They have also included higher level and more interesting D&D creatures, like Liches, Rakshasas and Dragons. This adherence to D&D resources is what pulls Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn head and shoulders above other so-called "RPGs" which are based on nothing and play like 8-bit adventure games with plots straight out of ElfQuest. The lads and lasses over at developers Bioware and Black Isle should get big fat raises.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is one of the best RPGs available for the PC. It is stuffed with adventure, gold, guts, and glory like an RPG should be. It is the kind of game you could easily find yourself dusting off two years from now and enjoying just as thoroughly. If this had come out a few years earlier, I could have spared a happy little family of sea monkeys a ghastly fate.
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