"Go for the Eyes BOO! Go for the Eyes! Butt-kicking for Goodness!"
Now that one must have been both office joke and mantra. Hell, judging by the condition of my optical receptacles after untold hours of staring at the computer screen, the creators of Baldur's Gate indeed got to the eyes - oh god, did they ever get to the eyes.
It has been a little while since the last RPG based on TSR's famous Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gaming system. It has also been a change of company, from SSI to Interplay. But this is 1999, and judging by all the latest games - Half-Life, Thief, Rainbow Six - change is good, almost as good as a miniature giant mutant space hamster.
Baldur's Gate is a fantasy role playing game set in the Forgotten Realms, the most famous of all the AD&D settings. The specific location is the Sword Coast, between the two cities of Baldur's Gate and Amn. The rules are AD&D revision 2 to the letter, and the gameplay is more dangerous than heroin to a junkie. Let me just put it this way: prepare to give up sleeping, eating, and many days or weeks of your life to this game. Baldur's Gate will catch you, hold you, entice you, stick its fangs into your neck, puncture your aorta, and inject you full of pure gaming goodness until you just can't take it any more and pass out into dark and frightful dreams of being hounded by a peasant named Noober.
The plot revolves around you, an orphan (of course) who has been raised by your foster father, the wizard Gorion of Candlekeep, in an isolated citadel of learning and study. All at once, you must leave with Gorion, who gets killed very soon by a mysterious figure with yellow eyes who's decked out in spiked armor (oh how frightful!). Funny thing is that this spiked-clad, yellow-eyed badass was really after you. So, the mystery of the game is: who are you? What is you importance? Who is your father? No! That's not true! That's impossible! [Writer's note: Search your feelings, you know it to be true!] (Editor's note - you geek.). Oh, there's also some general bad mojo happening along the Sword Coast. Bad mojo which, come winter, is likely to be very bad for all the nice peasants who you meet, greet, and if you are in the mood, kill along you journey.
Along the way you engage in an untold number of sub quests, and cast your lot on whatever side of the law suits you. In fact, you can play the game as an evil mother with your only goal being the accumulation of power and that cute smile that killing innocent civilians and poorly trained soldiers brings to your face.
Baldur's Gate adheres rigidly to the AD&D system. Spells, character classes, weapons, items, monsters (that means BASILISKS!), abilities, even die roles are all faithfully taken from AD&D and perfectly executed. Extremists will in fact be very hard pressed to find any differences aside from an experience cap that prevents any character from going above 7th level
You may form a party of up to six adventures, including an insane ranger who possesses BOO, a creature which he believes to be a Miniature Giant Mutant Space Hamster, but everyone else thinks is just a normal, fuzzy, earthly critter. No one said this game was normal.
Graphically, the game is shown from a slightly isometric viewpoint, everything in 2D. This might invite immediate comparisons to Diablo. Such comparisons are unfair though, as the style of game is actually much more like that found in Origin's Ultima 7: The Black Gate (an older game, and one of the best RPGs ever made).
The backgrounds are highly detailed and the game world is extremely large, taking up 5 CDs of game data. Your characters are attractively rendered, their look changing depending on how you equip them. Spells and weapons are exotically represented onscreen, though the animation is a little choppy. Overall, the graphics aren't hugely impressive, except in terms of their grandeur and scope. But, despite any lack of flair, the look of Baldur's Gate is more than adequate to get the job done and to draw you in to the incredible game world.
The combat system in the game is truly admirable. Unlike past AD&D games that were turn-based, Baldur's Gate features a real-time engine that uses an ingenious system of pauses. You can pause the game at any time using the space bar and set up several auto-pause options. From here you can give orders and have the sort of precise tactical control that a turn-based system allows, but with the more realistic combat feel of real-time strategy. You can even select group formations in order to tactically position your party. If you are not an RPG regular just think of it as a 2D Myth with much more specialized characters.
Possibly the biggest triumph of Baldur's Gate is its broad appeal. It is the most accessible true RPG I've ever seen. Although it possesses the depth of a true game of AD&D, a novice gamer can play it. You can practically ignore the finer rules of the gaming system, barely glance at the excellent 150 page manual, and still do admirably well. Of course, Baldur's Gate also offers almost unprecedented depth of gameplay and game mechanics for the true AD&D fanatic. Baldur's Gate serves up the best of both worlds.
So is anything wrong with it? Well, surely not the great sound, the excellent music, or the unique multiplayer system that lets you group together with friends to play through the entire game. The multiplayer adds an element of group cooperative playing that emulates the 'real life' role playing experience many of you are familiar with. It really resembles the feel of a youthful Sunday spent with a group of pocket protector possessing friends slaying dragons and accosting nubile female thieves wearing exotic furs. This is new to the RPG market, and the first title to offer both a comprehensive single player and multi-player game.
The only thing that aggravated me was that in one town there was a peasant named Noober. He would incessantly come up to your party and bug you. Finally, I just got frustrated and sliced his stomach open with my claymore. Because of this, and because of my Lawful Good persuasion (my choice, that), I had to pay 1000 gold pieces to the temple to save my reputation. That was tragic. But, as BOO's owner often says, "Butt kicking for Goodness!" Say, is that a rip off of Dead Alive's "I kick ass for the lord!?"
Either way, this is an amazing game. Baldur's Gate is a RPG which manages to get right everything about the tried and extremely true AD&D revision 2 gaming system. This is, without a doubt, the closest thing out there to actually getting together with a bunch of your friends on a Sunday afternoon, taking your characters into a dungeon, and using you own BOO to find out if that bottomless pit was actually bottomless.