Still an armor class act.
Like most geeky kids growing up in the late 70's/early 80's, I couldn't get enough Dungeons and Dragons. I could kill an entire weekend just reading through game modules. The Player's Handbook was my constant companion, its pages worn thin from my incessant fondling as I tried to decide if Bigby's Crushing Hand was a better spell than Mordenkainen's Disjunction. What is it about Dungeons and Dragons that's so…addictive?
Beats me, but thank heavens you can't mainline the stuff. I still have a hard time detaching from D&D once I start up again, even if my brain is telling me to quit. It's like smoking, except they don't make a patch for it...or do they?
So I treat each new D&D video game as a drug delivery device. How well does it transport the goods? Is the taste as sweet as it should be? How about the long-term effects? I'm reviewing bongs, people. [I think you mean tobacco water pipes. Bongs are illegal. Probably just a typo. ~Ed]
That being said, one of my favorite bongs [as in , water pipes ~Ed.] in the past several years was the original Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, and now I get to inhale from Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2. This sequel to the game that put the console action/RPG genre on the map does its job and will get the addicts hooked in no time flat, but the fact that it's not as good as its forbear and is up against stiffer competition eats through its armored torso like a starving Rust Monster. Please, be gentle with the wedgie - I'm an addict, after all.
Now, a word about developers. The original BG: DA was created by Snowblind Studios, who wound up getting the call from Sony Online Entertainment to create the recent winner Champions of Norrath. That left Interplay in something of a lurch, but the crafty publisher had an ace up its sleeve in the form of the since-dissolved Black Isle Studios, best known as the minds behind the Icewind Dale and Fallout games.
What all this means is that while Snowblind was off building a brand new game for another company, Black Isle had to pick up the pieces. They did a commendable job, but the end result isn't a very big step away from BG: DA.
Gamers who missed the original will hop in just fine since BG: DA 2 works as a stand-alone game, merely referencing the events in the first game from time to time. Having destroyed the evil Eldrith and her nightmarish Onyx Tower, the three heroes from the original game have since disappeared and once again the land is in peril. You play as a brand new hero (in other words, no, you can't import a character from BG: DA) in a brand new quest to once again save the city of Baldur's Gate from destruction.
This time around you can play as one of five preset characters: barbarian, cleric, dwarven rogue, elf necromancer and monk. The differentiation is better this time around; playing through as the cleric will yield a notably different experience than playing through as the rogue. As always, it's initially easiest as the melee tank, but at the higher levels the spellcasters get quite freaky with it.
From there, the game sticks firmly to the hack n' slash blueprint of its predecessor. You go from dungeon to town and back again, killing pretty much everything that moves, collecting as much loot as you can carry to either equip or sell back for cash, and storming through the plot in an effort to buff out your character as efficiently as possible. Sounds canned - and it is - but it's also good fun if you're into this sort of thing.
However, even those who loved the original might be a little miffed that the game still doesn't have any sort of interesting combo system. Mash, mash, mash, then mash some more! Man, it's been three years…is one other attack button too much to ask?
One very cool new addition is the Workshop option found at the Store (there is only one store in the game, sadly, though the wares do change). It's essentially a magic-making system where a combination of rune stones and gems will imbue weapons, armor and items with cool effects. Turn that Superior Scimitar into a +2 Scimitar Of Coldfire, if you wish, but make sure you have the dough for it. Conversely, you can also break down a weapon to reacquire the gems, which come in handy if you want to transfer magical properties from one weapon to another. The Workshop works well and adds some interesting strategy to the gameplay. It's a fair bit more creative than the system found in Champions of Norrath.
However, Norrath trumps BG in several other areas, most noticeably the game engine. It's not that BG: DA 2 looks bad; it's got some great lighting, a smooth framerate and revives the now famous water ripple effect. But the engine has undergone no significant changes since the original. Which means it's a good three years old and looks it on both the Xbox and PS2, though the former is a bit smoother than the latter.
Part of the problem is the uninspired level design; BG: DA 2 features somewhat boring dungeons with few surprises. The game world isn't as well realized as the original, instead sort of tossing you from one area into another with little geographical rhyme or reason. The city of Baldur's Gate functions as the only hub, so you keep coming back to it, which sort of limits the sense of wide-scale adventuring. Eventually, you'll ignore the terrain altogether as you just search out more monsters to kill for the experience and loot. You could be in a gray room and it would mean as much.
To its credit, the story does actually have an arc and a point and makes more sense than the terrible one in Norrath, though they sort of blow the ending. Once you get that far (which should take about 12 hours or so), the only reason to play again is to further beef out your character (the max level is 40) on a harder difficulty setting, though the campaign itself is identical each time. It's not exactly overflowing with replay value.
As before, the game works well as a two-player co-op endeavor. The cleric, for example, becomes far more useful in a two-player game as her significant defensive spells affect both players. But again we see Norrath go further by including online play, which is nowhere to be found in BG: DA 2.
If you're just looking for more of what Dark Alliance offered, then Dark Alliance 2 will satisfy as it sticks solidly to the addictive formula that made the original so good. It might not be the fanciest bong [don't you mean water pipe? ~Ed.] in town anymore, but it still delivers the drug.