I attack the darkness!
According to popular fiction, when thirty-something women get depressed, they eat ice cream. When businessmen get down in the dumps, they find solace in a bottle of whiskey. And when little kids can't cope, they slurp down a few Prozac and beat up their kid brothers.
But what about geeks? What's a gamer to do when he gets rejected for the twelfth time by Suzie Johnson from 5th period Biology? Where does a geek turn in times of need?
Dungeons and Dragons. D to the D, y'all.
We can't help it. It's in the blood. It's genetically encoded in hardcore gamers alongside bad vision, enormous brains and a penchant for quoting superheroes. We are born into this world with an intricate understanding of Kobold psychology, a loathing of bards carrying lutes, a passion for platinum and a love of all things Vorpal. D&D is our ice cream, and when the going gets tough, the tough roll d20s.
So when I first caught a glance of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the PS2 back at E3, I knew that there was a shiny light (+2 vs. darkness) waiting at the end of my winter tunnel of blues. As it turns out, getting back to some good old-fashioned dungeon crawling is just what the mind flayer ordered. Despite a few design flaws, this is a solid effort that any would-be Elven mage should pick up quicker than a Ring of Protection.
Before any of you get any ideas, let me yank the cat out of the bag by telling you that Dark Alliance doesn't share a whole heckuva lot with the fantastic Baldur's Gate games for the PC. Whereas the PC games attempt to mimic the complexities of D&D, including party arrangement, character customization and an open-ended feel, Dark Alliance lies somewhere in between Gauntlet and Diablo in terms of depth. For all intents and purposes, this the NBA Street version of Baldur's Gate.
For starters, you can play as one of three characters: Kromlech, the swarthy Dwarven fighter, Adrianna, the sexy Elven sorceress, or Vahn, the standard Arcane archer. Think of the three as the brute, the spellcaster and the combo. Generally speaking, Kromlech is the easiest and Adrianna the toughest, though when you reach the higher levels, the spells really start smokin' and the sorceress becomes very brutal.
Sadly, there is absolutely no character creation. You don't roll dice to figure out your Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. You don't pick races or abilities or even the color of your clothes. In this sense, the game emulates Gauntlet and might turn the more hardcore D&D RPG gamer away.
The story is the same regardless of the character, however. It's typical Forgotten Realms stuff, involving a dark conspiracy, raids on the city of Baldur's Gate (does anything GOOD ever happen in that place?), warring Thieves Guilds and general terror gripping the populace. It won't blow your mind, but the plot moves nicely, makes sense, and fits the D&D mood to a tee.
The gameplay itself feels a lot like Diablo. You control your character from an isometric view and move him/her around whacking at bad guys with weapons or flinging magical arrows or wicked spells from a distance. It's a step up from button mashing, but not a very large step. You'll often find yourself frantically swinging your sword with little regard for timing or position. For the most part, you can consider this a hack 'n slash game.
There is minor exploration as the game moves in a very linear fashion. You'll just about always know where to go - it's simply a matter of getting there in one piece. Along the way, you'll do battle against all manners of beasts in an effort to gain experience and go up in levels. This is where your character gains the ability to use 'feats', which are broken up into basic physical attributes (quicker health regeneration, faster combat speed, etc.) and actual spells (fireballs, shock arrows, etc.).
They did a nice job allowing you some freedom here, and you'll often find yourself stuck trying to figure out which feat to boost. Again, it's not nearly as robust as the PC games, but it's far better than Gauntlet.
Like the famed Blizzard games, part of the appeal of Dark Alliance lies in item hunting. There are all sorts of cool weapons, armor and items to unearth and this ends up spurning you forward. One nice move is the ability to 'recall' back to town using recall potions in order to buy/sell goods. This takes away the tedium of running back and forth over and over again through areas you've already cleared out.
Then again, it isn't all that hard to begin with, as the 30+ enemy types exhibit very little in the way of advanced AI. Standard units will just bum rush you, while the bosses tend to follow preset patterns. It's something of a letdown, though to be frank you don't often find fancy AI when it comes to giant spiders, skeleton archers or gelatinous cubes. I did expect more from the beholder, though (oh come one, you KNEW it was in there already.)
While the AI doesn't impress, the delivery excels. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance looks great. The dynamic lighting is spot-on, the enemies are big and colorful and the background textures are great. The water effects, which almost stole the show at E3, indeed almost steal the show in the final version. You wind up running through every body of water you find just to watch the amazing ripple effect. Cool.
The sound is equally impressive, with some of the best voice-acting you'll ever hear on a console. It's like they went out and actually hired dwarves and lizardmen. The soundtrack is majestic, though I wish there was more of it.
Dark Alliance also benefits from smart programming. The loading is very minimal and the saves - which you will do quite often - take no time at all. The game just moves at a great pace.
Though it's primarily a single-player game, Dark Alliance can be played co-op with a friend. This is a good addition and adds some traditional D&D camaraderie to the mix.
My biggest gripes with the game have to do with its tendency to dumb down the BG line. I know that this is a different crowd they're trying to reach and everything, but I really would have preferred less linearity and more customization. Heck, even sports games allow you to build your own athlete. Why can't I build my own Ranger? I'm really good at it.
Still, Dark Alliance serves up enough tasty D&D stew to satisfy your role-playing urges. It oozes with quality and is genuinely fun. The next time your girlfriend (real or imaginary) breaks your geek heart, grab Dark Alliance and make that saving throw versus depression.