PC Game Reviews – The top PC games, reviewed!
“Attaaaaaaaack!” Shrieks the weird little blue creature in its comedy falsetto voice, sounding at once angry and feeble. It explodes in a shower of gore after I nonchalantly swipe at it with my sword.
A tad harsh? Perhaps, but I’m on a quest. Besides, I was only acting in self-defence. The fact that I’m in a party of six hardened and well-equipped adventurers, and it was in a party of three weak and screeching blue things is by the by.
But don’t be fooled by the triviality of this particular encounter. Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition (BGEE) is hard, just like the original.
Questing for fun and profit
Anyway so this quest. It’s the classic tale of struggle against impossible odds, of self-sacrifice, bravery and heroism. Six companions set out to save a friend from certain death, with almost-certain death between them and success.
Along the way they’re assaulted by countless enemies – knife-hurling skeletons, sword-wielding bandits, and those weird little blue things, which rejoice in the name ‘Xvarts’. My five-year old son likes them, he tells me as he watches me playing BGEE over my shoulder, because their name rhymes with ‘farts’.
Back in the game, and over a hundred dead skeletons, bandits, wolves and Xvarts later, and my band of adventurers has reached the Gnoll fortress. This is where Dynaheir, the female mage we’ve come to rescue, is being held. The gnolls – tall dog things usually wielding halberds for those of you unfamiliar with the ‘Forgotten Realms’ (sub-Tolkein fantasy) universe in which the game is set – are fairly weak individually, but there are a lot of them, and there are some powerful elites among their number too.
And some more xvarts, much to someone’s delight.
My group measures its progress in inches. I send my most heavily armoured fighter to the front until a manageably small number of gnolls notice him, then pull them back to the rest of the team for choppy slicey death. I get my mage to cast her sleep spell on the toughest gnolls so I can hack them to pieces while they slumber. Pieces of still palpitating gnoll-meat flies all over the screen, and I belatedly consider the parental responsibilities of allowing a small child to witness this genocide.
Eventually we reach Dynaheir. Getting here has been an epic battle which has taken days, but it’s worth it. Minsc, one of my toughest fighters, albeit one who oddly likes to warn enemies that he is “packing a hamster” due to an old head injury, will now stay with my group, since rescuing the mage was his personal quest, and one which he would have left me to attempt alone had I not been quick to complete it with him.
I accept Dynaheir into my group (doing anything else would make Minsc leave), which since I already had a full party means I’m forced to dump Kivan, my best archer. Tragically, I deliberately remove all of Dynaheir’s armour and gear, and send her wandering alone onto a new level of the fortress, where she’s quickly reduced to a pulpy mess, and then get Kivan back in. Misc will get over it, he’s got his hamster.
And that’s how one early quest played out for me.
Genesis of a legend
Baldur’s Gate was first released in 1998, from the now defunct games studio Black Isle and the less defunct Bioware. Using a mildly tweaked version of the Advanced Dungeons& Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset, it was a commercial and critical success. It was at once sufficiently faithful to the core AD&D rules to satisfy the RPG nerds (among whom I count myself), and accessible enough to appeal to people who just want to grab loot and kill stuff (blasphemers).
New and improved
Since the original is now over 14 years old, there are some problems getting it to run on modern systems, and the 640 x 480 resolution is a strain on the eyes. The series (which went on to include the also brilliant ‘Baldur’s Gate 2: The Shadow of Amn’, and its expansion pack ‘Throne of Bhaal’) still has a modding community, who have produced a high-res version of the game with many gameplay tweaks.
BGEE basically does the same thing, although it’s far easier to install, includes more gameplay tweaks and fixes, and also adds a tutorial, arena combat and several new characters and quests which developers Overhaul Games added themselves.
Besides that, the developers also changed the original’s dated intro movies into new higher resolution scenes. Personally I like them and think they fit the game well, but many die-hard fans disagree judging by comments on the forums. Having installed and played through half of the original game just before BGEE’s release, I thought the movies had dated badly, and was pleased to see the updates.
Essentially though, all this change amounts to tweaks to make an old game visually acceptable for a new audience. And also an old audience who want to relive past glories on a modern machine (and without longish loading screens every time you want to do anything).
Whichever category you fall into, BGEE is a blast. In part because the numerous improvements, visual and otherwise, all add to the experience and make it slightly easier and more fun to play the game (believe me, being able to stack arrows in blocks of 80 instead of 20 is an improvement that sits alongside modern dentistry in terms of its benefit to all mankind). So the game itself isn’t easier, you’ll still die a lot, it’s just less hard work to play.
Same same but different
But outside of these tweaks it’s still Baldur’s Gate. You still get to pick a team of six (or fewer, if you fancy a stiffer challenge or are just a bit of a hermit) characters and travel to classic fantasy-world places (forests, dungeons, medieval towns and castles), doing fantastic things (summoning monsters, hitting nasty things with big swords). The core of the game then, remains true to its 1998 incarnation, and that’s a good thing.
Games like World of Warcraft have enjoyed massive success as they hit that sweet spot of providing challenges that players just survive, with loot drops that improve by tiny increments as you progress. It’s a successful formula which keeps you coming back for more, and it’s perfect in Baldur’s Gate. Overhaul didn’t mess with the magic, they just enhanced it.
Verdict: Top notch