When PC role-playing classic Baldur's Gate was released in 1998, I was writing for a small gaming news site called Videogamers.com. BioWare's masterpiece was my first official PC game review. While Videogamers.com is long gone, the magical Internet Wayback Machine houses an archived version of the review, at least until I figure out a way to erase it.
In honor of Beamdog's release of the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition for the PC and Mac (still waiting on those mobile versions), I've dug up that collection of loosely-related words and added some writer commentary.
This is going to hurt.
I'd say I started playing Dungeons and Dragons back in 1985. A group of friends and I would camp out in the woods behind my apartment complex and play all night long. I've been playing pretty steadily since then, and I can honestly say I've invested at least 2,000 dollars in the game over the years. I am currently searching for copies of the cartoon (remember Uni?) on video. I have every novel, have played every computer D&D game that's come out, and I own at least 20lbs of dice. D&D (or more correctly AD&D) is one of my greatest passions, right up there with videogames, good Italian food, and my wife (though not necessarily in that order.) That having been said, believe me when I say that Baldur's Gate is the best AD&D videogame yet to have been released.
Look at all those extra words. "I'd say", "honestly", "currently", "yet to have been released". Back in the day, more words meant more quality. Oh yeah, I had a wife at the time. She wasn't very good.
Baldur's gate, developed by Bioware, plays like tabletop AD&D with very animated miniatures, no smoke or potty breaks between rounds, and no waiting for the Dungeon Master to finish up reading the module in the bathroom before you can start. Everything else is by the book, and by that I mean all the rules are here. Encumbrance, THAC0 (to hit armor class 0), fumbled hits, thieving skills, weapon proficiencies, random treasure generation; if it's a rule in the DM or Players' guide, then it's a good bet it made it into the game.
And you thought I was obsessed with toilet gaming now.
Sounds complicated, right?
Dramatic question! I bet I imagined the reader nodding along with this bit.
It is, but not to the gamer. All of these calculations and effects take place behind the scenes. If you fumble and break your weapon, the game will tell you. If you carry more than your strength allows you will have serious trouble keeping up with your party. If you fail your saving throw against petrification, the lesser basilisk will kill you dead. The end result is very satisfying. You can't almost hear the dice rolls going on and you may even catch a whiff of unwashed fanboys enjoying themselves.
That's right, can't. My editor at Videogamers.com was 17. He was probably distracted by girls or fast cars or whatever else the kids were into back then. I am still proud of "unwashed fanboys enjoying themselves".
The story is classic fantasy material. Your initial character is a mysterious orphan, raised by a loving foster father in the city of Candlekeep. Everything is lovely and peaceful until one day, when murderers start showing up hungry for your blood, and your father asks you to flee the city with him under cover of the night. You of course agree, fleeing with him only to be attacked on the road outside town, resulting in the tragic death of the man who was the only family you ever knew. Tired, frightened, and alone, you set off to find the truth behind your life and his death. Thus begins your epic tale.
I should have just copied that from the manual.
As you travel you'll meet some very interesting characters. There is a doom and gloom speaking mage, a druidess who often addresses the player as "Oh omnipresent one", and a Ranger whose sidekick is a miniature giant space hamster named Boo. And these are just the characters you can play. Bioware has populated the Forgotten Realms with familiar faces like Elminster the Archmage and Drizzt Do'Urden the Drow ranger. If you've read the books you'll notice familiar concepts too, like the elven mage you can have join your party who is bonded to his hereditary Moonblade.
LOOK AT HOW MUCH I KNOW ABOUT D&D. Loooooook at it. Impressed, aren't you? I sure am.
The game incorporates many features from other popular games. The perspective is Diablo. The point and click commands reminded me of Warcraft and other games of that ilk. Basically you control your character and up to 5 others as a group or singularly. You pick actions using shortcut keys or handy icons on the display, and the characters follow the instructions. Do you have all characters attack at once, or do you let a few hang back in case of ambush, throw some big fighter into the fray and have your thief circle around for a backstab? Do you want to control all characters yourself or pick from several behavior archetypes? Paper or plastic? That's the beauty of the game. There are so many things to do and so many ways to do them, so gameplay never gets dull or repetitive.
Here I am comparing BioWare to Blizzard, years before it was cool. Let me just slip on my thick-framed black glasses.
The game's presentation is very solid. The menus are mainly icon driven and easy to navigate, especially the "paper doll" style inventory screen where you can drop equipment, armor, weapons, and even quick-access spells onto your characters to prepare them for battle. On the main screen you have a large playfield area, with the areas you have not visited blacked-out (love that feature). Each character has a set of quick icon commands that appear along the bottom of the screen when they are selected. Here you can place oft-used spells, magic scrolls, wands, potions, or special abilities like turning undead or laying hands. Everything you need is right at your fingertips thanks to the intuitive interface.
Very solid. Not sure what that means. And look at me getting all excited over a fog-of-war feature. I was so cute back then.
The detailed graphics of Baldur's Gate are nothing short of amazing. Each map location is almost like a painting, with a look and feel that balances technical skill with artistic flair. While this is enough to satisfy most critics, the developers add day and night effects as well as snow and rain, complete with lightning lighting up the screen. Your characters and other NPC's not only look great but animate smoothly. The fact that your characters' looks change with their equipment is a very nice touch. Monsters are menacingly portrayed, from the tiny kobold to hill giants and beyond. Baldur's Gate also has its fair share of special effects, most notably the spells that spring to life from their caster's hands in brilliant flashes of light and color and sound. Just like I used to imagine them.
To this day I stand by the fact that the most important feature for a role-playing game to have is equipment that changes a character's appearance. If I am putting on new armor, I want to see new armor.
Adding to the ambiance is the soundtrack, consisting of tunes as epic as the adventure it accompanies. Pounding music meets the clash of weapons in battle while underlying menace can be heard in the dungeon dirges. The sound effects add to the environment nicely, bringing not only the clang of swordplay and the growl of the beast, but also the ambient noise of the realms, like crickets chirping at night or the murmurs from a crowded tavern. Rounding out the sound portion of our review are the voices, which manage to avoid being cheesy while adding some (much needed at times) comic relief. You may lose bladder control the first time the insane ranger yells, "Go for the eyes Boo! GO FOR THE EYES!"
Thirteen years later I am still losing bladder control, and not just while playing video games!
The multiplayer play consists of the same storyline as the main game, but instead of one player controlling 6 characters, up to 6 people can play at a time, each controlling their own character. Almost like sitting around the old gaming table. If you get a good group together it almost doesn't get any better than this. As with every game of its type, beware of the few bad apples out there who want the money from your pouch and the experience from your death.
I forgot Baldur's Gate had a multiplayer feature until reading this.
Now to be fair I did have a few problems with Baldur's Gate. The install was the main issue. Unless you have room for the full install you will have to swap between the 5 CDs frequently. Oh, and the full install is 2.5GB. Yes, times are a'changing. I also had some trouble with slowdown during some of the more "Ten Commandment" sized battles, but not enough to ruin my overall enjoyment of the game.
Holy shit, 2.5GB!? Somebody call the pope!
After playing Baldur's Gate for several days I have still not seen everything. The game is huge and every inch is more interesting than the last. I have to say it's about damn time someone truly captured the essence of AD&D in a computer game. Bioware has done it, and with the promise of further expansions (read: modules!) for this masterpiece, Baldur's Gate will keep you going for a long time coming. Just remember to eat and bathe, fanboys.
Rest assured the constant mention of dirty fanboys was the result of my own dirty fanboyishness.
And here we have the old VideoGamers.com rating system, in which I arbitrarily tossed out letters that seemed right.
I believe there's an Austin Powers reference in there, though I admit nothing.
Well that was painful, though not nearly as bad as some of my other early reviews. You might find some of them here. I apologize in advance.