Baldur’s Gate Review aka “Ah, my child, I am glad I have found you.”
Baldur’s Gate is a difficult game to review today. Over 10 years old, Baldur’s Gate has significantly influenced all RPGs made since its release in 1998, and may well be responsible for a resurgence in RPG popularity after the Ultima saga slowed down. In addition, its relatively dated technology means that it is difficult to compare to some of the more modern games.
Despite this, Baldur’s Gate has aged quite well. Let’s start with the basics.
Story and Immersion aka “Go for the eyes, Boo!”
Baldur’s Gate is set within the Forgotten Realms (with the game itself being named after the city of Baldur’s Gate within the world), one of the major fictional worlds within the Dungeons and Dragons licence, and home to many (in)famous characters of fantasy literature such as Drizzt Do’Urden and Elminster. The Forgotten Realms is a lot like Marmite – most people either love it or hate it – due to it being so expansive and the setting of so many works of fiction that making anything original within it is quite difficult.
It’s similar to how I imagine writing Star Wars fiction would be, as there is such a volume of literature that one is afraid to contradict it, and such a wealth of characters that one is tempted to borrow all of the characters and not bother doing anything interesting with them. I’m not a great fan of the world in general, but Baldur’s Gate manages to navigate around the less liked aspects of the world and carve out its own story within it. Even the side-quests manage to connect just the right amount to the main storyline, so you never feel that you have taken time off as a big dumb hero in order to recover some nobody’s old boot from a lake for no readily apparent reason.
For any good RPG, the story is highly important. Baldur’s Gate’s story is an almost Shakespearian tale of tragedy, revenge and birthright, and remains one of the best executed stories in any PC game to date. The story has just the right amount of suspense and a twisting route, and is ultimately highly satisfying.
Sadly, the writers of Baldur’s Gate seem to have believed that they struck an endless vein of gold with Baldur’s Gate, and many of the subsequent Bioware games have stories which are really quite similar in some core respects. If you have not yet played Baldur’s Gate, but have played Bioware’s more modern RPGs such as Neverwinter Nights or Dragon Age: Origins, there are many similarities in overall style and plot arc. Whilst this is not the fault of Baldur’s Gate, it is something to bear in mind if playing Baldur’s Gate for the first time.
Aside from the story itself, the NPCs are very well done. Despite the small amount of voice-acting, as was typical for games of yester-decade, the NPCs mostly have a life of their own. Decent characterisation is present for the companions one meets and travels with, and even for the common peasant one encounters. Really, I could list the quotes with glee, but a simple link to the Wikiquotes page on Baldur’s Gate Quotes will have to suffice (warning – spoilers) as a taster.
Of course, no review of Baldur’s Gate would be worth its salt without at least a brief mention of Minsc, the brain-damaged barbarian who is never without his animal companion, Boo, whom he believes to be a miniature giant space hamster. Even some of the non-companion NPCs are highly memorable, with NPCs only present for a single quest having their own personality and story. Almost no NPC encounter is truly forgettable.
Gameplay aka “The day comes when Tiax will point and click!”
The game engine runs off an adapted version of the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rules, using a quasi-turn based method. You can pause at any time, institute automatic pausing every 6 seconds (the length of a combat round) or play it all in rule time. As the player, you directly control a party of up to six members, normally including your player character (the protagonist) and 5 NPCs.
The amount of control available in combat is truly impressive, as you can leave the AI to control everything, control every single action manually or a great variance in between. Controlling a 6-member party of characters with a large variety of options in combat makes it an incredibly tactical experience, and there is a certain smugness that comes with perfectly executing synchronised fireballs and volleys of arrows whilst penning the enemy within the room thanks to melee fighters.
This is especially noticeable when one comes from most modern RPGs which typically limit the player to either a single character, or perhaps a few hangers on. I have yet to play another RPG with the tactical and combat depth of the Baldur’s Gate series.
The level of customisation for the protagonist is quite high, being able to choose name, race, sex, class, appearance and equipment, with quite a range of options available. Even the NPCs include reasonable customisation options, with quite a large degree of control possible over their character advancement, albeit within the bounds of their pre-chosen class (and sex/name/basic appearance, obviously – they’re NPCs, after all).
Aside from combat, there are large amounts of freeform exploration possible, with a large selection of areas to go to, all of them interesting and containing entertaining quests.
Now comes the less glowing part of this review. As one of the early RPGs, whilst the exploration options are immense, the level of choice when it comes to story options can be quite limited. Whilst the game inherits the D&D dual-axis alignment, with a range of options of Law, Chaos, Good and Evil, the game tends to assume that you’re Good, and probably Neutral Good, at that.
Whilst there are normally at least two options for most quests, the evil option is often an after thought, coming down to ‘I kill them!’ or just not accepting the quest at all. In the last chapter or two of the game, especially, there is no discernible difference for various options. On the plus side, it never really marketed itself as a game which fully allowed the player to explore all options, so at least no-one had their hopes up as is the case with more recent games.
Despite this, there are some differences for most of the game, and the level of player character customisation and variety of NPC companions does allow for a high degree of replayability.
Graphics and Audio aka “Justice may be blind, but I’m not!”
Evaluating the graphics of Baldur’s Gate is a difficult task. The graphics are, quite obviously, dated. There is no 3D, no fantastic zoom features, no vast panning camera and so on. Regardless, the graphics were beautiful for their time, and are mainly 2D images. This means that despite their age, they don’t suffer from hideous pixilation or blocking, and remain quite pleasing to look at – although it may take a moment to become used to it. Even the few cutscenes are quite pretty, even if obviously old.
Playing Baldur’s Gate is a bit akin to watching a high quality black-and-white film, or a film in a foreign language but with subtitles. You may bemoan the lack of colour/having to read the text for the first bit, but then stop noticing it soon afterwards when you realise how good it is.
The audio suffers from a similar issues due to its age. Whilst the voice-acting is very good, it is quite rare, with only significant lines spoken. Fortunately, the music is absolutely brilliant, and creates a good atmosphere throughout. As with the graphics, playing Baldur’s Gate after a playing a fully-voiced game such as Mass Effect can be quite jarring at first, but becomes less noticeable as time goes on.
In both cases, while Baldur’s Gate lacks the modern advancements/standards, it is not technically deficient or without polish, and remains enjoyable.
The one flaw in the graphics for Baldur’s Gate is resolution, as the original game does not extend any larger than 800×600. Thankfully, there are mods out there to fix this for the modern gamer. Huzzah!
Mods aka “Uh… my lung… it’s flopping about on the dirt!”
The modding community for Baldur’s Gate still exists, especially with the advent of Baldur’s Gate 2, including an amazing selection of mods that allow Baldur’s Gate to be played with the improved Baldur’s Gate 2 engine. I will discussing modding Baldur’s Gate in another article, but it is worth bearing in mind that customisation is definitely possible, despite its age.
Conclusion aka “I do not fear death… do you?”
If you have not played Baldur’s Gate and enjoy RPGs, you owe it to yourself to do so. Really, there is no other way around it – it’s that good. Baldur’s Gate really did (re-)start the modern RPG genre, and for good reason. Either play it to see where it all came from, or just because it’s worth it. It deserves your attention.