Friday, 18 January 2013

Review: Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (PC)

Many years ago, a friend of mine asked me why I was so much of a slobbering fanboy for
Forgotten Realms.

“It's so commercial,” he said with some bemusement.

I replied to him, “I blame Baldur's Gate.” And it's true.

When the game first came out, it made BioWare a household name for gamers. It was a rather different approach to the classic “Gold Box” Dungeons & Dragons games like Pool of Radiance. It didn't hurt that the story was well written and the characters were well voiced. I defy you to find an old school bamer who hasn't heard the name Minsc and won't talk about miniature giant space hamsters. However, with older games like this you're either dealing with failing media or nice folks like to pick them up and rediscover the magic. Overhaul Games wanted to get in on the act and released Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition. Much like another beloved series that was brought out with “enhancements,” however, it manages to mess up the magic of the original a little bit.

Visually, the whole game has the feel of a remastered movie. The original graphics have been improved to some extent. I didn't notice any new visual effects for spells and the like, but they do seem to be more refined, particularly fire effects. There's really only so much you can do with 2D sprites and backgrounds, but it still has the engaging art style that made it such a visual joy to play originally. Most of the character portraits have been cleaned up, as well as some new ones added in for the new characters. My only real complaint on the graphics side of things involves the few cutscenes in the game. For some inexplicable reason, they've gone with a “motion comic” style of animation which I feel cheapens the game. I can appreciate the amount of time and resources needed to re-create a sequence first rendered over a decade ago, but it would have been worth it to put in that time and utilize those resources. The “resting camp” animation, I can almost forgive, but the opening sequence where we first meet Sarevok was deeply disappointing.

There's not much that appears to have been done with the audio portion of the game outside of refining the sound quality. The original character voices are still excellently read, the soundtrack is still catchy, and the sound effects are still crunchy. Insofar as the new character voice tracks go, there's no denying that they're well read and engaging. But there's a mental dissonance to them. We know which characters are supposed to be in the game, and these new characters are here, and there's this feeling as if they ought to be in a game like Baldur's Gate, but not in the actual BG game.

When it comes to the gameplay, it's mostly the same as the original release, but the new gameplay elements have much the same dissonance as the new character voices.

When the Throne of Bhaal expansion came out for Baldur's Gate II, BioWare tried incorporating a few 3rd Edition D&D elements into the gameplay with kind of mixed results. Overhaul thought this was a good idea for the original Baldur's Gate, and the results are still pretty mixed. While they've certainly made dual-wielding an option, they haven't corrected the original shortcomings in the game. I'm not talking bugs, but rather design choices that hamper the player. For example, if you want to make sure that your party members have a ranged option and a melee option, you're going to waste at least one slot in your inventory that could have been filled in the Quick Weapons bar, but can't because you're trying to equip a bow and the game tells you your offhand is filled or you're trying to equip a shield and the game tells you a two-handed weapon is equipped. Weapon swapping shouldn't be that painful and smoothing it out should have been a priority over adding something that duplicates an existing issue.

For me, I think they should have either gone full 3rd Edition or kept it as 2nd Edition without any changes other than what originally came with the game. The new companion characters and romance lines are pretty well done, but at the same time, there's this nagging feeling that they didn't need to be in there. This isn't like seeing the humanoid Jabba the Hutt in the original version of Star Wars get turned into the giant slug we all know and loathe in the “Special Edition.” They feel shoehorned in because they are shoehorned in. Expanding the cast just because you can isn't a good idea. And if they feel shoehorned in, the extra Black Pits content feels downright bolted on, and very clumsily. I like that they brought in Tales From The Sword Coast, because that was a genuine and organic expansion to the game. Black Pits just sits there, off on its own, forlornly trying to get you to play it when you've already got a full plate of gaming goodness right in front of you. Past a certain point, the “endless arena” gameplay loses its charm quickly, while the main game's original content is still as entertaining as it used to be.

Compounding this state of affairs is the singularly ridiculous login scheme. I hate like hell when a single player game forces you to log in to play it instead of just launching. There is absolutely no need for it outside of some panicky fear that gamers are going to “steal” your game away. What makes it all the more insulting is that the original version of Baldur's Gate is available through without any of the hassle. Heck, they even give you instructions on how to set it up for high resolution graphics and widescreen monitors. Beamdog could well afford to take a hint from CD Projekt RED and on how to present a classic title for a new generation.

The joy of classic games is like reading old books that you've read before, only there's more options in the case of RPGs like Baldur's Gate. Everything that was good about it was still good in this iteration. Not perfect, to be sure, but pretty damned good. Overhaul Games didn't ruin the goodness in their effort to be loved, but they did make it harder to get to and enjoy. As a game, it's not what I would call the definitive experience, and I can't recommend people going with it when there's a better path out there.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
- All of the original content still holds up

The Bad:

- The “new” content doesn't stack up to the original
- Obnoxious login screen for a single player game
- “2.5 Edition” hybrid play is problematic, particularly in combat

Score: 6.5 / 10