|The grandpappy of role-playing games has never shied away from computer technology. |
Dungeons and Dragons devotees have been able to get their digital fix for years, what with all the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms games in circulation. Quite often, though, it was the mountain going to Mohammed -- the games would bend TSRís D&D rules around technology rather than the other way around.
Enter Baldurís Gate, which promises to be the most faithful computer interpretation of the paper-and-imagination game ever.
To be honest, weíre not qualified to judge that. What we do know is that Black Isle -- thanks to developers Bioware -- has struck again (after Fallout 2 - see our review), adding another great to the revived world of computer RPGs.
The game -- set in TSRís Forgotten Realms world -- begins with the player-created character performing a series of training quests which really do a good job of teaching the control system before thrusting the player into the cold, cruel world. Soon enough, the playerís foster father Gorion has been killed by a murderous demon knight, and our hero is set adrift with no direction except a vague appointment with some of Gorionís old pals.
Okay, sure, the story is just like every other swords-and-sorcery tale of the young hero (or heroine) with a murky past coming into his (or her) own while unraveling a role in a monumental confrontation between good and evil.
What makes Baldurís Gate so fun are the little touches that, for the most part, Black Isle also included in its Fallout series. Character is a big issue, and every major non-player character (NPC) in the game has a defined character -- the few who can travel with the player even have scripts for how to act under certain situations (and those scripts can be altered, if the player so desires).
As in Fallout, the player wanders the wilderness (in this case, an area called the Sword Coast) doing good or evil as our heroís alignment dictates. Each city is populated by commoners, nobles and other folks, most of whom have jobs they need taken care of. Few have to do with the main plot, but all provide experience and cash, both of which are absolutely necessary.
Many also affect the partyís reputation, which in turn determines how NPCs (including party members) treat the player. Good folks will want to take dashing quests, refuse payment and speak with modesty; neutrals can never be truly happy but can be content with balance; and evildoers are encouraged to, well, do evil.
Party NPCs are interchangeable, so the player can stock the party with lots of combinations of thieves, clerics, warriors, mages and professions in between. (This leads to a minor nit; more on it later.)
The graphics here are wonderful, far richer in color than the post-Apocalypse Fallout settings. Players can change their own color schemes and those of the other party members, and thereís enough variety in NPC uniforms that it doesnít seem as if everyone in this medieval world visited the same tailor. Weather also changes, with snow curling delicately to the ground or rain pounding our heroes as lightning and thunder assail the senses.
Combat is a combination of real-time and turn-based strategy. The player gives characters commands through an easy-to-use icon system; the space bar can pause the game while the player changes those tactics. NPC artificial intelligence is weak here; too often, the characters finish off their designated target and just stand there while other baddies attack them or their friends.
Online gamers can also choose a multiplayer option and explore the Sword Coast with other dungeon crawlers. Itís like a miniature version of Ultima Online.
Experience is also in short supply, especially when split between six characters. Level-ups truly are causes for celebration, which is probably an accurate representation of paper D&D. But this is a computer game with a limited time scope, while the players of the paper game can direct their characters for years.
As for the number of characters, too often solving a quest means discovering another person who wants to join but canít, because (especially in the early stages) it takes a full six characters to fight off bad guys and finish that quest. Since we hate the thought of leaving an NPC stranded in the badlands, that means traveling to the nearest town, dropping someone off, going back, picking up the new NPC, going back to town and deciding which to keep. Worse, some NPCs travel in pairs, and wonít let anything but death break them apart.
Other minor nits: NPC combat AI (see above); thereís not as much humor as in Fallout or even other fantasy RPGs; quest directions are often vague -- too many times, someone says a particular monster is in one direction, when in fact itís the opposite.
Still and all, few of these problems will tarnish the latest in a series of great games by Black Isle and the D&D folks.