If you were alive and gaming in 1998, and if you’re still alive and gaming in 2012, then there’s a good chance you’ve recently fretted over Beamdog’s ambitious project to revamp the seminal Baldur’s Gate. We iPad gamers have been particularly vexed: torn between, on the one hand, the sensible belief that touch-based games work best when they’re conceived with touch-based hardware in mind; and on the other, the irrational hope that someday we might be able to play our favorite PC games of old, in all their astonishing richness and complexity, from the toilet.
Rest easy, friends. Even have a seat, if you will. All is well.
I haven’t had time to play through the entire campaign, so you’ll have to wait till next week for a full review. But I know that for many of you, a full review is unnecessary. The pressing question is just whether or not BG:EE’s new touch-based interface is up to snuff. I’m frankly astonished to report that, in a lot of ways (though not all), the iPad version plays better than the mouse-and-keyboard version. Here’s what I’ve noticed.
The ability to pan and zoom the screen with just a swipe or a pinch is hugely liberating. The old Infinity engine has never felt so vivid, so alive. In fact I’ve only now begun to realize how tightly constrained Baldur’s Gate’s static porthole view of the world has always been. The joy of this game lies in exploring and taking in its lavish setting, and to do so has never felt so intuitive. This above all has got me thinking that the iPad version of BG:EE may be the best of all. While it’s true the PC and Mac ports will also let you zoom in and out as never before, if you’ve used Google Maps on both the PC and the iPad, the difference that a good touch-based interface makes should be clear.
The game involves just as many obscure buttons, icons, and symbols as ever. Absent a mouse cursor it’s no longer possible to hover over a button for a tooltip, so instead there’s a dynamic help screen that at any time will list the function of all the weird spell icons and such that may be on-screen. This system isn’t perfect, but then again, tooltips weren’t either.
In combat you need to pause often to issue orders to members of your party. With a keyboard it’s no challenge to mash the spacebar, but it can be difficult in the heat of the moment to hit the small pause button on the iPad’s screen. To compensate I’ve taken advantage of the generous auto-pause options, so that the game pauses automatically if any member of the party spots an enemy, takes a lot of damage or discovers a trap.
Inventory management presents a slight annoyance. It’s easy enough to equip items to the paper doll or to drag them from one character to another. But in order to identify an item or read an in-game book, you have to tap and hold for about a second, then release. This is of course slower than right-clicking with a mouse.
The upshot is that all the readable elements in the inventory and character screens, everything from item descriptions to the list of your character’s weapon proficiencies, are easily scrollable via upward and downward swipes of the finger. When you shop for equipment you can just scroll through the shopkeeper’s wares with ease. All the bits that you expect to be responsive to your fingertips, well, are. No need to hunt for tiny scroll-up/down buttons in a crude approximation of a mouse, as we often must when iPad developers can’t see past the PC paradigm.
The most frustrating interface problem involves doors, stairs, and other passageways between areas. On the PC, if you hover your cursor over a door, it’ll change shape so you know that door will lead your party to a new zone. Since there is no cursor on the iPad, there’s no feedback to alert you of transitions between zones. Worse still, some doors are placed on the backsides of buildings, obscured from your view by the building’s own bulk. So if you want to enter and explore some structures, you’ll have to guess-tap the places where a door seems plausible until you happen to get it right. This was always among the worst elements of Baldur’s Gate’s interface, and the iPad version sadly exacerbates it.
In conversation, your character’s responses are bunched rather closely together, and I worry about sometimes accidentally selecting the wrong one. Mind you, in hours of play I never actually have selected wrongly, but I feel like I might at any moment if I’m careless. Best be careful, then.
Occasionally when I scroll the screen, the game registers a tap at the end of my swipe, and so issues an unintended move command. I chalk this up to my ineptitude since I see similar behavior in plenty of other iPad games. The more I play, the less often this seems to occur.
The default difficulty has been adjusted to make things easier for the diminished capacities of today’s youth. If your mama raised you right, you’ll want to bump the difficulty slider up a notch before you roll your first character.
So far as the interface goes, my quibbles may seem many but they amount to little. With the exception of the blasted hidden doorways mentioned above, the developers have sidestepped all the obvious ways that the new interface might have harmed the game. Even better, they’ve taken advantage of the touchscreen to make Baldur’s Gate play better than ever in a lot of crucial ways. In my first hour of play my stance evolved from skepticism, to cautious optimism, to outright exuberance. BG:EE for the iPad works, and if you’re like me that’s all you need to hear.