Review: Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition03 Feb 2014 0
Review: Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition
Released 25 Dec 2013
Baldur's Gate II has returned from the year 2000, popped out of a slightly sinister time capsule and magically conjuring itself onto your iPad (after you've expelliarmus'd a couple of gigs of pirated HBO shows to make room for it). And it knows just how to enchant the nostalgia center of my brain.
“Ah, the child of Bhaal has awoken...” The sinister baritone of David Warner whisks me away on a billowy cushion of villainous condescension and cryptic asides, and I'm back in it, back in Athkatla and downright pleased that this veiny mage is torturing me with arcane lightning while I'm sat in a man-sized birdcage. Oh, you charmer, you.
Of course it helps that I'm really sat on the couch, relaxing with a brew and taking in the easy beats—goblin fight, evil duergars, clones, 'couple thief scraps—of Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition's opening dungeon. And, more than anything else, that's what this port to iOS of the classic RPG has going for it: the same old charm, mixed with a brand new accessibility. Sure, there are some wholly new additions to the formula (which are surprisingly not terrible), but for the most part BG2: EE is just your old pal Balduran cruising around in a slick, new, colon-sporting whip. Or, maybe, a friend you never knew you had—until now.
I shouldn't have to tell you that Baldur's Gate II is a great game. But... I will. Start with a fantastic back-story (you're one of many assorted kids of a murder god once forced to walk the earth as a mortal before, possibly ironically, getting killed), twist that up with a kidnapping plot which asks probing questions about the nature of power, sprinkle the whole thing with clever, witty dialogue and memorable characters major and minor at every turn, and then lift your combat system all but wholesale from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook and, well, yeah. Told you I shouldn't have to tell you.
It's wonderful just how easy it is to get lost wandering in Baldur's Gate II. As an impatient youngster I remember rushing from quest to quest, getting frustrated if I didn't know what to do or if I wasn't leveling up fast enough, being serially smacked down because I got in too deep with some shadow wolves tougher than my level, or because I though it was a good idea to load up my sorcerer with tons of fireball spells but no dispel magic. Now, though it's easier to notice how constrained and gamey the world is for all its artifice and lived-in texture, I find myself more interested in places like the idealistic, down-on-its-luck Trademeet and the dusty, downright bronchial Copper Coronet as places, and not just squares where quests are doled out or fights happen.
Then I kill things in them anyway. I'm happy to say that, for veterans and newcomers alike, it'll take all of, say, a half-hour to really get a feel for touch-control combat in BG2:EE—much less than it'll take those same newbies to slog through all the kits and rules at character creation and figure out if they want to be a half-elf cleric/mage or a half-orc fighter-thief. (The correct answer: gnomish fighter-illusionist.) While you might not have the same precision you would wielding a mouse, if you pause smartly you'll never put yourself in a situation where a misplaced tap will have your priest whiffing their storm bolt, and it's easy enough to turn the sometimes over-aggressive AI on and off on the fly. Same for pausing mid-combat. Again, it's that classic, focus-firing, AOE-blasting, getting-killed-by-your-idiot-ranger-because-he-sucks-at-magic-resisting Baldur's Gate combat, just... a bit more relaxed.
I'm going in circles here. While the draw of both this and the original enhanced original is undoubtedly the nostalgia factor—the fact that, okay, you did need an excuse to start playing Baldur's Gate again, but only small one—there is a fair amount of extra content here. Like its predecessor, Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition ships with the base game's expansion—in this case, it's Throne of Bhaal to BG1's Tales of the Sword Coast. Truly novel though, and surprising, is The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay, the “arena mode” of BG2: EE and sequel to BG1:EE's (hell this is tiring) Black Pits.
What? What's this? A crap arena mode in my very serious game about a god-son who can shoot arrows out of his hands? Hold on. It's not all that. While this Black Pits adventure is completely contrived, and features little else beyond a few shops (each appearing to contain the entire item list for any one category of goods—all the armor, weapons, potions, etc.) and a handful of fights against increasingly difficult teams of monsters, the mode also hearkens back some to the Baldur's Gate of PC gaming olde, at least in the sense that it feels like a mod, even a debug mode.
Being able to make a six-deep party of whatever kind of adventurers you want—dwarves, monks, a sextet of archers if you care to—isn't just silly fun, but a good way to figure out what class you'd want to roll up for the main story. It's even enjoyable to listen to the new voice actors try (maybe too hard) to wackify their characters' speech up, shooting for the just-campy-enough NPC voice work that defined such middling roles as Mae'var the Shadow Thief and That One Guy Who Throws His Scimitar At You (new players—you'll meet them soon enough).
There are some new-ish classes here as well (the same as added to BG1: EE), and some additional story-mode NPCs with corresponding quests for purchase, though it's hard to tell just how well-balanced they are, or how well they fit into the game's already packed house of kits, dual-classes, and multi-classes. The tanky Dwarven Defender seems useful without being overpowered, the Blackguard flirts with O.P. status, the Dragon Disciple is a more warrior-like sorcerer, there's a new thief kit and some monks and... none of them are as good as a fighter-illusionist. Probably. So there.
It's always a shame to have to say this, but the weakest element of Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition is how it runs. Which is to say: not all that well, always. The game is buggy, though not consistently enough or dramatically enough where it's going to completely derail an evening of play. Aside from the occasional crash, an unresponsive door or hotbar item here or there, and some major framerate drops when it comes to area-of-effect spells with animations that hang around for a while, the worst bug I encountered came in an early mission commonly played just after exiting the opening dungeon. What's supposed to be a hard, but beatable lesson in the power of mind-over-matter (remember: attacking isn't always the best option—especially when you might be fighting illusions) becomes near-impossible for early-game parties thanks to a seemingly glitched enemy gifted with vorpal (as in “insta-killing”) attacks, as opposed to their normal strikes which only harm if you attack them first.
Now, a wide-open RPG like this is exactly the sort of game which can't be seriously impacted by errors like this, if only because you can always go and find something else to do, but, still, it's too bad one of the few major issues I've seen happens in what, for many, is the first “real” quest in the game, and one that can net you a useful companion, as well. (As to be expected, there's already a kind of meta-game strategizing around this issue, going on here.)
Regardless, nothing can change the fact that Baldur's Gate II is still a brilliantly assembled game that deals with god-power fantasies in an intelligent way, a conceit that feels all the more developed when you're literally controlling these little colorful adventurers down below with your own all-powerful digit. There are some out there making the point that the original Baldur's Gate II is still very much available, and cheaper, and that's a fair thing to point out, but—some bugginess aside—the choice of this iPad version over the “enhanced” PC version or the regular ol' PC version is really just a matter of what device you prefer, and how much you value a handful of sometimes-wonky new quests and characters.
Maybe it's the passing of the years, but I like having a Baldur's Gate that I can pick up, put down, leave here or there, pause at will, and so on—a version that, for all its greatness, no longer has to be a marathoner I set aside blocks of time for at the Compu-Box. I've had my hot-and-heavy affair with Athkatla and CHARNAME. Now I just want a game that I can live with, and live around.