by Benjamin Fitzgerald
Release Date: December 21, 1998
Genre: Fantasy, role-playing
Mode: Single-player, multi-player
Rating: T for Teen
Ah, Baldur’s Gate. Ugh, Baldur’s Gate. I don’t know if I’ve ever played a game that’s so simultaneously rewarding yet antagonizing. I’ve plugged around 100 hours into this game, and as much as I love this game, sometimes I really hate it. Part of the problem stems from the fact that I had to sell my desktop computer and so had to restart the campaign from square one. Having to play through the entire game a second time through for this review is tedious, to say the least; Baldur’s Gate is a big game. For the sake of this review, I will try to set aside my road-weariness and offer an objective view of this seminal, wildly important game.
Long before the Mass Effect and Dragon Age trilogies, there was a small start-up company ran by three young medical students called BioWare. Today they are renowned for their ability at creating engaging role-playing games, many of which have become franchises, instantly recognizable names. The MMORPG Neverwinter drew its inspiration from BioWare’s 2002 title Neverwinter Nights and the sequel they tasked Obsidian with making. The MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic, which BioWare produces, is an extension of the original, critically acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic (whose sequel was again delegated to Obsidian) which BioWare worked closely with LucasFilm to create. But BioWare didn’t start with Neverwinter Nights, KotOR, Mass Effect or Dragon Age. They entered the world of cRPGs in 1998 with the Forgotten Realms epic Baldur’s Gate, whose two million copies sold instantly put BioWare on the map.
The game begins with creating your character. You can play as a male or female of one of six races – human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome and halfling – and can choose from eight different classes – fighter, ranger, cleric (priest), thief, mage, druid, paladin or bard. If you’re a stickler for immersion, you’re probably best off playing as one of the former three races, as some of the dialogue you conduct with NPCs heavily indicates that you do not possessed a diminutive stature.
You start off in the city of Candlekeep, a fortress of knowledge and learning insulated from the wars and strife of the Sword Coast. You are an orphan, raised by your foster father Gorion, a wizened mage. For reasons unknown, he has provided you with a small handful of gold and instructions to purchase supplies from Winthrop and set out on a journey with him. You do not understand the reason for your sudden haste, nor will he explain. Nevertheless, something is clearly wrong. Before leaving Candlekeep, you are attacked twice by petty rogues eager to claim a bounty upon your head – a bounty that for the life of you you cannot comprehend. Who could possibly want you dead, and why?
With these questions weighing on your mind, you depart with your adopted father under cover of darkness, but your path is blocked by a powerful, heavily armored man flanked with two ogres. “Hand over your ward,” he demands of your father. Gorion urges you to flee, and with his powerful spells makes short work of the ogres. In your flight from the battlefield, you look back to see the man who took care of you your entire life cut down without mercy. With tears in your vision, you continue to run, certain that if you turn back you will meet with the same fate.
The morning follows a restless night of exhaustion and nightmares, and you are surprised to be greeted by a friendly face on the road. Your best friend and fellow orphan, the lovely rogue Imoen, snuck out of Candlekeep behind you. She too witnessed Gorion’s death, and followed you under cover of darkness. Her company provides some measure of comfort against the terrible loss you have suffered, and together you head off in search of the Friendly Arm Inn and whatever refuge you may find there.
While you pursue the main quest, you will meet many NPCs who will give you side quests. The world is pretty big, and exploring all of it will take quite some time. As you travel through the game, you will encounter people who are interested in joining your party scattered randomly throughout the world. Some of them can be found along major routes and in the towns and cities, but others are out there in the wilderness somewhere, and you won’t find them unless you explore. Many of these NPCs have their own agendas, and depending on their alignment and your actions, they may be none-too-pleased with the choices you make.
To Speak or Not to Speak
While I’m on the subject of NPCs, let’s talk about voice acting. On the one hand, there is a lot of voice acting in the game. On the other hand, there’s almost no voice acting. How do I mean? Well, for one, most of your NPCs will banter between each other. This is kind of fun, because it helps create the feeling that you have different people traveling together who may or may not get along. Their comments may also be a reflection on their opinions of you – they will commend you if you behave in a fashion they agree with, but they will criticize you or complain if they do not like the path you choose.
You also hear dialogue in other sources. Many of the monsters you meet have some spoken dialogue lines (automatic catch phrases they repeat during combat). For example, bandits repeat the line, “So I kicked him in the head ‘til he was dead,” and hobgoblins will say, “Forward march!” and “Spare no one!” Initiating dialogue with NPCs will also typically initiate a handful of recorded dialogue lines, depending on what sort of character it is. Generic bartenders have a handful of lines, and generic noblemen had a different set. Often, game-critical NPCs will have their own unique conversation-initiated dialogue.
In spite of all of this, however, there are almost no fully-voiced conversations. Sometimes the first line or two of a dialogue will be recorded, but it seldom goes beyond that. Most dialogue doesn’t even have that much. You cannot converse with your party members at will, and even the important conversations you have with major NPCs are entirely text-based. However, the narrator’s dialogue, which is the primary voice moving the plot forward, is entirely voice-acted and is very well-done. This really helped to engross me in what really is a powerful, rich narrative.
Although there is a proliferation of voice acting, much of it is so repetitive that it can get on your nerves. Part of the main quest takes you through the mines in Cloakwood, and the miners there repeat the line, “Get me out of this hell-hole” over and over and over again. I have to restrain myself from killing all of them just to get them to shut up. When you’re fighting the bandits in Larswood, hearing, “So I kicked him in the head ‘till he was dead” twenty or thirty times makes me wish someone would kick me in the head so I wouldn’t have to hear them anymore.
The other thing is that I got tired of hearing my companions talk. The Icewind Dale games received some criticism at the time for their anonymous protagonists. While that criticism isn’t entirely unfounded, I find that I much prefer my generally silent companions in Icewind Dale to the constant repetitive blather of Baldur’s Gate’s more developed characters. In particular, being criticized by my party members because I gave 100 gold to a farmer whose son was killed by ankhegs so he doesn’t lose the farm peeves me a little bit. One of my party members – who heretofore thought I was doing a good job – told me that I “had some of Gorion’s sense but little of his wisdom.” That pissed me off. On the one hand, I enjoy that my characters have their own moral compass and their own ideas, but at the same time, too much of it was based on the character’s alignment rather than what actually felt right or wrong.
Rich Strategy vs. Tedious Drudgery
When I wrote my review for Icewind Dale, I praised the combat mechanics because they require you to think on your feet. You have to approach every combat situation a little differently, and depending on the nature of the battle, you often have to prepare appropriately beforehand or be slaughtered. Baldur’s Gate is much the same, but at the same time it’s not. I like the combat in this game; it’s layered. You have to think about what you’re doing: keep an eye on your opponents movements and your own. Fighting xvarts is a lot different from attacking kobold commandos, and you need to adjust your strategies accordingly. In this regard, it is just like Icewind Dale.
At the same time, it’s hard. That isn’t bad in itself, but sometimes I feel like the game is harder than it needs to be. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a difficult fight. There are times when you have to fight an entire party of adventurers or mercenaries whose members employ the same abilities that you do. This takes planning and strategy, and sometimes I die. Getting handed a can of whoop-ass can be frustrating, but that awesome feeling of victory is oh, so worth it. This isn’t the kind of hard I’m talking about. There are times when the game is just…tedious. I love the Infinity Engine, but it is not without its flaws. Perhaps the biggest of these is its atrocious pathfinding AI. Normally, I can deal with it. However, the engine is really not suited to narrow dungeons. Your people don’t understand how to move. Your fighter will wander off in some other direction, and your mage can’t seem to scoot around the rogue to get in range to cast that spell, and before you know it your priest and your ranger are dead. These moments are challenging not because they are appropriately difficult, but rather because the game mechanics are flawed. Unfortunately, there are a number of areas where this becomes a problem, and that makes working through those sections a chore rather than a delight.
A Flawed Masterpiece
Baldur’s Gate does not get everything right. Its combat isn’t as rewarding as it is in Icewind Dale, the voice acting often falls flat or is downright irritating, and the NPCs who accompany your character are nowhere near as rich or interesting as in Planescape: Torment. (From what I understand, Baldur’s Gate II offers far more in the way of meaningful character interaction). Still, I wouldn’t have put up with these idiosyncrasies were the game not enjoyable. What the game does succeed in accomplishing, it accomplishes admirably. The pre-rendered isometric graphics, while not as pretty as in later games with the engine, hold up remarkably well for a game that is nearly twenty years old. The story is rich and layered, full of mystery, intrigue, violence and murder. The game world is fun to explore, there are many characters to interact with, a wide variety of different monsters to fight and a plethora of quests. There are also a lot of really cool unique items that can really improve your party’s abilities in one way or another. Some of the character stats, such as THAC0 and save vs. spell, may be a bit difficult to understand for someone who isn’t familiar with tabletop RPGs, but it doesn’t diminish from the experience either.
Baldur’s Gate is an epic experience. There are a lot of opportunities to role-play a character however you like. You can play a compassionate hero who helps any and all in need. You can seek to take advantage of those less fortunate than yourself. You can be righteous, chaotic, apathetic or even some unpredictable combination of all of it. All of this really helps the game to shine and creates an enjoyable experience.
BioWare has come a long way since making this game. I have played Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic and the Mass Effect trilogy. I feel that all of those games are superior to Baldur’s Gate, but they were built upon the massive success and sprawling world-building of Baldur’s Gate. That alone makes this game worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. Yet Baldur’s Gate was more than just a first entry in BioWare’s notable catalog; it helped to re-establish the RPG as a viable, popular genre of video game. There were, of course, popular role-playing titles in the. The Ultima and Wizardry series had produced a number of popular games and there had been other Dungeons and Dragons titles that enjoyed a degree of success, particularly Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder series, as well as their Lands of Lore trilogy. At the same time, many of these titles suffered from primitive graphics and gameplay mechanics. Eye of the Beholder, for example, is really a glorified dungeon crawl, and while the graphics at the time were very good, they are badly dated today. Ultima was seminal throughout the 80s and early 90s, but dated gameplay and graphics, combined with a lackluster third trilogy, make the game difficult to approach for modern gamers. Even Bethesda’s first two Elder Scrolls games pale in comparison to the grandeur of BioWare’s first masterpiece.
In a very real sense, Baldur’s Gate (along with Bethesda’s Fallout) marked the beginning of the modern role-playing game. It paved the way for a new type of role-playing experience and revitalized the world of cRPGs. Baldur’s Gate may have been eclipsed by later titles, even its own sequel, but it stands nevertheless as a lasting monument to a new generation.
About Benjamin Fitzgerald
Benjamin Fitzgerald has been playing video games his entire life. An avid Star Trek fan, the first game he ever played was Interplay's "Star Trek: 25th Anniversary." He has many other interests as well, including writing music, cooking and spending time with his friends, including his best friend, Shadow.