Snowblind Studios, former KEMCO developer and creator of the Top Gear Overdrive and Top Gear Hyperbike racing games, has been long at work on an RPG project, originally for the PC platform. While most RPGs focus on strategic combat, Snowblind had an ambitious plan in mind for its game: to create an engaging action-adventure RPG with oodles of fun combat taking place in a graphical setting as of yet unparalleled. Black Isle Studios, the division of Interplay focused on producing the Dungeons & Dragons games, has signed on Snowblind's project and allowed it use of the rich atmosphere and brand recognition that comes with being part of the D&D world known as the Forgotten Realms, and particularly, the Baldur's Gate franchise. We had a chance to play the nearly final build of this exciting upcoming adventure and can fill you in on some of what lies in store.
Fans of Bioware's PC Baldur's Gate games will need to take a close look at what Dark Alliance has to offer before they dive into what is most definitely a very different sort of RPG experience. As a console action game, Baldur's Gate controls and plays in a way that's not too similar to the strategy fare that has established the Baldur's Gate franchise. Instead, it's more aptly comparable to earlier games in Nintendo's Zelda franchise.
In the other Baldur's Gate games, you control a party of characters on an epic journey. In Dark Alliance, however, you control a single adventurer and actively control his or her destiny. You can choose from Adrianna, an elfin sorceress; Kromlech, a dwarven fighter; or Vahn, a human ranger--each with his or her own skills and specialties. All characters, however, can leap onto crates and over obstacles and need to face their opponents to successfully connect with any attacks. Since connecting with ranged attacks and spells is highly dependant on aligning your character's current direction to face the intended target, being able to avoid enemies, leap over obstacles, turn around and fire a well-aimed arrow or fireball become crucial to success for the nonfighter types.
Dark Alliance makes suitable use of the PlayStation 2 Dual Shock controller in a highly intuitive control scheme. The four face buttons are mapped to attack, jump, action, and magic or special. The shoulder buttons let you use your health and mana potions, cycle the onscreen map options, and initiate an active block maneuver. The analog stick controls movement, while the digital pad lets you cycle to a secondary weapon choice and through your special techniques and magic spells. Bringing up your inventory gives you access to screens where you can view your character models, swap their equipment, view their statistics, and select skill advances gained by leveling. The control is tight, and if it must be found lacking somewhere, it's that it doesn't have an auto-aim feature for ranged attacks (which would make things too easy anyway).
But Is It D&D?
Snowblind has taken several liberties with the D&D rules mechanics to translate a turn-based strategy rule system suited to tabletop gaming into a system that fosters exciting action-driven gameplay. Like Diablo and similar games, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance includes a red health bar and a blue mana bar, as well as an onscreen indicator of experience gained. Mana and health are replenished slowly over time, though in this version of the game there is no need for spell memorization or casting limits. The 3rd Edition D&D experience system has been changed to allow for faster leveling in an effort to give you a real sense of accomplishment. The character-creation process has been minimized, so the only decision you have to make from level to level is the allocation of a number of skill points among a small selection of choices. Magic spells have been changed from their D&D versions to create appropriate console action-game abilities. Magic missiles don't auto-seek their targets infallibly and more often than not explode harmlessly when they collide with support beams or some other interfering geometry. Fireballs aren't giant exploding orbs of flaming death; instead they are smaller, compact sources of area-effect damage. Perhaps most noticeable is the way that spells like burning hands and cone of cold are effective for as long as you hold down the magic button (or until you run out of mana). Some of the conventions of modern tabletop gaming have been eschewed to bring you a visceral, classic type of gaming experience. The overhead perspective, combined with the reliance upon directional facing during combat, can make it easy for Dark Alliance to be compared to such classic games as Gauntlet, but Dark Alliance most assuredly combines this aspect of the developer's engine with many well-loved D&D conventions to create a game with a flavor and style all its own.
Taking a pleasant stroll through the gates, your character is tailed by a couple of thieves and found to be an easy mark. Coldcocked and left with a nasty bump on the head, you endeavor to find the thieves who put you out and to recover your stolen property. To do so, you'll need to delve into the deepest lairs beneath the city. The city of Baldur's Gate has been modeled entirely in 3D for Dark Alliance. When you stroll out of the Elfsong Tavern, you'll be immersed in a town square rife with life and activity. Townsfolk go about their business, and constant chatter permeates the scene. The Elfsong Tavern, your base of operations throughout Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, is home to a number of interesting characters. The proprietor and barmistress, Alyth, is a seductive source of information, who will introduce you to the other characters and clue you in to the source of Baldur's Gate's troubles. Bartley, the local shopkeeper, can also be met here, and he will gladly buy anything you find on your journeys and sell any of a number of fine dwarven weapons and items of magical worth. Thieves, drunks, and other locals can be met at the Elfsong, many of whom will lead you on some form of errand or quest, which you can complete for experience, rewards, and, most importantly, information as to the whereabouts of your attackers.
You open the door, and then suddenly...
From the moment you view the first real-time cutscene, it's readily apparent that BG: Dark Alliance is as graphically impressive as any action game out there. You won't find any CG cinematic sequences in Dark Alliance--with character models made up of up to 20,000 polygons, everything is rendered in-game, to stunning effect. The NPCs you'll meet on your journey are huge, attractive characters that simply command your attention at every opportunity. These characters breathe, gesticulate, and even dart their eyes about in an extremely realistic manner. Impressive particle effects bring the magic to life, as can be evidenced when fireballs and magic missiles explode on impact with your foes. BG: Dark Alliance makes use of several other techniques, such as blurring and the casting of multiple real-time shadows, to truly immerse you in the atmosphere. Perhaps most impressive of all is the absolutely remarkable water that Snowblind has obviously put a lot of work into. It seems that recently artists and programmers throughout the industry have been in a fierce competition to see who can come up with the most realistic water, and Snowblind's bid at the title is as worthy as anyone else's. Jumping into a pool of standing water will cause realistic ripples to radiate. As characters stand waist-deep in the water, perhaps waiting for monsters to approach, the motion of their breathing sends slight shimmers across the water's surface. While splashing through murky reaches, you'll see the distinctive arrowhead-shaped wake of a creature--otherwise invisible below the surface of the water--making a beeline toward you, and an impressive sheen can be enjoyed when admiring frozen or metallic surfaces. Transparency and smoke effects are put to great use for bringing torches, campfires, shadows, and even ghosts to life (no pun intended).
...you hear a strange noise!
Snowblind could not have created the proper atmosphere without also paying equal attention to the aural capabilities of Dark Alliance. To ensure that PS2 owners who give in to the temptation and purchase Dark Alliance are treated to the same level of orchestral quality that PC gamers have come to expect from a Black Isle game, award-winning composer Jeremy Soule, known for his remarkable work on Icewind Dale, has been brought in to provide the background music. Voice actors will bring the many characters (and some of the monsters) you meet along the way to life with fully lip-synced dialogue in a terribly dramatic and true high-fantasy fashion. While the characters remain silent through their text-driven portion of the dialogue sequences, they will often chime in with jibes, taunts, and comments during the game. Appropriately mystical-sounding magic words will be intoned to bring forth magic, and critical blows will be met with excited cries. Not to be outdone, monsters will strike fear into you with their battle cries. Doglike cowardly kobolds will yip and yap at each other and scream for mercy or cry for blood as they fire arrows and hurl spears. Enemies will shuffle or bound at your character noisily and will take the damage you mete out with sickening thuds or the distinctive sound of splintering bone and tearing sinew. Items such as weapons and potions clatter satisfactorily as they drop out of barrels or from bodies. The sound effects and music work well together to create an environment that lets you suspend disbelief for a moment and enjoy the fantasy.
What the heck was that?
Fans of the distinctive fauna of the Dungeons & Dragons game will be delighted to see monsters that can appear credibly only in this context. Classic D&D creatures like the dreaded green slime have been included, as well as some of the more distinctive enemies that only a D&D fan would recognize. For lack of a better term, D&D players will find that the monster designs for the most part are very cool, such as the bugbears wearing helmets, reminiscent of the aliens from the movie Predator. Some of the monsters are absolutely fear-inspiring in that sweaty palms, heart-pounding kind of way. These particular nasties are a wonder to behold (pun intended). Sure to put a smile on any D&D player's face, that fan favorite, the gelatinous cube, squishes his way into Dark Alliance in fashion, complete with absorbed items visibly intact. More than 50 Dungeons & Dragons creatures have been included for your decapitating pleasure.
Combat in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is back-to-basics fun. In a room teeming with enemies, you may stand toe-to-toe with them for a session of hack and slash, or if ill-equipped, you can make use of your freedom of mobility to take advantage of ranged attacks or spells. Many times throughout Dark Alliance you will have to deal with rooms that are absolutely swarming with enemy creatures. A cunning sorceress, for instance, can lead her slower enemies on a chase, dodging around pillars, leaping over coffins or boulders, and sneaking in a quick magic missile or meteor swarm to slowly pick off her foes. While the action isn't as fast paced as, say, Diablo, where you can frantically take on dozens of enemies at once, the active control over movement and combat immerses you into the action in a way that point-and-click games never have.
Perhaps the greatest feature of Dark Alliance is the two-player cooperative mode. With a second controller, two players can team up and face the adventure together. The pacing of the game is much quicker with two players, and thanks to the steady frame rate, it never lags behind. You can also trade items between characters and save individual character progress onto your memory card.
The current build of Dark Alliance we played was about 90 percent ready. It was missing a few balance changes and only a third of the full adventure could be played. If what we've seen so far is any indication, Dark Alliance will be a pleasant departure from the repetitive standard of turn-based D&D games. We're very excited about how Dark Alliance is shaping up, and it's been immensely fun to play. While you await its upcoming release, and our subsequent review, feel free to take a look at some exciting screenshots from the game and movies that show off some exciting gameplay. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance should be released in time for this year's holiday season.