Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal Preview

We drop by the BioWare offices to play an early build of the expansion to our current RPG of the year.

Epics tend to be in three parts. The notion of the trilogy is often associated with ambitious works of fiction. These are the sorts of works whose far-reaching ideas and rich casts of characters couldn't possibly be encompassed in a single volume. Trilogies are well known in fantasy and science fiction. Who hasn't heard of The Lord of the Rings, let alone Star Wars? And now, the culminating chapter of what's certainly one of the most significant works of computer gaming fiction has been announced: Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. It's true that the official expansion to last year's highly acclaimed role-playing game isn't a true sequel, and, as such, doesn't really constitute a third installment in a trilogy. Besides, Baldur's Gate II was technically the third installment in the series anyway; BioWare produced the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion for the original Baldur's Gate. However, the forthcoming Throne of Bhaal still serves the purpose of the last chapter in the series: It will conclude the story of Baldur's Gate and will reveal the fate of a character whose mysterious past turns out to have remarkable and terrible consequences. If the incentive of a grand finale to the story of Baldur's Gate weren't enough, the forthcoming expansion also has a lot more to offer in its gameplay. Most notably, it'll let your characters reach a godlike level of experience. Recently, we visited BioWare's offices in Edmonton to see Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal and to see whether this expansion would be everything that fans of the Baldur's Gate series could ask for. We weren't particularly surprised to find that, indeed, it seems like it will be.

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As noted, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal is an expansion to BioWare's hit role-playing game. This means you'll need to have Baldur's Gate II installed in order to play the expansion, and Throne of Bhaal picks up immediately where Baldur's Gate II leaves off. Actually, part of the expansion--a massive dungeon called Watcher's Keep--will be accessible even before you've finished the main Baldur's Gate II quest. Altogether, the expansion will comprise at least 40 additional hours of gameplay--which is more than can be said for most games, though it's certainly less than the 80-100 or more hours of play that Baldur's Gate II demands. BioWare deliberately has designed the expansion to be relatively compact as compared with Baldur's Gate II, and yet adding enough breadth of new content to the expansion is an extremely important priority. BioWare knows its fans expect an epic quest and doesn't intend to disappoint with Throne of Bhaal.

But are 40 more hours of Baldur's Gate II really necessary? What struck so many of you about Baldur's Gate II was not just how long the game was, but how much replay value it had to offer. The gameplay would fundamentally change depending on which sort of character you decided to play; how you'd respond to particular situations; and whom you'd choose to have accompany you in your quest. Also, Baldur's Gate II has a rich, satisfying story in its own right. Some of you might not be interested in the idea of an expansion for all these reasons. However, Throne of Bhaal will have much more to it than just more quests, more battles, and more dialogue. Read on to find out why every Baldur's Gate II fan ought to be very excited about this next and last chapter in the saga.

The Children of Bhaal

At the conclusion of Baldur's Gate II, you face the villain Jon Irenicus in a final confrontation. The renegade magic user holds you captive at the beginning of the game and manages to elude you repeatedly until you finally manage to corner him in a truly fearsome setting for your climactic battle. Between your initial escape and your last fight with Irenicus, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn that Irenicus stole your soul, and, more importantly, why. You'd already assumed it had something to do with your being a child of Bhaal, the Lord of Murder--this much you'd learned after vanquishing Sarevok at the end of Baldur's Gate. The scheming Sarevok turned out to be your own brother; in Baldur's Gate, he orchestrates a series of wicked crimes in order to rid himself of all possible rivals in his attempt to harness the powers of his lineage. Irenicus' goals weren't very different from Sarevok's. Of course, putting such villains to death offers only a temporary solution to the problem of your origins. In Throne of Bhaal, you'll have to come up with a more permanent solution--and you'll have to act fast, because you'll soon realize that you've still got siblings looking to command the powers of the Lord of Murder. As such, the battles throughout Throne of Bhaal--and especially the confrontation at the end of the expansion--promise to be some of the most epic of all the fights you've faced in any Baldur's Gate game.

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You might wonder how the battles might get any bigger or better. Baldur's Gate II let you square off against some of the toughest, most famous monsters in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. After fighting mind flayers, beholders, vampires, dragons, and demons, what sorts of challenges or surprises could Throne of Bhaal possibly pose? Recognizing that most Throne of Bhaal players, let alone their player characters, will be extremely experienced and quite possibly a little jaded with the typical sort of Dungeons & Dragons conflict, the designers of the expansion are concentrating on making the battles as substantial as possible. For instance, fans of the Baldur's Gate games often point out that some of the best battles in the series are those in which your party squares off against a similarly powerful, similarly equipped enemy party of adventurers. These characters often have stronger personalities, and the battles require a lot of strategy since the enemy parties are as diverse as your own. You'll already be extremely powerful at the beginning of Throne of Bhaal, but rest assured you'll have to face groups of foes with similar experience. Knowing that you're fighting venerable warriors, rather than slavering monsters, will probably make such battles seem a lot more personal. Likewise, the rewards in defeating these kinds of opponents will probably be a lot more practical for your purposes. On the other hand, when you're not fighting experienced warriors such as yourself, you can expect to have to face incredible odds.

In any event, the stakes will be extremely high. In the original Baldur's Gate, your inexperienced character could eventually gain about seven experience levels. By the end of Baldur's Gate II, you became much, much stronger--around level 20. You'll start this powerful in Throne of Bhaal, and before the conclusion, you'll have the opportunity to gain double as many experience levels as you've gained up until that point. Presumably, this means your new-found powers will let you learn even faster than before, such that this sort of experience gain--up to around level 40--is even feasible. This godlike status brings with it godlike abilities--and godlike responsibilities. Read on to learn about how your character will grow in Throne of Bhaal and about other new features and technical enhancements in the expansion.

Evolution

Since you'll be able to reach about 40th level in Throne of Bhaal, thanks to the game's massive 8,000,000-point experience cap, the game is a dramatic extension of Baldur's Gate II. It'll feature more than 40 new high-level spells for your magic-using classes and new abilities for all other classes in the game. For instance, high-level fighters will be able to unleash a devastating whirlwind attack, which rips any nearby foes to shreds. One of the new spells shown to us was Storm of Vengeance, a high-level cleric spell that summons forth a divine storm that slays all low-level creatures in the area instantly and severely injures all others with a catastrophic combination of fire, acid, and lightning. Perhaps what's most interesting about such additions is not so much that you'll have access to them, but rather that you'll probably need such incredibly powerful attacks in order to survive some of the encounters in Throne of Bhaal.

Although Baldur's Gate II let you discover many of the most powerful relics and artifacts of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, such as a vorpal sword whose shimmering edge is so sharp that it can kill any foe outright, Throne of Bhaal will let you discover even more powerful equipment. And, again, you'll need it. Because you'll be squaring off against foes that are absolutely immune to conventional, let alone most magical, weapons--as well as most spells!

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For all its new content, Throne of Bhaal isn't making many technical changes to Baldur's Gate II, which itself contained many refinements over its predecessor. However, it's important to note that the Infinity engine used in the Baldur's Gate games and other recent D&D games from Black Isle Studios is being further optimized for Throne of Bhaal. Some of you found that the intense combat sequences in Baldur's Gate II--in which multiple spells were being unleashed simultaneously--had a tendency to make your computer's performance slow down substantially. Hopefully, the optimizations in Throne of Bhaal will allow for such battles to play out without compromise. Also, some of the scripting for computer-controlled characters is being enhanced. You'll witness more complex behavior from your foes and from nonaggressive characters, who won't simply rush to attack you or just stand about in town.

Throne of Bhaal also introduces a new character kit into Baldur's Gate II. Last year's game let you choose from several subsets of each character class, except for the magic user whose specialty schools were already familiar to fans of the preceding game. To address this, Throne of Bhaal will let you create a character using the wild mage character kit, a chaotic variation on the magic user whose arcane powers are so intense that, at times, they're uncontrollable. Wild mages' spells can sometimes surge, causing unforeseen consequences. Wild mages who are especially skillful (and lucky!) can eventually learn to keep their untapped powers in check or, better yet, to channel their magical surges into concentrated attacks. Throne of Bhaal will also introduce at least one new nonplayer character that can join your party--he or she will presumably be a wild mage. Regardless, the wild mage will certainly be a useful ally in the new areas in Throne of Bhaal. Read on to learn more about Watcher's Keep and the other trials that lie ahead in the expansion.

The Imprisoned One

You don't have to finish Baldur's Gate II in order to play Throne of Bhaal. If you're still playing Baldur's Gate II and you install the expansion, then you'll immediately have access to Watcher's Keep--the new, high-level dungeon--while the rest of the expansion's content will unfold after you've finished the main Baldur's Gate II quest. You also have the option of starting the expansion from scratch, which should be useful if you want to try the new wild mage kit for yourself. In the expansion-only option, your character and all of those who are willing to join him or her will begin at around level 20, ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.

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Watcher's Keep is a six-story, high-level dungeon, which BioWare boldly claims will be by far the most impressive dungeon crawl to date in a Baldur's Gate game. This dungeon is home to a powerful villain that lies at its core, and to get to it, you'll need to fight your way through the winding passageways that hold the keep's many arcane secrets and many grave dangers. Similar to the peripheral areas in the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion to Baldur's Gate, Watcher's Keep is nonetheless an optional adventure that you can try to access at any time during the main Baldur's Gate II quest or the Throne of Bhaal quest. Of course, you'll be more or less prepared for the challenges in the keep depending on when you choose to go--and since the keep itself is progressively more challenging, you wouldn't want to get stuck inside. Fortunately, that probably won't be the case. You'll uncover exits to the outer world from deeper within the keep such that you'll be able to leave it and return when you're ready, or when you're more inclined to brave its perils.

The main quest in the expansion will begin in the city of Saradush, which is under siege by the warring children of Bhaal. You'll be no stranger in this town, let alone anywhere else in the expansion. Your accomplishments are well known, and you'll have to contend with whatever fame--or infamy--that precedes you. Don't expect anyone to ask for you to run errands; from the outset of Throne of Bhaal, the stage is set for a major conflict. It'll all be a far cry from your humble origins in Candlekeep.

Your party will experience the events in Throne of Bhaal along with you. Likewise, these characters will all have grown and matured as a result of the significant events that have transpired. For instance, the mage/thief Nalia--who's a well-to-do if slightly anxious character when you first meet her in Baldur's Gate II--will be much more confident and perhaps even a little haughty in the expansion. And why not? She's a 20th-level archmage. All the main characters you met in Baldur's Gate II will have more to say in the expansion; more to the point, your more personal, romantic relationships with some of the cast will develop even more throughout Throne of Bhaal.

In spite of all this, the expansion raises some important questions. Can the Infinity engine really handle 40th-level characters engaging in massive battles? Can Throne of Bhaal suitably conclude the epic that began with Baldur's Gate back in 1998? As you'll find out in the conclusion of this preview, BioWare has anticipated such concerns.

The End of an Era

BioWare is fully aware that its Baldur's Gate games are under intense scrutiny. Indeed, last year, Baldur's Gate II was released amidst extremely high expectations--yet it somehow managed to meet or surpass these. Likewise, BioWare intends to raise the bar with Throne of Bhaal. The forthcoming expansion will bring definitive, satisfying closure to the Baldur's Gate saga--and, in keeping with Baldur's Gate II, it will let you arrive at this conclusion in at least a couple of different ways, depending on the nature of your character.

Although Throne of Bhaal was announced just recently, the story and a lot of the settings for the expansion already existed before Baldur's Gate II was even completed. And in fact, development on the expansion began in October of last year--around a month after Baldur's Gate II shipped. The expansion is scheduled to be completed this summer, and all of the designers who created Baldur's Gate II are involved in the project. Meanwhile, artists are hard at work bringing the dozens of new areas in Throne of Bhaal to life. Many of these will feature ambient animations to give them a more realistic appearance, and the expansion will also have new cinematic sequences, new speech, and new orchestral music. It's designed to be a huge game on all accounts, as you'd expect from something with "Baldur's Gate" in the title.

Of course, what's left to be seen is just how effectively BioWare will be able to achieve its many intentions for the expansion. Some fans are already wary of the prospects of having to do battle with such high-level characters. Others are rightfully concerned that level advancement will happen too quickly in Throne of Bhaal, given that the overall length of the expansion is 40 hours, whereas playing through the Baldur's Gate games up to that point would take about 300. The deliberate, epic pacing of Baldur's Gate might possibly give way to a much more hack-and-slash feel in Throne of Bhaal. It's also valid to point out that the Infinity engine, though it's aged very well, isn't getting any newer. Is it possible that Throne of Bhaal simply won't seem new or different enough to some players?

Whatever the case, most fans of Baldur's Gate won't pass up Throne of Bhaal for any reason. BioWare is fully aware of this too: For it's these fans who've made Baldur's Gate such a success over the years. As such, BioWare intends to do everything possible in order to surprise and impress all those players once again. Certainly, Throne of Bhaal won't be the end of the Baldur's Gate series: BioWare has every reason to keep making games set in the Forgotten Realms setting in the Dungeons & Dragons universe. And so it'll be important for BioWare to use this expansion to maintain its exceptionally strong track record with its fans, especially since its forthcoming fully 3D D&D game, Neverwinter Nights, should be available within about six months of Throne of Bhaal. So, although Throne of Bhaal is an expansion to a sequel, rather than a complete game, in the Baldur's Gate series, BioWare stresses that it's saved the best for last.

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