Very few computer games based upon Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the most influential role-playing game system of them all, have been released over the past several years, and those that did make it to retail shelves have been ill-conceived, substandard products. In that context, it's hardly surprising that Baldur's Gate, which many gamers suspected would finally bring AD&D back to the forefront of computer gaming, has been one of the most anxiously anticipated role-playing games ever. Less expected, however, has been the extent to which non-hard-core role-playing gamers have expressed interest in Baldur's Gate, perhaps lured by promises of features atypical of RPGs, such as detailed 32-bit graphics, 3D sound, and multiplayer support. Now that the game has finally been released, perhaps the biggest surprise is that Baldur's Gate, with its thoroughly addictive gameplay and meticulous attention to detail, largely manages to meet, and even surpass, gamers' high expectations for this ambitious game.
Many role-playing gamers openly expressed their disappointment when developer BioWare Corporation announced that it was adapting AD&D's turn-based gameplay to its proprietary real-time engine. Stats-loving, rule-abiding, Gnoll-stomping AD&D fans obstinately asserted that AD&D just couldn't be successfully adapted into a real-time game engine. Fortunately, BioWare stuck to its game designing instincts, because no computer game has ever done a better job at simulating AD&D. Character creation and development is steadfastly accurate to AD&D second-edition rules, allowing gamers to create characters from six different races, eight core character classes, and eight specialty mage classes and to advance in experience points and character levels as tasks are accomplished and beasties are slain. Multiclassed and dual-classed characters are permitted, subject to the applicable AD&D rules governing such characters. Many aspects of AD&D that have never been emulated in a computer game, at least in any meaningful manner, are featured prominently in Baldur's Gate, such as the significance of a party leader's charisma, character morale, the speed factors of weapons and spells, the special abilities of thief characters and the tensions between characters of differing alignments. The real-time adaptation of AD&D's combat, which is really the core of the game, works exceptionally well, modeling dozens of weapons and the 100-plus included spells in a manner that provides visceral, immediate feedback, is visually appealing, and is eminently controllable, since you can pause the action at any time to issue new orders to your characters. Almost all of the monsters, spells, and magic items, and even some of the locations and characters in the game, are taken straight out of the core AD&D source books and related lore. BioWare took some liberties with the AD&D rules in the interest of game balance, as the number of spells available to certain mage specialty classes was increased, for example, and the abilities of paladins and rangers were tweaked, but only an ideologue would deny that there's never been a more faithful adaptation of AD&D.
Baldur's Gate is set in the Sword Coast region of AD&D's most popular milieu, the Forgotten Realms. Interestingly, although Baldur's Gate is a party-based game, the storyline is based around a single main character, even in the multiplayer version of the game. The main character has grown up in the monk-infested citadel of learning, Candlekeep. Learning of a mysterious, impending threat, the character is forced to flee Candlekeep early on and is constantly assailed by would-be assassins throughout the course of the game. The motivations of your character's enemies are not entirely intuitive, other than their obvious intention to smack your character's head into applesauce, and uncovering the rationale behind the actions of your character's enemies is your main goal in the game. As in games such as Betrayal at Krondor, the main storyline in Baldur's Gate is divided into chapters, during which certain key tasks have to be accomplished by your party in order to advance the plot. While using a chapter structure creates a more story-driven game, it also potentially creates unduly linear gameplay, where the actions of your characters are arbitrarily limited in order to fit within the constraints of the chapter structure. Baldur's Gate deftly avoids that design trap and is perhaps the first game to implement a chapter structure and yet still grant you tremendous freedom to explore the gaming world in a very nonlinear fashion with a party composed of members chosen by you. In fact, while the game will always give you ample clues to help you to advance the main plot, you're generally free to do so at your own pace and often without specifically knowing which particular actions will bring an end to the seven chapters in the game, allowing the plot to advance in a more natural fashion.
Freedom to explore within a story-driven game sounds like the best of both worlds, but the plot of Baldur's Gate is advanced almost exclusively through scrolling text and voice-narrated messages that play at the beginning of each chapter and aren't particularly compelling. Nonplayer characters in the game tend to only give your characters simple messages and basic tasks to accomplish. The lack of significant interaction with NPCs other than your party members, who are quite colorful, combined with the frequency of combat in the game, makes Baldur's Gate feel far more like a hack and slash game than a story-driven one, which is a trait that's certainly consistent with previous AD&D computer games.
There are a couple of dozen nonplayer characters capable of joining your player character to create a party of up to six adventurers, and some of the party member NPCs have particularly distinctive personalities. Unlike in most other RPGs, where NPCs are routinely given colorful introductions and backgrounds that ultimately have no impact whatsoever on gameplay, party member NPCs in Baldur's Gate will vigorously pursue their own agendas, even if they are contrary to your own intentions. Continue to act in a manner contrary to a party member's alignment and that character will voice his displeasure and eventually unilaterally leave the party and attack your character. In a manner similar to the way the companions in Ultima VII or the mercenaries in Jagged Alliance behaved, NPCs in Baldur's Gate will occasionally respond to events in the game or will even carry on short dialogues amongst themselves. The interactions work well, although they are quite repetitive, and because there are so many potential members, there's a lot of potential replayability if you're eager to see all of the character interactions.
If you'd prefer to create an entire party yourself, you can do so by starting a multiplayer game and playing it solo. Baldur's Gate is, of course, also the first fairly hard-core RPG that you can play multiplayer, either over the Internet (Gamespy is included with the game, or you can play it over the Heat network) or using a more local connection. Up to six human players can each control a character, with the host of the game deciding which players are given the ability to pause the game, talk to NPCs, spend party gold, or perform any other action that affects other players. Action gamers hoping that Baldur's Gate will satisfy their cravings for a new Diablo will likely be disappointed with the party-based focus of the multiplayer version of Baldur's Gate. Any time a conversation or a transaction with a shopkeeper is initiated by a player, the action pauses for all of the other players, who are shown the text of the conversation or the shopkeeper's wares, as the case may be, but are otherwise unable to participate in the conversation or transaction. While players are given a great deal of flexibility to otherwise explore an area map on their own, they have to leave each area map as a group. Since the story remains focused on a single main character, the game will end if that character is killed, and occasionally conversations will be directed more towards that character than the rest of the party members, leaving most of the players feeling like overgrown Robins to the main character's Batman. But if you have a group of friends who are collectively willing to stick together and play through the game as a party (gee, the same requirement as pen-and-paper AD&D), Baldur's Gate provides an unparalleled role-playing game experience. While in the past pen-and-paper RPG grognards have suggested that computer role-playing games can never adequately re-create the human interaction that is a core aspect of a role-playing game, they'll be hard pressed to make the same arguments now that Baldur's Gate has done an admirable job at creating a true multiplayer RPG experience.
Baldur's Gate sports detailed, isometric graphics displayable in up to 32-bit color if you have a 4MB video card. Most games that use an isometric perspective are actually tile-based, building their landscapes like a giant jigsaw puzzle, pieced together by a series of individually crafted tiles. Since each tile is usually used over and over again, even good tile-based games, like Diablo, tend to eventually give you the overwhelming sense that you've seen it all before, even when exploring new environments in the game. Baldur's Gate, on the other hand, is not tile-based, and features fully rendered backgrounds, and each new area you explore in Baldur's Gate will look different from the others, since it has been uniquely crafted. The backgrounds also depict elevation reasonably well, which is another rarity in isometric-perspective games, allowing you to view sizable cliffs and waterfalls. The individual character graphics are also quite detailed and accurately reflect both the armor and weapons your characters have equipped. Unfortunately, the character graphics are also quite small, and screen resolution is restricted to 640x480, making it difficult to really appreciate some of the small details on individual icons. There are also no real dynamic lighting effects, and since there aren't movable objects that cast light (in part because of the difficulties in depicting dynamic lighting in a non-tile-based game), Baldur's Gate doesn't include such AD&D fixtures as "Light" spells or equipped torches. Still, while the graphics would have been unsurpassed if Baldur's Gate had come out when it was initially targeted for release a year ago, they are still easily the best graphics to ever be featured in a role-playing game and a big step up from the dated pixels that usually appear in games of the genre.
Support for Creative Labs' EAX 3D audio is included and used to good effect. The voices of characters echoing in caverns and thunder from the prolific storms in the game often sound as if they are surrounding your party. The musical score is also of high quality, favoring suitably epic orchestral tunes instead of more subtle tracks. The game's interface is particularly well done, always providing you with several ways to get something done. You can choose to control your characters in real-time strategy fashion by dragging a box around them with your mouse, or you can select one of the available preprogrammed formations. To control a character you can either click on its icon, or on its portrait, which is always onscreen, or if you'd prefer to take a more hands-off approach and just watch the action, you can choose from a number of preprogrammed AI "scripts" or even design your own script to determine how that character will act in a variety of situations. Much of the interface is customizable as well, allowing you to create your own character portraits and sounds for use in the game and change the frequency of verbal character responses, the quick spells that a character can cast in an instant, the subtlety of some of the graphical feedback, etc. Even though Baldur's Gate is a relatively complex game, many of AD&D's complex rules are incorporated seamlessly, hidden from casual gamers who would rather just focus on adventuring.
Not everything works perfectly or logically in Baldur's Gate. While the weather effects are well done, the weather in the Sword Coast seems particularly fickle and uncertain as to the season, bombarding your characters with thunderstorms for days, only to be interrupted by a short snowfall, and then to finally return to sunny climes. The font used for most of the text in the game isn't particularly easy to read. The path-finding abilities of your characters are fairly poor in the initial release of the game, requiring you to micromanage your characters as they wander through underground labyrinths. BioWare has already released a beta patch for the game that purports to fix this problem by allowing gamers to choose the number of path-finding nodes relied upon by their characters. The automapping function is excellent, but it would have been great to have been able to annotate the maps. Similarly, the auto-note-taking journal records your party's key conversations in a creative manner, but it's difficult to find specific passages in an instant, since references to completed quests are not discarded, and excerpts relative to a particular quest might be spread out through several chapters of the game and therefore the journal. Most significantly, because the game staunchly requires DirectX 6-compliant video and soundcard drivers and uses infrequently utilized 24-bit and 32-bit Direct Draw aspects of DirectX, gamers have to ensure that their video and soundcards are using updated drivers, and even then there are many cards, even very mainstream ones, that have drivers that aren't certified DirectX 6 compliant. The official Baldur's Gate web site has been updated with work-arounds for many of the cards that gamers initially reported problems with, and these problems should fade once the hardware manufacturers have ensured that their drivers have been updated.
Of course, some gamers may not like the AD&D system faithfully re-created by Baldur's Gate. In many ways, while playing Baldur's Gate it becomes apparent why the AD&D system has effectively been superseded by better-balanced role-playing systems. Mages, who have to memorize individual spells instead of relying on a more flexible "manna" or spell-point system, are still wimps at the beginning of the game and extremely deadly compared with fighters at higher character levels. Combat is resolved in a bludgeoning, basic manner, where characters show no ill effects in spite of their virtual battle scars until they suddenly keel over upon being reduced to that magic 0 hit-point marker. But those are all problems inherent in the AD&D system, which BioWare has been forced to duplicate in Baldur's Gate. Within the constraints of the AD&D system, the game has been balanced extremely well. There are so many little details that elevate Baldur's Gate above the pack: the ambient life (birds, insects, squirrels, bats, etc.) included to flesh out the gaming world; the way your opponents' bodies will twitch after they've fallen or explode if you manage to reduce them to more than ten hit points below zero; the realistic-sounding thunder; the visually beautiful spell effects; the echoes in underground caves if you have an EAX-compliant sound card; and character "familiars" like the "miniature giant space hamster." Outstanding. Not only is Baldur's Gate easily the best computer adaptation of AD&D ever, it also convincingly returns role-playing games to the forefront of computer gaming.