Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance Hands-On

Interplay's Black Isle Studios and developer Snowblind Studios are working on a Baldur's Gate game for the PS2, and we had the chance to sit down with the game.

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Baldur's Gate and its sequel Baldur's Gate II were both highly acclaimed PC RPGs that integrated the rules and systems of the popular tabletop RPG Advanced Dungeons & Dragons into a PC gaming experience. Set in the Forgotten Realms, the most popular D&D campaign setting, Baldur's Gate not only rewarded fans of the tabletop RPG with an amazingly accurate translation from paper to PC, but it also provided a compelling and superb PC RPG experience for any fan of the genre. Interplay seeks to continue the series by branching out onto consoles in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Set in the same region as the first two Baldur's Gate games, Dark Alliance tells a completely new story and introduces a completely new spin on the gameplay of the series.

A great darkness has fallen over the Sword Coast, and thieves and brigands roam the countryside pillaging villages and attacking caravans. The thieves eventually force you from your simple farmland, and you decide to seek shelter in the town of Baldur's Gate. But before you finish the long trek to Baldur's Gate, you are attacked by a band of thieves who seem to be looking for you specifically. You manage to escape, but your sister is captured. Your initial quest is to find your abducted sister, but as the game progresses, you'll ultimately find that you're the only hero capable of stopping a civil war that threatens to ravage the land.

Like the games before it, Dark Alliance lets you choose a character to play in the game. But unlike the other Baldur's Gate games, Dark Alliance takes an extremely simplified approach. You'll no longer actually create a character from scratch, but you'll instead choose from one of three preset characters. Dark Alliance stars a human ranger, an elfin priestess, and a dwarven warrior. Though you're not actually given immediate control over each character's stats and skills, the game faithfully adheres to the D&D values for these attributes. Dark Alliance is the first console game to use the new 3rd Edition D&D rules set, the most simplified and refined version of the classic tabletop RPG. Though most of the actual die rolling and rules checking will take place behind the scenes in the game, Dark Alliance will stay true to the D&D system. As your character progresses through the game, he or she will level up and gain bonus attributes, magic spells, and abilities as per the character chart in the D&D rules. And, like the first two games, Dark Alliance will bend or disregard any rules that would hinder the game's translation from a turn-based campaign game to a real-time adventure with a very linear plot.

The PS2 Baldur's Gate is not a port of either PC game. Dark Alliance is a real-time action game reminiscent of Diablo, in that you control one character from a top-down perspective and fight against hordes of monsters as you explore your surroundings. The combat system has been tweaked considerably, and instead of controlling a party and spending lots of time solving quests, you'll control only one character and spent a good amount of time slaying enemies. Additionally, the systems for interacting with NPCs and your character's inventory have been simplified considerably. Like the original two games, Dark Alliance will be split into chapters. Each chapter represents an important event or time period in the overall story and has specific objectives that must be completed before the storyline progresses. This mixture of the PC engine and a simplified, more action-oriented PS2 engine should give Dark Alliance the solid gameplay system of the original two games and the pick-up-and-play feel vital to console games.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance easily has some of the most stunning visuals of any console game. Unlike the PC games, Dark Alliance is based on a tile system, which allows for dynamic lighting effects and texture use. The environments are huge and feature an amazing amount of detail, which really helps sell the realism of the game. Additionally, characters in the game are made up of thousands of polygons that really come together well. The interaction with each character is done in real time, and some of the NPC models are amazingly realistic. The monsters are also very nice to look at--from gelatinous cubes to oversized rats, each enemy has been faithfully translated from the tabletop game to the 3D realm. The animations are fluid and realistic, and the game features a wide range of movement for every character. Some of the particle effects, such as dynamic lighting on spells and ranged weapons, really make Dark Alliance a pretty game. But the most impressive visual aspect of the game seems pretty unimportant in the grand scheme of things: an amazingly lifelike water ripple. The game features several pools of water, and it even has you sloshing through sewers at certain points. When in the water, your character creates a realistic ripple and wake depending on his or her movements. The ripples will move outward from the source, only to refract off of other surfaces and other ripples. While difficult to describe with words, this amazing effect looks just fabulous when seen in motion.

Dark Alliance will take full advantage of the PS2's superior sound capabilities. The game will use Dolby Digital sound, and it will feature comprehensive voice acting for each character and a completely original soundtrack. All of the text in the game will be spoken to you, and each character will actually speak his or her dialogue. Wenches will have sultry but husky voices, tavern-goers will be happy and drunk, and shopkeepers will describe their items and hock their wares as you scroll through the purchase list. All the characters will speak through the in-game engine, and Snowblind Studios is currently working on making the mouths synch with the dialogue.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance looks like it could redefine the basics of the Baldur's Gate series of PC games with its simplified, more action-oriented approach. And with the game's already amazing graphics and sound, plus the knowledgeable team at Black Isle Studios, Dark Alliance definitely has the potential to steal the console RPG spotlight from Japanese developers. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is currently scheduled for a fall release.

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