Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance Preview

The Baldur's Gate series has undergone a major transformation on its way to the PlayStation 2. Learn about all the changes straight from the developers.

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Anyone who's ever thrown a 20-sided die will relish the Baldur's Gate series on the PC--its legit Dungeons & Dragons-based gameplay mechanics will snare the most jaded paper-and-dice quester. After three storied installments on the PC (and a fourth on the way), the Baldur's Gate series will have its console coming-out party with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the PlayStation 2. But don't think for a minute that the Baldur's Gate series will make its transition without undergoing a major evolution. The developers behind Dark Alliance, Snowblind Studios and Black Isle Studios, are committed to giving PlayStation 2 owners the pick-up-and-play ability they crave.

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While the story lines of the three original Baldur's Gate games meld together, Dark Alliance shares only its setting with its predecessors. "There is no correlation between the stories in Dark Alliance and the PC Baldur's Gate games other than the fact that they both take place in the Forgotten Realms and involve the city of Baldur's Gate," said Ryan Geithman, a programmer at Snowblind Studios. You begin the game by choosing one of three character types: a warrior, a sorceress, or a ranger. The game then follows the story of a group of farmers who are forced to leave their pillaged land. While fleeing to the city of Baldur's Gate, a kidnapping occurs, and the subsequent rescue attempt embroils you in a quest to thwart a brewing civil war. The developers claim that Dark Alliance will never be the same experience each time, through. "The game uses some cool [item randomization]," explained Darren Monahan, a producer at Black Isle Studios. "For example, a variety of items that you find throughout the game are randomized based on the new D&D system for [each item]. You'll be able to find things that your friends might not."

 "When you walk into a room full of spiders, there's no roll for initiative. Initiative is determined by who has the quicker reflexes"
--Darren Monahan, producer, Black Isle Studios.

Dark Alliance includes 50 levels, split up into three acts. The game may be played on a variety of difficulty settings, and up to two players may play the game at once in its single-screen cooperative mode. Alternately, one player may go at it alone. Part Diablo and part Gauntlet, Dark Alliance's gameplay sharply strays from the console-RPG formula. The constant quests that were presented in Baldur's Gate on the PC have been replaced with bands of enemies flooding the screen. The six traditional Dungeon & Dragons attributes are represented in the game, but pausing battles to form a strategy or give orders to party members is no longer an option. Spells may be cast and melee weapons may be swung with the press of a single button. Platform jumping is occasionally required, but it's not the main focus of the gameplay. Much like in Diablo, barrels may be busted apart to obtain items. The game is clearly more action-oriented than its title might suggest. As such, Monahan believes that comparing the PC and PlayStation 2 versions of Baldur's Gate is impossible. "The game is completely in real-time, and the emphasis is on fast-paced gameplay," he explained. "When you walk into a room full of spiders, there's no roll for initiative. Initiative is determined by who has the quicker reflexes." The way characters level up has also been altered from the Dungeons & Dragons rules to streamline the process. "If you played strictly by the rules with a first-level sorceress, the player would probably be dead before he or she entered the second room of a dungeon," Geithman said.

In a marked change from most Dungeons & Dragons-based games, Dark Alliance may not allow you to create your own character from the ground up. In its present state, you must choose between predesigned characters for each of the three classes. Geithman explained that it was a conscious development decision not to include the feature, but if time permits, it may be slipped into the game. "We were aiming for a pick-up-and-play feel," he said. "Since all your items are taken from you at the beginning of the game, the only real important thing you could adjust would be your six different ability attributes. If there is enough time, we will implement [a character-creation system]." Even if the feature is not implemented, though, it's still possible to possess a unique character. "We're working on the ability to import your character into your friends' games, and then, of course, show them how much better your flaming great sword is than their wimpy frost dagger +1," Monohan explained. The ability to choose which spells you learn will also alter each character's capabilities and further separate one character of the same class from another.

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Another big change for the Baldur's Gate series is the game's graphics. No longer prerendered, the real-time polygonal graphics facilitate the addition of new visual elements into the series. "This allows us to move the camera around at will--particularly during in-game cutscenes," Geithman explained. "It also makes it easier for us to produce smooth character animations since we don't have to keep thousands of different sprite frames in memory." Dark Alliance's visuals are already quite stunning. Black Isle and Snowblind's first PlayStation 2 game engine is one of the most capable yet. The attention to detail and amount of special effects used are impressive.

 "Compared with the last console we worked on, the PS2 is about 100 times as fast. This totally changes the quality and scale of the things that we can achieve"
--Ezra Dreisbach, lead programmer, Snowblind Studios.
Spells emit showers of particles, and real-time lighting is cast upon every object in the game. The spells light up dark hallways, heat blur languishes above persistent flames, and shadows chase the characters around the levels. Listening to Dark Alliance's developers talk makes you wonder why so many other PlayStation 2 games fail to achieve the level of visual splendor that Snowblind and Black Isle have in their first PlayStation 2 game. "It's always exciting when you start to work on a new game console," said Ezra Dreisbach, lead programmer at Snowblind. "Compared with the last console we worked on, the PS2 is about 100 times as fast. This totally changes the quality and scale of the things that we can achieve." Dreisbach claims that intelligent allocation of the PS2 hardware's processing power is the key to achieving consistently impressive visuals on the console. "There's a learning curve as we try to figure out what kinds of things we should use the new power for," Dreisbach said. "Do our characters really need modeled ear canals? No. Should they all have 15 finger joints? Yes. The PS2 is particularly rewarding in this regard because its hardware is very adaptable. Even if you're trying to do something nonstandard, if you put enough effort into your implementation, you can get some very nice results."

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If Dark Alliance is any indication, what Dreisbach says is definitely true. The amount of polygons being pushed by Dark Alliance's game engine will make many of the top-shelf Japanese PS2 developers sit up and take notice. The levels are enormous, and the tables inside the buildings are littered with polygonal plates and glasses. There are musty dungeons to explore, snowy mountain to scale, and torch-lit sewers to trudge through. A vast array of textures is used for each area, and it goes a long way toward making the surroundings believable. The textures themselves are so crisp that it's sometimes hard to believe that the graphics aren't composed of prerendered bitmaps. The dynamic water textures are especially impressive--the water reacts accurately to the shape and force of the objects within it, and ripples rebound off other waves in the pool. Each of the 30 monsters included in the game features two variations, for a total of 60 different monster types. Many Dungeons & Dragons classics will make an appearance, such as kobolds, green slimes, gnolls, displacer beasts, and bulettes. The dozens of NPCs that you come into contact with throughout the game are intricately modeled, right down to small bumps on their skin.

Other small details like a dynamic weather system, real-time shadows, fully animated character faces, and a variety of animations included for each character push the levels of realism in Dark Alliance even higher. Even when dozens of enemies and NPCs are onscreen at once while spells are being cast with reckless abandon, the frame rates blaze right along. For a game that is still a long way from being released, Dark Alliance's graphics are already representative of the next generation of PlayStation 2 software.

Dark Alliance's Dolby Digital audio sounds as if it will equal its visual qualities. Each character will speak his or her dialogue complete with fully animated faces that are synced to the voices. When you consider the large number of characters in the game, this is an incredible undertaking. Additionally, the music included in Dark Alliance will include original compositions that have not appeared in previous Baldur's Gate games.

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Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance isn't scheduled for release until September, but that hasn't stopped Snowblind from thinking about the sequel. When asked what he would like to see in the next console version of Baldur's Gate, Geithman claimed he wants more of the same. "More character classes, more spells, more cutscenes, more of everything," he replied. Judging from what Snowblind and Black Isle have accomplished already, Dark Alliance should have enough RPG and action-adventure elements to keep fans of both genres happy when it's released later this year.

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