Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance Preview

Interplay's Black Isle and Snowblind Studios bring their excellent D&D game to the Xbox.

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Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
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The character models in the game are impressive.
The character models in the game are impressive.

We got hold of a build of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the Xbox and have been putting it through its paces. Originally released for the PlayStation 2 last year, the game offered a marked change of pace for the Baldur's Gate series. While the PC Baldur's Gate games were traditional RPGs, Dark Alliance offered a faster-paced dungeon crawl that was better suited to a console. The game's jaw-dropping graphics, which still rank as some of the best ever seen on the PS2, combined with its accessible gameplay, cooperative two-player mode, and character customization features, made it one of the standout titles of 2001. Following the critical and commercial success of the title, developers Snowblind Studios and Black Isle Studios, the RPG division of publisher Interplay, have opted to bring the game to the Xbox. Although our beta build is early and only contains the first three chapters of the game, it looks as though Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is coming together quite well on the Xbox.

For those who missed out on the PlayStation 2 version, the game makes use of the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting and the 3rd Edition D&D rules set. If that sounds like some foreign language, fear not--the game's D&D ties aren't essential to getting into the story, they just add texture. The game's basic plot is as accessible as they get. You assume the role of a hapless adventurer who has headed to the bright lights of Baldur's Gate, a port city that's experiencing a rather foul run of luck. It seems that the town is plagued by some nasty evil. The townspeople stay indoors for fear of ending up dead, like many of the city's night watchmen. To make matters worse, there are rumors of a civil war in the thieves' guild going on in the sewers. You experience your own taste of the dark cloud hanging over the city when you're mugged as soon as you hit town. Despite the small setback, you set out to find your fortune in the inhospitable town, a journey that results in a meaty and death-intensive quest that's a blast to play.

The water in the game is one of the best bits of eye candy.
The water in the game is one of the best bits of eye candy.

If you've played the PS2 version, you'll be very familiar with how Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance plays out. If you haven't, it shouldn't be too hard to get into the game, thanks to its accessible structure. The game is laid out in a linear fashion and shouldn't overwhelm anyone. You'll start out by selecting from one of three characters: a human archer named Vahn, a dwarven fighter called Kromlech, or an elven sorceress named Adrianna. Once you've settled on your virtual self, you'll start the game in a tavern, post-mugging. The early segments of the game give you a good idea of what to expect. You'll interact with characters and be given a quest to fulfill. Once you've completed your task, you'll head back to the character who sent you on your quest and receive your reward and experience. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you complete the game. It's a fine setup, with boss characters who will test your adventuring skills peppered throughout the game.

Oh the Places You'll Go

You'll be able to travel to exotic locales such as sewers.
You'll be able to travel to exotic locales such as sewers.

The game's accessibility extends to its control and character management system. You'll move your character around with the left analog stick. The A button will let you attack with your melee weapon or bow, and the B button will let you cast a spell if you're a magic user or perform a feat if you're character is magically challenged. The X button is a context-sensitive action button that will let you trigger switches, talk to characters, open chests, and so on, depending on the situation. The Y button will let you jump. The D pad has two jobs--pressing left or right will let you switch weapons on the fly without having to jump into the menu, while pressing up or down will let you cycle through your available spells or feats. The left trigger will let you chug mana and energy potions, and the right trigger lets you sip health potions. The black face button will let you block, and the white button calls up a map overlay to help you find your way. Finally, the right analog stick lets you rotate the camera.

The game's character management reflects it RPG ties but keeps things pretty user-friendly and offers quite a bit of flexibility in your character's development. You'll earn experience like in any other RPG, but once you've collected enough to level up, you'll be able to determine what character stat you'd like to buff up. Decking your character out in his or her finest armor is breeze thanks to the game's simple equip menu, which lets you see what you're putting on or taking off.

You'll also be able to meet and kill interesting people, like hordes of the undead.
You'll also be able to meet and kill interesting people, like hordes of the undead.

Graphically, the game looks very sharp, easily re-creating the PS2 game's slick appearance and then smoothing it out a bit. The environments are still gorgeously rendered and lit, and they feature high poly counts for everything on display. The crisp, detailed texture work is well done and looks a bit sharper on the Xbox. The game's excellent water has also been faithfully brought over and is still impressive. All the characters you'll interact with in the game, from the night watchmen to the busty lass in the Elfsong Tavern, all feature high polygon counts and excellent modeling. Given the code's unfinished state, we expect the graphical enhancements Snowblind is aiming to incorporate into the game will start to be more apparent once the game is further along and optimized for the Xbox hardware.

So far, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is coming together quite nicely on the Xbox. The graphics and overall game content from its PS2 predecessor seem to be making the trip over to the Xbox without much trouble. The game looks great and is still very fun to play, especially in the two-player cooperative mode, so it does have quite a bit to offer. While we have yet to see any original content in the Xbox version, we're holding out hope Snowblind will have time to include a few new things for the Xbox version aside from cosmetic and gameplay tweaks. Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is slated to ship later this year for the Xbox. Look for more on the game as its release approaches.

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