Almost beardless.

User Rating: 8 | Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (PCCW The Best) PS2
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is the first console outing for the highly acclaimed Baldur's Gate series; it does differ greatly from those PC titles, but not necessarily in a bad way. Dark Alliance was developed by Snowblind Studios, who are also responsible for similar action RPG outings including two games set in the Everquest universe, Champions of Norrath and Champions: Return to Arms.

I am guilty of dismissing this game as unworthy for a long time, being a huge fan of Bioware's Baldur's Gate epics on the PC and seeing Dark Alliance as mere pandering to the often simplicity-craving console crowd, a sort of bastard offspring best ignored. I am happy to report that my opinions have changed greatly. Dark Alliance is actually heavier on the RPG elements than I was expecting, which was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a sort of God of War action-fest, but it actually falls under the heading of 'Diet RPG' or perhaps 'D&D: Diablo'. It's certainly not as complex as the PC Baldur's Gate games, but is excellent at what it does: providing a fun hack-n-slash dungeon-crawling romp. It gives us some basic stat-fiddling while doing away with all the stuffy rules and complicated hero building that so often turn away many a casual gamer.

Gameplay is easily accessible, as your character of choice travels through a selection of dungeons and other areas, cutting a swathe of destruction through enemy hordes. Pressing one button causes your character to attack, another button to block, the shoulder buttons for health and mana potions. Gameplay proceeds for the most part by mashing these buttons as rapidly as possible while using the analogue sticks to move around. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it is: but sometimes simplicity is key. There's no need for fancy control systems or complex mechanics: in true D&D fashion all the calculations of your battles are done behind the scenes – as long as you are facing in the right direction your stats will determine whether you hit your foe and what damage you do. Facing in the right direction isn't always the easiest however; while melee weapons are the simplest, getting your aim right with missile weapons and some spells can be tricky.

The stat system itself is a simplified version of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons, allowing your character to level up by gaining experience from kills, increasing attributes such as strength, dexterity, intelligence etc. and putting points into feats. Each character has access to a slightly different selection of feats – which range from simple attack or defence upgrades to special moves and attack styles.

The overall simplicity of the game may be its downfall. For the most part, challenge is minimal, and I would recommend most players to begin on hard difficulty right away. Mashing buttons requires little skill or strategy, and while this helps less experiences players to enjoy the game to it's fullest, it is quite possible to hack your way to the final boss in under ten hours without any serious difficulty.

Multi-player action is provided through a co-operative campaign mode, where you and a friend can play through the single-player game together. You must choose different characters, but the ability to import characters from any saved game and change them almost on the fly means that you aren't stuck with your selections forever.

Now, the campaign is hardly what one would call epic. The plot is wafer-like, providing the vaguest possible excuse for your character to hack your way from A to B. You begin by arriving in the majestic city of Baldur's Gate, jewel of the Forgotten Realms – however you have little opportunity to enjoy the city before you are traipsing through cellars and dungeons to uncover a deceitful plot and destroy an evil influence. It's a bit of a shame that the city itself wasn't fleshed out a bit more; all we get is one small area with a non-interactive population and some quick escape routes from the dungeons below. The plot and the action quickly move on to other lands through three acts, including ice mountains, fetid swamps and maze-like towers, but it never becomes particularly gripping or achieves anything close to the narrative outpourings of some other RPGs.

Moving onto the technical aspects of the game, Dark Alliance is extremely impressive for a game released way back in 2001, near the beginning of the PS2's life. The graphics are particularly noteworthy, with interesting, varied areas and models that – although small – are easily distinguishable and well detailed. While graphically Dark Alliance has long been surpassed, it is obvious that care went into the production of the game; one look at the exceptional water ripple effects or the dynamic lighting attests that this is no mere cheap attempt to cash in on a good name.

Overall, the sound of the game is good. There is perfectly adequate voice acting from the handful of interactive, speaking NPCs and some good sound effects. Even if repetitive banging and clanking noises eventually grate, there's little else that could be done instead. The music is a refreshing change from the often overbearing orchestral scores that plague most fantasy games, being much more subtle and pleasing in tone.

The flaws detailed in this review are for the most part minor, and do little to overshadow a solid action RPG. However, the game's main drawback is its lack of length. As mentioned above, a player with even a small amount of experience with the genre could complete the game in under ten hours, and although it is possible to replay the game with the same character in order to cultivate your hero to epic status, there is little incentive to playing through the same short campaign over and over. Instead, players would be advised to seek out similar games including the sequel, Dark Alliance II.

Overall, a good game for most fantasy fans to enjoy. While hardcore PC RPG fans may turn their nose up and sneer at such a simplistic offering, I would encourage a more open-minded approach. You may be pleasantly surprised.