Where Dungeons & Dragons is concerned, I've always been old-school. I got into the game as a child at the end of the 1970s, during the Gygaxian glory days when the big game was still Advanced and still loaded with more inscrutable numbers than a corporate tax return. That's how I've always liked it. The newfangled rules that supposedly make everything easier with changes like flipping around armor class just make my head hurt. If you can't understand that -10 is better than 10, I don't want to know you.
So Baldur's Gate II is the pinnacle of role-playing games for me. The BioWare epic got almost everything right about the original, unforgiving D&D when it was released back in 2000, and Overhaul Games hits the goblin right on the schnoz in 2013. The developer's reworking of one of the all-time greats into Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition combines the original Shadows of Amn, the Throne of Bhaal expansion, and a new gladiatorial combat side game into a bursting-at-the-seams package. Even after more than a decade, this sprawling saga remains the most authentic treatment of D&D to ever hit a computer. And it is even better than ever, thanks to numerous graphical tweaks and a pile of new content that shows how much Overhaul has gotten its act together in comparison with the problematic release of the first enhanced Baldur's Gate game last year.
Not that the original game could ever be said to be in need of more stuff. Completists will put in a good 100 hours with Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, while Throne of Bhaal adds another 40 or more. Both games are loaded with memorable (and personable, depending on how much you take to space hamsters and self-righteous druids) non-player characters and party members and challenging tactical combat--not to mention quests that play out like classic pen-and-paper modules and a rogues' gallery of monsters and villains ranging all the way from mephits and vampires to mind flayers and a spectacularly snotty red dragon. The game hardly needed extras, although the new characters, quests, and gladiatorial games are a good impetus for players who can get a lot of the $20 "enhanced" presentation by loading up free user-made mods with the original game, which can be purchased online for less than $10.
Battles are intricate, tactical affairs where you have to blend careful use of melee fighters with the smart use of mages, clerics, and the like.
The original plot remains impressive, telling the continuing Bhaalspawn saga about the protagonist coming to terms with his or her identity as the offspring of the dead god of murder. Script and story are much more mature than what was presented in the first Baldur's Gate. Even the main villain, a dead-faced sadistic monster named Jon Irenicus, whom you are first introduced to during torture sessions in his dungeon, is more memorably evil than the previous game's more prototypical baddie, Sarevok.
Because of the above, plus a more careful design, all of your actions are more directed and more purposeful. Where the first game saw you crawling through every square inch of what seemed to be endless wilderness maps, looking for battles to earn you enough experience points to level up and take on gangs of murderous kobolds and the like, here you accept a quest, go more or less straight to its location, and get right to slaying powerhouse mages, parlaying with demons, challenging vampire clans, and so forth. The ante has been upped across the board, starting with an introductory-level adventure for first-level characters, and moving to a much more challenging foray with experienced heroes who start at level seven and above. You feel this with every monster you kill and every magical item you loot from a corpse.
Coming along with this epic feel is epic difficulty. Baldur's Gate might be the hardest RPG ever made. Battles are intricate, tactical affairs where you have to blend careful use of melee fighters with the smart use of mages, clerics, and the like. Battle preparation is vital. You should memorize the spellbooks of your characters to see what works best for each possible situation. If you don't maximize your chances of survival with smart spellcasting, which includes prep work like throwing out some haste and bless spells before even going into fights, you will not survive for long.
In many ways, this is more of a strategy game than an RPG, particularly by today's standards. Some battles are excruciatingly tough without the use of certain spells. I ran into trouble at various points in the game, and it's impressive just how many encounters require you to exercise some gray matter instead of whipping out a sword and some magic missiles. I kept beating my head against one early battle with a group of Hulk-like golems who activated as soon as I swiped the magic items that they were protecting. After 30 minutes or so of getting beaten into a fine red goo, I realized that I could use something as basic as a cleric's sanctuary spell to put up a cloaking field, then wander in, steal everything, and slink on out without being spotted by these murderous guardians.
All that said, sometimes the game goes too far. The difficulty is artificially ramped up, and the game's reach exceeds its grasp in some aspects of the design. Dungeon levels consist of far too many tiny corridors that present daunting challenges to your party of six adventurers. Pathfinding remains abysmal, so characters frequently perform Keystone Kops routines where they walk into one another and turn around. These guys take the long way around far too often. I can't recall how many battles I stumbled into, went to my go-to mage to soften up baddies with a little summoning or fireballing...and then realized that she was wandering through a chamber all the way on the other side of the crypt or cavern.
The game's reach exceeds its grasp in some aspects of the design.
Even worse, the game design often relies on the small size of the dungeons to make battles harder. You frequently walk into a tiny room and get gooned by foes right on the doorstep. This little trick typically results in the back-line heroes in your party formation (almost always your vital spellcasters) being unable to get through the logjam. As a result, they can't get involved in the battle, even to fire off arrows or cast those oh-so-necessary spells. Even your fighters up front don't fare well here, since they can't move. They wind up sandwiched between the enemies in front of them and their useless allies behind them. Say hello to an old-fashioned beatdown. The only way to deal with these battles, and many others that begin on more of a level playing field, is to lose first and then use that experience to figure out what spells need to be cast, before loading a save and going into that battle again.
New content doesn't add all that much to the original games. It is nice to have, although the fit isn't perfect. The four added adventurers (including the three introduced in last year's Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition and a fourth brand-new one) add some variety to your parties, but there are some oddities. Their dialogue often seems out of place. They come off a little too modern (sex jokes do not work well in a game this buttoned-down) and self-referential in comparison with the original characters, who played things mostly straight and serious. The most unimpressive additions, however, are the crashes to desktop, which are common enough to frustrate.
Hexxat, the lone all-new character, has an intriguing backstory and can be of use in battles, but she's inaccessible to good parties due to her evil alignment. (Good luck trying to justify keeping her around in a party led by a paladin.) Her romance option is same-sex-only, which makes her off-limits for any male protagonist who wants to knock some boots before venturing forth; if you're porting over a dude from the first Baldur's Gate, you're out of luck when it comes to the new romantic content. The combat-heavy new mode of play, The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay, is a worthy sequel to its predecessor, but it doesn't offer much more than a succession of the same sorts of tactical battles you get in the main games, only there you also get the benefit of great storytelling and more involving quests.
Despite all of the above, I have to admit that I am probably most fond of Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition because of nostalgia. Not that this is entirely a bad thing. As much as I've gotten used to modern, hold-your-hand RPGs like Mass Effect 3, there is something to be said for this take-no-prisoners blast from the past, especially if you love old-timey D&D as much as I do. And even if you don't have this particular predilection, you should check the game out anyhow, because an experience as legendary as Baldur's Gate II is well worth the effort.