Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance Review

Those with open minds for a new experience and a penchant for delightfully slicing their enemies apart will find that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance definitely delivers.

The popular pen-and-paper role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has spawned numerous translations in the realm of video and computer gaming. The popular PC RPG series Baldur's Gate provided a solid RPG experience while remaining true to the D&D license. Interplay's Black Isle Studios and Snowblind have teamed up to publish and develop the first console entry in the Baldur's Gate series, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. However, the similarities between the PC Baldur's Gate series and this PlayStation 2 title are in setting and name alone. Dark Alliance is an entirely new action-oriented game that still hangs on to a few traditional RPG elements, such as experience points and skill-based character advancement. Combat of the hack-and-slash variety is the name of the game here, and those dead-set on hour-long town explorations will likely be disappointed. However, those with open minds for a new experience and a penchant for delightfully slicing their enemies apart will find that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance definitely delivers.

Set in the Forgotten Realms and based loosely on the Dungeons & Dragons rules, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance makes use of the sword and sorcery background that so many players have become intimately familiar with. Creatures of fantasy inhabit this world, including the usual kobolds, trolls, and dragons. Your hero may be a human ranger, a dwarven fighter, or an elven sorceress. Each of the three character classes brings with it a unique methodology to success: Where one character can face nearly all creatures head-on, others may need to employ hit-and-run tactics. The characters also have unique special abilities that further set them apart from one another. The sorceress is mistress of destructive spells, the dwarf can perform a whirlwind melee attack or shake the ground with a powerful hammer blow, while the ranger can fire magical arrows, including volleys that cover large areas. To strengthen these basic abilities, your character needs to find equipment, and there's quite a variety to be found in Dark Alliance. There are many different types of normal and magical weapons to be found and equally varied types of armor. Your inventory has a weight limit, so frequent trips to the local storekeeper will allow you to sell the excess and stockpile gold pieces for a larger purchase down the line. Since Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance uses a semi-randomized system for the loot dropped from enemies and found in chests, the option to buy powerful weapons and armor keeps you from hacking through an area over and over again in hopes of finding one special item.

Arming your character to the teeth will be necessary to rid the Realms of the plague that threatens it in Dark Alliance. The game spans three acts, each set in a different part of the world and each replete with unique enemies, bosses, and quests to undertake. The subquests and levels are split into brief, easily manageable segments that can be completed in around an hour each. It's difficult to get stuck, as a quest log is always available, and teleporting back to town to change your inventory or to talk to villagers for clues is always easy. Completing each of the subquests will fill in an additional part of the plot's grand puzzle.

The story begins with your character barely surviving a nighttime attack by robbers near the entrance to the city of Baldur's Gate and being rescued from death by the timely appearance of the town watch. Penniless and distraught, your character seeks refuge in the Elfsong Tavern--a drinking establishment well known for its haunting, ghostly melody--which is your base of operations for the first act. A series of minor tasks and quests sets you on your way toward a series of climactic battles against numerous foes.

While Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance provides a capable story, it succeeds most on an instinctive level--as a pure gameplay experience. Every button and feature of the PS2 controller is used in a manner that is both intuitive and functional. Smooth analog movement controls your character's stride or run, and proper facing is key to success. There is a single attack command, which can be depressed at different intervals to create combos, which are also dependent on the weapon being wielded. Heavier weapons may have a slower combo, requiring a delay between swings, while faster weapons can slash or bludgeon almost constantly. Each character is capable of leaping, which can be used to jump out of particularly hairy situations or over obstacles. You can also activate items, such as levers, doors, or chests, and of particular note is the use of combustible barrels. Littered in many areas throughout the game are barrels, which can be lit to explode like powder kegs. This can be both beneficial and baneful, depending on how skillfully they are dealt with. Enemies can be lured toward them to be blown apart when the fuse takes its course. Your character can push crates and barrels with ease, so these obstacles can be used as blockades to impede enemy movement and also to protect your character from pesky projectiles that would otherwise spell doom for your hero. Each character can equip a handheld and a missile weapon, which can be effortlessly switched to on the fly using the digital pad. This same interface lets you scroll through your spells and special abilities. Your character's racing heart will pound in your controller when weakened, spurring you to depress the shoulder buttons for mana or life-potion reinforcements or to toss up your shield in a blocking attempt. Maneuvering through the world is a cinch from the slightly angled top-down perspective, and in open areas you can control the camera's position using the right analog stick. If navigating sewers or forests unguided becomes difficult, a full-screen transparent map overlay is available, as is a convenient minimap.

Engaging in countless battles with the many different enemies is a joy and is a testament to the fun that can still be found in classic, twitch-based gameplay. Those who bore easily should be warned that there is a repetitive Diablo-like nature to your seemingly endless conflicts. It may often seem like all there is to do is kill things, and to an extent this is true. The character development and haggling over equipment provide brief diversions, but at its core, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a 3D action game in the same vein as the side-scrolling action games of old, where the only objective is to kill the enemies in front of you, clearing a path to the big enemy at the end of the stage.

Lovers of detail will find that Dark Alliance is a truly beautiful game, both artistically and technically. The flora and fauna of the Forgotten Realms have been brought to life, both with nicely rendered models and extremely smooth animation. Monsters have distinctive gaits, methods of attack, and death animations, which, combined with their distinctive looks, make them among the most delightful enemies to face in recent games. Dark Alliance draws upon some of the more memorable images of Dungeons & Dragons, including cowardly kobolds, towering frost giants, and the inexplicably appealing gelatinous cube. These creatures look absolutely great, even when all that is racing through your head is how to defeat them without depleting your stock of potions. Your explorations will take you into many different locales, and while some may seem only superficially different, they are each as entertaining as the last. Water and fire, two basic elements that have been used so poorly in many previous games, absolutely shine in Dark Alliance. Subtle lighting effects, like the heat wash given off by torches or the sheen of a reflection off of a polished metal wall give the game a classy look. When you first step foot into a pool of water, you can notice the stunning, almost mercurial effect of the ripples and wake. Dank cellars are populated not only by fearsome beasts, but also by nearly unnoticeable mice and rats, which squeak as you squash them flat underfoot. Magical weapons may emit an aura of flame when danger is afoot, while others constantly give off a soft blue glow, which leaves subtle trails of blue sparks in the air as they swing during battle. Every piece of weaponry and armor your character dons is represented both on the in-game character and on the detailed model viewed in the inventory and menu screens. Walking through a busy street filled with chatting townsfolk almost makes you forget that you can't enter every domicile or strike up a conversation with a friendly passerby. Each of the cinematic sequences is rendered in real time, and with a few exceptions each character and creature holds up wonderfully to close inspection.

The voice actors responsible for bringing the characters and creatures of Dark Alliance to your living room provide capable performances. The voice talents include Michael Bell, perhaps best known as the voice of Raziel in Crystal Dynamics' Soul Reaver games and of Duke from G.I. Joe, and John Rhys-Davies of Indiana Jones and Sliders fame. The nonplayer characters you meet in your travels will tell their tales in a stirring fashion--a wonderful contrast to the standard endless lines of text dialogue. The attention to detail that has gone into Dark Alliance comes to light once again during these speeches--the lip synching and each of the characters' many gestures are in accord with the current line of dialogue. This effect works wonderfully on the human characters and even works well with the more bizarre characters you encounter. Setting the tone for the adventure is acclaimed composer Jeremy Soule, who previously provided the soundtrack for Black Isle's Icewind Dale PC game. Soule has orchestrated a wonderful soundtrack for Dark Alliance, which rouses, inspires, and scares at all the right moments. When the battle theme for a new area kicks in for the first time, you'll be hard-pressed not to start smiling. In a time where licensed popular music soundtracks and "create your own game soundtrack" are the order of the day, it's refreshing to play a game that captivates with an original score. If there is a single major addition that should have been made to the audio presentation, it is the addition of spoken dialogue for the pregenerated main character, although more songs would have been icing on the cake.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance offers a moderate challenge for the manually dexterous player but also offers many save points to make progress through the adventure relatively painless. The small number of puzzles encountered may be frustrating to some, but once solved, they need not be repeated. Some players may find that some of the potentially more climactic boss battles are too simple, while those with other characters may find these same battles far too hard or time consuming. Each of the characters is balanced enough that implementation of the proper situational strategy will safely guide you through the complete adventure without any real stumbling blocks. If there is one major flaw in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, it is that you can quite possibly complete all three acts in well under a dozen hours, and you'll most likely be left wanting more. There are secrets to unlock upon defeating the game, and the opportunity for another trip through as one of the other characters offers considerable replay value, but no doubt most will find that a single venture through this small corner of the Realms is enough.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is the beginning of a wonderful story, and it would be a shame not to see it continue in the future--the potential for it to spawn a successful console franchise is remarkable. You can really appreciate all the work that went into making sure that all of the little things came together so nicely. Anyone with a love of the source material or those who can appreciate an immersive, combat-based experience will have a blast.

The Good

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The Bad

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