The Baldur's Gate series of role-playing games has been well known among PC gamers since 1998, but it hit consoles for the first time in last year's surprisingly good Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Set in the popular Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Forgotten Realms universe, Dark Alliance was thematically similar to other Baldur's Gate games but was otherwise completely different right down to its developer, the talented but little known Snowblind Studios. At its core, Dark Alliance was an action RPG, pitting one or two players against armies of many of Dungeons & Dragons' most recognizable monsters in hack-and-slash dungeon crawls reminiscent of Diablo or Gauntlet--only much better looking. Dark Alliance was released exclusively on the PlayStation 2 late last year, and many months later, it still remains one of the best-looking games on the platform. It's the ultimate testament to the game's technical accomplishments that the new Xbox port of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance also looks fantastic, even though it essentially looks identical to a 1-year-old PlayStation 2 game. Of course, Dark Alliance has a lot more going for it than good looks, and it's especially welcome given the Xbox's relative lack of decent fantasy role-playing games.
But yes, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance looks superb. The game has incredible atmosphere, and its outstanding production values are a big part of what makes Dark Alliance so enjoyable overall. You view the action from an isometric vantage point, rather high above your character's head, and at a glance it's hard to tell what's so special about the game's appearance. Then you realize that no matter what sort of madness is happening onscreen, the game maintains its incredibly smooth frame rate, and no matter where you are, the game retains its incredibly high graphical quality.
You'll realize that no visual detail has been spared in the production. Slay even a pitiful monster such as one of the doglike kobolds you'll fight early on, and you'll see it tumble backward as its weapon, buckler, and helmet go clattering to the ground in different directions, and its foul blood stains the surroundings. Seemingly no two foes in the game perish the same way--an amazing accomplishment for a game that's all about slaying foes--and the game miraculously keeps the repetitive hack-and-slash action from actually seeming repetitive. For good measure, all those enemies you'll be fighting also leave behind an equal number of corpses, a permanent reminder of your handiwork. Enemies, ranging from the walking dead, to pantherlike displacer beasts, to evil drow elves, to gelatinous cubes, move with incredible realism while they're still alive, too, and the environments use subtle lighting effects, bump-mapped textures, and lots of ambient animation to truly give them a sense of mass and being. Perhaps the best way to describe the effect of the graphics in Dark Alliance is to say that you never get the sense that you're just chugging through a level in a game, but rather you constantly get the sense that you're exploring deeper into uncharted territory.
Beyond the visuals, you'll find that the gameplay of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is pretty simple but purely fun and addictive. Most of your time will be spent journeying through various twisting dungeons, caves, and catacombs while fighting hordes of enemies. You gain experience points as you defeat opponents, and you eventually gain experience levels that make you significantly more powerful and allow you to customize your character by spending points on all the various special abilities, feats, and spells that he or she can learn. You'll also constantly be finding new and better equipment, which you can either equip or sell back in town in exchange for gold that you can use to buy whatever else you need. Best to come prepared, since to be sure, the road ahead of you will be fraught with peril, and many of the battles will be quite difficult. But playing Dark Alliance is rarely frustrating. An onscreen automap prevents you from losing your bearings even in the most winding subterranean mazes. You can save your progress frequently at pedestals densely spread throughout the game's world, and even from within the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the world, you can easily teleport back to town (and then back again) using commonly available recall potions. You'll often have to, if only because you'll become encumbered with all the loot you pick up in the field, and you'll certainly prefer to sell it than leave it lying there.
You begin your adventure in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance by choosing from one of three different warriors: a human archer, a dwarven fighter, or an elven sorceress. The controls for each of these characters are identical. They all have similar abilities to run, jump, attack, use magic or special feats, and quaff restoration potions or healing potions using the left and right shoulder buttons respectively, quickly restoring their magic energy or health. Guzzling potions, a hallmark of the Diablo series, plays an equally large role in Dark Alliance, as you'll constantly be offsetting the damage you inevitably sustain in battle by keeping an eye on your health meter in the upper left-hand corner of the screen (or feeling the controller rumble in tune to your character's racing heartbeat) and quickly downing a potion whenever your health gets low. Characters can also block using shields if they have them equipped, though you'll find that blocking in Dark Alliance is less important than attacking swiftly and often. Beyond their shared abilities, as you'd expect, these three characters require some pretty different types of tactics in practice. The sorceress is understandably the most vulnerable at first but eventually gains some of the most dramatic abilities. All characters are viable and seem very powerful--almost too much so, as D&D aficionados will note that many of the tougher foes you'll face shouldn't be beatable by just one adventurer.
Though the dungeons in Dark Alliance aren't heavily randomized as they are in the Diablo games, there's still good incentive to play through the game as each of the three different characters. Finishing the game unlocks a great bonus mode, starring one of the most popular characters from the Forgotten Realms, and finishing that mode unlocks a much tougher difficulty setting for you to attempt. Those are some nice extras, but they're there to offset the fact that finishing Dark Alliance the first time through will take from 10 to 15 hours--not a long time for a role-playing game, though those hours are densely packed with action. You of course can also play through the entire game in two-player mode, which provides a fairly different experience from the single-player mode, since the three different characters can now support each other rather than fend for themselves. Your two characters can't leave each other's vicinity, forcing the two players to cooperate, but two-player Dark Alliance is still entertaining.
The game's impressive production values extend beyond its visuals to its superlative audio. The sound effects made by all your foes are just as varied, believable, and incredibly well done as the graphics. A moody orchestral score, composed by the gifted Jeremy Soule, underscores the action all the while and extremely well, alternating its tone between urgent and foreboding. Dark Alliance even has an involving story, revealed in real-time cutscenes using the game's 3D engine or during dialogue with the game's nonplayer characters. The character models shown here are great looking and exhibit articulate facial expressions, spot-on lip synching, and even some body language, and the game sports some expert voice acting to match, performed by some of the most experienced voice actors in the history of the profession. The lengthy monologues delivered by many of the characters you meet can be a real pleasure to listen to, and yet the fast pace of the gameplay stands in very sharp contrast to the long-winded and somewhat superfluous dialogue sequences--so you might be compelled to skip the chitchat and just get on with it. Nonetheless, there can be no denying that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is an amazing-sounding game all in all.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for the Xbox is essentially a perfect port of one of last year's surprise hits. On the one hand, one might argue that the publisher should have pushed for the Xbox version to have some exclusive features in it that weren't available on the PS2 a year ago. On the other hand, Dark Alliance for the Xbox obviously isn't intended for those who've already played it on the PS2. If by chance you've played the PS2 version already, then you already know that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a great game. And if you either don't have a PS2 or overlooked Dark Alliance amid the holiday rush last year, then you shouldn't miss this opportunity to get what's easily one of the finest action RPGs ever made.