The Baldur's Gate series of fantasy role-playing games has consistently exceeded the highest expectations of even the most discriminating players. Back in 1998, the original Baldur's Gate almost single-handedly salvaged the role-playing genre from obscurity--its setting in the popular Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons & Dragons, its combination of deep role-playing and tactical combat elements, and its epic scale all contributed to its remarkable success. Some months later, the release of the expansion pack Tales of the Sword Coast tided over fans waiting for the true sequel. When that sequel finally arrived last year, it actually turned out to be even better than the original in every respect. Tighter pacing, a better story, and an even greater attention to detail made Baldur's Gate II easily the best role-playing game released in 2000. Now, the entire series draws to a bittersweet close with the release of the sequel's official expansion pack, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. Billed as the final chapter in the Baldur's Gate storyline, this full-sized game lives up to the standards set by its overachieving predecessors. In fact, in some ways it's even superior to Baldur's Gate II. It's filled with high adventure, epic battles, and plenty of surprises, and it's got a good cast, a good story, and more of all the elements that have made the series successful.
Throne of Bhaal begins shortly after the events at the end of Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Your main character has learned much of his heritage: He is the progeny of the evil god Bhaal, also known as the Lord of Murder--and he isn't the only one of his ilk. In fact, you learn that the other Bhaalspawn such as yourself are waging a fierce battle against one another, in an effort to achieve the same level of power as their father. At the beginning of Throne of Bhaal, you are thrust in the center of this conflict. Even more so than in Baldur's Gate II, in Throne of Bhaal, the game does a distinctly good job of convincing you that your player character is legendary, mostly in how other characters will respond to you, often with fear, reverence, or contempt.
Last year's Baldur's Gate II is a huge game, and while Throne of Bhaal isn't quite as expansive, it's still very substantial and will take you at least 30 hours to finish. Likewise, there are more than enough new features and content in the expansion to encourage you to play through it multiple times. Specifically, Throne of Bhaal appends three additional chapters of gameplay onto the seven chapters of Baldur's Gate II. In addition, it lets you venture into Watcher's Keep, a dangerous high-level dungeon. The expansion pack raises (and virtually eliminates) the experience-point cap for player characters, such that most character classes can reach an experience level of 40, which is near-godlike status in the world of Dungeons & Dragons. You gain all this experience mostly by completing various key quests throughout the game and, of course, by winning battles. What's more, all the character classes can now gain access to certain high-level skills that make them extraordinarily powerful. Besides all this, Throne of Bhaal also adds a lot of new magical items and spells to the game, some welcome new features to the interface and the gameplay, an interesting new playable character class kit, and an old foe who'll actually join your party if you'll accept him.
The conflicts and encounters in Throne of Bhaal are plentiful, highly varied, and impressive for the most part. Much more so than in any previous Baldur's Gate game, Throne of Bhaal makes plentiful use of excellent voice acting to convey the dramatic situations at hand. Most of the key characters you'll encounter speak all their lines convincingly, and portraits of these characters are often displayed to further heighten the sense that you're facing real adversaries. In particular, the drawn-out battles with some of the other Bhaalspawn are very intense. At other times, you'll have to stand against entire armies of enemy warriors or face small groups of immensely powerful foes who're as legendary as you. In any case, most all the combat in Throne of Bhaal is meaningful, epic, and very challenging. Still, it's worth noting that while the gameplay has been optimized somewhat since Baldur's Gate II, you might find that many of the battles tend to slow down on slower machines as multiple spell effects flash across the screen. Furthermore, the combat can sometimes be frustrating, as it invariably revolves around erecting powerful magical defenses for your party and breaching those of the enemy forces. All the defensive and countermeasure spells can be a lot to consider, and the difference between success and failure in combat will typically be in how well you anticipate these. Fortunately or not, a trial-and-error approach with battle tactics can eventually see you through the more difficult fights.
Soon into the expansion, you'll get to employ some of the new high-level abilities, like the fighter's whirlwind skill, which greatly increases his attack rate, and the magic user's 9th and 10th-level spells, such as black blade of disaster and dragon's breath. You start to gain these abilities with every level starting at around level 20, and since your characters will gain about 10 levels on average during the course of Throne of Bhaal, by the end you'll have amassed most of the new abilities; actually, it's a bit unfortunate that you level up as often as you do, since eventually there's little reward in doing so. Yet even an abundance of special abilities won't sufficiently prepare you for the extremely strong enemies that await you. Fortunately, the great variety of new magical equipment in Throne of Bhaal probably will. The discovery of an abyssal stronghold at the beginning of the game will provide you with access to the services of a tiny (and rather irritating) imp who'll look through all your belongings and mix and match some of your most powerful artifacts with some of the other relics you find. In this way, you'll be able to make the best equipment in the game even better, which can be almost as satisfying as actually using the new gear in action.
The structure of the game perfectly preserves and even enhances the epic pacing of Baldur's Gate II. The expansion is split into main two parts--Watcher's Keep and everything else--and even though you can venture into the dungeon at almost any point, the main story branch of Throne of Bhaal is tightly focused. Both aspects of the game are well done: Watcher's Keep is a huge, dangerous multistory structure for which "dungeon" isn't really an accurate description. After all, dungeons evoke dank, claustrophobic, mazelike corridors--but almost every square foot of Watcher's Keep bears something of interest, especially further in. You'll encounter a host of interesting denizens trapped inside its ancient walls.
As for the main story of the game, it successfully brings together the many plot points of the Baldur's Gate series, and it even brings back some characters you'd probably thought you'd seen the last of. Much like in Baldur's Gate II, the game strikes a careful balance between making you role-play and making you fight. However, the fighting may be a bit better, as some of the role-playing seems superficial. You'll usually have a lot of dialogue options available in conversation, but often, all these options will still produce the same results. Also, the conversations themselves skew toward revealing more about the plot than about the characters, such that the personalities and true motivations of the cast in Throne of Bhaal don't always come across. You may even find that the scripting in some of the non-interactive sequences is occasionally problematic. Fortunately, by and large, much like Watcher's Keep, most every part of every new area in the expansion is detailed. The new areas in the game are uniformly attractive looking, yet they're all highly distinct in their own right. Plenty of background animation is used to make all these scenes seem alive rather than static.
There's much more to be said about Throne of Bhaal. The new non-player character makes an outstanding addition to the main cast, and he's an extraordinary fighter to boot. The new wild mage character kit, whose chaotic magic will often yield surprising or catastrophic results, is a lot of fun to play, especially in multiplayer mode, when other human players might witness the consequences. Throne of Bhaal also boasts an all-new orchestral score that is simply stunning. It matches the action and settings in the game, and it will enrich almost every moment of your playing time. Otherwise, the only real shortcomings you'll find in Throne of Bhaal are related to the game's use of the aging Infinity engine, which was used in all of its predecessors. Yet the game assumes you're familiar with how the Baldur's Gate games work, and as such, most any of the potential problems in the gameplay (such as how combat invariably requires fits of pausing and unpausing as you reissue orders constantly) can all be easily and naturally overlooked.
Though it'll challenge even the most dedicated fans, ultimately, much like Baldur's Gate II before it, Throne of Bhaal is essential for anyone who enjoys computer role-playing games. The overall level of quality found throughout the game exceeds even that found in Baldur's Gate II--perhaps even more so than last year's game, Throne of Bhaal is persistently rewarding and interesting. As such, if you've followed the Baldur's Gate series since the original game, you should be especially pleased with Throne of Bhaal. At the end of the game, you'll look back over the course of the series and see how far it's come and how far you've come along with it. It finally gives a satisfying sense of closure to the story of the beloved role-playing series, which is what's most important.