More than 16 years after Bioware’s original Baldur’s Gate set a new standard for Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games on the PC, developer Beamdog has released an all-new chapter in the Bhaalspawn saga dubbed Siege of Dragonspear. And it’s pretty damn great. The new game delivers in just about every possible way, slotting in perfectly alongside its now-teenaged inspiration. A few new features and a compelling, well-written, epic plot offer a somewhat modernized take on dialogue and storytelling, but the whole package remains true to the distinctive Baldur’s Gate flavor that has made the original series one of the most beloved in all of gaming.
One of the best aspects of Siege of Dragonspear is how it picks up right where Baldur’s Gate left off and fills in the gaps between it and its even bigger and better sequel, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Just weeks have passed since you slew Sarevok and accepted your identity as a child of Bhaal, the slain God of Murder, when a new threat arises. A woman with a divine connection named Caelar Argent is leading a crusade across the Sword Coast region with the insane (but well-intentioned) objective of freeing souls unfairly dragged into Hell by devils. The one problem with this plan is that it seems impossible. It’s also resulting in the deaths of thousands as the army of this so-called “Shining Lady” rampages across the land. You are pulled into the conflict as both the now-legendary "Hero of Baldur’s Gate" and as the object of Caelar’s attention.
The overall story arc is a tad linear in that you progress fairly relentlessly from one location to the next en route to the titular siege of the crusade’s stronghold at Dragonspear Castle. Unlike the earlier Baldur’s Gate games, the maps here are a little smaller, with less territory to explore, but with more detail and points of interest crammed into these spaces. Dragonspear emphasizes a steady and militaristic march forward instead of the adventure of discovery that was a main point of the old games. It actually makes for a nice change of pace and adds focus to the whole story, although one drawback is that you cannot retrace your steps after certain points, which can make some side quests impossible to finish.
My one real complaint here came at the end of the game. Things got a little pushy near the conclusion. In the final rush to Dragonspear, the plot presents you with choices that are really non-existent, as making the wrong call gets you into impossible battles with massive numbers of enemies. And, even worse, the game seems to lock your party down and even prevent the ability to rest at all while storming the castle. This caused a real problem with me, because accepting the start of the final showdown resulted in me being stuck with a five-member party through the most difficult parts of the game.
And speaking of massive numbers of enemies, this is another dramatic change from the old Baldur’s Gate series. While Siege of Dragonspear still uses the Infinity Engine that Bioware created in the late 1990s with some noteworthy visual enhancements, the game has been upgraded to make it possible to display dozens if not hundreds of characters on-screen at the same time. Combat here often features mob scenes of opponents. New in-game cutscenes feature Caelar addressing huge crowds of followers, too, and the actual assault on her castle near the end of the game is one of the most ambitious battles in the entire Baldur’s Gate franchise. All of this is pulled off without a single framerate hitch or slowdown. Another high point is the audio, which again includes the superb score of the original game that stands up to any Hollywood movie soundtrack, and a wide range of atmospheric effects to ramp up the impact of everything from pitched combat to wandering in the woods at night.
Antagonist Caelar is an intriguing anti-hero that made me wonder if I was actually playing the bad guy at times. Much of what she said made a fair bit of sense; although, there was always a whiff of brimstone around her that kept me convinced that she needed to be stopped for the greater good, no matter what she claimed. Even more interesting was the presence of what seemed to be the full lineup of potential party members on offer from the original Baldur’s Gate, almost all with extensive new voice acting provided by the original actors. The handful of new party members fit in so smoothly with the old cast that I couldn’t immediately tell who was new and who was a returning character. I particularly liked Corwin--the straitlaced archer with the Flaming Fist raising a daughter on her own--even if her romance option had her mooning over love right from the moment she joined my party.
I was soon dragged into the events of the plot and held spellbound for over 35 hours of play. Quests were a nearly perfect blend of generic delivery jobs and suitably creepy or epic assignments, accompanied by the slow-but-steady level-and-loot advancement and the usual range of monsters--from aerial servants, to evil mages, to myconids, to zombies. Sometimes it was nice to zone out and acquire a bear pelt or collect a few unique items for a reward and easy XP. Sometimes it was nice to focus in on the brutal battles that accompany exploring the temple of a traitorous dwarven lich, or to take on a group of necromancers creating undead with the possible help of a spectral dragon, or to cleanse a druid’s grove of stinky evil. Nothing was dragged out too long, either. Everything that I was tasked to do had a sensible purpose, which kept my interest every step of the way.
Bugs and some lingering annoyances with the interface dogged me every step of the way, though. While nothing here was a show-stopper, I experienced a number of hard crashes that dropped me to the desktop and some quirks like respawning enemies, quests that weren’t fully resolved in the journal, and a bizarre issue with the Bag of Holding that saw items placed there regularly duplicated. Endless +2 Arrows of Fire were always welcome, but the amount of clutter that accumulated in the bag became pretty irritating after a while.
The interface remains unnecessarily clumsy when it comes to inventory management. I probably spent as much time collecting, sorting, and selling items as I did battling monsters and exploring sinister crypts. Getting killed is still a ridiculous situation. It’s simply not acceptable that dead characters drop all their stuff immediately and force you to spread their gear amongst your entire party if you need to trek back to civilization for a Raise Dead spell. And even if you have a character in your party with the ability to cast Raise Dead, the resurrected character comes back naked, so you still have to dress him or her back up again. Since the battles here are typically quite challenging on the regular Core difficulty setting, expect to re-dress your characters dozens of times during the campaign.
Returning home to Baldur’s Gate makes Siege of Dragonspear one of the most enjoyable RPGs that I have played in a long time, both for the nostalgia factor of revisiting an all-time favorite and for the impressively designed and involving narrative that captures nearly everything that fans love about traditional D&D. Even though the engine creaks in spots, the overall experience is everything that a hardcore D&D fan could ask for, and a superb expansion of one of the most legendary franchises in all of roleplaying game history.