Good Old Games are reissuing the original saga of Baldur’s Gate series. It’s long overdue, I think. The game was issued in 1999 and it’s probably not an understatement to say it revolutionized cRPGs. It was one of those games that implemented a pitch perfect rendition of the ADD rules, so much so that the game manual is more or less the ruleset in print form
So how does the game hold up, ten years on? How does it compare to the Oblivions or the Dragon Ages of the noughts?
It holds up pretty damn well. Sure, the interface is clunky. The pause doesn’t work on the inventory screen, rest until healed hasn’t been implemented yet, the choice of portraits is limited and inventory management can be a nightmare.
On the other hand, you have
A story that knocks your socks off, starting with the prologue. A Nietzsche quote – probably THE Nietzsche quote, a murder, an armoured guy with glowing yellow eyes of doom, a cryptic statement - “I will be the last and you, you go first”
You then create your character – the usual ADD way – roll for stats – and its known for players to stay several hours rolling and rerolling stats until they get to the best set for the character they create. You choose a race and a class – and if you are a magic user, you choose spells and you’re off.
The game begins with a tutorial that unfortunately cannot be skipped. It’s invaluable the first time around but gets painful on subsequent playthroughs. Once you’ve killed the rats and given the cow her medicine and delivered scrolls to the scholars, you meet up with Gorion, the player character’s (referred to as CHARNAME because that’s the name of the variable representing the PC ) foster father who tells you that he has to take you away from the majestic library that has been your home for all your seventeen years.
Gorion and you set off, you don’t really know where he’s taking you, except that he keeps hinting at some grave danger you are in. He is proved right as you are ambushed by the armoured figure from the prologue.
Gorion is killed while holding the attackers off and you escape. The game begins at this point – and it proceeds on multiple levels – as murder mystery, political conspiracy, an investigation into your past – as you try to find out why the armoured figure is trying to kill you, what your connection is with him and why someone is fanning flames of war between the city state of Baldur’s Gate and its wealthy neighbour Amn.
It’s the first infinity engine game – 2d backgrounds with character sprites. The artwork is gorgeous – there’s no other word for it - especially in the coastal areas. The cutscenes look primitive and patchy, but the art hasn’t dated.
Faerun is a well documented place – and the Sword Coast is one of the better documented areas of Faerun. Bioware just used the locations covered in the “Volo’s Guide to the Sword Coast”. The PDF is available here. The names of the inns, the key people in the key towns – its all taken from this book.
This adds to immersiveness of the experience. You deal with Telthoril and Ulruant in Candlekeep – and with Elminster in Beregost and Baldurs Gate and Volo himself in Nashkel.
The number of NPCs you come across is staggering. You start off with Imoen – the ensemble darkhorse for this version. Imoen was an afterthought of a character, created to provide thieving skills to good player character classes.
You can meet up with Xzar and Montaron, two psycho Zhentarim investigating the iron crisis. You can add Kivan, a laconic ranger who is out to kill the game’s dragon for revenge. There is Kagain – who provides tanking for evil parties and the not very useful Garrick the bard. You can turn a statue human if you want a good human healer. There are spoilt brat rich kid daughters running away with ineligible young men, there are gnome thieves, there’s the kick ass daughter of one of the baddies and there are Jaheira and Khalid, a half elf couple whom Elminster recommends meeting when you encounter him for the first time.
There are drow priestesses, dwarf fighters, whiny elf mages, mad gnome priests and many many humans you can recruit to your cause.
And you have Minsc.
Minsc is one of the most popular characters in gaming. He’s one of the reasons to love PC gaming – according to this article, he’s 77 out of 200, ranking ahead of Half Life’s gravity gun. He has multiple websites devoted to him and pages of quotes. He is the T-Shirt, his hamminess and his relationship with his miniature giant hamster – Boo is one for the ages.
“Go for the eyes” is a meme, as is “Butt-kicking for goodness”. There have been bruisers in other RPGs, but no one comes close to Minsc.
And finally, you have Charname, your avatar. And you cant help but feel affection for a character who is given the opportunity to say this
"OK, I've just about had my FILL of riddle asking, quest assigning, insult throwing, pun hurling, hostage taking, iron mongering, smart arsed fools, freaks, and felons that continually test my will, mettle, strength, intelligence, and most of all, patience! If you've got a straight answer ANYWHERE in that bent little head of yours, I want to hear it pretty damn quick or I'm going to take a large blunt object roughly the size of Elminster AND his hat, and stuff it lengthwise into a crevice of your being so seldom seen that even the denizens of the nine hells themselves wouldn't touch it with a twenty-foot rusty halberd! Have I MADE myself perfectly CLEAR?!"
Its a big game. Its beyond big, its huge. Easily around a hundred hours of gameplay. Today, a forty hour game experience is uncommon. It’s sequel was twice as long, but that’s another tale.
It would, I assume, be possible to speedrun the game in about 8 hours? You have to do the Nashkel Mines, the Bandit Camp, Cloakwood, Cloakwood mines, Wyrms Crossing and a couple of Baldur’s gate quests, Candlekeep return, Undercellar, Palace, Thieves Warrens and Undercity. But it’s the sidequests that make this game up, cleverly designed and integrated with the main plot – there are few fetch of token collection quests.
The best sequel hook of all time.