Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn
Small boys shoehomed into a bedroom, casting multi-sided dice and shouting "20 doubledamage!" Parents forced to cast a summon spell to get them down for dinner, while dreaming of higher magic that can force their pasty-faced offspring into the sun. It doesn't sound like the ideal conversion for a PC game, but Baldur's Gate took the rigid tum-based Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule-book and ripped it into one of the best RPGs your computer has ever seen.
BioWare, Canadian developers and self-confessed D&D devotees, were hoping that BG would shift 200,000 copies so they could justify work on the sequel. This happened, about five times over actually, and at short notice we were whisked across the Atlantic to feast our eyes on Shadows OfAmn, the full-blown successor to the RPG crown. BG II is going to use the same Infinity engine, but die resolution has been upped to 800x600 and OpenGL support is being implemented to buff the edges. Most of the hardware-only effects are still being coded, but already the level of detail blows BG away. It's also sticking to the Second Edition rules. The next rulebook is due out around the same time as the game (next September), and Bio Ware have said they might implement some of the new features, but there isn't enough time to make a complete switch.
Instead BioWare are building on everything that made the original special. Their aim is to increase the depth of play and build up the storyline to rival the Final Fantasy series. In keeping with the character-rich tradition, you can import existing profiles from BG or Swords Of The Coast. To ensure a balance for Baldur virgins, you're awarded 89,000 experience points if you decide to create a new character - the amount you should have amassed if you were a good boy or girl in the original.
Up to 15 new NPC characters can join your party, and each one has been dosed-up with personality in order to recreate a traditional role-playing group. Betrayals and romantic interludes are going to help drive the storyline, and the way you interact will have a huge bearing on the way the game plays. To give you an idea, each character in BG2 is going to have more scripting than all the characters in the original put together.
What else can you expect to see? More than double the amount of monsters with better animation and more personality. An extra race, the half-ore, along with 20 new character kits that modify the main classes into speciality clerics, assassins and the like. There'll also be 130 extra spells, including the most powerful 9th level mage variety, and new items like the Holy Avenger and Staff of the Magi. Take your character up to the sacred 9th level and you'll be awarded a stronghold to run and protect. Multiplayer is still being worked on, but all the niggles from the first (such as accessing the stores and dead-time dialogue) are being eradicated so the experience should be a lot smoother.
The rest is classified for now, although we gleaned there may be multiple endings and the appearance of an exciting new monster. The only other titbit we managed to get was that the main players in BG are based on real-life D&D characters that BioWare have nurtured over the years. No surprise there, but another pointer towards the one ingredient that's going to ensure the sequel surpasses the original: passion. Pure and simple.
The sequel to the surprise RPG hit of'99, Shadows Of Amn promises to take the popular Baldur's Gate series even further with tons of new additions and a load of game enhancements. You'll be able to import your characters from the original Baldur's Gate into this game (but not the other way around), as well as custom character portrait art and your own digital speech. There'll be a full-screen mode this time around, and the cut-scenes can now be skipped if you so wish (yayl). On top of that there have been improvements and fixes to pathing, journal management, interface (with new 'Byzantine brown stone' look!), dialogue and multiplayer (no more annoying pauses during conversations). Combine that TiMT 3D card support, more than 100 new sub-plots, new weapons, and the fact that there'll be far fewer 'empty' areas to explore than in its predecessor, and you're looking at Shadows Of Amn being one of the biggest and most complex RPGs ever released on PC.
In case you've forgotten, Baldur's Gate was one of the definitive computer RPGs of recent years and it sold well over a million copies. Now the same developer, Canadian company Bioware, has released the sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows OfAmn with an updated graphics engine and a vast number of additional spells, monsters, weapons, magical items and new character classes.
Baldur's Gate fans expecting more of the same are unlikely to be as disappointed as they were with the intermediate release, Icewind Dale, but anyone expecting Baldur's Gate IIto herald a new era in role-playing may as well give up now. BGII is simply BG with knobs on. Big knobs in places and many more of them, but knobs all the same.
So what's it all about? Well, it's set on the Sword Coast, part of the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons And Dragons fame and you take on the role of the character you played in the original game. If you've kept your character in the form of a saved game, you can import him or her into BGII. If you haven't, you simply create a new character but pretend it's the same one, if you see what I mean...
It's several months after your battle with the wizard Sarevok and you come round in a prison cell complex underneath the city of Athkatla, where you've been tortured by a nasty fellow called Irenicus. Fortunately, as happens in RPG plots, some assassins are attacking the complex and you're freed by your old friend Imoen from the original BG. Close by, you discover more old friends, Jaheira, the fighter druid and mad Minsc, the hamster-loving ranger.
Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to escape through two big levels of demonic dungeon and make it back to the surface. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy, more reminiscent of the brooding world of Planescape: Torment than the blissful fairy world of BG. The starting level is 89,000 experience points, which makes you anything from sixth to eighth level, depending on your choice of class.
Owners of the Tales Of The Sword Coast expansion pack get to start at 161,000 XPs as a bonus. Maximum levels vary from 14th for a druid, 17th for a mage, ranger or paladin to 19th for a fighter, 21st for a cleric and 23rd for a thief, with an XP cap of 2,950,000. This means you can become a pretty powerful character and even own your own stronghold.
The locations to be visited are many and varied, including the Elven forests of Tethyr, the Cloudpeak Mountains, a Drow underground city and even the Abyss, although the main adventure is based around the capital of Amn, Athkatla. There are twice as many monsters as in BG -130 to be precise - and 130 new spells to take the total to over 300. More than you can hope to shake a magic wand at, in fact. New items to be claimed include the Holy Avenger +5 sword and the Staff of the Magi. Oh, and there are now 15 different non-player characters who can join your party - up to a maximum of six, of course Monsters include beholders, djinni, elementals, vampires, wraiths, werewolves, golems, spectres and trolls as well as many more spellcasters and other interesting characters to fight. Trolls have to be burned or disintegrated with acid even when they're dead, otherwise they regenerate.
The graphics have definitely been improved,even if they're still not state of the art. And although still resolutely 2D, 3D cards are supported via OpenGL drivers to enhance spell effects and things like mist and shadows. And, you can expand the resolution to 800 x 600 instead of the bog-standard 640 x 480 the original was limited to. Each character and monster avatar now has twice as many animation frames as in BG-280,000 in all - making them look more realistic.
The game interface has also had a facelift. Perhaps the best feature is the ability to remove all panels and toolbars to display more of the landscape in fullscreen mode with a single key press. The inventory has been redesigned from the ground up but. frankly, it's made little difference. It's about as good as it gets anyway.
The real meat comes in character development and combat. BGII follows the second-edition D&D rules pretty closely, although some things have had to be left out. You can't climb walls or use levitate spells, for example, because of the limitations of the 2D engine. Combat has been made much more complex and, as a result, considerably more interesting. For instance, there are now up to five levels of proficiency in each weapon for fighter types, but it's also possible to spend weapon proficiency points on different fighting styles, such as the two-handed weapon style and the sword-and-shield style, singleweapon style and doubleweapon style. Each gets different hit and damage bonuses or improves your armour class. Coupled with the 20-odd extra 'kits', that expand character development noticeably, Baldur's Gate II offers some absorbing customisation opportunities.
Combat in Baldur's Gate II is carried out in real time by default, but you really do have to change that. You can pause at any stage by pressing the space bar and then tell each character who to attack and with what. Various game options allow you to set the game to auto-pause when certain conditions occur - enemy sighted, trap found, weapon broken and so on.
Almost as good is the new storyline, which has a lot more depth and characterisation - the NPCs are much more intelligent, with better and more complicated scripts. They're also aware of whatever sex you choose to be. OK, you've only got a choice of two sexes, but you can't have everything. The encounters are much more challenging than in the original BG and even on the first level of the game, you're faced with some tough choices. At least they're tough if you've selected normal gameplay - you can make it easier or harder with a choice of five levels of difficulty.
As in BG, multiplayer is a bit of a disappointment. In essence, you play co-operatively with up to five other players either over a network or the Internet. Same plot, same everything. Come on guys, let's have some multiplayer maps or something.
Despite the sameness of the 2D engine, albeit with a few little improvements here and there, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows Of Amn is a great hack 'n' slay adventure that stretches over five CDs, and it should appeal to all fans of the original who are gasping for more - and anyone like me who was disappointed with Icewind Dale. The plot is much better, the range of characters and equipment is awesome and the whole things looks the business. Bioware reckon there's about 200 to 300 gaming hours in it, including all the sub-plots and quests that you have to carry out to boost your experience. Some of them are tedious fetch-and-carry tasks, but others are a lot more challenging.
Unfortunately, there do seem to be bugs. My first party wasn't able to sleep in the city of Athkatl, even at an inn, for some unfathomable reason. And it crashed frequently when trying to access one particular location. If you can put up with this though, BGII is a thoroughly welcome addition to the ageing 2D RPG genre. The next stop has got to be inside the third dimension.
This brilliant AD&D-based RPG has to be one of the best PC adventure games for a long time. The more you play it, the better it becomes, but it has to be said that the multiplayer side is a bit of a let down. You can play the multiplayer over a network, via Mplayer (which we've never liked) or direct connection to another PC, but the game is identical to the single-player game. The only difference is that from two to six players can take part, each controlling one or more of the six character slots. Players can drop in and out of games at any time, which is handy and if you get a good bunch of six players, real-time combat is considerably easier than in the single-player version where you need to keep pausing to change spells and strategies.
The main problem is that even if you're already halfway through the single-player game yourself, or you've finished it, you'll still have to start a multiplayer game right at the beginning. And you can't import your characters into a multiplayer game at their existing level - it's back to square one. No +3 swords for you, pal.
All players have to have a full copy of the game and the configured frame rates also have to be identical, so you could find yourself unable to connect if you have an under-powered PC. The host plays the lead character and has plenty of options as to who should be allowed to do what. But, in the end, you really need to find like-minded players who'll pull together. Online games can be spoiled by kamikaze tactics or the morons who just want to kill everyone else for the lack of having anything better to do.
Frankly, it's probably best played on a network with people you know and who are prepared to dedicate themselves to the 200-300 hours it'll take to finish.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn Screenshots
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