A traditional role-playing game with decent graphics may sound too good to be true, but as you can clearly see from the screenshots, Baldur's Gate is indeed blessed with visuals far and above the standard normally expected from this aesthetically challenged genre. And if your initial reaction to the game is in any way similar to mine, you'll be spending your first hour with Baldur's Gate simply wandering around, happy and content to take in the breathtaking environments and highly detailed buildings at your leisure. And all this in glorious 2D. '2D?' I hear you cry indignantly, no doubt having played around with the numerous 3D real-time strategy games currently crawling out of the woodwork with alarming regularity.
Well, there are two schools of thought on this one. There are those who would claim that no self-respecting RPG these days would come furnished with an 'old-fashioned' 2D graphics engine. They are of course completely wrong. The enormous advantage of using a 2D engine is you can create highly detailed graphics for scenery, buildings and in-game characters. Top-down 3D games which allow you to view the action from any angle have, in my experience, sported visuals that have nothing in common with the phrase 'stunning attention to detail', as anyone who has played around with Wargames will readily testify. So then, as far as Baldur's Gate is concerned, techie 'snobs' who insist on 3D game environments will obviously have little or no interest in the contents of this review. The rest of you, come with me.
Beneath The Gloss
Underneath Baldur's Gate's silky smooth exterior lies a game of considerable depth. Right from the off you're confronted with a myriad of options when you're asked to create a character to play the game with. The more impatient among you will no doubt choose one of the predefined characters on display in order to get into the game as soon as possible, but this will prove to be pure folly, as combat at the beginning of the game will be very difficult if your character is weak in certain areas. It's worth spending a bit of time on the character creation screen, fine-tuning your character's equipment and abilities until you're happy you'll be able to deal with difficult combat as soon as you stray from the safe haven of the opening city in the game.
The first location you'll come across in Baldur's Gate is Candlekeep, a large citadel devoted to studying the arts of combat and magic. It's worth noting at this point that one of the characters in this town is prepared to teach you how to fight and use magic free of charge. This part of the game acts as a sort of hands-on tutorial on how to fight and use magic in battle. You're given several temporary team members so you can practice managing a large team in the heat of battle, and this also serves as an opportunity to practice fighting many of the monsters you'll come across in the early stages of the game. The introduction of this tutorial element is a nice touch and it gives you an idea of what to expect when you leave the town, so you're advised to take advantage of this before setting out into the great unknown.
Once you leave the town however, you're on your own (your master gets killed after refusing to hand you over to a large group of magic users and ne'er do wells) and although there is a main plot you can follow throughout the game (which basically involves finding out why these people want you so badly) you're more or less left to your own devices as to what you want to do next. It's this freedom of choice to go wherever you like and follow whatever course of action you find most agreeable that makes Baldur's Gate such a joy to play. The massive gameworld is full of cities, temples and other places of interest and just moving from one major town to the next to find out what they have to offer is a joy in itself. Most of these towns have shops that sell weapons, armour and magic items, and there are plenty of places where you can hone your combat skills or learn new spells, obviously for a price. Sooner or later though, you'll have to interrupt your sightseeing tour to get on with the real business at hand, ie killing people. Lots of 'em.
Combat in Baldur's Gate is a bit of a strange affair. The action unfolds in front of you in real time, but you can pause the action at any time to give orders to your team members. It's very similar to the combat system in X-COM: Apocalypse which suggests that the developers of Baldur's Gate were in two minds as to whether they should use real-time or turn-based combat, and in the end decided to use both in an attempt to please everyone. Whether this sort of thing will be up your street or not is really a matter of taste. Some people see the ability to pause real-time action as 'cheating', where others prefer the opportunity to think about the consequences of their actions before committing themselves.
For the record, my own preference is firmly in line with the latter school of thought, as pausing real-time action to make decisions lends an element of strategy to the proceedings. Be warned then, that if hectic realtime action is your thing, Baldur's Gate is not for you (you won't last longer than ten seconds in battle if you don't pause the action). That aside, Baldur's Gate is a very competent game which has weeks of addictive gameplay in store for those willing to spend enough time with it to appreciate its hidden depths.
Boardgame to PC game in one fell swoop,
Baldur's Gate uses the same system for spells and weapons as the Advanced Dungeon & Dragons board game. This may put off those of you who are scared of long lists of rules and statistics. Don't worry. While the AD&D system is ticking away in the background as you play the game, it's completely transparent so you won't even know It's there. In fact, I don't know why I even bothered telling you this in the first place (Because you've got two pages of copy to fill - Production Ed).
A traditional RPG based on the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons world: The Forgotten Realm, Baldur's Gate looks set to go head to head with Ultima Ascension and Diablo 2 when it is released later this year. The game features over 60 different monsters, including ogres and dragons, hundreds of NPCs to interact with, and fully rendered backgrounds (Final Fantasy VII, anyone?). You are given control of a party of six characters, each with distinctive abilities and personalites, and inter-party relationships 'evolve' the further you get into the game. Fans of the original AD&D game will be pleased to note that Baldur's Gate uses a real-time modification of the old AD&D svstem, and die-hard RPG traditionalists can force the game to play in turn-based mode if they want to; though why anyone would want to do that these days is completely beyond us. We'll let you know how Baldur's Gate squares up against distinguished competition when it comes out towards the end of the year.
To complete Baldur's Gate you're pushed along the distinctly linear plot, but you should take plenty ot time out to explore the Sword Coast and gain as much experience as you can. You also need decent weapons, armour spells and potions for the climax. The first few locations can be taken on at first level, but after that you need to move up fast. Don't go underground until at least the third level, preferably fourth, and don't dally north of the Friendly Arm Inn until at least the fifth level.
Despite the fact that you have to complete major quests in a particular order, chapters one to six offer lots of leeway and no time limit, so cover every nook and cranny, fighting, searching and resting all the way.
Your mission is to team up with Gorion, but not before you've explored Candlekeep, earned as much experience as possible and lined your pockets. Get Firebead Elvenhair's scroll from Tethtoril (in the central gardens), and retrieve Phlydia's book, Hull's sword and Fuller's bolts. Visit the infirmary for your free NHS potion. Thieves with good skills should try the locked chests, but make very sure nobody sees you. In some locations, nobody seems to give a monkey's, and in others the town guard arrives in seconds.
Two assassins will try to kill you, but you should come through unscathed as it's pretty well-fixed. After a walkabout, visit the inn and equip yourself as best you can. Choose a good weapon you're proficient with, and get a ranged weapon too - bows and throwing daggers are an excellent choice. Then speak to Gorion and watch the show...
After Gorton's death, team up with Imoen and get the goodies from Gorton's body. Follow the road east and join Xar and Montaron. They're both evil, but they help to start with.
On the next map east, follow the road north, and before you enter the inn head along the south side of the map for the Ring of Wizardry (see the Magic Items panel on page 128).
Inside the walls, a bountyhunting spellcaster is waiting for you at the foot of the stairs to the inn. Hit him with long-range fire and let the guards take care of him. Inside, add Khalid and Jaheira to your party - they're essential.
Visit the upstairs rooms to get two more sub-quests, and see a lady in the house near the gate for a third. The hobgoblins who stole her ring are found on this map, outside and north-west of the inn. Return the ring, rest up, and hunt down the ogre in the extreme east of the map south of the inn (where you've already been). Give the dwarf his girdle back, but sell the other as it's no good. Visit the temple and, if you can afford it, buy the stone-to-flesh scroll because it gets you half-price access to a cleric later. Now head two maps south to Beregost. Be prepared, because if you get 'waylaid by the enemy', you'll have to fight Use Jaheira and Khalid (and the evil halting) for m§l6e combat, and the rest for missile attacks. Collect all the enemies' weapons and armour to sell later.
Beregost is probably going to be your base of operations for some time, so it's well worth getting to know it. One of the Friendly Arm Inn quests is to clear out some spiders. They're in the house just west of the Jovial Juggler - but be sure to have your antidotes in your quick-item slots. Grab the spider body so you can complete the sub-quest on your next visit to the Friendly Arm Inn.
Visit Feldepost's Inn and deal with Mar and Dunkin as tactfully as you can (options 1,1,3,3,I in each of the dialogues) for an easy 900xp. If Xar and Montaron are whining, remove them from your party - but not until you've taken all their useful possessions.
In a building just north of the Feldepost Inn you find a dwarf fighter called Kaigan. Accept his quest, go one map north, and when he gives up, whizz straight back to Beregost. He joins up permanently and is handy to have around.
In the town square, listen to the town crier and then continue your pub-crawl east to the Burning Wizard. Outside, accept Garrick's quest, but kill his girlfriend as soon as she attacks. She's bad news and can cast lightning bolt which is almost sure to be fatal. You need to strike fast to stop her spellcasting. The bard joins up afterwards and you get 900xp.
On the east side of Beregost there's a smithy with some interesting stuff for sale. Visit his place in the dead of night, and if you unlock one of the chests there's a + I bastard sword.
Another house on the east side contains a lady called Mirianne. Later you find a letter which proves her husband is still alive. When you take it back to her you get a +I ring of protection.
Up in the north-east is a large nobleman's house. A skilful bit of burglary here should reveal a useful wand of lightning which gets you out of one or two scrapes. There's often something that's worth taking from the mage's house, such as a wand of lightning.
Now go to Nashkel but be prepared for another mage bounty hunter. Find Berrun Ghastkel, who asks you to solve the problem in the iron ore mine. You also come across Minsc, an excellent ranger, who joins your party. Dump the bard. At the carnival, on the next map east, you can use a stone-to-flesh spell or scroll to get a good cleric called Branwen. Consider dumping the dwarf - he hangs about, so you can get him back later. Your main task is to find out what's happening in the mines. There are five levels filled with kobolds and spiders, plus a few traps (a job for the priest and the thief). On the deepest level is Mulahey, an evil mage who 'summons' skeletons and kobolds. Kill him whatever happens, and collect his letters as evidence for Berrun Ghastkel.
Leave the mine by a back exit one floor back, but you can't turn back because the entrance caves in. Explore this map well - there are at least three caves full of undead monsters and treasure. Rest in Nashkel if you need to, but beware of the bounty hunter waiting for you there. Back in Nashkel, talk to Berrun and get your reward. Go to Beregost and force Tranzig (in a room above the Feldepost Inn) to tell you the location of the bandit camp. Execute him afterwards and take his possessions.
Head north-east and find the bandits. Either kill them all or pretend to join up. Whatever happens, you have to dispose of Tazok, the leader, explore the camp and win a final bundle in Tazok's tent. Some documents in their chest explain their plans - they are being controlled by the Iron Throne from a base deep inside Cloakwood Forest.
Grab the goodies and leave for Cloakwood Forest, which consists of five maps, the last of which includes the dwarven mines. One important - if not essential - sub-quest is the search for the Spider's Bane, a powerful two-handed sword, and a lost brother. Have plenty of antidote to hand, because the spiders' poison kills you quicker than the physical damage.
The woods are full of phase spiders and irritating traps, not to mention wolves and various other things. Outside the mines you have to defeat another NPC party to gain access. Inside the four mine levels you find another possible party member (a dwarf) and more loot. Defeat the evil wizard by having anti-magic spells ready, such as blindness, dispel magic and silence. Don't try to kill all the monsters, as they wear you down for little gain. Just find the shortest path downwards and then out. Free the prisoners and flood the mine - preferably in that order.
At last (and it will already seem like a lifetime) you can get to Baldur's Gate itself. And you're barely a third of the way through this monster of a game.
The city itself is a huge place to explore, with loads of subquests. The main one involves Scar of the Flaming Fist who asks you to investigate the Seven Suns, a trading organisation. It has actually been infested with doppelgangers, weird creatures that eat humans and replicate their bodies.
Go to Iron Throne Mansion, north-west of the docks, kill the inhabitants of the top level and nick the scrolls in which they've conveniently listed their plans (again). Investigate the Seven Suns' place and repeat. Finish by returning to see Scar at the Flaming Fist headquarters, plead lack of time when he asks you to do more and let him take you to Duke Eltan, who gives you a book.
In a cunning plot device, you're transported to Candlekeep. Hand the book to the guard. Inside, stock up on potions and items. Many Candlekeep inhabitants have been eaten by dopplegangers. To find out which ones, keep questioning people who don't recognise you until they get mad and change form. Then kill them.
When you get thrown in jail - something you can't avoid as the plot gets distinctly more linear from here on in - Tethtoril appears and transports you to the levels under Candlekeep. Find your way out through the tombs, taking what you can along the way.
Get back to Baldur's Gate - avoiding the guards and Flaming Fist - and defeat yet more bad guys in the Iron Throne headquarters. Your target is Sarevok's diary, and a scroll that mentions the undercity, which you can reach via the basement and sewers.
When you get an invitation to the coronation of the new Grand Duke, Sarevok, head to the palace and show your invitation. Inside, protect Belt and his girl while despatching the attacking dopplegangers. In the coronation room, Sarevok denounces you until you show Belt the diary. Donl bother attacking him, because you can't kill him at this point and he mysteriously escapes. Belt then teleports you to the Thieves Guild; rest and get ready to enter the undercity again after a hectic battle with a tough skeleton horde. All that remains now is to track down Sarevok and take him out. You can do it this time. Sorted.
If you just can't make it, give yourself an edge
If you want to get ahead play multiplayer with yourself and start off with four good first-level characters. That way you get a good head start The second way is to use the import/export feature. Create a character you like, and fight your way around the first few maps. Be thoroughly evil and don't worry about your reputation. Kill bartenders, good guys... anything that moves and is an easy target When you're doing well, export the character, import It into a new game and repeat the process. When you're third or fourth level, export and import again and play as Mr Nice Guy with a new unblemished reputation.
Handy hints to help you along your way through to the end of the game
- Disband the entire party before you finish quests. That way your character grabs all the experience.
- Thieves are vital, but If you have two make them specialise In different abilities.
- If you get too much gear, store it safely in a chest in a building.
- When moving about the map, use a high-stealth character to scout ahead, him off the AI to prevent them attacking. O Break down powerful groups of NPCs one at a time. Scout ahead, draw one or two away, and then ambush them.
- Note that NPCs join at roughly the main character's level. This means you can go back and rejoin possible party characters you've bypassed and they'll no longer be first-level weaklings.
- Hunt ankhegs for experience. Each one is worth 975xp and 500gp. You can also persuade the smithy in Beregost to make you some special ankheg plate mail for 4000gp.
- Talk to everyone - even 'commoners' can add sections to the map you can't otherwise get to.
- Make a habit of opening everything which has a lid as you can pick up a lot of items and money.
Download Baldur's Gate
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features: Single game mode
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