Ah, Baldur’s Gate. Such an interesting and entertaining hack-and-slash title for the PS2, released so many years ago. Since then, we’ve seen the title ported to all three consoles as well as the GBA, allowing anybody to be able to sit down and enjoy the simple goodness of that game.

For this ride through the town of Baldur’s Gate, however, we have a different developer at the reins.  With the original team at work on Champions of Norrath for the PS2, could the new team pull off a respectable follow up?  Does what basically amounts to the exact same game with slight improvements hold up after all these years?  Let’s find out.

Take the old Baldur’s Gate title, toss on a fresh coat of paint, enable progressive scan, and suddenly you have the Xbox version of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. For those of you who didn’t play the original title, that explains very little, so it’s time to go into some detail.

For starters, the player characters are highly detailed and look like heroes of the Realms. The males are powerfully built and the females are lithe and voluptuous. They wield their implements of destruction very well, and hunker down behind their defenses realistically. Any armor you put on your character is shown instantly on the main screen, showcasing your virtual Barbie doll to the world.

The monsters you’ll be facing get the same treatment, although you can’t zoom the camera close enough to find out just how detailed they really are. However, the bosses you’ll be facing (especially the one in the realm of Fire) are exceptionally rendered, putting fear into the heart of you and your character.

Like in the original, there are lots of lighting effects to awe your friends and opponents. But there are some problems as well. Acid arrows scream outward, bathing the immediate area in a green glow, while flaming arrows do nothing to light up the surroundings. In addition, there is one boss fight where the surrounding area is completely black. All you see are the characters on the screen, nothing else. Atmospheric, or glitches in coding? You decide.

Unfortunately, this game absolutely screams PS2 port at times as well. While the characters, and important NPCs and bosses, look great, the more generic people are just that – generically done, without the care and detail of the main players. The same applies to the backgrounds of the dungeons you’ll be visiting; the very floor tiles sticking out like a sore thumb with a low resolution graphic image. This was clearly done because of the more limited PS2 version, but should have been fixed on the Xbox one.

In short, if you played the original Baldur’s Gate, this looks like the exact same game, just slightly enhanced for the Xbox. It doesn’t come close to pushing the system’s raw power though.

Take the hack and slash noises from the original, toss them into this game, completely ignoring the music in the process, and you have this title. Let me explain.

The clashes of your weaponry are clearly heard in the many dungeons you’ll be visiting, as are the grunts and groans of your opponents as they slump to the ground in defeat. Your footsteps echo off the walls as the flames from the always-lit torches burn nearby. The many spells you have access to have their own audio flare as well, roaring and hissing as you cast them continuously.

The voice acting as well done, as it was on the previous title. While I don’t recognize any well-known voices, the actors present play their role well. A few notable characters return to be voiced by the same people who portrayed them in the first game. In short, no problems here.

The music is entirely a different story. 95% of the time you’ll simply be listening to ambient music, accompanied with some drums and such to keep you from falling asleep. The other 5% will be a boss theme, which is upbeat and completely forgettable. Considering that the original title is well known for the haunting musical score in the Elfsong Tavern, among other tunes, this is just plain laziness on the part of the developers.

One last knock on the game – unlike most Xbox titles, this game doesn’t support the rear speakers at all. In other words, stereo is the only option, nothing more. This made very little sense to me, as both the PS2 and Xbox are Dolby Digital capable, so I’m once again blaming this on the developers.

Improving upon the nearly perfect configuration from the original Baldur’s Gate might have been a difficult task, but they’ve done it. Every button has as function. Whether it is swinging your weapon, blocking, casting a spell or jumping, everything is planned out well on the controller. Best of all, if you don’t like it – change it. Every button can be remapped inside the configuration menu.

In the improvement side of things, you’ll be able to easily swap between 1-handed, 2-handed, and missile weapons with only a touch of a button. In addition, you can assign four different hotkeys (L plus the four main face buttons) for four different spells/abilities, so you’ll always have five spells at your fingertips.

In short, this is the control scheme that Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes should have had (instead of the button exclusively for throwing useless items), and one that hopefully Champions of Norrath will have as well.

The three heroes from the original Baldur’s Gate, after defeating the all-powerful end boss, pass through a portal to escape the crumbling Onyx Tower. They arrive in the middle of some forest somewhere, sans all their equipment. Unfortunately for them, somebody even more powerful than the boss they’d just defeated is awaiting their arrival, and takes them captive.

Great way to save the Realms, eh?

So, now that our former threesome are a little tied up at the moment, it’s up to a new group of five to battle through the forces of evil, fighting the new threat upon Baldur’s Gate. And what a threat it is. Starting on the forests around the city, our new heroes will go from the city’s sewers, to many a crumbling castle, riverbank, and cave, and will eventually end up in the elemental planes, saving the world in the process.

Story aside, is there a good game buried inside this title? Or is just another clichéd ‘save the world’ game and nothing more? Well…

As stated before, Baldur’s Gate is a hack-and-slash game at its core. Roughly translated, that means you run around, hack and slash things to death, collect whatever they drop, and move onward, increasing your levels, your power, and your items as you go along. So in short, you kill things. Lots and lots of things.

This would be boring if you didn’t have a multitude of spells, powers, and character classes to choose from. Thankfully, the five basic characters play quite differently from one another. Here’s the list:

– You have the Barbarian, designed to bully through his enemies like a knife through butter. He can take on anything that comes his way.
– You have the Monk, one who’s more melee orientated but fights with fitness and her bare hands, punching and kicking her way to victory.
– You have the Rogue, capable of melding into the very shadows around him, attacking from the darkness.
– You have the Cleric, who uses her holy might to slay her enemies either with her weapons or her fire called from the very Gods themselves.
– You have the Necromancer, who commands the power of darkness and death, forcing it to do his bidding.

While there are two secret characters buried inside this game, I won’t bring up either one of them here. Both would be best considered a mix of a fighter and wizard, not much more. They’re quite interesting though.

After selecting from a variety of characters (each of whose branching character development gives lots of replay value to this title), what else do you do?  You kill or be killed, save anybody in the way, collect anything you find, and…not much else.  However, there is one interesting enhancement from the original title – the item creation system.

In the first game, you had to rely on stumbling onto magically enhanced weapons and armor to gain enhancements to your strength and wisdom.  Some items also gave you a more powerful or sometimes flaming weapon.  In this game, this feature no longer exists. Instead, you can make everything that was in the first title, and then some.  Want to make a flaming sword? You can.  Want to create a ring that increases your fleetness of foot and strength?  Feel free.  Want feather-light armor armor that gives protection against all kinds of magic?  Go right ahead.

However, this all costs money. A lot of money. This is the primary reason why you’re wandering around the Realms – collect enough cash to build the ultimate weapon, armor, or accessory. This gives you a tremendous list of options and variables to think about while you build your character, as there’s a finite amount of cash in this land.

One large complaint though. For starters, the Normal difficulty should be labeled Easy. When I finished the game the first time with my Necromancer, I was level 24 or so, thanks to a slew of Wisdom items I created for my use. Just about every battle was an utter pushover, up to and including the final battles. The dumb AI that thought that beating on my near-useless companion was a good thing, didn’t help.

I then restarted on the Extreme difficulty that opened up afterwards, keeping my character’s levels and skills, but not the items. In short – Extreme is an understatement. The level 1 goblins now possessed enough firepower to kill me in four hits. And if I encountered a horde of bow users, it was nearly over. If you aren’t a spellcaster in this difficulty, I seriously wonder just how one would survive.

One final thing – where’s the four player compatibility? Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes did it. Champions of Norrath is going to do it, even though the PS2 has only two controller ports. Why not this game? Is it a case of port-itus?

Ultimately, however, this is a hack-and-slash game at heart. For PC Gamers or those familiar with the PS1 version of Blizzard’s classic, this is a Diablo clone.  If you love games of this type, then this title is just for you.  If you don’t, than you already know that you’ll be passing this one by.

Seven characters (two hidden), four difficulty levels (one hidden), and two player capability brings lots of life to this game.  Character customization also helps if you are interested in playing multiple times.  If you aren’t, then you’ll get about 10-12 hours on your first run-through.  Although depending on difficulty, and how much time you mess with the item creator, it could be more or less. If you were at all interested in and entertained by Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, then this game is the perfect purchase for you.  While far from perfect, it’s basically a $50 expansion-pack for the original title with slight but tangible improvements. If you didn’t like the first, this sequel won’t change your mind at all.