I always knew it on an intellectual level, but it never really struck me until this week: Bioware has been making great games for a long time. I can’t think of many companies with such a good track record, going back to the late 90s, ranging all the way back to Baldur’s Gate, which has become one of the seminal western RPGs. You can get a copy of the game through GoG.com, but the game is so old that it’s difficult for modern gamers to go back—especially considering its resolution is locked at 800×600. Lucky for us that a group of fans decided to modernize the classic RPG for our widescreen pleasure. Did they ruin a classic, or did they bring it up to modern standards? Read on to find out.
It would be difficult to make Baldur’s Gate into a truly bad game, given the source material. With its setting drawn straight out of Dungeons and Dragon’s Forgotten Realms, there’s a lot to love about the Sword Coast. The game takes you from a monastic library-fortress, to dark forests to deep mines as you move along its story. The tale has two main threads involving an iron shortage and a man sending bounty hunters after you. Those might sound really serious, but the game keeps things pretty lighthearted by adding in a lot of interesting characters
“Magic is impressive, but now Minsc leads! Swords for everyone! “
That said, it’s a shame that the game doesn’t really reward you for changing your party around. To have a character join your party you have to be physically speaking with them, and they tend to be tucked away in inns or out in the wilderness. Having some sort of common inn or meeting place for all the possible companions would have been nice. Another weird design choice is that characters only gain experience and levels when they’re adventuring with the protagonist, which means that if you let a character fall behind a few levels they’re going to be a weak link in a fight. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it definitely encourages the player to pick a party and stay with them throughout the whole game.
Eat flaming—or, uh…possibly frosty—DEATH!
Combat in Baldur’s Gate is ripped right out of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons handbook.” Spells and abilities are phrased in terms of attack rolls and saving throws, which means that combat is easier to understand if you know how DnD works, but if you’ve never played it you might have some trouble understanding what each spell does—ADnD wasn’t known for being particularly accessible. Baldur’s Gate took DnD’s turn based combat and reframed it to look like it’s taking place in real time, though in reality it’s still turn based, with each “round” lasting a few seconds. You can pause the game at any time, and you’ll find it really helps to do so liberally, giving you the time to plan your strategy and determine what targets you should hit.
The game does a pretty good job keeping up the challenge as you advance in levels, though it has a nasty habit of pitting you against nasty bosses when your party is at its weakest. The early segment of the game fills all the inns with powerful bounty hunters. This was pretty frustrating for me, because the inns are the only place you can safely rest to recharge your spells and abilities. Thankfully, these bounty hunter attacks become much less dangerous as you level up, but the game remains very difficult from start to finish. It will punish you mercilessly for making mistakes, so be sure to use multiple save files, and make sure you use the shiny new quicksave button.
“We are all heroes: You and Boo and I. Hamsters and rangers everywhere! Rejoice! “
I know what you’re thinking: If Baldur’s Gate has such a good story, great characters, and fulfilling combat, why don’t I just go buy the cheaper GoG.com version of the game? The answer, my friend, is the interface. The original Baldur’s Gate has an abominable UI. The main screen design could work on wider screens, but the original is locked to 800×600 resolution and looks really cluttered. Other game screens such as the inventory or journal are stylized to look like the they’re written on stone tablets, which is a real problem—reading grey text on the greenish-grey stone pattern is nigh impossible.
Graphically, the Enhanced Edition looks about the same as the original. Characters, locations, and spell effects all look similar between the two versions. The biggest difference goes back to the resolution—with the larger screen you can see the great art. The game gives the user the ability to adjust the zoom of the main screen, which is a nice treat, though at max zoom the graphics look pretty rough. Overall, the game still looks like it was made in the late 90s, but that’s exactly what I was looking for. The game still looks and feels like a Baldur’s Gate game.
Not content to simply remake Bioware’s masterpiece, Overhaul decided to run the risk of fan ire by adding a bunch of new content to the game. The biggest change is the addition of the Black Pits, a completely different campaign meant for those who prefer to focus on combat over roleplaying. In short, it serves as a set of arena challenges. You’re able to create an entirely new party and take them up through a bunch of levels really quickly. If you’re new to the game I’d recommend trying the Black Pits to get a feel for the different classes. Once you find one you like, export it to the Campaign, but make sure you’re certain of your choice—you’ll be with that character for a long, long time.
“A den of stinking evil. Cover your nose Boo! We will leave no crevice untouched! “
It’s a shame there seems to be a bit of a backlash against Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. Some of the purists are complaining that Overhaul is somehow “ruining” the game. Frankly I find that pretty laughable—the alterations are generally so small that it would take a person with a fanatical devotion to the original to even notice them. That’s not to say that the haters don’t have some valid points—when the game first launched it was fairly buggy. I didn’t see anything game breaking but little niggling things, such as bows firing slingshot bullets. They’ve been getting better as the game updates, but it’s still been somewhat annoying to see that the game wasn’t play-tested as thoroughly as it should have been. In addition, I’ve seen a few reports of the game failing to launch after installation. I never encountered this at all, but it’s worth pointing out that the problem exists.
All in all, you’ll have to make that decision for yourself. If you want to play the game as it originally looked, or if you want to pay the barrel bottom price, pick the GoG version, but if you think the game is worth a bit of money, want to play the game with a bit of tweaks to make it more usable, or want access to the excellent new content, be sure to at least give the Enhanced Edition a look. Personally, I think Overhaul deserve a lot of credit for updating the classic while maintaining everything about it that makes it great. I can’t wait for the Enhanced Editions of Baldur’s Gate II or Planescape: Torment. Live by the sword, Overhaul, live a good loooooong time!