Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Open the gates!

snap199_1It’s tough to imagine what more you could ask for in a sequel; BioWare took the original Baldur’s Gate and expanded and improved almost every aspect of the game. Listing every individual improvement would be a waste of time, because the list would be too long. The game immense, comparable to Daggerfall in shear volume of content. Even with a party of fighters crafted for the purpose of blazing straight to the end, you could still expect a good 50 hours of role-playing gameplay Expect to spend no less than 200 hours if you truly want to experience everything.

The plot picks up right where the first game left off, playing off the original story without recycling it. At the end of Baldur’s Gate (you did play it, didn’t you?), you discover that your character is one of the Children of Bhaal, the god of Murder. Baldur’s Gate II builds on that premise to create a compelling storyline. Now that you know that you’re the child of an evil god, it’s not unreasonable to think that it might be time for a little soul searching.

Unfortunately for your group of adventurers, the final battle with Sarevok at the end of the last game left you weakened, exhausted, and unable to defend yourselves from a new enemy. As Baldur’s Gate II opens, you awaken alone in a steel-barred cage, stripped of your equipment and wracked with intense pain. Your captor has been conducting magical experiment on you. Eventually Imoen appears out of nowhere and springs you from your cell, and the epic journey begins.

Quests and more Quests

snap168_1Character interaction plays a much bigger role than it did in the original, and the non-player characters that travel with you will often comment on events. Some will even talk to you directly. The basic plot is rather simple, but it builds up in an interesting fashion. While the side quests are entirely optional, many of them are related to the main story and make the world feel more consistent and more real. In many ways, the game shares more similarities with Planescape: Torment than with the original Baldur’s Gate.

Typically, non-player characters will offer you jobs or ask for your help with various tasks, and you’ll go on countless side quests (if you choose to do so). Inch by inch, you will work your way through the town of Athlatka. In Baldur’s Gate, you had to explore to earn new quests. In the sequel it is reversed; there are plenty of quests available from the start, but you will have to explore in order to complete them. This is a welcome change-the pacing of the game is much smoother and includes far less downtime than did Baldur’s Gate.

snap136_1One of the better quests involves acquiring a stronghold. The specific quest that you receive is based upon the main character’s class. Fighters will acquire a keep, druids will get a grove, and so on. As time passes, you might earn money from taxes or go on sub-quests that branch off from your stronghold. These are often small tasks (with experience point rewards) that involve decisions along the lines of choosing how to punish a thief. While they don’t play a major role, there is definitely something compelling about walking around your castle and checking things out. Now, if only there was some means to wage war on your neighbors and conquer their lands….

Eventually you’ll graduate from your “training” in Athlakta and the journey will take you to more interesting locales, such as an asylum for insane mages and a drow city. Eventually every location will be opened up, so you can return to complete any quests you might have missed.

So many choices

New characters begin with 89,000 experience points (xp)-the level cap from the first game. The new level cap is 2,950,000 xp (roughly level 20). BioWare has made significant improvements in leveling and experience acquisition. You get to skip the often boring “low level, no skills” stage and get right into big battles. Multi-classed characters are far more flexible, as you actually attain sufficient levels to make them useful.

snap195_1Throw in three new classes alongside “class kits” and there are plenty of ways to build a party-another reason to play through for a second time. Sorcerers are essentially mages that do not have to memorize spells, while barbarians are slightly varied fighters. Monks are especially interesting, as they get a host of special abilities based upon their level. Overall, there is a lot more character variety. Another welcome feature is the inclusion of a difficulty slider. If you so desire, you can adjust the difficulty to make monsters deal more or less damage. While this may not appeal to some AD&D players, it is definitely a handy option to have available.

This game isn’t just good. It’s great. There are still a few quirks here and there (such as inventory management), and you could nitpick about minor flaws, but the bottom line is that Baldur’s Gate II is just plain fun. Does anything else matter? Not in this case. This game is easily recommendable for nearly everyone. BioWare has obviously been very busy mastering the isometric pseudo-realtime RPG, and it shows in BGII.

System Requirements: Pentium 133 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Windows 95

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