STAFF REVIEW of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II (Xbox)
Tuesday, January 20, 2004.
Sequels to things that are surprise hits: its usually not a very pretty story. Surprise hits usually mean one thing, and that is that someone lucked out when making it. Now and again a person will stumble on a great element without even realizing it which launches their game into the limelight surpassing all public expectations. Nobody knows this better than Black Island Studios after their Baldurs Gate: Dark Alliance was heralded as one of the best RPGs of the year by many sites.
Now keeping in mind that no one expected it to be as good as it turned out, my doubts were running high for the sequel. The hype behind it was starting to vaguely remind me of the hype behind Matrix: Reloaded after The Matrix movies' initial success... and we all know how that one turned out. So when I got a copy of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2 to review my hopes were high, but I was also ready for the worst. A long story short, I was not disappointed!
For those not familiar with the Baldur's Gate style of gameplay, imagine the fun hack and slash world of Blizzard's Diablo series and mix in a much deeper roleplaying element. It ends up being a real time action game with some great RPG elements stirred into the mix. To start out with you have 5 classes to select from, a warrior, wizard, cleric monk or a rogue. Each character will start out with different physical attributes as well as a few different innate skills that can be used in and out of combat. As you venture through the world you will gain experience from killing all the baddies and level your character up. Each time you level you are rewarded with skill points that you can spend on a vast array of skills, character improvements and spells. When I say vast I am not kidding as it took me a good 10 minutes just to flip through them all and see what they did before I finally decided what I wanted to start spending my points on.
It is quite apparent that strategy guides for this game will be sought out as there is a lot of different things you can do with a character. My first character was a warrior and I was faced with a lot of decisions right off the bat. Did I want to specialize in one handed weapons or two? What's more important, total hit points or hit point regeneration speed? Should I invest in more defensive abilities or go stronger attack abilities to kill things faster? Most likely the configuration I am playing isn't the best one and there are many better ways of doing it. On the other hand even with my less than perfect configuration this game is still a blast to play. Three difficulty settings give this game a lot of replay value as well as provide a very easy learning curve for people new to the game series. Finding the Easy mode to be a walk-through? Go ahead and start over on the Normal mode and go to town!
Along with the depth of the normal game Black Island Studios decided to add a feature that is booming in the RPG genre: item creation. When Diablo 2 was released it brought with it the grand idea of customizing weapons by placing runes in the hilt for different attributes. Soon other games like Everquest had tradeskills allowing you to create items from scratch. Baldurr's Gate has followed suit by allowing you to create items in game with pieces of stuff you collect. In the pre-release manual there is already a big list of all the gems and runes that are available, what attributes they will provide and what different kinds of armors there are along with armor class and damage modifiers. While not something that was imperative to making the new Baldur's Gate a good game, it definitely helps add even more life to the gameplay and gives players a little something extra to try if they are so inclined.
One thing about Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2 that makes it such a pleasure to play is the amazing graphics. There really isn't anything new and innovative to the graphical setup; it is a standard 3/4 overhead view which is becoming the set standard for games of this type. Where the greatness comes is the attention to detail. Beautiful textures, smooth framerate and fluid graphical effects give this game a smooth polished shine. There is a wide variety of levels from forests, to indoor mansions, pretty much anywhere you could ever think to swing an axe or cast a spell is in this game.
The actual stylings of the graphics themselves are quite akin to what we have seen in other 3/4 overhead games such as Hunter: The Reckoning. Since there is no scenery flying by you there was a lot more work put into the overall ambience of the atmosphere. Cool little nuances here and there, such as light filtering in through a window, water rippling as you step through it and more really give this game a splendid touch.
One other problem that was overcome is the fact that games like this can often have bad camera problems as items and enemies are obscured around corners until it is too late. It didn't take much to fix this, all they did was give full camera control to the player. The right analog stick now lets you swing the camera around to the desired position, allowing you to check every nook and cranny of a level for whatever you happen to need. The only minor complaint I have is that the zoom system is an all or nothing deal: either you are zoomed out for a bird's eye shot or you are zoomed and can only see about 15 ft. in front of you. There were many times where I was wishing there was a median as I wanted to see further, but still needed to be able to scope stuff out in detail.
The one aspect of the game that kind of let me down was the music. It definitely wasn't bad, but it didn't match up to the rest of the game. Now maybe I have been spoiled by movies and what not, but I was seriously hoping for some epic music that really set the monster bashing mood. Instead I received some mediocre, short orchestral pieces that were recycled over and over again. Now while music usually isn't enough to ruin a game for me, it will certainly add a lot to it... but unfortunately the music in Baldur's Gate didn't do that. Custom soundtracks might have helped by allowing me to play my Lord of the Rings soundtrack as I ravaged some orc looking creatures, but I didn't even get that much.
The voice acting thankfully made up for some of what the sound left out. While not as grand of an implementation as you would see in series such as Legacy of Kain, the voice acting was pulled off rather well and all of the voices fit the characters. The only voice that seemed to be a little off was your actual character's voice when you were in town and tried to do something you weren't supposed to, like kill a villager (I kahn't doo thaht here...) Aside from that the voice acting really helps to further the plot as you quest through Baldur's Gate.
All in all the game is rock solid. It is a blast to play through by yourself and even more fun when you team up with a friend to take down the evil around Baldur's Gate as a rampaging duo. The game is decently long as well, I've been playing it for close to 10 hours and have just completed the first of 4 acts which means there will be enough baddy slaying to keep you occupied for quite a while. If you are an RPG fan you need to pick this up. If you liked the gameplay in Hunter: The Reckoning you need to pick this up. If you like both of the prior then you DEFINATELY need to pick this up. Everyone else should probably pick this game up as well, as it is a solid addition to anyone's game library!
Overall: 9.4 / 10
Gameplay: 9.6 / 10
Visuals: 9.4 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10