Monday, 1 July 2013

Baldur's Gate (PC)

Today I'm going to have a quick look at classic BioWare title Baldur's Gate. Well, relatively quick; the game's an RPG so if I want a good idea of how it plays I'll probably be stuck playing it for days rather than hours.

There's a number of fantastic user developed mods for the game like Baldur's Gate Tutu and Baldur's Gate Trilogy that run the game content in a newer version of the Infinity Engine, while fixing bugs and tweaking the gameplay. Plus the game was recently given an official overhaul in the form of the Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, so I've got a few options here. I'm not playing any of them though. This is going to be original old school vanilla Baldur's Gate, straight off the DVD, with all the original quirks, bugs and annoyances present.

(I'm deeply sorry that these are crappy compressed jpeg images, but clicking on them will reveal crystal clear lossless screenshots, for those that want them.)

The game begins with a quote from Nietzsche:
"He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster..."
I'm sure my dude will be fine though. After all, the game's a official Dungeons & Dragons licensed title, so my character's morality will no doubt be chosen from a list during character creation. Which is something I've never understood about these games really: why so much of my character's role has to be determined before the playing has even begun.

Oh right, this guy with the stripy horns isn't me by the way. He's some anonymous crap knight who just fell on his ass while running for his life from a mysterious assailant.

Ah. I can definitely see now why our hero runs like he's filled his diaper. I'm still not sure about his 'trap yourself at the top of a tower' escape strategy though.

The spiky armoured figure laughs for a bit, then implies that there's a Highlander-style situation going on here, and there can be only one of them left alive. The knight tries to bargain with him, saying that there are others and he can show him. Spiky thinks this is hilarious, snaps the guy's neck, and throws him off the building. Wow, I guess someone's been fighting monsters too long, am I right?

This pre-rendered cutscene was actually replaced in 2012's Enhanced Edition for whatever reason with a new semi-animated painted cinematic. Maybe they thought that modern gamers would turn the game off in disgust when a 480p blocky video clip appeared on their beautiful crisp iPad screens.

Alright, the first thing I get to do is make my character. Gender affects nothing, so I decided to go female because... I mentally flipped a coin. Picking a portrait was a little harder though as the art is all incredible.

There's six different races to choose from, covering the whole range of fantasy species from 'human' to 'short human' and of course 'pretty human with pointy ears'. Elves are naturally very skilled with a bows apparently (they carry the Legolas gene), so I decided to choose to make a lawful good elven ranger.

Right, now I get to redistribute my attribute stats. The game's a little vague on how each attribute affects my combat stats, but dexterity usually seems to be the archery stat in RPGs so I'll max that out. Charisma too, seeing as I'm going to be talking to people a lot. Hey look, there's a reroll button down there, how very old-school. Oh no, don't tell me that the max number of attribute points I can give my character changes with each roll of the dice.

Shit, it does! Now I have to keep clicking reroll and mentally adding up the numbers to see if I've got a good score. I don't understand the thinking behind this at all, it's like rolling a dice to determine the game's difficulty level! At least they've given me a store button to keep the best stats I've seen so far.

Oh damn. Look at that... that beautiful golden floppy disk save icon! So anachronistic in so many ways; it's fantastic. I also love that I can use it to save anywhere I want, whenever I want. The rest of the icons are a bit cryptic, but I can hover over them with the cursor to reveal their true purpose so that's not a massive problem.

Plus the message box assures me that the game actually has a tutorial explaining how to play. How shockingly accessible. Honestly with the reputation this game has, I was expecting to have a real uphill struggle just to figure out the basics.

Well I've been given 90 gold, so I might as well blow it all straight away in the pub. I move my little golden cursor over the door and send her inside with a click.


Those are some interesting dialogue choices there. It seems I can either play as a short tempered asshole, a sarcastic jackass, or a robot. Despite the game coming on like 5 CDs (or a DVD in my case) conversations are carried out in total silence, though I do get to hear a voice clip of Winthrop saying "my hotel's as clean as an elven arse" each and every time I click on him.

The game uses pre-rendered 3D backgrounds like Final Fantasy VII, released the year earlier, though in this case the characters seem to be pre-rendered too. Which makes it more impressive that I can see my character's sprite change when I equip different armour, something the Final Fantasy games have never managed to my knowledge (not counting class changes).

Aha, Winthrop acts as both an inn and a merchant in this, with a fine array of weaponry up for sale. I was worried I might have screwed myself over by choosing an archer, as I could picture myself ending up with an inventory full of swords, but never finding a bow. But it turns I can buy one right away, so it's not an issue.

I think I'll go off and explore this town first though. It goes against my nature to harass NPCs, but I'm hoping that maybe I can earn some cash during the tutorial, enough perhaps to buy a better bow!


SEVERAL TUTORIAL QUESTS LATER.


Well I took a thing to a person, then took another thing to another person, and now I'm in a shed fighting rats (as is tradition).

Okay here's how the battle system works: I click on things and they eventually die. Or I can click elsewhere and run around, but really in a fight like this that's just wasting precious rat whacking time. It's a real time with pause system, so if I need to take a moment to rethink my strategy I can hit the space bar and issue commands in peace.


EVENTUALLY.


Baldur's Gate inventory screen
Right, now I've learned how to beat rats with a stick, I've learned how to control a team, I've learned how to use the map and journal, and most importantly I've learned how to pick up an item from one place then walk across town for 20 seconds to take it somewhere else for a small reward!

All my small rewards added up as planned, until I had the coin to afford a decent quality bow and 40 arrows to go with it, with money left over for some armour and a helmet. The game uses D&D backwards rules which means that the lower my armour value, the better. You see the way it works is... oh shit, I used to know this. Well basically each character has a THAC0 value, and basically what that means is basically... lower numbers are better.

Anyway my character's foster dad Gorion has some bad news. It turns out that assassins are after her, and so the two of them need to get out of town fast, to make her harder to track down. You can tell we're the smart team by the way we didn't try hiding at the top of a tower with no possible way to escape.


A SHOCKING PLOT DEVELOPMENT LATER.


Well it turns out that making a run for it when there's only one exit from town and the assassins know where you live wasn't perhaps the smartest move either, and Gorion had to sacrifice himself to give my character a fighting chance to escape on her own. Fortunately I know where we were heading: the Friendly Arm Inn. And so Chapter 1 begins.

I soon met up with a friend from town called Imoen and the two of us didn't make it far down the road before running into another pair of adventuring types who also wanted to join the team. One of them's voiced by the Ghost Pirate LeChuck though, so I'm not sure I want to trust him. Also he's described as 'evil' on his character sheet, so that's a bit of a concern as well.

I expected the journey to the inn to be a bit of a struggle with my level 1 team, but I had pretty much no trouble at all. I walked down the path, realised I was going the wrong way, walked up the path, shot a monster or two with arrows and eventually hit the edge of the level. Then I gathered my party and ventured forth onto this map screen.

It seems that the game world's broken up into reasonably sized squares, each marked as an icon on this map. When I reach the edge of a level I unlock the adjacent location, which is then sketched onto the map and made available for fast travel.

But then as I finally reached my destination and was about to walk inside the inn for some rest and recuperation after my not very long and not exactly arduous journey, I got jumped by an assassin at the door! Nice of the game to throw that at me just as I was likely to be at my weakest.

Anyway I turned him into a human pin-cushion and stepped inside the inn. After a bit of searching around and chatting to NPCs I eventually discovered the people I was here to meet sitting in the corner of the room. Khalid and Jaheira are two old friends of Gorion (the player character's foster dad), who offer to join my team if I help them out with some trouble down at the mine.

So now I've got my full set of characters and a quest to complete, and seeing as my only mission at the moment is 'don't get assassinated' I'm grateful to have something to do.


AND SO MY QUEST BEGINS: TO TRAVEL TO THE MINES OF NASHKEL AND SOLVE THE IRON CRISIS!


But before I head off I should probably sort my new characters out. First I checked out their character sheets and wrote down what weapons they're good with (a notepad is a good alternative to having memory). I'm aiming to give them all ranged weapons if possible, because my level 1 characters could be knocked out cold by a mild breeze right now. Also Jaheira's a druid class, meaning she's got a spell book priest scroll for me to arrange. I think I'll take the cure spell, the 'bless' spell to give my party a boost in combat, and 'entangle' in case I need to keep a group of enemies pinned.

The game doesn't use MP, at least not for my dudes. Instead I get to memorise a certain number of spells to use from each spell level, and once they're all fired off that's all I get until I can rest and recover. So I'm going to be doing a lot of resting I guess. New spells can be added to a character's repertoire from scrolls, which self destruct after reading because... I dunno, wizards are weird.

Anyway, south to Nashkel!


SOON.


Typical, I drag my weary and wounded team into the next inn for some much needed healing and find another assassin waiting for me there. This one's smarter than the last one as well and has managed to paralyse half my team. Poor Xzar's getting the crap kicked out of him too, but Jaheira can heal him if I can just get her to navigate around my frozen party members and get close enough. C'mon, just walk around them, push them out of the way if you have to!

Nope, Xzar's dead now and I'm fresh out of phoenix downs. Or whatever this game's equivalent is. He was an annoying, useless, evil little bastard, who kept yelling "I am become death, destroyer of worlds" and didn't even have enough health to make a good distraction, but he was my dude and I want him back.


LATER, AFTER I SURVIVED THE FIGHT AND WANDERED THROUGH THE STREETS FOR A GOOD WHILE LOOKING FOR A TEMPLE.


Holy shit, it costs 100 coin to raise a dead character? That's over half my stash! Even the health potions here cost nearly as much, this is ridiculous. I can buy a proper decent battle axe for 6 GP!

FINE, take my money, I just want my Xzar back. I don't dare disband him and recruit a new character in case that means the mad malevolent mage is dead for good. There doesn't seem to be any camp or hideout in this where recruited characters hang out and his body evaporated on death so there's nothing I can come back to.

By the way, this is the first time I've had trouble with the game interface, as I couldn't figure out how to resurrect people. It turns out you have to head to a temple and click on the 'store' page. It looks like you're buying a Raise Dead scroll (which I didn't want to risk trying at that price), but it's actually a service they provide. Apparently people with rich friends in the D&D universe can be immortal if they're lucky.

Anyway, south to Nashkel Mines!

Right, I'm finally at the mines, now I just have to find the entrance. Each map in this is pretty big (you can see the screen size indicated by the green box on the top right), and can take a good 30 seconds to walk my team across from edge to edge. But it's just a rectangle with some rocks on it, there's no path here, so I'm left to wander around until I stumble onto it.

I can't even issue orders and watch them walk around on the map screen, as it seems to pause the game.


15 MINUTES LATER.


I'm finally found my way into the mines and I think I've solved the mystery of the iron shortage. These little imps have been poisoning the ore with something that turns it brittle. Fortunately the solution to this particular crisis is violence, not a fetch quest, and my level 1 crew are more than up to the task of wiping out a few kobolds. My current tactic here is to click on them, and then they die.

Shame they're not up to the task of walking through narrow gaps and around corners. That's part of the reason it took so long for me to get them down here: even after I found the mine entrance it took me forever to get them all down the staircase. They'd all walk at once and get jammed, then some would wander off the opposite direction. I had to get them down in small groups in the end.

Holy shit, I'm all for levels with a bit of complexity to them instead of tedious linear hallways, but it'd be nice if they could at least mark the entrance and exits after I've found them. Or let me do it even! I'm fine with making my own notes if I have to, after playing all these retro RPGs I've learned to be grateful when a game gives me any kind of map at all. But I have no idea where I came into this place from or where I'm meant to be going.

Still, I'm doing well I think, as my team is in great condition. I can actually rest down here to recover a bit of health and re-memorise my spells, but it seems to trigger a wave of enemies instead more times than not so it's not always a great idea. I'm still not quite sure why I'm being punished by the game for trying to recharge my pitiful set of spells, since they're the one reason I even have magic users in my party.


BUT THEN.


Crap, Xzar was taken out by a kobold! That's just embarrassing. Actually what's really embarrassing is that the guy only started off with 4 hp (the average character has more like 12), so a single lucky hit can kill him outright. So now I have to move the crap he was carrying over to everyone else, and hike back to wherever that temple was to resurrect him again. And they're already carrying a lot of crap each, as enemies drop all their gear on death, not just some random item.

These swords filling this guy's very limited inventory space are all basically worthless by the way, 1gp each. But with Raise Dead costing 100 gp, I need every last coin I can get. Man, I was going to use that money to buy a health potion too!


A SHORT WHILE LATER, BACK ABOVE GROUND IN THE TOWN OF NASHKEL.


On my way to the temple to resurrect Xzar I met a gentleman named Minsc; a warrior with incredible strength, a decent amount of hitpoints, a side-quest for me to complete, and a miniature giant space hamster in his pocket that says "squeak" when you click on him. He also doesn't cost 100 coin to join my group, so I'm sorry Xzar, but you're off the team (and by extension, permanently dead).

Oh no, it's happening already: I've fought too many monsters and I've become a monster myself! Though you know, I'm not sure that choosing not to resurrect an evil wizard can really be considered immoral. In fact that's the kind of thing heroes usually go through a lot of trouble to prevent now that I think about it. Wow, I guess I'm still a good guy after all!

Well okay I did also murder an NPC called Noober in cold blood, but he was really annoying and no one seemed to mind.


AN HOUR LATER.


Minsc seemed really insistent that I complete his side quest right away, so I put off returning to the mines and went off to this fortress to find his kidnapped friend Dynaheir instead. I figured I needed the XP anyway. I mean battles have been pretty easy so far, even here (it certainly helps to have a badass berserker on the team instead of a useless necromancer with a slingshot), but I'm still only level one!

I am having a bit of trouble actually finding this woman though, as she doesn't appear to be anywhere. I've spent the better part of an hour searching this bloody fortress top to bottom and there's no sign of her. I assumed there'd be a secret door leading inside, but all I've found are caves.

In the end I had to look it up in a walkthrough. Turns out that Dynaheir was at the bottom of one of those circular pits in the fortress, but you can't see her unless you climb down first due to the fog of war effect. After being rescued she offered to join the team and I was worried I'd lose Minsc if I declined, so I had to strip Ghost Pirate LeChuck guy of all his gear and kick him out... forever (maybe). I'm really starting to miss Dragon Age's party camp now.

Anyway, south to Nashkel Mines! Again!

Oh that's cool, invisible pressure plates in the floor that triggered a deadly trap. This one killed two of my characters in a single round of fireballs, so I'm lucky I'd saved 10 seconds earlier. Actually luck had nothing to do with it, I save every time I do anything, as... well, you've seen what the game's like! Any one of my characters is 2 hits from death at any moment.

My thief character actually has a skill that detects traps, but it seems I have to reactivate it every bloody time she takes an action (like firing an arrow at a kobold for instance). You want to know what's really annoying though? I actually had it turned on here and she didn't notice this trap until after I'd stepped on it.

At last I've made it through the mines (and ended up somewhere with cactuses weirdly. How far do those mine tunnels actually go?) Wait a second, I didn't want to make it through the mines! I'm supposed to be putting a stop to the iron ore sabotage inside the mine. I guess I must have taken a left turn at some point when I was supposed to take a right.

But of course the path has been sealed behind me by a cave in, so now I have to go back to the world map, go back to the Nashkel Mines icon, travel back to the mine entrance (navigating my dudes down that staircase again), then make my way through 2 or 3 mazes of tunnels that take 30 seconds each to cross even when I know where I'm going, just to get back down to the other side of this bloody mine entrance. Why would they even do that?

Fortunately I  can just reload my last save instead (thank fuck the game makes autosaves when I move to a new area).

Right, this time I took a different doorway and found the culprit behind the iron crisis. I just have to kill this guy and I've completed my first quest! I'm having a slight problem with that though, as he's summoned a squad of skeletons as backup, frozen half my team and is working on killing the other half. C'mon Jaheira, walk over and cure Khalid for fuck's sake. Just walk around the frozen people, push them out of the way if you have to!

Or just watch as everyone is helplessly killed off one by one, that's fine too. Whatever you want to do.

And so my hero is slain, and then disappears into sparkly dust for some reason. Immediate game over. There's no resurrection allowed for the player character as it seems that the universe just hates her.

I really need to restart this fight and come up with an actual strategy next time. Like maybe having my people waiting on the opposite side of the skeletons when they appear, in a line instead of bunched up in a group, so they're able to move around without getting stuck on other characters.


SHORTLY AFTER RELOADING AND TRYING THE BATTLE AGAIN:


Epic success! I got some of the skeletons killed this time, and then ran away before the boss could kill my player character. Now I just need earn the cash to resurrect my three dead team members and replace their old gear as I kind of left their stuff lying on the floor in a mine. Then I can go back through the maze and finally kill that iron ore sabotaging bastard. That should solve the iron crisis, completing my first quest and giving me a decent place to stop playing.

Right, I guess I'll have to journey off into the wilderness and grind for money then. I need around 150-200 gp to resurrect each character maybe, and enemies tend to drop 2 gp's worth of stuff, so I should have the cash raised in no time!


TIME PASSES.


Great, the spiders don't drop money. Of course they don't, why would they, they're spiders. Still at least I got some XP for my trouble. Plus I escaped being poisoned, which is cool because I didn't have the cash to buy any antidote last time I was in the shop, and I certainly don't have the cash on me now to resurrect two people.

Oh shit, does that say 'Level Up'? My character has finally levelled up? It's a miracle! 6 hours and 30 minutes into the game I have at last reached... level 2! I'm seriously starting to wonder if the game's bugged somehow, like perhaps running it on Windows 7 has somehow screwed up the game logic, because I seem to be gaining XP ridiculously slowly.

Baldur's Gate level up
Alright, here's the level up screen, filled with all my level up options. Okay, what have I got here? Zero proficiency points, no skill points to distribute (and these all look like thief class skills anyway), and a big button that says 'accept'. Wow there's absolutely nothing for me to do here, it's basically just informing me of my updated stats.

You know, if this game had been released in 2013 instead of 1998 I'm sure some people would be complaining that BioWare had dumbed the character customisation right down to appeal to JRPG fans and casual gamers, and that their classic RPGs like Mass Effect 2 gave far more scope for playing around with different builds.

Still I can't complain I suppose. Some of my numbers have gone up (yay!), my THAC0's gone down (yay?), and my health has increased by a massive 6 hit points. I'm not being sarcastic there, that's actually almost a 50% increase. Maybe I can take three hits now instead of just two!

Alright then, back to town for a stop at the inn, then I can buy some more ammo and resurrect Dynaheir.

Actually, you know what, I can't be bothered trying to remember where the inn is in this town. I'll just buy what I came here for, then trek to the nearest wilderness map and rest there. Sure there's a good chance I'll end up being attacked in the night, but it's quicker to fight off a few enemies than it is to walk across town. Honestly, I'm starting to dread having to come back to these places.

Oh, I forgot to mention that they actually hide some of the doors behind the buildings. I have to scan the mouse cursor across the walls looking to see if the pointer changes to a door icon. It's making me miss the early Final Fantasy games, where each town had just a handful of buildings with big big signs above the door so I immediately knew where everything important was.

Well I decided to stop being a big whiner and went and found the bloody inn again like a sensible person. After all, there might be side quests in here for me too, and I'd be a fool to pass up on the reward. But you know what was actually in there? Yep, an assassin waiting to pounce on me while I was wounded, weak and weary.

But hey, I finally get to practice some tactical positioning in combat, instead of just standing still and raining arrows upon my foes. Two of my characters here will die in a single hit, but the assassin has to catch them first. So I'm maneuvering them between the tables, luring the assassin around while my other guys stand still on the other side of the room and rain arrows upon my befuddled foe.

So yeah, the combat is basically at the level of a really bad comedy sketch right now. But I'm sure things will get more interesting later once my magic users get access to a more varied and powerful array of spells. And stop being dead.

Anyway, first I should resurrect Dyanheir and then we head south to Nashkel Mines! I want to get this quest finished with already.


AN EPIC FIGHT LATER.


I did it! I came back and I killed the iron saboteur! Turns out that he's not so tough without his skeletons. Though Dynaheir still managed to get killed again somehow. What's really weird is that it happened after the battle, but whatever, I don't even care! I've found the boss's secret stash of treasure and I'm rich! 778 coin, that's enough for 8 health potions!

Plus I've finally found a good weapon in here: a unique enchanted sword.

Whoa, 1d8 damage! They could've just said 1-8, but they decided to be extra nerdy about it. I suppose if you've got the D&D licence you might as well flaunt it. I like how every item has a proper description in this as well, as it adds a lot of depth to the game's world. For instance, this sword is a Moonblade from ancient Myth Drannor, and... it can only be used by a guy called Xan. Well that's just great, it's entirely useless to me. A fine reward indeed.

Anyway, that's the first quest of the game completed, I presume, so I think this'll be where I turn it off.


Did I actually in any way enjoy Baldur's Gate then? Honestly I'd have to say... yeah, but in the same way that I enjoyed Final Fantasy I. I can't say I found it to be a very good game, but there's a charm to it that makes me want to overlook all the frustrations I had. It doesn't hurt than that game sounds fantastic, from the ominous and dramatic main theme to seagulls around the cliffs of Candlekeep. Plus the game isn't nearly annoying enough to diminish the simple joy of beating up bad folks and taking all their stuff. It's either very slow to get started with it though, or my install has ended up broken, because it took me a ridiculous amount of time to reach level 2.

The gameplay's a little more balanced towards talking to NPCs than the screenshots imply, but I didn't feel like showing off many pictures of conversations because I didn't really find any characters that interesting to talk to (not even Snikt Bub the lone adventurer). It's nice that they made the effort to have party members chat to each other occasionally, but they seem like pretty one-note people, and this was done far better in later BioWare games like Dragon Age. Plus I am so sick of hearing "Yes, oh omnipresent authority figure?" and "Such menial tasks" repeated over and over. I can't really say the writing or story is the main selling point of this one. Though I do appreciate how it doesn't seem to have an overly epic 'save the world from the Sith/the Darkspawn/the Reapers' story like their other games tend to (well, along with all other RPGs ever to be fair).

I'd be quite happy to continue struggling through this game, so it's earned a shiny golden star of subjective adequacy.

If you feel like leaving a comment about the game, all those harsh things I said about it, or anything else that seems relevant, then you're in luck as there's a box just underneath this text designed exclusively for that exact purpose!

3 comments:

  1. From what I remember, yes, it does take ages to level up. That's why I ended up cheating, at the time, to get as much gold as I wanted. Which of course took all the fun out of it, and is probably the reason why I never finished it.
    I still have fond memories of it, though ("STOP TOUCHING ME!!").

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  2. I pissed around with this game on-and-off for a while after its release, then I sat down determined to play it through. Full old-school, no internet or walkthroughs or anything of the sort. This was when I was still in school so I had plenty of free time, and I spent all of that free time playing Baldur's Gate for two weeks straight.

    After this fortnight, I had found some things I could do and some things I couldn't. I seemed to be grinding and getting nowhere so I thought I'd just have a quick squiz at a walkthrough to make sure I was on the right track.

    Turns out I had managed to completely ignore the storyline and find literally every side quest available. I ragequit and never bothered with it again, though I did play some Icewind Dale when that came out.

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  3. FYI 1d8 means total result of 1 dice that has 8 number (and yes. It is from 1 to 8).

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