A milestone, if not the pinnacle, of CRPGs.
Here's a game with a tough act to follow: Baldur's Gate 1 was a super-mega-hit, made D&D cool again and became one of the biggest names in the rpg revolution so... How can you make a good sequel to that? The answer is twofold.
For starters the designers took the effective but not that revolutionary "brute force" approach to making a sequel which means they just jammed down your throat 10 times as much features. The new gameworld (moved south of Baldur's Gate around the city of Amn) is 4534536 times bigger with much more varied locations including underwater cities, elven citadels, planar spheres and even the Underdark among the collection of usual temples, dungeons and cities that populate Faerûn.
The adventure has also been moved up level-wise, with +3 weapons being now a common occurrence and with enemies such as Beholders, Demi-Lyches and even dragons to fight against instead of the same old lvl 2 kobolds, the spell book has been upgraded to around 300 spells, and the character classes now support character "kits" which work like subclasses with special skills and weaknesses that add a lot of neat twists to the game.
All that plus new features like double-weapon wielding, interface fixes and a more accurate gameplay balance, for instance: thievery is now much more of a requirement and it even awards exp. points when successful. Mages can now cast spell triggers and contigencies making them much more resourceful in combat, in BG1 mages where useless fodder that could be dispossed of easily, now mages are devastating powerhouses that require equally skilled party members capable of casting spell turnings and stuff like that! And that's without mentioning the magical creatures like the vampires, beholders or dragons! Result? It's not enough to have a group of head-crushing fighters anymore, and true variety is much more necessary when considering party development. And speaking of party members, that's the only figure that seems to have dropped: 16 against the 32 or so of the original. But the drop in quantity is acceptable considering that much more dedication has been placed on each character and his/her particular background and storyline. Don't worry tough, along with the new party members you can still find your favorite BG1 characters back: Imoen (much more mature and with a dark secret and all), Jaheira (now single!), Edwyn and my personal favorites: the dimwitted Minsc and bad grrrrrrl Viconia. The characters have dropped that annoying tendency to come in pairs but they still converse with each other and can get into heated arguments and fights if they don't see eye to eye.
In short it's BG bigger, badder, with better graphics (there are even some polygonal elements here and there plus higher resolution options!) and more hours (upwards of 200) of gameplay. Enough to make a cool sequel right? But as I said the answer from the designers was twofold, and the other big improvement they made was really simple: Scripting.
Taking a lot of cues from previous Black Isle games like Torment and Fallout, BG2 forgave to a degree the freeform element of the original and crafted a much tighter world where no enemy is randomly spawned (aside from the obligatory but scarce chance encounters), each NPC has custom dialogues, each quest is meticulously crafted and every possible party member comes with their own scripted events and gets tied to the storyline appropiately. And the most impressive thing is that all these rather ambitious goals are kept for the entire adventure! It still boggles my mind that at no point in the game the quests fall in quality and every little nuance seems controlled by small scripted events, be it a run-in with some spies, a need for money, or some of the miriads of character-related quests that develop each party member Final Fantasy-style and tells us more about their backgrounds; or the class-related quests that provide you with a unique base of operations, quests, sub-plots and steady income depending on your character class; or the romance-scripted events and sub-plots; or the consideration provided by the designers to include small fandom-related touches such as self-parody, D&D cameos by Elminster, Dritz, the kids from the D&D show and enough self-references to the original to satisfy the most jaded fanatic (ever wondered what happened to that character? Practically every character from the original can be found in some form or another here!) ; or the optional challenges like hunting the pieces of a super-powerful hammer, defeating the dragons, assembling a sinister armor made of flesh, destroying Kangaxx, etc,etc,etc,etc,etc....
And still I repeat: at no time does the quality nor the quantity of the game take a dive. One might also think that with such priorities the storyline would decay and end up an inconsistent mess with little to no direction and with as much development as a Street Fighter storyline, but the fact is that the storyline benefits from the tighter scripting and actually soars above the original, exploring further the consequences of your demonic heritage and weaving a larger and more complex plot that interweaves most major players in Faerûn as well as most of the characters you meet in the game instead of being a series of subplots holding up a basic storyline like in other games. Granted, it's not as story-driven as Torment or some console rpgs, but it's still way up there.
The ending is blatantly shitty, made for the exact purpose of leaving you with pretty much no answers and prompting you to buy the expansion... and some of the features that everyone wanted (such as knowing what the hell happened to each party member) got kicked over to said expansion...oh well, more BG can't be so bad....
Oh yeah and the final fight with Irenicus was a joke. Quite odd considering there are plenty of difficult challenges in the game and that the final showdown with Sarevok on the original was a veritable nightmare.
And what the hell happened to the spell effects? After Torment and it's screen-shaking, over the top spell effects I expected BG2 to be a super spectacle of magic spells!! Yet....
The Bottom Line
This is one bad ass rpg, one would expect such a massive game to be simply a freeform mess (Morrowind) or such a tightly written and scripted game to be a linear interactive movie (insert any console rpg here) but only Baldur's Gate 2 manages to reach both goals and remain solid.
Required gaming for any crpg wanna-be and gaming enthusiast, Baldur's Gate 2 is simply a masterpiece of videogaming.