Go for the eyes Boo, go for the eyes!
First thing to say: I loved the original Baldur's Gate
. I'm anything but an AD&D specialist, I don't think I've ever played a D&D game beside the recent BioWare products, and I most certainly never played a pen&paper RPG. I enjoyed the first "Baldur's Gate" enormously because it was a beautifully made, engrossing game, with fantastic gameplay, story, and production values - one of those rare games that become classics the moment they are released. "Baldur's Gate II" is, technically speaking, almost the same game, using the same engine, battle system, and continuing the same story, but it improves greately many of the features the first game had, and enhances the experience.
"Baldur's Gate II" is a perfect example of how to make a sequel to a great game. The moment you start playing the game you notice how much attention was paid to seemingly insignificant details, and how those details make the gaming experience even more enjoyable. For example, the pathfinding is now much better, there are new convenient options added, such as "rest until healed", you can see how badly your enemy is hurt, etc. You'd say it doesn't really matter, but for me, it is just another proof of quality - not that the game needed this proof, anyway. Most of those little changes made the game a bit easier than the tough first part. Overall, the game seemed somewhat easier and more comfortable to play for me, but some battles also were extremely tough.
"Baldur's Gate II" expands the medieval setting of the original, making its world a "multi-cultural" society full of all kind of bizarre and exotic creatures. Where else will you fight rakshasas, yuan-tis, and trolls, and wield a short sword together with a ninja-to? Those mixtures ruin somewhat the wonderful medieval atmosphere that was present in the first game, but they also make Forgotten Realms a more lively and colorful place.
The most important improvement over the original is the presentation of characters. Already in the first game you could meet interesting people and let them join your party, but here, those same people (or many new ones) have even more distinct personalities and are even more attractive. Every single character from "Baldur's Gate" receives a further development in this sequel. Imoen appears to be much more than a light-hearted, child-like thief girl - not to mention that she also becomes an essential part of the game's plot. The indifferent "nature servant", Jaheira, has to deal with her grief, and reveals some very deep emotions. Minsc is lovelier than ever with his hamster Boo, chivalrous behavior towards women, and fearsome battle cries. And your main character seems to be much more involved in the storyline than he was in the first game, and even has to solve the classical problem of "the evil within". At certain points, the dialogues with characters seem to be taken out of a Final Fantasy game. At the end of the game, you really feel your party members were much more for you than just casual acquaintances.
Since everybody are at higher levels now, you start actually feeling some power behind your party, especially the mages. Just like in the first game ranged weapons were your best choice, here the emphasis in combat is clearly on wizards. Finally, you can access cool high-level spells, and use them to produce fantastic effects. Unfortunately, such spells will also be used by your opponents...
The gameplay continues the Baldur's Gate tradition and offers a truly thrilling experience. When I was playing the first game, I was a bit confused by the real time/turn based mixed combat system and by the seemingly rigid and one-sided AD&D rules. Since then, I actually grew to like those rules. True, they don't leave enough room for experimenting and don't allow much character development, but in "Baldur's Gate II", dealing with stronger enemies, I could appreciate the reducing of my THAC0 or the additional slot in my mage book I could use for a powerful spell. Before, I was also very annoyed by the weapon and armor restrictions, but now I begin to understand why mages can't wear any armor or equip swords and shields: they would simply be too powerful otherwise.
As for the combat system, it can easily become turn based if you activate automatic pausing in the options menu. But I also learned to enjoy it the way it is, pausing at will, or letting the things roll when I was sure not to have too many troubles. In any case, now I tend to think the infinite engine belongs to the best around, and probably even is the best. There are so many strategic possibilities in combat: instead of mindless mouse-button-bashing hack & slash, like in action RPGs, or tedious console-like restriction to a single "battle screen", where you can't move an inch, you can always take a break and think which strategy to use, and you can move all around the place or even leave it. Those battles are, simply said, fun. No wonder they made a whole game based on the same engine, that contained almost only battles and still was fun to play (Icewind Dale
Just like the first game, "Baldur's Gate II" is a perfect combination of story-driven adventuring and meticulous world-exploring. It is amazing to see how the game manages to have such a clear, well-presented plot, and yet to give the player the possibility of playing hours upon hours without sticking to it. In the middle of the game there is a large portion of linear plot-development, but the second, the third, and the sixth chapters let you go wherever you like and do whatever you like. Feel like earning some money, gaining good items, or exploring a new area? Accept any side quest you like, or many of them, and complete them at your pleasure. Tired of performing minor tasks and ready to confront your future? Make the story progress by doing only the main quest. Almost at any time, you can start experimenting with your party members, go to some unexplored areas, buy and sell equipment, or be on your way to the confrontation with Irenicus.
The side quests are much more than the ever annoying "I forgot my purse on the table, can you bring it to me?" kind of tasks. In fact, those side quests offer a solid amount of role-playing. Often you'll have to decide in whose favor to complete a quest, since there might be a conflict of interests. You'll have to choose between siding with innocents or obvious criminals, to solve complicated political conspiracies, or to kill especially challenging monsters in order to be awarded by a powerful weapon or protection ring.
One of the most appealing additions in "Baldur's Gate II" is the possibility of romancing some of your companions. They will gradually show their interest for you during the game, and you'll have to behave correctly in order to conquer the one you like. Some really interesting and realistic stuff can happen while you are having those romances. For example, I was in a pretty good position trying to capture the heart of a charming innocent elf, but at a certain point I couldn't refuse to a tempting offer of a certain drow, and the elf promptly rejected my courting attempts afterwards...
Finally, the game boasts great production values, just like the first "Baldur's Gate". The sound effects are among the best ever heard in a game, and the graphics are fantastic. The spell animations are fabulous, and most enemies looks absolutely cool, especially larger ones, such as the dragons. The pre-rendered background graphics are also beautiful.
Well, seeing such a magnificent game, I feel it would be almost unfair to criticize it. There are just a couple of small things that were better executed in the first game. For example, while the first "Baldur's Gate" had magnificent music at almost every screen, the sequel is almost entirely devoid of music (except the wonderful "romance" melody and some background tunes in the Underdark), which I found pretty strange. By the way, the title music (played when the game's main menu first loads) belongs to the best tracks I've ever heard, and it's a real pity so little music was used in the sections where you actually play the game. Another thing is the lack of "empty" screens, which were so typical for "Baldur's Gate". Of course, it shortens the tedious wandering around, but you don't really have the feeling of traveling anywhere because of this feature.
The Bottom Line
Destroy huge iron golems and slay dragons. Outsmart sly spell-casting beholders and mind flayers with psychic powers. Find your way in a net of intrigues amidst vicious drow. Help the elves to save their beautiful city. Become an owner of an estate and repress the population with high taxes to get more money. Save your beloved one from turning into a vampire. Have a love affair with a half-elf druid, and then betray her and sleep with an insane sadistic female warrior. Be everybody's errand boy, or kill others for your profit. "Baldur's Gate 2" is a digital universe. Whether you like playing beautiful fantasy adventures and sticking to the story, or more enjoy exploring every corner around, whether your way of playing is doing everything correctly and according to the plan, or finding more unusual solutions for problems - this game is for you. I loved the original "Baldur's Gate", and I love this one. It's a gaming experience you shouldn't miss.
Cover your nose Boo! We'll leave no crevices untouched! :))