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SummaryCover your nose, Boo! We'll leave no crevices untouched!
The GoodI loved the first Baldur's Gate. It was a beautifully crafted game that pulled AD&D out of stagnation and helped revitalize the entire RPG genre. It was one of those rare games that become classics the moment they are released. Baldur's Gate II is, technically speaking, a very similar game, using the same engine, battle system, and continuing the same story - but it also greatly improves upon many of the predecessor's features.
Baldur's Gate II is a perfect example of how to make a sequel to a great game. Basically, it takes its well-working formula and refines it, expanding possibilities and ironing out rough edges. Undeniably, the single most impressive aspect of the game - and one that instantly propelled its creators to stardom - is the way it manages to combine freedom of decision and exploration with high-quality scripted material. In a way, it is to the first game what Serpent Isle was to Black Gate - but it feels even more independent, more confident in the path it has chosen.
Baldur's Gate II brilliantly turns familiar filler material into meaningful content: it takes purely gameplay-related concepts and weaves them into the narrative, thus making the game world more credible and greatly enhancing our immersion in it. It is the zenith of BioWare's quest design. Instead of "I forgot my purse on the table, can you bring it to me?" type of missions, there is a stunning variety of interesting and exciting tasks. You'll solve personal dramas, plunge into political conspiracies, side with religious orders, make tough choices in questionable moral disputes, manage a castle, investigate crimes, and much more. You'll get attached to certain characters and hate others. Everything in this game is hand-crafted, and while it cannot compete with the likes of Elder Scrolls in quantity, it more than makes up for it in quality.
That is not to say that Baldur's Gate II is too small or too linear. Quite on the contrary: it offers a large, generously designed world with a great variety of locations. Much of the content here is purely optional - you can choose yourself which quests to tackle and which not. A good example is the first major task in the game - collecting a certain sum of money. While the goal itself is clearly set, the game doesn't in the least tell you how to achieve it. It gives you a few hints and then, after a bit of investigation, you are faced with several highly divergent options for completing the task. All of those have their ups and downs, but none is dull and you'll want to explore them all. Or, you can just try to steal the money somewhere or gain it by selling loot - but that's anything but easy, since the sum is large. Though a few sections in the middle of the game are fairly straightforward, you'll be given this kind of freedom most of the time.
Baldur's Gate II is colorful, with exotic locations hidden underneath the European medieval world. You'll travel to enchanted forests, catacombs of the undead, celestial abode of the elves, mysterious drow dwellings, and picturesque city of a strange sentient reptile race. What's great about those areas is not just their aesthetic appeal, but their design: they are tight and busy, teeming with places of interest, items, people, and activities. There is something to discover in every corner. There are quests waiting for you when you least expect it.
Already in the first game you could recruit interesting companions who would travel with you. The sequel improves and builds upon this feature, presenting more characters who could join the party and fleshing out their personalities quite a bit more. Companions would comment on your actions, talk to each other, and develop feelings for you depending on how you treat them. My protagonist was in a pretty good position trying to capture the heart of a charming innocent elf, but at a certain point he couldn't refuse a tempting offer from a certain female drow, and the elf couldn't forgive him this infidelity. This kind of detail enriches the game even more. Well-written, witty conversations are a pleasure to read or (when the occasional voice acting kicks in) listen to.
On top of that, there is so much traditional RPG goodness that you'll have fun even without all those other possibilities. Since everybody are at higher levels now, you start actually feeling some power behind your party, especially the mages. Combat is more satisfying than ever, with the excellent real-time-with-pause system carried over with more options, classes, races, weapons, proficiencies, spells, and what not. You'll destroy huge iron golems and slay dragons, outsmart sly spell-casting beholders and mind flayers with psychic powers. And when you've had enough of combat, you can always return to being a greedy owner of an estate and repress the population with high taxes to get more money, or engage on a chivalrous quest of saving your beloved one from turning into a vampire.
The BadThere is less than a handful of minor issues, such as the absence of music in most locations - I wish the magnificent track that plays during character creation would be actually heard in-game. A few humorous elements and anachronisms ruining the strict medieval atmosphere may not be everyone's cup of tea. The overarching story is not particularly dynamic and somewhat lacks the initial emotional attachment we had in the first game.
My only real complaint is the lack of a continuous world. Much of the action takes place in a large city divided into several districts, but you can't simply exit it and walk in all directions. Once quests start piling up, locations will appear on your map; there are quite a few, and many of them are optional. But I really missed the traveling aspect of the first Baldur's Gate. I liked just going somewhere way before I was supposed to be there, wandering through the wilderness in search of loot and outposts of civilization. I've never had any sympathy to the kind of disjointed and immersion-breaking map design the sequel uses, and I think it's a pity the first game's more seamless exploration was not carried over.