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SummaryYes, my omnipresent authority figure!
The GoodThree games heralded the RPG Renaissance during the second half of the 1990's, popularizing the genre more than ever before: Diablo, Fallout, and Baldur's Gate. Of those three, the last one went on to become the longest-lasting, most influential template for modern RPG design.
Baldur's Gate is BioWare's first RPG and their second game in general. It is quite remarkable that the Canadian developers could produce an instant classic despite apparent lack of experience. According to their own statement, they were highly reverent of Ultima series and SSI's work, and that sentiment is manifested in the game's emphasis on exploration and writing on one side, and its adherence to classic AD&D mechanics on the other.
A strong influence must have been Dark Sun games, which attempted to modernize traditional RPGs a few years before. But Baldur's Gate is bolder than Dark Sun, and feels more exciting thanks to the cues it takes from Ultima games. It has more personality, more life in its locations, more spirit present in gameplay devices it uses to the advantages of narrative and immersion.
Right after the dramatic prologue, the world of Baldur's Gate becomes available for exploration. Theoretically, you can just march to the titular city the moment you are thrown out of Candlekeep, trying to run away from battles you wouldn't survive. Many locations are optional and exploration is essential for finding the next objective and advancing the plot. In this way, Baldur's Gate is an old-school game: it doesn't hold your hand, and it challenges you. At the same time, its scripted events make you feel closer to the main story: assassins would jump out of nowhere and go after you, you'll meet characters who may contribute valuable information, and so on. The game is less open-ended or flexible in its role-playing than Fallout, but there is still a considerable degree of freedom. Who doesn't know the joy of spending the first twenty minutes of a game mowing down innocent cows or sending your thief on a crime spree in the local hotel?
The game's engine is an absolute beauty. It allows free movement through isometric environments, with each party member being fully controllable. Exploration and combat are continuous, greatly contributing to immersion and suspense, making battles dynamic and exciting, and opening up interesting possibilities. You can, for example, have your thief hide in shadows and send him to explore a dungeon area full of dangerous monsters, disable all the traps, perhaps even backstab and kill a couple of weaker enemies, and then safely come back.
Combat flows in real time, but you can pause it to issue specific orders to your characters, like in Darklands. This option makes both quick skirmishes as well as deeply planned tactical battles possible. You'll have to manage your melee fighters, spellcasters and ranged attackers correctly in order to gain the upper hand. Smart positioning may lead you to victory that would be absolutely impossible if you just put all party members together and charged at the enemies. The system also allows for neat tricks such as sending one character far ahead, spotting enemies, and luring them to come to you one-by-one - but don't hope that every type of enemy will fall for that.
Enemy AI in the game is quite impressive. Foes will often come in large groups complete with melee fighters, archers, and mages, who will also use tactical planning to assault you. The most exciting and difficult battles in Baldur's Gate are thus party-to-party confrontations. Overall, the game boasts some of the most flexible, enjoyable, and reasonably deep combat around - challenging yet not frustrating, fairly complex without the head-spinning detail of Realms of Arkania.
In terms of storytelling and approach to characterization, Baldur's Gate is closer to Ultima than to SSI's games. The main attraction of the story is the presence of a hero with a real biography - he (or she) is not some kind of a wandering knight or adventurer without a real purpose in life, but a young scared boy (or girl) thrown out of home, threatened by mysterious assassins, having no place in the hostile world. You start the adventure with virtually nothing, being weak and helpless, without a clear idea about what is going on and why those people killed your foster father and want to kill you, but gradually develop into a mighty, fearsome warrior (well, that comes later, in Throne of Bhaal). Your purpose is not to save villages and the world, but yourself, in what can be qualified as a "medieval espionage thriller".
But of course, you are not alone in this dangerous world: there are people who will help you in your perilous journey. The more you explore the game world, the more characters you'll meet who are willing to join your party for various reasons. The choice is vast - chances are you'll be switching your party members and experimenting with them until the end of the game. Every character has their own advantages or disadvantages, but it is possible (and necessary) to create a versatile and well-balanced party to confront all dangers. Those characters often have interesting or amusing personalities, making the script livelier and infusing it with good writing and humorous elements. Who can ever forget the hyperactive ranger Minsc with his "miniaturized space hamster" Boo?..
Lastly, the game has lovely isometric graphics with plenty of warmth and detail, and a beautiful orchestral soundtrack consisting mainly of appropriately modal, archaic-sounding tunes. Many locations ooze cozy atmosphere, and even the many "empty" wilderness screens are a pleasure to explore.
The BadSome people just don't like AD&D. I understanding that figuring out stuff like THAC0 or the amount of dice the game throws to calculate damage can get in the way of those who just want to dive into action. That is hardly the fault of developers who decide to base their game on a certain set of pre-existing rules and therefore have to follow it. Personally, I think the game could have been a little bit less vanilla D&D. Dark Sun games had unique races and a more exotic scenario. Here, you'll just have to settle for humanoid characters in a strict medieval atmosphere.
Others don't appreciate the difficulty of combat. I really like it the way it was, but perhaps the characters could have been made slightly more powerful. Mages at early development stages are next to useless, and the game is over before you get to the really nifty spells. That's one of the reasons Baldur's Gate is best enjoyed in conjunction with its excellent sequels.