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SummaryA dream comes true
The Good"Baldur's Gate" is a perfect medieval fantasy RPG. Everything you admire in Tolkien's books and other famous fantasy titles can be found here in the form of a game. When I started playing the game, the first thought that came to my mind was: "This is it!" This is what I've been waiting for: a game with a great story set in an wonderfully crafted fantasy world, with all the beauty and immersion of "Lord of the Rings", and with an open-ended, flexible gameplay, that restored the original meaning of the word role-playing.
Of course, this game couldn't have been made without the newest technical achievements. One of the reasons for the beauty of its world is the famous Infinity engine, that allows free movement through isometric environments, making those environments feel like a huge fully explorable world, making each party member fully controllable, and providing the most exciting combat ever. It is hardly the fault of early classic RPG titles that they couldn't provide all this due to technical limitations of the past. But time goes on; it is very hard to get excited now over simplistic, "cold" graphics, impersonal stories, or rigid gameplay systems of older games. "Baldur's Gate" is not a very original game in terms of setting or main gameplay ideas; but it improves over old RPGs in virtually every aspect, and it came just at the right moment. Welcome to RPG revival.
The story of "Baldur's Gate" is pretty original, and in any case differs a lot from the usual "a party of nameless adventurers visits a village and has to save it and the rest of the world from the evil". The main attraction of this story is the presence of a hero with a real biography - the hero is not just some kind of wandering knight or adventurer without a real purpose in life, but a young scared boy (or girl, if you prefer a female lead) who is thrown out of his home village, threatened by mysterious assassins, and has no place in this hostile world. The effect of starting 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, and gradually developing into a mighty warrior and one of the most powerful figures in the country (well, that comes later, in Throne of Bhaal) is truly stunning. In the first game, you are still a nobody, and your purpose is not to save villages and the world - no, it is to save yourself. This is what makes the story of "Baldur's Gate" so suspenseful, almost being a "medieval espionage thriller". It allows you to take a break from the usual corny RPG stuff and to play a personal story that makes it very easy to identify yourself with the protagonist.
But of course, you are not alone in this dangerous world: there are people who will help you in your adventure. This is, first of all, your most trusty companion - a young thief girl Imoen, with whom you grew up together. The more you explore the game world, the more characters you'll meet who are willing to join your party for various reasons. Among them there is the half-elf couple Khalid and Jaheira, the fearless ranger Minsc with his hamster Boo, the mysterious drow Viconia, the evil mage Edwin, and many others. 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 his (or her) own advantages or disadvantages, but it is possible (and necessary) to create a versatile and well-balanced party to confront all the dangers.
You have full control of your party. You can move them at any time to any place you want, give any order in battles, or equip with anything they are able to equip. You can for example make 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.
Thanks to the fantastic Infinity engine, battles truly come to life in "Baldur's Gate". The greatest idea was undoubtedly to make the battles a mixture of real time and turn-based systems. To put it simply, the battles are turn-based, but you don't notice it. The battles are so quick-paced that you might have a wrong impression and think these are real time battles where the amount of clicking on the enemy matters. But it is not so. Basically, your characters are just set in an Auto mode and will physically attack the enemy you click on (unless you order them to walk to another spot or cast spells) according to the rules of a turn-based battle. The enemies don't wait for your turn and attack you even if you order your characters to stand there and do nothing. Those battles spare you both the primitivity of real-time and the tedium of turn-based combat styles. There are no "click-till-the-mouse-starts-bleeding" Diablo-like action, and no slow-motion combat like in console RPGs. What's more, you don't just stand there and attack enemies; you can walk around freely, making position in combat extremely important. You can for example put your mage far away from the combat arena and make him cast long-ranged spells on the enemy. Simple melee combat is not always the best solution; you'll probably often equip some of your characters with long-ranged weapons and put them in a safe place during a battle. Strategic positioning allows you to win in battles that are absolutely impossible to survive if you just put all party members together and attack. It also makes some neat tricks possible, such as sending one character far ahead, spotting enemies, and luring them to come to you one-by-one (physical-type enemies usually follow you, while mages stay behind). The enemies are also not stupid: they often come in large groups complete with melee fighters, archers, and mages, who will also use strategy to attack you. The most exciting battles in "Baldur's Gate" are party-to-party battles, when two hostile parties (the enemy one being usually more powerful) have to fight each other, when only a clever and efficient strategy from your side will make it possible to defeat the foes.
Character creation and development is rather simple and restricted; but for the most times, it makes sense. A mage who can cast spells and equip a plate armor would simply be too powerful and destroy the balance of the game. You have to deal with the strengths and the weaknesses of each class, without being able to create a super-powerful semi-god who can just decimate everything on the screen with some kind of a mega-spell. "Baldur's Gate" is not an easy game, and it makes you think when creating the main character, recruiting party members, or participating in battles.
The world of "Baldur's Gate" is there for you to explore, and you can explore it in different ways. A lot of areas are open since the very beginning of the game; theoretically, you can march to the city Baldur's Gate the moment you are thrown out of Candlekeep (of course, you wouldn't survive the battles there). There are plenty of locations that are unnecessary to visit in order to complete the game. If you are tired of those games that take you by the hand and safely guide you to the next destination, have no fear - "Baldur's Gate" is not such a game. Exploration is necessary in order to advance in the game; it is sometimes not totally clear what your next destination is (for example, you have to find a certain character, but you don't know where this character is). This said, the game never lets you forget the main plot. No matter how many optional quests you take and how many "unimportant" locations you visit, there is always something that reminds you of your predicament: assassins jumping out of nowhere, characters that go to the same destination as you, and so on.
"Baldur's Gate" is a real RPG in the sense of allowing you to make choices. It is not as open-ended as Fallout, but is is nevertheless very flexible. I remember starting the game once and doing nothing but killing the cows you see in the first location. I was just hacking the poor cows down, when the town's inhabitants came and made me understand more closely how the cows felt when I was murdering them. Another time, I was stealing everything I could see, taking two thieves in my party and becoming the general nuisance of the Forgotten Realms. In any case, you can choose to do what you like in the game, taking any quests you want, and fighting anybody you want. This is the actual meaning of role-playing.
Technically, "Baldur's Gate" is a very impressive package. The game ows a lot of its charm to its fantastic graphics and music, that bring the world to life and create the incomparable atmosphere of a medieval fantasy tale. The isometric graphics are wonderful, and the music is an integral part of the game's setting. It is medieval in the best sense of the word. The orchestration is excellent, and the modal harmonies make it sound authentic enough to immerse us in the game's world.
Last but not least - the game never takes itself too seriously. It is a classic, strict medieval fantasy tale, but it never becomes corny. The humor is yet another aspect that makes "Baldur's Gate" so good. Every line of dialogue was written in such a way that it seems natural without disturbing the fantasy atmosphere. The language used in "Baldur's Gate" is high-quality English, but it is never unnaturally archaic. The slightly ironic responses of your party members are delightful ("Yes, my omnipresent authority figure?", says Jaheira when you want her to do something). There are tons of little funny things to discover in the game - nothing too blatant to make it a parody on medieval fantasy RPGs, but enough stuff to provide a little diversion on your way. And of course, there's the incomparable Minsc with his "miniaturized giant space hamster" Boo...
The BadThere are some little things like rather frequent crashes and minor bugs. The AD&D system here is pretty hardcore and will probably make someone unfamiliar with it shrug his shoulders from time to time. Reading the manual properly or even getting acquainted with AD&D rules from other sources helps to explain a lot of stuff used in the game. I for once had to read some AD&D-related documents in order to understand the meaning of 1D6 +1 damage, THAC0, or saving throws.
Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that this is just the first part of a trilogy (with Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal following). The story of the first "Baldur's Gate" doesn't have a real end. Since this game is just the beginning of a large story, and since they probably didn't want to make you start all over again in the second game, your party is exceptionally weak in "Baldur's Gate". The feeling of being really mighty doesn't come until "Throne of Bhaal".