The release of Baldur’s Gate in 1998 was a ground-breaking game that not only heralded the return of the PC as a superb platform for computer role playing games but also brought the Dungeons & Dragons license back into the mainstream again.
The developers at Bioware weren’t going to leave it there though – two years later they produced a sequel in Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn that outdid its predecessor in almost every way and created a gold standard in the genre that required some very special games to be released to even equal its achievements.
In the game you’d have the option to import your original game save from Baldur’s Gate and continue the story with your original party. Additional character classes were added to the sequel as well some additional skills such as dual wielding that made the idea of creating a new character compelling, but seeing as I spent a pile of hours already with my goody-two-shoes paladin it seemed a waste to not stick with him.
The original game tasked your character with investigating an iron shortage along the Sword Coast region (D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting) whilst coming to terms with their heritage being a child of Bhaal, the God of Murder. During your travels you’d build up an impressive party of unique party members to help your cause… all of which you’d need to default Sarevok, another powerful child of Bhaal who killed your mentor.
However, the sequel gives you little chance to revel in your previous successes as right from the beginning there’s a fairly significant upheaval within your party thanks to the wizard Jon Irenicus, voiced by the always awesome David Warner, who has taken a keen interest in your character’s heritage and the power it contains. He’s a pretty scary guy too whose dangerous abilities are on display though some of the in game cutscenes as he deals out a decent dose of death and destruction on anyone crossing his path.
From there you begin your quest in Athkatla, capital city of the country Amn, in pursuit of the dangerous Irenicus. The city itself is quite the sight, giving players a sign of the increased scope within the new game and acting as a hub of sorts initially as you come to grips with it. With just short of three hundred quests throughout the game, players are bound to find themselves drawn into the game for a long time.
The combat system introduced in the series, real time with a pause feature for issuing commands, was surprising to me in how much it made me consider strategies when fighting would begin. In simpler encounters you could simply click to kill but when the going got tough you’d have to consider positioning your characters, ordering spell attacks or prayer buffs and focusing damage on priority targets. In conjunction with AI behaviour controls that let you determine how characters react when you’re not issuing them orders, you are presented with a lot of flexibility in how you can manage battles throughout the game.
For me the quests and combat were only part of what that drew me in. It was also because I could be continuing my adventures with a set of characters that I had grown fond of through one game already and seeing them evolve further. Your very first companion in Imoen, who turns out to be a fellow child of Bhaal, starts off in Baldur’s Gate as an NPC that you’re not sure about having around on your quest but over the course of the games she becomes an integral part of the story.
And then there is Minsc. With the aid of his miniature giant space hamster Boo, his presence in the games would always bring a smile to players faces as would the battlecry “Go for the eyes Boo! GO FOR THE EYES!!!”. That the developers realised quickly they were onto a winner here and built out his character further is a credit to them.
The game itself has around sixty hours of gameplay for the central quest with up to three hundred hours total if you take into account the additional quests. I couldn’t even calculate how many hours I might have spent on the game but I do know it was some of the best gaming time I had. Probably lucky at the time I was a bachelor because it’s one major time sink… I think the last time Bioware tried to create something even remotely close in size was with Dragon Age: Origins.
Even with its massive success, the game never had a sequel. An expansion disc entitled Throne of Bhaal was released in 2001 and turned out to be a substantial addition to the game. It also helped to provide a definitive conclusion to the series with the remaining Bhaalspawn battling it out to see who will become the new God of Murder. In the end it’s up to your character to help achieve a final outcome. The expansion was considered to be so good at the time it was remarked as worthy of being called “Baldur’s Gate III”.
Seeing my party’s adventures come to an end was a sad moment after devoting an insane amount of hours to the game but the final moments gave you insight through short vignettes into the paths each of the characters take in their own futures. Even though it was mainly text, it was enough to bring closure to the story. When I look back at it now, I can understand why some gamers would later be distressed over Bioware’s handling of the Mass Effect 3 ending and their fumbled way of placating them via DLC. After setting the gold standard more than a decade earlier gamers would expect nothing less.
The “Infinity Engine” toolset that Bioware had created with the first Baldur’s Gate also lead to a stream of new games coming from other teams at their publisher at Interplay via the Black Isle studio. These included the more action oriented Icewind Dale series and the remarkable Planescape: Torment, a game that will very likely be discussed here too. A later generation of their toolsets would also give CD Projekt RED a foundation for creating the very first game in their Witcher trilogy in 2007.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and the expansion Throne of Baal are available now from GOG.com. There is also Enhanced Editions of both titles developed by Overhaul Games that includes more content and characters and updates the game to take advantage of modern PCs as well as iOS and Android. The team at Overhaul are looking to continue the series forward with an all new Baldur’s Gate III but no details have been release at this stage.
If you’re a keen RPG player and a big fan of D&D, do yourself a favour and get the series. Locking yourself away in a room for a month to get through it all is optional.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.