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Baldur's Gate 2

Behold the advances of technology, and despair!

Rating: A

Playing Time: Estimated at about 250-300 hours, not including character generation, since the timer only measures in-game "days"

Obviously, having reviewed Baldur's Gate, it's only fitting to review the sequel as well. There's a lot of overlap between the two games, so I'll try to stick to covering new ground in this review. I'll focus on the core game content (Shadows of Amn and the Throne of Bhaal expansion), but I'll speak briefly about the Ascension mod, since it's often treated as a semi-canonical "fix" for some of the rough edges and cut content in Throne of Bhaal.

I'd say that upwards of 90% of the time, when people talk about Baldur's Gate, unless the topic was explicitly approached to be about the first game, they're really going to be talking about this one. By no means was Baldur's Gate a bad game, but Baldur's Gate 2 was just generally better in so many ways (most especially the story) that it just tends to overshadow the original. Character generation is just one example of that. Yes, Baldur's Gate had an incredible system that was easy to spend hours in before getting into the actual game. Baldur's Gate 2 added even more depth to it. In the first game, your choices for class (not considering any restrictions or multiclass options based on your race) were fighter, ranger, paladin, thief, bard, priest, druid, or mage, with mage having further options to specialize in one of the eight schools of magic. There's a hell of a lot of choice there. Baldur's Gate 2 added 3 kits (slightly modified versions of the basic classes with further advantages/disadvantages) to each class other than mage, added wild magic specialization for mages, and (since 3rd Edition AD&D was coming out at around the same time) added sorcerer, monk, and barbarian classes, too, although without any kits for those. All told, though, it's a huge increase in the selection of classes, one which is even greater than it appears at first due to humans being able to dual class out of a kit and into a second class for even more min/max choices. It's little wonder that I've got even more saved character files for Baldur's Gate 2 (34) than I did for the original.

There's arguably a step back in character generation, though, since weapon proficiencies were changed from being a general group of weapons (long blades, bows, spiked weapons, etc.) to individual weapon types (long swords, bastard swords, katanas, scimitars, etc.). I say it's arguable since, while it's obviously more restricted than the previous system, there's a pretty good selection in each weapon type to avoid shafting players for making choices without foreknowledge of the game's content. Even the lowly clubs, generally considered one of the weakest weapon types, is somewhat compensated by having a couple of special options available pretty early on which your character can rely on until they get access to better versions of stronger weapons, and seemingly weak choices like war hammers or short swords end up having some of the strongest options for top tier weapons in the long run.

I can't talk about an Infinity Engine game without including a picture from character generation

Moving on, once you've made your character, you're greeted by waking up in a cell where some evil douche is using you for his...experiments. Thus are you introduced to the primary antagonist of Shadows of Amn, Jon Irenicus, and holy shit, are you ever in for a treat. Bioware caught some serious lightning in a bottle with this one, because Irenicus is one of the best antagonists in any work of fiction, let alone a video game. It's no exaggeration to say that he's by far the single biggest reason why Baldur's Gate 2 is better than the first game. From the first moment that he appears on screen, literally within seconds of starting the game (once you get past character generation), he steals the spotlight and owns it until the end of Shadows of Amn, and potentially even beyond that. The incredible voice acting done by David Warner is no small part of this, particularly with how good he is at switching from being in a furious rage to being calm and collected orator. There's much more that I could say about him, but really, it'd pale in comparison to just playing the game and experiencing him for yourself.

Baldur's Gate 2 also makes a good improvement over its predecessor by not bloating itself on the front end to quite the same degree, at least in Shadows of Amn. There's still some problems with having a ton of optional content available in the early part of the game, which leaves nothing but the plot to be played later on, but whereas Baldur's Gate lets you do almost everything by its midpoint, with little development aside from unlocking the Cloakwood forest and the titular city (neither of which lasts beyond its initial chapter), Baldur's Gate 2 is somewhat better paced. Yes, the stuff that's available in chapters 2 and 3 is also what's supposed to be around to distract you later on, but in between, there's a major foray into a completely different area (the subterranean realm known as the Underdark) with plenty of its own unique content that lasts for about a third of the game. By the time you get out and return to the main world map, you've really got little more than the final dungeon left to do, giving things a significantly better pacing.

That is, as said I, as long as we're only talking about Shadows of Amn. Throne of Bhaal is something of a mixed bag in this regard. On the one hand, there's the optional Watcher's Keep dungeon, which is fantastically designed and ends with a fight against the game's optional superboss, the self-proclaimed demon prince Demogorgon. This area is great, and the content is difficult enough that you're encouraged implicitly to leave it until after returning from the Underdark (if not until after beating Shadows of Amn and progressing into Throne of Bhaal), giving it the added bonus of providing more meat in the end parts of Shadows of Amn. On the other hand, unless you've got the Improved Demogorgon mod installed (which I'd imagine most people who play with Ascension mod would, since it's also created by writer/designer David Gaider), Demogorgon itself is pretty easy, possibly even easier than the final fight of Shadows of Amn, which can leave the whole experience feeling rather hollow. With the Improved Demogorgon mod, it actually becomes a pretty tough and fun fight, although you've still got the option of cheesing it if you've got the right characters along.

Sucking health out of a half-demon never gets old

On the other hand, there's the actual content of Throne of Bhaal itself, which is, in a word, pitiful, and I'm not just talking about how the new antagonists are a joke compared to Irenicus. There's one town that you spend 90% of your time in, interspersed with forays into single, isolated dungeons that somehow count as individual chapters in themselves, and then all of your efforts are rendered meaningless with a sudden final boss out of nowhere. Similar to the Demogorgon fight, too, it's way too easy at the level of what's in the core game, probably being easy enough to complete straight out of Shadows of Amn, let alone with all of the additional epic-level skills and overpowered equipment that you'll have by the end of Throne of Bhaal. With the Ascension mod, however, the content in Throne of Bhaal honestly becomes kind of insane. The chapter bosses all get buffed to a huge degree, both in terms of their individual stats/abilities and in terms of their minions being tougher and more numerous, and the final fight becomes an absolutely ridiculous clusterfuck of fighting an improved version of the final boss together with anywhere from four to six additional bosses. It's probably not balanced to be done on maximum difficulty, frankly (which isn't surprising since the maximum difficulty setting itself is poorly balanced in some ways, like how it leaves you at a net health deficient from using berserk/barbarian rage-type abilities), though I can attest to it being possible.

On the topic of the story, if we put aside Irenicus, the main thing that people seem to focus on are the interactions with your party members, specifically the romance sidequests. I can't understand why the latter gets so much attention, because they're all pretty awful. The only one that's written in a remotely enjoyable fashion is Aerie (Jaheira and Viconia are both various shades of total bitches, and I don't think it's possible for a person to actually like Anomen), and that's with a pretty generous interpretation of "remotely enjoyable", since the bulk of it seems to consist of listening to her complain about not having wings anymore. Don't get me wrong; that's a perfectly reasonable thing to complain about, since it'd be like a person in the real world having had their arms ripped off so that they could be a circus freak. As a concept for building bonds between characters in general, it's a fine talking point. As a catalyst for a romantic relationship, though, I just don't see how the leap from "I'm sorry about your handicap" to "let's have crazy elf sex under the moonlight" happens. The funniest part about this is that there's a series of interactions between Aerie and Haer'Dalis if you have both in your party in which they begin to have a romantic relationship, too, and it's written so much better than what can happen between Aerie and the protagonist. On top of that, the other character interactions tend to be pretty well-written, too (I'm partial to the Minsc/Mazzy and Cernd/Anomen stuff, personally, and I don't care at all for Jan, though I know a lot of people think he's hilarious), so again, Bioware clearly had writers capable of producing good NPC dialogue. Whether that means they were all just horrible at romantic writing or the romance sidequests themselves are far too compressed to possibly be enjoyable is a matter of debate, though again, considering what was done for Aerie/Haer'Dalis, I think the problem is with the structure of the romance sidequests themselves, which is why I find it so puzzling that Bioware has since acted like they were such a huge and integral part of why Baldur's Gate 2 was a great game.

Haer'Dalis has entered the Buff Icon Zone

Aside from all that, as I've said, Baldur's Gate 2 just generally improves on a lot of details that were on the rough side in the first game. The UI as a whole is just nicer to look at (though I did play with the One Pixel Productions graphics mod to make it even easier on the eyes), the fact that the game will stay paused while you're looking at your inventory is a much appreciated improvement (probably the second biggest reason why Baldur's Gate 2 is a better game), the enemies are more varied and more interesting in general, there's more variety of spells and abilities to play with, and so forth. It's just a much better polished game, which is to be expected when it's the third Infinity Engine game instead of the first one, but it's nonetheless an undeniable fact. Granted, things can get a bit messy in the Underdark and beyond just from the sheer number of special abilities you can have from equipment alone, let alone your characters' innate options, but I'd say that's a better "problem" than having characters who can't do anything other than move about or do basic physical attacks.

Baldur's Gate 2 has a reputation for being one of the greatest RPGs ever, and while I'd say that's a bit of a lofty title, it's not far off from the truth. I'd definitely recommend it to anyone, if only just to play through Shadows of Amn for the Jon Irenicus experience, though similar to the situation with Baldur's Gate, it might be a bit difficult to get the original version anymore since only sells the enhanced edition now (which I haven't played and thus can't comment on). I'd imagine that's less of an issue here than with the first game since at least Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is still running on its original engine, but regardless, as before, take this review with a little grain of salt on account of that.

Rating: A

Playing Time: Estimated at about 250-300 hours, not including character generation, since the timer only measures in-game "days"

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