Monday, 9 December 2013

BALDUR'S GATE 15 years on

30 November marked a special anniversay in PC gaming: the 15th anniversary of the release of Baldur's Gate. Released in late 1998, just a few weeks after the all-crushing Half-Life, Baldur's Gate had every bit as major an impact on gaming. It was the first RPG released by BioWare, still one of the biggest names in the business, and arguably saved the Western RPG genre from descending into obscurity.

Interestingly, the original box art de-emphasised the Dungeons and Dragons ties to a tiny logo at the bottom of the box.

BioWare was founded in Edmonton, Canada in February 1995 by three medical doctors. Ray Muzyka, Augustine Yip and Greg Zeschuk were newly-graduated, but more interested in games than medicine. Pooling their resources, they set up the company and quickly began work on their first game, a MechWarrior-alike called Shattered Steel. Unlike the rough road to success faced by many publishers, BioWare had some early luck in being courted by no less than seven different publishers. They eventually - and fatefully - elected to go with Interplay.

Shattered Steel was a modest success and BioWare began discussions with Interplay over their next project. They show off some tech ideas and demos they had been working on and one immediately grabbed the attention of the guys at Interplay for melding real-time combat with large, explorable areas. This was a good fit with the RPG genre which had made Interplay famous (they had made their name with Wasteland and the Bard's Tale series) but which had become less dominant in recent years. Interplay had scored a notable success with Fallout (released in 1996) but the age of massive RPG sales seemed to be a thing of the past. BioWare's nascent engine was attracted for combining the linchpins of RPG design - exploration and character generation - with real-time combat and drag-select capabilities more reminiscent of games like Command and Conquer and WarCraft, which were huge successes at the time. The final piece of the puzzle was that Interplay had secured the video game rights to Dungeons and Dragons from SSI and had been looking for a good fit for the franchise. So it was announced that BioWare's second game would be an RPG called Baldur's Gate. It would use the D&D game rules, be set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy universe and feature real-time combat.

To say there was scepticism over this news would be an understatement. There hadn't been a genuinely classic D&D RPG since Eye of the Beholder II, released in 1992, and the most recent high-profile releases (Blood and Magic and Descent to Undermountain) had been unmitigated disasters. The RPG fanbase was also lukewarm on the idea of the game being in real-time, as Fallout had show what could still be done with turn-based combat. BioWare's lack of experience was also a concern.

Most players will remember their first - usually exceedingly brief - encounter with Ankhegs.

However, this scepticism soon turned to cautious excitement. Early screenshots showed a (relatively, for the time) lush, vibrant art style. Interplay soon began showing signs of palpable excitement over the game as builds came in. In fact, the 'Infinity Engine' so impressed them that they had their own internal RPG development division, Black Isle Studios, use it for their own projects. Doubts over the combat were assuaged when it was revealed that the game could be paused at any time, but orders could still be issued. This approach mixed the very best of turn-based combat (being able to consider the battlefield and all available combat options at leisure) and the immediacy of real-time fighting. It was such a successful idea that it was implemented in every single RPG BioWare would go on to release (aside from the multiplayer-only The Old Republic).

Baldur's Gate was released in November 1998, barely one month after the release of Half-Life and six after StarCraft, two other games that completely redefined their genres. Those opening the box were greeted with an unprecedented sight: the game shipped on five CD-ROMs. A full install would take up about 1.5GB of hard disk space, a jaw-dropping amount at a time when most games still took up a few hundred at most (Half-Life clocked in at 400MB and was considered large; StarCraft scraped barely 180MB). The game wasn't in 3D, but its 2D artwork, complex animations and AI routines all put a heavy load on processors and RAM, with only the most powerful PCs capable of running the game at its maximum potential. But still, it was a huge achievement.

The game allowed the player to customise the protagonist character but all of the other party members were NPCs encountered wandering the gameworld, complete with their own motivations, backstories and goals (you could have a player-created party by 'cheating' using the multiplayer system, but this took away one of the key selling-points of the game). The game threw curveballs at the player to emphasise this point: two of the earliest NPCs you meet and can recruit into the party are evil, and will bicker with the 'good'-aligned members until someone loses their temper and violence erupts. Elements like this required the player to understand and manage their party-members and their interrelationships, something almost unprecedented up to that time. Another character the player can recruit, fan-favourite Minsc, is a mighty warrior but is on a rescue mission: should the player delay Minsc from completing his mission for too long, Minsc will leave the party and possibly attack the other characters in a violent frenzy. With a large number of recruitable characters available, this made the total number of party mixes very large and, combined with the ability to modify the main character however the player wanted, made with a high degree of replayability.

Montaron and Xzar are arseholes, seriously drop them like hot potatoes ASAP.

It also helped that the story was moderately involving, with the player drawn into a labyrinthine plot involving contaminated weapons and armour, political machinations in the city-state of Baldur's Gate and bandits and monsters engaging in raids and attacks up and down the Sword Coast. Atmospheric cut scenes would discuss the main character's role in all of this, and involve some major story developments in the Forgotten Realms world itself (adding an extra element of interest for players already familiar with that setting from the novels and earlier video games). The gameplay was superb, with the combat being fast-paced and challenging, although some complained a little too challenging at times. It was possible to meet creatures early in the game which could kill you with ease, and the game could be almost insurmountable unless you knew the maxim, "Give everyone ranged weapons!" Once you knew the game's systems, however, great enjoyment could be taken from beating its challenges.

Baldur's Gate would be a huge success, selling 1.5 million copies in its first year on sale. Chicken feed today for a triple-A roleplaying game (BioWare's Mass Effect 3 would sell 3 million copies in its first month on sale in 2012), but hugely impressive at the time. BioWare would quickly deliver a well-received expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, before starting work on the inevitable Baldur's Gate II. Black Isle Studios would help bridge the gap, releasing Planescape: Torment (arguably still the greatest Western RPG of all time) in December 1999 and Icewind Dale (set in the same world as Baldur's Gate but a thousand miles away and seventy years earlier) in June 2000 before helping BioWare complete and ship Baldur's Gate II in October 2000. Dwarfing its predecessor in scale, scope and ambition (though fortunately, thanks to much better compression, not number of discs), Baldur's Gate II remains the largest and longest RPG made by BioWare to date, and still the gold standard against which all of their other games are measured.

Baldur's Gate's influence has been huge. Everything BioWare has done since, from Knights of the Old Republic to their currently massive Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, stems from that first, 2D, modestly-budged game. Though their games have gotten flashier and moved into full 3D, the DNA of Baldur's Gate can be still be seen with their latest games still having pausable combat and a structure (a linear opening and concluding section with a large, open section in the middle) very similar to that of the original. In-jokes about the original abound (Commander Shepard getting his own miniature space hamster in Mass Effect 2, for example). Even the original game has found a curious new audience via Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, released by Beamdog in 2012 for PC, Mac and tablets such as the Apple iPad. Large numbers of hardcore fans of the game have spent thousands of man-hours modifying the original game, allowing it to run on modern PCs in higher graphics resolutions, with new quests and weapons added. Essential mods also allow the game to be run in the Baldur's Gate II version of the Infinity Engine, with better graphics and customisation available.

Baldur's Gate is one of the most important RPGs ever released, despite being overshadowed by its sequel and its label-mate Planescape: Torment, and still a hugely playable game even today.


TerokNor said...

The game was actually released in late December, only a few days before Christmas. Half-Life was a bit over a month earlier and Starcraft almost nine. Unfortunately, you'll rarely find accurate reporting of historic game release dates on many sites (and Wikipedia then cites those bad sources, making the problem worse). Here is a contemporary source:

Paul Weimer said...

Ankhegs are nasty critters!

And Minsc remains one of my favorite game characters of all time. Go for the eyes, Boo!

Sebastian said...

Bravo! Any plans to review BGII: Enhanced Edition?

Funksoul123 said...

One of the best things I recall about Baldur's gate was uncovering the new locations that you could visit from your map, the sense of exploration and varied interesting encounters made you want to search every nook and cranny of the game world. I believe RPG's should be about exploration and discovery first and foremost.

Raquel said...

Hmm, I bought it but never played it. I missed out!

hungrytales said...

The little known fact is that BG was also a trampoline to success for a small Polish company named CD Projekt. Back then they started as publishers of foreign games (as there were hardly any Polish ones to release) and you have to remember that in those times due to the rampaging piracy an idea to try a full-fledged localisation was as alien as the idea to try and establish a Polish colony on Mars. But they did it, famous actors reading dwarven lines and all.

It was a staggering, market-changing, reality-bending success, and that's how it all started.

Adam Whitehead said...

I'm pretty sure it came out earlier than that. I certainly got the game on release day well before Christmas (I wouldn't have been able to play it for weeks otherwise) that year. Unless it was released in Europe early for some reason?

TerokNor said...

You must be misremembering: the game only went gold on the 18th of December ( When it was released in Europe is anyone's guess, but it can't have been much earlier than the US.

And while we're at it: Fallout was of course released in 97, not 96.

Yeah, I like researching this stuff. and Google Groups are great resources for it (or used to be in the case of GG, the new navigation and search are hell). Always better to rely on primary sources than unsourced dates from some website or faulty memories (including my own).

Silence said...

"Large numbers of hardcore fans of the game have spent thousands of man-hours modifying the original game, allowing it to run on modern PCs in higher graphics resolutions"

Don't forget the attempts to recreate Baldur's Gate in 3D engines : most notably, Baldur's Gate Reloaded (