Wednesday, 23 September 2020

BALDUR'S GATE II - the LORD OF THE RINGS of western RPGs - turns 20

BioWare's classic computer roleplaying game, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, turned 20 years old this week. The sequel to the 1998 original, Baldur's Gate II was bigger, more epic and exhausting to make, but more exhilarating to play. It was the last 2D game BioWare made, switching to a 3D engine for their next games Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and never looking back. They have acknowledged that they will likely never be able to match the scale and scope of the game again.

BioWare shipped Baldur's Gate in late 1998. A 2D CRPG launching in the initial age of 3D games - being released within weeks of Half-Life, in fact - Baldur's Gate proved to be a huge hit. Using the Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset and the Forgotten Realms world, Baldur's Gate and its excellent Infinity Engine caught the public imagination. BioWare's publisher, Interplay, even borrowed the engine so their in-house CRPG studio, Black Isle, could make their own variants, Planescape: Torment (1999) and Icewind Dale (2000).

Baldur's Gate allowed the player to create any character they wished and then guide them through a lengthy adventure. Starting with the murder of the player's adopted father by a mysterious stranger, the player would explore a semi-open world brimming with adventures, side-quests, monsters and treasure. They'd join forces with a band of bickering companions, some of whom would hate and fight one another. The player would even be able to romance some of these companions. All the while a compelling central storyline would unfold, culminating in the reveal that the lead character is one of the "Bhaalspawn," descendants of the slain God of Murder, Bhaal, and poised to inherit his murderous power. The original game ended with the party defeated another of the Bhaalspawn, Sarevok, and defeating a conspiracy to destabilise the Sword Coast and the great city of Baldur's Gate. An expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast (1999), expanded the original game with a series of new quests and a "super dungeon" adding many hours of new content.

With Baldur's Gate a huge hit, the team at BioWare started work on a sequel. With the engine already mature and ready to go, the designers were able to focus almost exclusively on creating content. In less than eighteen months, they had created a game almost four times the scale and scope of the original Baldur's Gate. The new storyline would expand on the "Bhaalspawn" elements from the original, with a new villain called Jon Irenicus trying to capture the main character to gain access to his or her power. In a deviation from the original game, where Sarevok appeared fleetingly, Irenicus makes more frequent appearances in the game throughout its length and is ruthless and threatening, killing several major characters from the first game and kidnapping another. Actor David Warner (Time Bandits, Titanic, Star Trek) was praised for his memorable performance as Irenicus, often cited as one of the greatest video game antagonists of all time for his conviction and menace.

Although the new storyline was memorable and well-handled, praise was also lavished on the game's immense number of side-quests, some developing into significant sub-plots lasting hours in themselves. These appeared in the game's second act which, as is traditional with BioWare games, is wide open and allows players to travel around, meet people at random and achieve different goals. Although not an open world game as such (even arguably as much as the original), Baldur's Gate II was still huge in scope with more than 350 locations to visit, dozens of dungeons to explore and thousands of enemies to fight. The game also gave more power and choice to the player, including greater character customisation options and bringing in rules from the just-released 3rd Edition of the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game.

One of the game's most popular features was a home base. Depending on the main character's class, they would receive one of several potential strongholds. Over the course of the game the stronghold could be built up and improved on, and would provide a valuable location for players to retreat to between quests.

The game expanded the combat from the original game, offering a ton of elements to give players granular control over how they handled it. They could transform the game into a turn-based affair, pausing the game after every six-second action to issue new orders, or play completely in real time, able to pause with a tap of the spacebar to issue new orders. This freedom is, curiously, missing from in-development Baldur's Gate III, which has mandated turn-based combat only to the frustration of some long-term fans.

Baldur's Gate II was released in September 2000 and sold immensely well, garnering critical acclaim for its huge scope and length, as well as its refined game engine. The game such a success that Interplay wanted a sequel in development ASAP, but BioWare felt burned out on the Infinity Engine and had plans for an ambitious 3D engine that would allow gamers to replicate the tabletop D&D experience, including having one player serve as an online Dungeon Master in creating their own adventure. BioWare decided not to proceed with a full sequel but to "super-size" the planned expansion for the game into a proper ending to the saga. Released in September 2001, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal brought the Bhaalspawn story to a conclusion and was well-received, with its scope and size considered surprisingly huge for an expansion. BioWare would release their 3D, player-driven game, Neverwinter Nights, in June 2002 as their last (to date) D&D video game.

The size and scope of Baldur's Gate II could not be replicated in a 3D engine and BioWare decided not to even try, instead focusing on much shorter but much more "cinematic" game experiences, blending action and roleplaying. They also began developing games with a view to releasing console versions. Although the CRPGs developed during this period were highly successful and critically acclaimed for their stories and characters - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), Jade Empire (2005) and Mass Effect (2007) - they faced some criticism for being short and "dumbing down" RPG elements in favour of action. BioWare tried to reverse this course with Dragon Age: Origins (2009), a "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate II set in their own original world, but matching the older game's epic story and focus on strong characters. Even this game couldn't match Baldur's Gate II's scale (coming in at around a third the size), but it was critical and commercial success, generating two sequels: Dragon Age II (2011) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014).

Those wanting a genuine successor to Baldur's Gate II had to wait a long time to get it. Obsidian Entertainment's Neverwinter Nights II (2007) and its two expansions focused more on single-player adventuring than BioWare's original, and scratched an itch for D&D CRPG fun in the Forgotten Realms setting. Obsidian went on to develop several "spiritual successors" of their own in a modern take on the Infinity Engine, resulting in Pillars of Eternity (2015), Tyranny (2016) and Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018). Their forthcoming new game Avowed is set in the same world as Pillars of Eternity, but draws more on Skyrim for inspiration than Baldur's Gate. Pathfinder: Kingmaker (2018) likewise channelled the spirit and energy of Baldur's Gate II, and made a rare attempt to try and match its size and scope. Arguably it was Larian Studios who delivered the first significant improvement to the isometric formula with Divinity: Original Sin (2014) and Divinity: Original Sin II (2017), which added environmental physics puzzles to the mix.

Although it's very different in moment-to-moment gameplay, which is more action-based, CD Projekt Red's The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (2015) might be the closest game to Baldur's Gate II in terms of the sheer epic nature of the storyline, the memorable cast of characters and the compelling plot which twists and turns over dozens of hours, whilst also giving the freedom to pursue a vast array of side-quests.

In 2019 it was confirmed that Divinity studio Larian would be helming the proper, official Baldur's Gate III. Taking place about 130 years after events of Baldur's Gate II, the epic new game sees the player creating a character who gets caught up in a battle between mind-flayers, dragons and demons, extending from the Forgotten Realms into the layers of Hell itself. Although the story is new and largely separate from the original games, some characters and dangling plot threads are expected to be addressed in the new game.

Baldur's Gate II set new standards for fantasy roleplaying games in terms of scope, storytelling, characterisation and adventure. Despite many brave attempts, it's never been quite matched and its influence looms large over the entire Western canon of digital roleplaying games. Whether Larian can match that legacy with Baldur's Gate III remains to be seen, but they certainly have an uphill task on their hands.

Baldur's Gate III will enter Early Access in October 2020 and will be released fully in 2021. Baldur's Gate II is available to play now in its updated "Enhanced Edition."

1 comment:

Thadlerian said...

Wait, there's only FOUR years between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect?