1998 was a formative year for the RPG, and for at least two members of the PCGamesN team. That was the year BioWare sent us out onto the Sword Coast with nothing but a handful of gold coins and an encouraging shove. We were free to travel where we liked, able to talk to whoever we wanted, and were more unprepared than we could possibly know.
Today sees the PC release of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. We sent Paul and Jeremy back to the Sword Coast to find out what’s changed.
Tim: Why is Baldur’s Gate so important to you?
Jeremy: In 1998, Baldur’s Gate was new and so was I, relatively. At eight years old I’d never played Pool of Radiance or Ultima VII, but was a one-man street team for the BBC’s radio dramatisation of The Hobbit and had access to my uncle’s shelf of PC games.
A year later, I ran the short route from the study to the living room in tears to report to my parents that I was very upset. I’d accidentally deleted my Cloakwood Mines save file rather than overwriting it as I’d intended. It was the first RPG I’d ever played, and ruined me for life.
Paul: Holy shit, I can’t believe that you were eight when you played this game. I can’t believe that anyone was eight when they were playing something as complex and involving as this.
Baldur’s Gate took me completely by surprise, because I never thought RPGs could be so big, so gorgeous and completely crammed with things. I bought it because I wanted to have some throwaway fun adventuring and killing monsters. I didn’t expect to find fantastic writing, beautiful scenery and wonderful music, all wrapped around so much adventure. This is a game that is full of secrets and side-quests and in-game literature which serves no purpose except to embellish the game world that you live in.
Tim: What was it that you loved about it?
Paul: In part, it was that size, that sense of scale, but it’s also the wit and the savvy that the game is so liberally seasoned with. Both Baldur’s Gate games have some of the funniest, dryest or most ridiculous lines of dialogue ever found in any RPG.
But there’s more to it than that. There’s also such a sense of freedom in Baldur’s Gate, something the sequel lost a little of, because the first chapter of the game quite literally dumps you in the wilderness, in a world of beaten tracks and wild beasts. There’s nothing to stop you wandering straight into the forest except, perhaps, the knowledge that it’s full of wolves and bears, coupled with the growing realisation that this is a world where magic lurks around every corner. Exploration is dangerous, but it’s also rewarded with all kinds of strange surprises and unusual encounters. The first time you play Baldur’s Gate you genuinely have no idea what to expect from this enormous world it’s built for you.
Jeremy: I still don’t know what to expect - or at least, I catastrophically fail to remember. Since hopping back in a few days ago, my standout memory has become a standoff my limping party of five had with three ghouls in a sandy tomb in the very bottom-right corner of the world map. Like so many battles before, I thought it impossible. Eventually it ended in my favour with a crossbow bolt and an honest-to-god fist-pump.
I’m perfectly willing to overstate how special that is. In no BioWare game since the Baldur’s Gate series has anybody ever had a fight that millions of others haven’t - let alone one that merited a lonely freeze frame high-five.
Paul: Combat is pretty damn good. You’ve got so many spells and weapons at your disposal that you’re constantly coming up with new tactics or trying to find new ways to defeat the many strange beasties you encounter. How do you kill that thing that’s immune to fire, to missile weapons, to charm spells? What combination of magic and metal do you need to employ this time?
Jeremy: It’s a funny thing - we diehard RPG fans spend our days pining for more options, more choices, more consequences and ever-diverging paths, but one of Baldur’s Gate’s greatest strengths is combat scripting as tight as old Winthrop.
Many of the game’s best fights are with rival adventuring parties - formidable AI as greedy as you are, out for the bounty gold that comes with your head. Each of them were meticulously kitted-out with strange helmets, staffs and rings from far off lands with unknowable effects, and worse, spell sets designed specifically by BioWare to incapacitate you in seconds.
One of Baldur’s Gate’s great joys is preparing for a fight you’ve already lost at least once, knowing exactly in what order the enemy mage is going to cast the spell that mean your doom and working out how best to counter them. That joy is the reason that three nutters have shelled out $5000 each to design an enemy party for Project Eternity.
Tim: What’s actually changed about the game? How’s it Enhanced?
Jeremy: This is the thing that’s going to break deals for a lot of newcomers. There’s no new 3D engine here and no comprehensive voice acting. All in all BG:EE is pretty scant, tech-wise - there’s a nice but unnecessary zoom function, some animations timewarped from Baldur’s Gate 2, that sort of thing.
Paul: I actually think the mousewheel zoom is rather nice, but I’m sure it needs to invert it’s zoom in/zoom out function.
What’s most obvious to me is the game mechanics brought back from Baldur’s Gate 2, such as how the game handles weapon specialisations and inventory stacking. The inventory and character screens have also been given a good going over, as has the journal, and I think this is a victory for clarity. It’s now a little easier to see why you have the to-hit and Armour Class values that you do.
Oh, and there’s the new quests and companions, of course, but we all knew that. As far as I can tell, these seem to be very comfortably integrated into the rest of the game, though Baldur’s Gate is so damn big that there’s so much I still haven’t had time to see.
Jeremy: Yeah, Overhaul have done an excellent job of bringing some of 2nd Edition DnD’s more nebulous depths to the surface and given them a good wash behind the ears. And while I’m sure the ability to stack arrows in your inventory might seem minor, heed the voice of bitter experience: it is not.
I’ve only picked up one of the new companions so far. His name’s Rasaad, and I think he fancies me. Already he’s much chattier than the rest, initiating conversation with a frequency more reminiscent of the game’s sequel - that’s where BioWare really hit their stride with the bickering, impromptu family of mass-murderers. Once I pick up the new Blackguard and Wild Mage - new classes both - I’m hopeful the result will be a similar sort of semi-randomised road movie: one of us will wind up in an Amnish prison, and at least two will end up dead.
There’s also a separate combat-focused six-hour campaign I’ve not had a chance to play with yet - The Black Pits. That, I’m sure, is where the properly-supported co-op will be best experienced.
Tim: I imagine playing it on a high-powered PC feels a little bit weird.
Paul: It doesn’t to me. While we know that you don’t throw games forward in time simply by upscaling resolutions (I’ve been playing Stronghold HD and that’s certainly made that clear), the lush backgrounds still look gorgeous to me and I don’t think they date the game at all. I also think there’s something to be said about the sound design, which is where the game hasn’t aged at all. The game still sounds great and it’s details like the subtle creak of leather armour, the muttering of a servant or the rush of the wind in the trees that help bring the world to life.
I suppose it doesn’t have a full 3D engine, though. Nor does it have bloom or particle effects or PhysX, but I feel about as strange playing Baldur’s Gate: EE on my PC as I do playing Spelunky, FTL or Hotline Miami.
Jeremy: I agree we’ve had our expectations tempered by the indie boom, but those lovingly-rendered backgrounds still have Baldur’s Gate looking far better than it has any right to. Frankly I think it’s much prettier than Dragon Age, its closest contemporary counterpart.
Tim: I did wonder if it was going to be affected by the iOS version - are there any changes made?
Jeremy: Nope. Not a single concession that I’ve read about, and certainly none that I’ve uncovered myself. Developers Overhaul seem to have focused all of their energy on simulating the mouse for the iPad, so you can put paid to any fears about UI streamlining or whathaveyou. If we have entered a brave new world of touch-based game, Overhaul want no part in it.
Paul: I think, if anything, the interface has been improved slightly. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot more clarity to the inventory screens.
Tim: If you haven’t played Baldur’s Gate before, do you think it’s worth picking up?
Paul: Well, of course I’m going to say yes, but it’s not simply because I’m both biased and nostalgic. There’s an enormous indie scene and a great love for retro gaming among PC gamers because we’re obviously the sort of people who want more than just hi-res textures and colossal polygon counts.
That said, I feel a fool even mentioning Baldur’s Gate and retro gaming in the same feature, because the Baldur’s Gate games don’t feel old to me. I still think they’re unsurpassed in their wit and their world-building and I know many gamers feel that Bioware have failed to make anything as good since.
I should add a caveat or two, though. Baldur’s Gate uses the antiquated Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition rules set, which can be a strange thing to get your head around and if you don’t know what calculations are going on inside this game, it’s harder to get a grip on. Also, it doesn’t give a damn about fairness or scaling encounters. You know how I said you start off in the wilderness? Well, guess what happens if you wander into the forest? Yeah, you die, because it has those wolves and bears. This is a world of magic and sometimes there’s a demon around the corner, a demon you still won’t be able to beat if you’re five levels higher. Sometimes the dice are unlucky and you roll a 20 instead of a 1. Baldur’s Gate is hard.
Jeremy: It’s very hard, and Trent Oster tells us Overhaul have done absolutely nothing to change that, though the game does default to a slightly easier setting than it used to.
Here’s the thing: if you’re an old hand you’re going to want to get this for the retroactive Baldur’s Gate 2 additions, the stacked arrows, the new party members and areas. If you’ve fresh, new hands, unweathered by barrages of magic missiles, you’ll buy BG:EE because it’s the most comprehensive version on the market, optimised for modern PCs. It’s enhanced, is what it is.
Did you, at any point, feel like an eight year old again?
Jeremy: Any deep-set nostalgia has probably long since been extracted from me during numerous playthroughs since. There is that recurring in-game nightmare, though, in which I prepare the spells, ready the tanks, summon the monsters and initiate the dialogue with whichever ill-willed mage has got it in for me this time, only to find myself staring at the greyed-out portraits of six party members less than a minute later.
Then, I feel about eight years old. But I think everybody in the universe gets that.
Paul: In my case, I’d be eighteen, and... maybe? I keep having the same memory return, and that’s of an old friend sending his brand new wizard, equipped with a single level 1 Magic Missile, striding out into the forest and meeting a black bear. He hits the bear with the Magic Missile and nothing happens, because it’s a bit like throwing a rock at a battleship. Then he dies and gets angry.
Perhaps that memory keeps coming back because I keep pushing my limits, I keep thinking I can beat a monster that I know is tougher than me if I just try a different tactic this time. And in that case, no, I feel older and wiser, I feel like I’m returning to this game with an even greater appreciation of the challenges it presents. I might’ve lost a little of that wonder I once felt, but in its place is respect and affection.
Tim: Did you run into any technical problems, glitches, or anything else?
Paul: Sadly, yes, and while this didn’t take the sheen off my experience, it did dull it very slightly. I spent ages trying to get my first character to use a bastard sword, since I’d made it his chosen weapon, only to find that the in-game text claiming that I needed a Strength of only 10 was incorrect. I’ve also had occasional looping dialogue and a few crashes to desktop while changing screens. These aren’t common, but they pop up every three or four hours and I’m particularly surprised as I don’t remember any of these ever being a problem with the original game.
Jeremy: I had my cleric cast the Spiritual Hammer spell, which sees her equipped weapons exchanged for a big, silvery piece of holy metal for a set number of in-game hours. I asked her to use her sling once it’d worn off, however, and was met with a message telling me the hammer was still equipped. That necessitated a restart - as does wanting to use the hotkeys after minimising. Silly stuff that I trust will be fixed pretty sharpish.
Worse, I’ve consistently had major performance issues playing on my laptop, an Acer Aspire 5750. It’s hardly a gourmet gaming machine, but has fought Dishonored and won - it really ought to be able to handle 1998’s finest.