In 1998 Baldur’s Gate revolutionised the western RPG. And although its influence lives on in Dragon Age, in The Witcher series, in the games of indie stalwart Spiderweb Software and in the potential of Project Eternity, the genre could perhaps do with learning the lessons of BioWare’s very first RPG again. On November 28th, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition plans to bring it all back - the intrepid exploration, the party interaction, the life-and-death cruelty of low-level 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons - in starker relief and higher resolutions than ever before. Maybe this time, the lessons will stick.
It’s being developed by a team of ex-BioWare veterans
Overhaul Games came together to work on another update of a ‘90s BioWare classic, MDK2 HD. The team is headed up by Trent Oster, who co-founded BioWare in the mid-’90s (thought that was something to do with two doctors? Think again). Oster worked on Baldur’s Gate, led development on Neverwinter Nights and its two expansions - including latter-day classic Hordes of the Underdark - and built the engine wot powers Dragon Age, before leaving BioWare in 2009 to form digital distribution site Beamdog.
He’s backed up at Overhaul by fellow BioWare alumnus Cameron Tofer and a small team numbering in the teens. Scribing of new plotting and dialogue is headed up by Forgotten Realms novelist Dave Gross - a former editor of D&D magazines and author of Black Wolf and Lord of Stormweather.
It comes with the original expansion, Tales of the Sword Coast, as well as hours of new content
New content comes in the form of The Black Pits, a standalone campaign of fifteen arena-based battles, featuring new art and “nasty AI”. Launched separately to the game proper, The Black Pits sees the player lured into the Underdark - the fan favourite D&D mega-dungeon that lurks beneath the city of Waterdeep - by Baeloth the Entertainer, an insane drow showman. Baeloth will pit your party against dark dwarves in a fifteen-level maze designed as spectator sport, while companion NPCs both new and old will pitch in with their own - presumably negative - reactions. It’ll last you at least six hours, though Oster told Shacknews: “I think the Black Pits will take a lot more than six hours, but that is where we've ballparked it”.
Enhanced Edition also introduces a new area to the main game - The Cloud Peaks. That’ll add another four hours of gameplay, and look something like this:-
Elsewhere there are new voice sets for character creation - three male, three female - and a “big batch” of new player portraits drawn up by original Black Isle concept artist Jason Manley.
There’ll be three new companions to recruit/date
Enhanced Edition looks set to deal with the original game’s deficiency in evil-aligned recruitable NPCs with Dorn Il Khan. Dorn a half-orc Blackguard, driven by revenge and powered by an unholy force which makes him as capable with spells as with his liquorice-black greatsword. Save too many kitties, say Overhaul, and he won’t be sticking around. “Last night's VO session for Dorn had the words Die, Blood or Blade in almost every line,” Oster tweeted about the Blackguard. “One page had Die in every line.”
Elsewhere is Neera, a half-elf wild mage to be found wandering the High Forest after a terrible accident which sees her pursued by the Red Wizards of Thay - unequivocal baddies of the Forgotten Realms. Her internal dichotomy of guilt and whimsical humour is to be provided strong counterpoint by the inner calm of Rasaad yn Bashir, a monk from Calimport with an unusual skillset and, inevitably, his own problems.
All three will have voice acted new dialogue and, in time-honoured BioWare tradition, will be woo-able. One will be open to non-straight relationships, though Overhaul aren’t telling who.
The keen-memoried will have noticed that Dorn’s class, the Blackguard, is a new addition to the game, never before seen in the Infinity Engine. And his isn’t the only new class, because...
Features from Baldur’s Gate 2 have been retroactively added
It’s not actually Baldur’s Gate’s engine that Enhanced Edition is using, but its sequel’s - meaning a host of improvements have been time-warped back to 1998. In character creation, that means playable classes like the wild mage, monk, and samurai-ish kensai. In-game, the upgrades will be felt in an improved feature set - thieves, for instance, can now place trap kits as well as disarm them.
The Infinity Engine has become more infinite
Working with the Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal engine as starting point, Overhaul have cleaned up, greased, and painted go-faster stripes onto the original source code. Most excitingly, the camera is no longer fixed, allowing you to zoom in and out of the battlefield during play using the mouse wheel.
The UI has been - appropriately enough - overhauled
“The original BG UI was made of hate, spite and gnashing teeth,” tweeted Trent Oster at the beginning of August. “It fights so hard against rework every day my mind is boggled.”
The fight goes on, and will continue in free updates long after Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition ships. But already dramatic improvements have been made to the stubborn old interface - namely native support for resolutions in 4:3, 16:9 and 16:10 up to 2880x1800. It’s now also possible to exit the game via fewer than four quit screens (fans will remember that even a desperate Alt+F4 was met with a guilt-tripping message from companion Minsc: “Boo will miss you...”).
The Journal will be useable
The original Baldur’s Gate far predated BioWare’s expertly categorised Codexes and quest logs in Mass Effect and Dragon Age, instead plumping for unsorted, first-person chunks of narrative which soon became unusable. Overhaul have sorted through the mess and grouped entries, separating out important quests and adding new map markers.
The improved journal won't be perfect,” says Oster, “But it dials the suck back a lot.”
If there’s one thing that won’t be Enhanced, it’s the background art
While character models are already improved by the shift to the Throne of Bhaal engine, the game’s famously ‘hand-painted’ environments - actually hand-rendered, and much better looking in the sequel - will remain much the same. Source files were stored on a separate drive during original development and, according to Oster, the only art assets left from the Baldur’s Gate series are a handful of 3D files for some of Throne of Bhaal’s monsters.
On a less wistful note, all of the original’s cinematics have been replaced with animated cinematics, directed by Overhaul’s Nat Jones.
Multiplayer will work “consistently and reliably”, without third-party tools
Though it would take BioWare another decade to start work on their first MMO, Baldur’s Gate included full - if slightly wonky - co-op support, with additional players taking the place of party members. Each successive Microsoft OS has seen it become progressively wonkier, necessitating the use of fake LANs and all sorts of software doohickies - something Enhanced Edition is set to fix.
Online multiplayer now also features matchmaking and cross-play between all of the game’s platforms - namely PC, iPad, Mac, and Android tablets.
The Mass Effect composer is working on the soundtrack
New arena-campaign The Black Pits will be soundtracked by Sam Hulick, whose warm electro Vangelis-isms accompanied the entire Mass Effect trilogy. Hear a sample of his efforts below:-
To our ears, The Black Pits’ music dovetails Michael Hoenig’s original soundtrack beautifully, aping its unmistakable mournful woodwind modulation and clanging low fantasy feel.
It’s a huge game, but still weighs next to nothing
In 1998, Baldur’s Gate was sold on five CDs, with some fumbling required during area transitions. The Enhanced Edition comes in at a technically heavier 3GB - due to the new content and better quality music - but it’s still someway shy of Assassin’s Creed 3’s 17GB, and comes on no CDs at all. “BG had a lot of redundant data on each CD,” says Oster. “I'd peg BG: EE on PC at seven or eight CDs.”
It’s a Beamdog exclusive, but DRM-lite
So Steam’s the centre of your universe, and Origin can be tolerated for Battlefield or SWTOR. But another new service for the sake of one game typically elicits growls from gamers, and Overhaul know it - that’s why Baldur’s Gate will have a dedicated launcher application required only to install and check for updates. If you want to play on a new computer, you’ll simply need to grab the client from Beamdog’s site, type in your password and download the game.
“If we ever go out of business we will patch the game and remove all DRM,” promises Oster. “From there you could copy it wherever you want.”
A long future of DLC and supported modding awaits
Overhaul will continue to update Baldur’s Gate with tweaks and fixes after release, and plan to support the game with both free and paid-for DLC, though mostly the former. In addition, the team has collaborated with Ascension64 - creator of mods Throne of Bhaal Extender and Baldur’s Gate Trilogy - to improve the game’s engine. Consequently Enhanced Edition will be at least as easy to mod as the original game, which still has a small but devoted community over at Gibberlings 3.
Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is coming
Overhaul plan to have it polished off, alongside the Throne of Bhaal expansion pack, before the end of 2013.
You can pre-order Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition here.