Baldur's Gate. For a certain generation of gamers it is a name that evokes such nostalgia a whole host of memories come flooding back with just those mere words. Baldur's Gate... Not just its storytelling approach to RPG gaming, or its complex strategy fighting system, a creative use of the Forgotten Realms setting, or even its inventive use of the Dungeons and Dragons dice based rules. It is something far more magical. For certain gamers it was the entryway to fantasy lore, for others it proved that the Dungeons and Dragons universe could bridge the rocky transition to video games with ease. Some simply call it the best series of games in history.
If you’re still wondering exactly what Baldur's Gate is then here is a quick summary. Released in 1998 Baldur's Gate took the rules of Dungeons and Dragons and locations from the Forgotten Realms universe and forged a monstrous party based RPG that fused elements of strategy and storytelling unlike any game previously. The first game to use the Infinity Engine (which would go on to be used in classics such as Icewind Dale and Planescape Torment) with pausable real time gameplay, it was met with exceptional critical acclaim and would comfortably sit in the top ten PC games of most players for the next decade.
Arriving in the waning of 2012, Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition was originally an attempt by Beamdog (comprising of one of the former members of Black Isle) to release a high definition version of the game that would run easily on modern systems and even iOS. Sadly due to some incomprehensible quirk of fate the high resolution backgrounds and models from the original game were lost in the depths of the servers at Bioware (who had worked in conjunction with Black Isle on the series). This inevitably put the project on hold until it was decided instead to simply release a more stable version of the original including The Tales of the Sword Coast expansion with new bonus additional content as well.
Perhaps it was an odd decision, with the original still capable of running on modern machines and picked up for a bargain price both physically as well as digitally, yet it does provide the opportunity for those unacquainted with the series to discover what the fuss was all about, without the fuss of trying to get it to run in the first place. In theory anyway. Sadly the immediate impression of getting Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition running brought back all the wrong nostalgia as we battled with misbehaving installers, roaming angry forums and editing hidden .ini files. Admittedly it did eventually run and the Beamdog team are constantly updating the game so hopefully these issues will clear up in the near future. Perhaps the biggest worry is the fact the game simply will not run on Intel integrated graphic chipsets, a very standard low-spec laptop setup, so players are warned to check before purchase.
Diving into the campaign the changes are not immediately obvious. To the uninitiated it looks the same, feels the same and plays the same. The changes are subtle, but in many ways welcome. Beyond the entirely new separate adventure (discussed later) the most obvious additions are the three new characters who are all met surprisingly early on. Each character has a substantial mission to follow up with a new area to explore and adds a few extra lines to that already bulging quest book.
Each line of dialogue for these characters is spoken, which while pleasant ends up becoming jarring due to poor voice acting and out of place since very few other conversations from the original have more than a few words vocalised. Perhaps not the most problematic addition, but it seems a strange and unnecessary decision to break from the game’s standard format.
Far more worrying is the toppling of the fine balancing act that the original successfully achieved. The extra characters open up far more party options very early on which while interesting effectively makes this section of the game far simpler. One very strange example of this is perhaps even gamebreaking: those of a nefarious or deceitful nature can enlist the trusting monk Rasaad yn Bashir, take his magical shoes, sell them for an inconceivable value of 12500 gold, and then be set for money for a portion of the early game. Obviously no-one would be so completely chaotic-evil aligned to take advantage of this however. No-one.
All that being said the new characters do bring a breath of fresh air to those stale old locations where (for the crusty old adventurer at least) every avenue, quest and quirk has been explored a dozen times before. Similarly the new areas each character brings adds a location to the map which may rekindle that dampened explorative heart of the tired traveller.
Other enhancements such as the upgraded lighting and spell effects drafted in from the Baldur's Gate 2 engine are an understated improvement, but perhaps the most notable change has been made to the inventory system. Again, we are talking very minor tamperings, but the addition of relevant statistics displayed in the inventory screen ensures that changes made to your equipment have the statistical effects (such as altering armour class, or the mystical THACO) desired. Sure, it is far cry from the data display overload of modern offerings such as Diablo III or the Dragon Age series but it at least gives you a simpler and more efficient insight into the crazy statistical workings of the D&D rule set. However, Beamdog are clearly very keen to avoid stepping on too many old adventurer’s Boots of Avoidance so these minor changes still thankfully maintain the exceptionally retro feel of the game.
Then there is that entirely new adventure. Placed with equal reverence to that of the original campaign on the opening menu screen, The Black Pits sees you sentenced to a life of imprisonment in the pits, literally battling for your life. Taking a fully formed group of six adventurers (or importing from the main campaign), you find yourself stripped of your possessions by a mad yet powerful drow named Baeloth, then forced to contest in round after round of gruelling fights against a wildly varying array of opponents seemingly just for his own entertainment.
Effectively The Black Pits acts as a very extensive guide to the battle system of Baldur's Gate, neatly entrenched in a rather crude gladiatorial storyline. Each round introduces a new element to consider such as a fire elementals specific flaming damage, or a golem’s immunity to normal weapons, or even navigating traps in the heat of battle. Between rounds you are showered with experience and gold and then have the opportunity to level your characters and purchase virtually any item from the game in the under arena shopping area. Perhaps the most enticing part of this new content is simply the ability to test your party against various foes (since you can choose to re-attempt any previously defeated round), experimenting with different equipment and tactics to find the perfect match.
With only two main areas, repeatedly reused, the bonus content could be considered somewhat lacking, yet because it contrasts so completely with the extensive exploring and text heavy plodding of the main campaign it feels surprisingly refreshing. Diving in and out of epic battles and having to adjust to very specific dilemmas each time adds a unique puzzle element, in a way that rarely raises its head in the original campaign.
The question ‘should I buy Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition?’ thus depends on several factors. If the Baldur's Gate world is completely new to you, then you owe it to yourself to give this game a try. Not only is it one of the fathers of the modern RPG but also still perhaps the most engrossing and compelling gaming experience available. Whether or not the extra expense of the Enhanced Edition over the cheaper original (it is half the price on GOG) is worthwhile is far more debatable. The improvements made are slim, and the additional content is neither huge or particularly interesting, meanwhile the extra adventure is entertaining but ultimately short lived and forgettable. Worse, there is a chance it may not even run on your machine in the first place. However, they are improvements and despite how inconsequential they seem they do make the game better.
For those familiar with the original these slight changes will only be enough to prompt a purchase if you really must have all the content to complete your collection. The promise of cross-platform and matchmaking multiplayer (though sadly not yet integrated) could also make it more enticing for some. In the end best advice we can offer either way is that if you have not played Baldur's Gate in the last decade then you should do so. Age may have formed a few cracks in its legendary skin, and perhaps the over reliance on randomness from the Dungeons and Dragons’ ruleset seems rather archaic, but within this slumbering ancient beast lies a mighty heart waiting to be awakened once more.