“It’s Baldur’s Gate.” Any review that begins with those three words is starting from a position of serious strength. Originally released in 1998, Baldur’s Gate brilliantly captured the Dungeons & Dragons experience in a single-player videogame and today remains one of the most important and influential RPGs ever developed. The developers of the Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition wisely chose not to tamper with a classic too much. It’s Baldur’s Gate.
That’s not to say they didn’t mess with the formula at all. Launching the Enhanced Edition reveals options for a new tutorial segment, which duplicates the material covered by the tutor monks of Candlekeep in a harder-to-miss but much less organic fashion, and the Black Pits, a combat arena run by the powerful Drow known as Baeloth the Entertainer that pits six NPCs under your control, either pre-made (but not Baldur’s Gate characters) or custom generated, against a succession of increasingly difficult groups of enemies. It’s well-produced and matches the original Baldur’s Gate aesthetic to perfection, but ultimately it’s just one open-area battle after another, and wears thin pretty quickly as a result.
The enhanced Baldur’s Gate, meanwhile, begins with an overhauled intro cinematic that does away with the animations of the original in favor of a series of illustrations and mysteriously skips, as veterans of the game will immediately notice, a single yet very important line of dialog. Many other changes will be less obvious if it’s been a decade or so since you last wandered across the Sword Coast, but the Enhanced Edition has received a number of visual upgrades including support for high resolutions that provide a far more panoramic view of the game’s lovely, lush backgrounds, and a mousewheel-controlled zoom function for quickly shifting to a more down-and-dirty view of the battlefield. The graphics get muddy at any kind of significant zoom and it doesn’t serve much of a practical purpose, but simply being able to do it is a stark reminder that this isn’t your daddy’s Baldur’s Gate.
The inventory and character screens have also been redone to be more readable and provide more information about hit points, skills, bonuses and penalties, and the journal, which was previously a nigh-unusuable info dump, is now organized into a proper quest log and diary, complete with options for player-made entries. A handful of stylistically distinct new character portraits by Icewind Dale artist Jason Manley have been added to the mix, and new character classes and class kits are also on tap, as seen in the game’s three new characters: the Calimshite monk Rasaad yn Bashir, the half-elf wild mage Neera and Dorn Il-Khan, a half-orc Blackguard.
Gameplay, on the other hand, has been left virtually untouched, which means that the modified AD&D ruleset around which BioWare built the game, a system that’s been as dead as Amaunator for the past decade, is fully intact. You will learn what THAC0 means; you will push your armor class lower, not higher; you will come to understand why wizards sleep so much; you will wonder why a ring takes up as much space in your inventory as a two-handed battleaxe; and you will die, quickly and often. This is not an easy game. There are five distinct difficulty levels and even at the “normal” setting, the challenge, particularly for newcomers, is considerable.
The payoff is one of the most wonderfully “alive” RPG settings ever created. Baldur’s Gate may pale next to its sequel, Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, but it’s still an expansive world, gorgeously hand-painted and packed with dungeons, ruins, thriving settlements and engaging, well-realized NPCs who are more than just a cookie-cutter cast. They’ll argue with you and amongst themselves, and if they don’t like the decisions you make they’ll drop you like a bad habit. The three NPCs added to the Enhanced Edition milieu, fully voiced and complete with their own mini-adventures, blend in perfectly, and if you didn’t know they weren’t part of the original game, you’d never be able to tell.
It’s a testament to the effort Beamdog put into upgrading the game without altering the core experience, but it’s also symptomatic of its biggest problem. Baldur’s Gate is a relic of a different era, when mages entered combat with three spells, a housecoat and a sharp stick, and a one-shot death at the hands of some jerk waiting for you behind a door was just how things went. The ugly truth is that the AD&D ruleset is complex, cumbersome and unbalanced, and while it may have been the gold standard of the day, that day was in the 1990s. Gamers expecting anything even remotely as refined and accessible as Dragon Age, or even Neverwinter Nights, are in for a rough surprise.
It’s technically solid, although there are a few technical issues. The new journal will occasionally snap back to the top while being dragged and the inability to use the scroll wheel to control more than one column on multi-column screens, such as when dealing with merchants, is annoying. And while the new content fits in flawlessly with the old, it feels unnecessary. The Black Pits arena is handy for honing your combat chops but little else, and with something in the neighborhood of 25 NPCs in the original release, the addition of three more, regardless of how well they’re done, isn’t especially meaningful.
There’s no question that Beamdog nailed it: The Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition is the definitive version of a great RPG classic. Yet as great as it is, it’s not quite timeless, and while die-hard fans of the franchise should embrace it wholeheartedly, gamers accustomed to more contemporary RPGs would be wise to approach with caution. It’s gorgeous, deep, eminently playable and gloriously faithful to old-school D&D; it’s also obtuse, demanding, unforgiving and at times frustrating as hell. Which is at it should be, really – after all, it’s Baldur’s Gate.
Bottom Line: The Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition is a loving tune-up of BioWare’s groundbreaking RPG, with visual enhancements, bug fixes and new content, but the game itself is the same as it ever was, wonderful and punishing in equal measures. It’s a great second chance for RPG lovers who missed out on the original, but gamers after a more casual or relaxed diversion may find it more frustrating than fun.
Recommendation: No serious RPG fan should miss Baldur’s Gate, and if you’re going to play it, this is definitely the version to play.[rating=4]
Game: Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
Developer: Overhaul Games
Platform(s): PC, Mac OS, iOS