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Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC) artwork

Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC) review

"”The Lord of Murder shall perish, but in his death he shall spawn a score of mortal progeny. Chaos will be sewn in their footsteps.” - So sayeth the wise Alaundo "

”The Lord of Murder shall perish, but in his death he shall spawn a score of mortal progeny. Chaos will be sewn in their footsteps.” - So sayeth the wise Alaundo

Exiled, guilty of fratricide, and bearing a lineage that would make even John Milton's characterization of Sin grimace in disgust, your heroic deeds have managed to make your parentage known to the world and have garnered only distrust from your fellow man. You are driven away from fearful people, and as you wander the wilds your grip with reality relinquishes. Nightmares and shadows, no doubt originating in that deeply repressed secret that has now come into your consciousness, haunt your every step until you can no longer separate fantasy and reality. Terrible images flash across your mind, a deep voiced (and excellent!) voice actor narrates your tortured life up to this juncture, and when you come to your sense you find yourself imprisoned by the wizard Irenicus, a man hellbent on exploiting your cursed blood for his own repulsive desires.

You escape to find several of your companions have survived these horrible trials – and several have not. Irenicus's dungeon is a twisted reflection of the man's shattered sense of identity. Disembodied heads and enslaved dwarves are juxtaposed with unnatural trees, captive wood nymphs, and a luxurious bedchamber that is littered with traps and treasures as though Irenicus himself would dare not enter it. This is a fitting place for you, one of the most reviled beings to exist in the Forgotten Realms, to reawaken.

Your next step should be pretty self-explanatory: progress through a lengthy campaign, meeting all manner of interesting people and probing the deep recessive of your unconscious. What isn't immediately apparent however is that said lengthy campaign will be more compelling and written better than most books on the New York Times' best seller list. There's Minsc, a large warrior who went a little nuts after the witch under his protection was killed, and is convinced that his pet hamster Boo is an intelligent, miniature giant space hamster; Nalia, the daughter of an aristocratic family who sneaks out at night to force help upon the needy to feed her own self-righteousness; Jan (pronounced “Yawn”), a gnome who won't shut the hell up up about turnips; Viconia, a victim of Drow politics who has been exiled to the surface; and about a dozen more. It's one of the most memorable casts ever assembled for a game (or anything else for that matter).

Of course the most intriguing character is the protagonist, whose dual-nature is the primary subject your ordeals. The player can chose to import a character from the first Baldur's Gate or create a new one, though neither option will change the story. The causality between the player character's lineage and their personality, their place in the world, how they will come to terms with their past – these may seem like tired themes, but Baldur's Gate II's execution is of such high quality that the end result is immensely satisfying. The villain, Irenicus, manages to remain evil while still retaining plausible psychology – a feat that few games can boast to have accomplished – and your allies will get under your skin and remain their long after you've finished the campaign and have run out to purchase Throne of Bhaal.

What Baldur's Gate II can't do visually, it does with words – and it is amazing at it. The relationships between individual characters, like the main plot, are exceedingly well written. Most characters have lengthy back stories that can be explored with equally detailed quests, and it is even possible to enter into romantic relationships with certain companions -- and not the throw-a-way types of relationships that many developers feel required to toss into games today, but deep and emotional bonds between characters. These characters are here for story first, and for combat second – most RPGs seem to get it the other way around.

Also unlike most modern RPGs that equate free will between the choice between Jesus-like good and Hitler-esque evil, Baldur's Gate II is frequently very gray. The term for this is “roleplaying” (perhaps you've heard of it?), and it's a feature that Shadows of Amn espouses from every opening. The characters of evil alignment never degrade themselves to the typical mustache-twirling crazy people who drink the blood of infants and kill arbitrarily just for the sake of being evil, and likewise good characters aren't perfect enforcers of civilization that run around looking for maidens to save. All NPCs, regardless of alignment, have traits that make them likable and repulsive – you know, like real people. You may find that even the most evil person has a loyal and sensitive side if you're willing to get to know them.

All of your decisions and deeds are gauged by a number that represents your reputation, meaning your fame or infamy. This works fine for the average player, who will align themselves with NPCs bearing similar personalities and will make decisions based on consistent logic. Problems may arise if the player wishes to keep NPCs of polar alignments in their party, or perhaps just throw some fireballs in a crowded tavern. As the player grows famous, evil members will complain when commoners think that they're a saint, and vise versa with good members being mistaken as psychotic cutthroats. Further complications can arise when keeping a party together when it's members clearly hate each other, in so far as they might, after a certain period of time, try to kill each other.

Most of the game takes place in the city of Athkatla and the surrounding region of Amn on the Sword Coast. Forests, small villages, caves, a ruined temple, and the sprawling urban complex are yours to explore as you see fit. The adventure will bottle-neck at certain key moments, which allows the player to progress non-linearly up to a point before being herded into some major event. The first half of the game consists of a lengthy series of quests for either the Shadow Thieves or a band of vampires in order to acquire a large some of money, but you'll have a lot of say in how that money is acquired. By the time your adventure is completed, you will have visited most of the most famous sites on the Sword Coast, including the Underdark.

Baldur's Gate II uses a modified version of the Infinitely Engine, introduced for the first Baldur's Gate and reused for Icewind Dale. Bioware's experience with the engine shines here as environments become larger, more detailed, and more intuitive to navigate. Shadows of Amn adds several notable new features to the engine not found in the first game, such as the higher experience cap, three new classes, and several class kits (or specialized versions of existing classes with additional strengths and weaknesses). The resolution has been upped to 800x600, but can also be extended beyond that. Environments look like paintings, and character portraits are brimming with personality. Michael Honenig's musical score fits the game's themes perfectly, frequently shifting between lofty motifs and haunting melodies, and the voice work is of the highest quality.

The first Baldur's Gate combined phased and real-time combat, allowing the player to pause at any time and issue commands. Every 6 seconds is a round, every 10 rounds is a turn, meaning that time is compressed about 10 fold from the 24 hour day. If you don't like this, combat can be changed to auto-pause after every round, which effectively makes it turn-based. Each character can also be set up with a customizable script to dictate basic, automated behaviors – and if you don't like this either, it can be turned off with a simple click.

While this system works nearly flawlessly as an implementation for D&D rules, its user interface lacks much of the polish and refinements that would be introduced in later RPGs. You cannot cue up multiple actions for a single character, damage is only displayed in the dialogue window (which becomes very cluttered), the range of spells is not displayed, enemy status effects cannot easily be determined, and as a whole large battles are difficult to manage. Without streamlined access to spell descriptions and other crucial information, novice players may feel overwhelmed as they consult the 264 page every few minutes.

That said, there is something beautiful about the way the Infinity Engine is constructed and the way Baldur's Gate II is put together that redeems nearly any fault that can be found with it. Because there is no distinction between areas with encounters and areas without encounters, every battle, even the most mundane encounter with a roving band of thieves, feels like a crucial part of the narrative, and likewise the most peaceful environment can erupt into a hellstorm of swords at any moment. Lush orchestral music fads in and out at the perfect moments, striking a wonderful balance between the epic and interpersonal aspects of your adventure, and the desire to learn more about the characters will motivate any player who isn't dead inside. Combat, albeit esoteric, can satisfy the strategic and action needs of most RPG fanatics. No matter how confused someone is by D&D rules, it should be universally obvious that when one casts a spell called “Horrid Wilting,” something interesting is going to happen.

Very few, if any, games have managed to find the perfect balance between narrative and gameplay that Shadows of Amn has managed to achieve. It conveys a compelling story with brilliant dialogue , a detailed world, and interesting characters, all of whom manage to surpass the stock archetypes that most fantasy titles adhere to. As a piece of technology, the Infinite Engine is such a marvel that it is no surprise that it was used for no less than five different titles and three expansion packs. This is Bioware's masterpiece, the Infinity Engine at it's finest, and the defacto standard to which computer games are still being held to this day. Anyone that claims to enjoy RPGs, especially Dungeons & Dragons, and has not played Baldur's Gate II is just kidding themself.

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Community review by dagoss (July 27, 2008)

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