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Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance

Review By:  Siou Choy

Developer:  Snowblind Studios / High Voltage Software
Publisher:  Interplay / Universal
# of Players:  1-2
Genre:  RPG
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card
Date Posted:  1-6-03

The average console RPG gamer (raise your hands, if you’re reading this article) has most likely not had much experience with the bizarre subculture of the PC gaming world (and it’s even more demented cousin, the PC RPG crowd). To be quite blunt about it, PC RPGs have (and for the most part, deservedly) the obsessive geek stigma of the hardcore Dungeons & Dragons gamer hanging about them like an albatross. PC networking weirdos locking themselves in their basements and plugging into online marathons of Diablo, Everquest, or Ultima Online [Ed: Hey!] get slightly less respect and desirability to the opposite sex than aficionados of online sex chat rooms with their motion capture webcams and boxes of kleenex. Yet even the most avid fans of console RPGs such as Final Fantasy hardly find themselves looked upon in the same light. Perhaps for obvious reasons, few PC oriented RPGs have made their way to the home console (those that have, such as Shadowgate or Alone in the Dark, don’t exactly find themselves the darlings of either reviewers or gaming fans en masse). Nonetheless, Interplay Entertainment is hoping that gamers will be more open than usual to their latest port: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for the Gamecube.

To be a little more concrete about things, D&D style RPGs for the PC are known for being hack and slash jobs (Doom for the Piers Anthony set) as opposed to the more story driven focus of console RPGs. Anybody with an image to protect (or a girlfriend hanging about) should take special note: Baldur’s Gate actually uses the "3rd Edition" Dungeon’s & Dragons rules set. Thankfully, you can hold the rolls of the multifaceted dice, but get set for a lot of exploration of dungeons, sewers, caves, and the like. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a story, but it seems to take a whole hell of a lot longer to develop than is standard for console RPGs.

Baldur’s Gate gives you the option of choosing to play as one of three different dorkily named characters: Vahn, the "arcane" archer, Kromlech (or was that kreplach?), the Dwarven fighter, or Adrianna, the Elven sorceress. Can somebody tell me why it is, in all these D&D elf and troll things, that the sorceress is always an elf and vice versa? Naturally, each character has their own advantages and disadvantages: I found it took twice as long (and was twice as difficult) to make my way through the first few sewer and crypt levels as the elf as I did playing as the dwarf – not to mention the fact that he could carry a lot more crap back to the bar to sell off than she ever could. Of course, you also have to deal with the fact that instead of getting to look at the shapely, ponytailed lass of the cover, you get to lope around as a stocky, balding mini-me in bad clothes, standing at right about crotch height on the average townsperson. So it’s all relative, in the end, I guess.

The game starts you off with an overlong, talky introductory voiceover by an unseen narrator (geeks: read "dungeon master") - some unexpectedly long winded diarrhea of the mouth by someone who sounds like the guy from "Rescue 911" or oatmeal commercials. This blathering blowhard, while thankfully absent for long periods of the game, will pop up every now and again to overexplain each change in scene or setting. All I have to say about this is that Baldur’s Gate was obviously scripted by a frustrated screenwriter.

After the opening FMV, you begin your "adventure" in a bar run by a smoky-voiced transsexual – you get the option to ask "what’s that thing hanging over the fireplace", when you really want to ask "what’s that thing hanging between your legs". For some reason, the game utilizes a mixed text/audio format, where the characters will respond to you vocally, but your (generally multiple choice) questions and responses go unspoken. Graphics in these sequences are nice – very nice, considering that Baldur’s Gate is, from what I understand, a port of a PC game. As a definite plus (albeit a minor one), the voice-acting in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is actually very well done (no Resident Evil style gaffes here). This is probably due to the fact that the developers recruited "professional" voice actors, some of whom you might recognize from the credits of your favorite cartoons. Surprisingly, the game even includes respected thespian John Rhys-Davies (Shogun, Sliders) slumming among the voice talent!

For action sequences, the game utilizes a surprisingly impersonal high overhead isometric view, which I understand to be common to PC RPGs, but which serves mainly to distance the player from the action to an unusually high degree. While first person would probably have been a bit much, the standard 3rd person over the shoulder view would have been much appreciated and a major improvement in terms of both visuals and involving the gamer in the virtual goings-on. The odd choice in camera placement also serves to make it extremely difficult, if not at times impossible, to see yourself/things in corners, doorways, or up against walls. The effect is distancing to the point where you feel like you’re reading an overly long and boring story, as opposed to actually being involved in or in control of it. You actually can’t even tell what you’re fighting in most cases, which serves to make "action" sequences extremely boring and "samey", making the interconnecting talking sequences the true highlights of the game. It almost seems like the game was done by two different crews/development teams: to put things in terms of anime, the talking sequences (well done) seem to have been done by the Japanese team, the "action" sequences (lousy) by the Korean second unit.

Taking the now-standard generic-item-smashing-for-valuables shtick to an absurd and illogical extreme, you are given dozens of items to smash per area, which can take up just as much of your playing time as fighting monsters or searching for quest items. In keeping with the overabundance of items issue, there are literally dozens of generic monsters per area, giving new meaning to the term "hack and slash" ("the Tick in: night of 100,000 orcs"?). The game gives you hundreds of healing potions (literally in the dozens) right from the get go – consider this a warning, because you’ll need each and every one of them (and in fact, even more), considering how many hundreds of thousands of fights you’ll be in along the way. Thankfully, there are several save points throughout each area, which gratefully, if somewhat absurdly, can be accessed in the midst of all the mayhem. I found myself saving mid-massacre several times; and it’s a good thing too. Nobody should have to go through this kind of thing more than once.

Insofar as controls, there really isn’t much to speak of. After all, this is hack and slash; why do you need anything besides the "strike" button? I found that I did far better not using the shield than when I did, and better at hand-to-hand, one-on-one brutalizing than long distance archery, which makes all buttons besides the hack button and the ‘drink health potion’ button utterly moot. Of course, it does help to know how to access your inventory, so you can equip yourself, sell off your spoils, and level up; but you won’t have much of a chance to do any of that down in the sewers, dungeons, and crypts, surrounded by the entire population of the east coast’s worth of monsters at any given time. There is no run button - your character always runs (or in the case of the dwarf, lopes) at the same pace. Obviously, there is no camera adjustment option, except for a slow "spin" which lets you see around empty rooms a bit better, if you really need to; there is no zoom, change in angle or person. And someone, please explain to me, why do all these monsters have money on them?

On each and every startup, the game asks if you want to configure your memory card and create a save file, regardless of whether you have one created or not; effectively scaring the gamer to death, by making it seem (or in fact, should you choose to create another, which would most likely wipe out any existing files) that their hours on end of mindless hacking and slashing are gone…

The bottom line is, despite some neat, moody Tolkeinesque tavern scenes (which consist solely of multiple choice Q&As – no barfights or anything overtly "interesting" here), Baldur’s Gate is exactly what you heard it was: a dull, mindless hack n’ slash for nerdy, obsessive PC gamers (think Nightmare Creatures II – the one with the axe – for the no-life crowd…then make it even worse, and you’ve got the picture). I came into this fascinated by the graphics and cover blurb, but dreading some D&D style strategy game…and found something even worse: a mindless, dull, and, thanks to both the horrible fixed high overhead camera placement and the instant ennui concomitant to countless, brainless, strategy-less one-on-one thousand massacres with enemies you can barely distinguish, utterly uninvolving PC port.

I imagine the PC crowd will be pushing their glasses up the bridge of their collective noses in sweaty palmed, eager anticipation at the thought of one of their geek paradise standbys arriving on a console system. The rest of us should know better, and steer clear away. Far away.

Highs:

  • The bar sequences, the only true game highlight, are moody in a sense only the reader of turn of the century pulp fiction or the fan of euro-horror cinema could really understand. Atmospheric lighting and sound effects accent the ominous portends of horrors and adventures to come hinted at in well-paced snippets of "conversation" (actually one sided spoken answers to multiple choice text questions) that the game fails so miserably to fulfill. The crackling of a hearth fireplace, clinking of glasses and plenty of appropriately seedy characters set the mood for an adventure that never actually happens, the pace for a thrilling mystery/horror tale that never in fact unfolds. Some very well done sequences that should have been part of a far better game, these quiet parts stand out in the memory dramatically over the wholly unremarkable, and entirely unmemorable treks slogging through dungeon after tunnel after crypt, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Maybe somebody will make a game worthy of these interregnums, someday. Sadly, this is not the one.

Lows:

Lots of ‘em:

  • Endless treks through the dungeons, caves, sewers, etc., slashing away mindlessly at a minimum of a dozen monsters at any given time.
  • Ridiculously high overhead camera placement, making all the action (and enemies) generic and faceless, keeping the gamer from getting involved in any direct sense with the goings-on onscreen and making it difficult to distinguish one foe from another, an item from a body part, etc. etc.
  • The only real "action" takes place in the bar, which consists solely of face-on (self unseen) multiple choice "conversations" (in which only the other character has a voice, and your questions and replies come in text only format).
  • It takes far too long to get back to these sequences, since you’re spending most of your time swinging away wildly through one dungeon/sewer/crypt after another (all of which, like the dozens on dozens of enemies you hack your way through in them, are pretty much indistinguishable from one another).
  • In other words, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s about a page and a half worth of "story" spread out through hours on hours of brain-dead "gameplay". And you wondered how PC gamers got the rep they have.

Final Verdict:

The flaming letters informing you that the game is "loading" should be a hint of the living hell you’re about to be subjected to. While I’m sorely tempted to dredge up all those Dungeons and Dorks, geek patrol, Zeldar the Elf, Rona Jaffee's Mazes and Monsters/early 80’s suburban mall axe murder, pimply faced, one player one handed, every hour spent playing is another 7 years without a kiss type trenchcoat mafia card playing no lifer jokes, I’ll try to restrain myself here. Please note I said "trenchcoat mafia", not "Memphis mafia", as in Elvis' fat hillbilly buddies. I wouldn’t want a bunch of pissed off, jumpsuit wearing, velvet Elvis owning truck drivin’ fans of "the King" after me too…

Overall Score: 5.5

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