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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Baldur's Gate 2 Review

This is the addendum to my Shadows of Amn Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: Shadows of Amn

These Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game better. Hey, who knows, maybe a Bioware/Black Isle Studios guy'll be Googling for his title, read this page, and be inspired to put some non-Caucasian action sprites into his next game. Ah, well, a girl can dream, anyway. Here's all the news about Shadows of Amn that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

I almost feel embarrassed adding a section for Baldur's Gate II to my Backseat Game Designer site. This game was probably the best I've played in 25+ years of computer gaming. It has just about everything going for it: great plot, outstanding quests, compelling NPCs who have an amazing wealth of interaction with you and with each other, a thoroughly customizable main character for whom you can make meaningful choices, extremely flexible gameplay, terrific voice acting, unparalleled replayability, and nothing especially annoying about it that's going to derail players' enjoyment from it ten years after its release. This game is destined to be a classic. Personally speaking, it had me completely enthralled through not one but four play-throughs, and I wasn't even tired of it after breezing through a few more times to test game parameters. Baldur's Gate II is a rare gem of a computer game, and I urge anybody and everybody to give it a try.

Shadows of Amn Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) Baldur's Gate 2 has raised the bar for NPC interaction by an order of magnitude. Not only does each party NPC come scripted with soliloquies and comments on the major game events which provide insight into his or her character (something I expect from a good CRPG these days), but you can also have in-depth interactive conversations with them, each of which can unfold in dozens of different ways depending on the responses you choose. The romance scripts also deserve to be singled out for special praise. More CRPGs should realize the dramatic immediacy that complex personal subplots like romances, betrayals, and changes in an NPC's personality over time can bring to a game. The increased interest you have invested in well-developed and highly interactive NPCs like these raises the plot's emotional stakes. The characters at the center of it really feel like your friends.

2) The non-party NPCs of Baldur's Gate 2--that is to say, the general population of the gameworld--are also a cut above anything I'd ever seen before playing this game. Most CRPGs and adventure games find themselves stuck in a quandary where non-party NPCs are concerned: either their towns and cities are fully peopled with crash test dummies who have nothing to contribute to the plot, or else they are deserted except for the four or five people who are meaningful to the plot. The former is tedious, the latter silly. Baldur's Gate 2 is the first game I've seen that gets non-party NPCs right. Some of them are important to the plot, and they have the usual extensive scripting; but there are also dozens of other denizens simply passing by or hanging around in believable locations who have unimportant but unique comments to make--and then your party NPCs respond to them. So rather than meeting four passersby all of whom mindlessly repeat the same two rumors over and over again, you meet one who tells you one rumor that Valygar reacts to, one who tells you a different rumor which Aerie reacts to, one who tells a pointless story and is humorously dissed by Edwin, and one who hits on Jaheira. Though none of these folks matter to the plot a bit, their effect is to A) give extra insight into your party NPCs and B) make the world feel more populated and rich.

3) In many modern CRPGs the player is called upon to make meaningful choices for the main character, an excellent tradition that Baldur's Gate 2 improves upon by introducing sensible consequences for these decisions many game-hours of playing later. None of these render the game unwinnable (something that would be aggravating at best), they merely add substance to the game. If you act like an asshat to someone and then discover later that you need his help for a quest, he may refuse to help, demand money when he normally wouldn't have, or make you grovel a lot first. If you choose to support one faction, an enemy faction may have nothing to do with you later. Heck, if you killed Drizzt back in BG1, he remembers it in this game and attacks you for it. This is a great trend and, like the previous two, makes a game much more replayable.

4) Computer games in general are starting to take tentative steps away from repetitive fed-ex quests ("Look, here comes an adventuring party! Deliver this ruby to Princess Peony the next town over, would you?") and click-till-something-happens puzzles ("Hey, look, you can use this egg on this window. My character just threw the egg out the window. Uh, okay. Better go down and see what puzzle that solved.") Baldur's Gate 2 helps this refreshing trend along by providing a vast array of possible quests (I counted 89) with a variety of styles and objectives, each with at least two steps and many of them truly absorbing.

5) Many of Baldur's Gate 2's quests have multiple solutions--in some cases a good and an evil solution, in others simply two or three different logical ways to resolve the quest. This heightens the drama of a game tremendously by allowing the players to "think" in character and use their own creativity to solve problems.

6) A lot of modern games are doing this, but many others aren't, so I'm going to emphasize it again: a game which allows you to choose from a variety of different conversational responses is a game that is more fun to play. There is nothing more annoying than listening to your own main character fawn over an NPC you despise or pointlessly insult one you think she'd feel sorry for. And why should an evil male half-orc berserker talk to a bartender or a prostitute the same way as a good female half-elven paladin? Of course, no game will ever be able to give you options for ALL the responses you might think of in a given situation, but giving you three or four choices--as Baldur's Gate 2 consistently does--goes a long way towards letting gamers customize their concept of their characters' personality in their own heads.

7) The game designers evidently put a lot of thought into what plot elements were likely to intrigue individual gamers and set it up so that nearly all of them were possible to pursue further if you put your mind to it (there are a couple of exceptions, such as the suggestion that Isaea Roenall might have been the one to betray d'Arnise Keep, but they are few and far between). This forward-thinking attention to detail is the single best chance a computer game has to approximate the magical feel of a live roleplaying game, where the dungeonmaster adapts his game to your character's interests. Obviously a computer program doesn't have the ability to literally adapt to your interests the way a human GM can, but if the designers have ensured that everything you notice in the game can be explored further if you put your mind to it, the game can sure give you that illusion. I don't think I've ever seen such a thoroughly beta-tested game as Baldur's Gate 2, and it shows in the depth of the gaming experience.

8) I also appreciated the low-key and easy-to-use cheat console. Look, when people are going to cheat they're going to do it anyway. Why make them download things? In the case of Baldur's Gate 2, it is such an immensely replayable game that I have played it through EIGHT times (including once as a barbarian who always picked the rudest response available in every single conversation; no kidding.) The depth of character interaction and quest solutions makes this possible, but frankly, I would never have been able to stomach it more than twice without the ability to skip boring travel time by teleporting to the desired areas, eliminating party scatter by cheating boots of speed onto everyone, and other stuff like that. The cheat console made it possible to skip the mundane stuff and enjoy the game over, and over, and over again.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave Shadows of Amn a 10 out of 10 (rating: outstanding). So, what would have improved this already excellent game even more? Well, nothing in this world is perfect (I would have given Shadows of Amn was more like a 9.85, if I was going to go digital,) so I'm going on ahead and detailing the game's few flaws:

1) It sucked that there were three complex romances for male characters to choose from and only one rather half-hearted one for female characters. I get the idea that there was originally supposed to be a second romance subplot with Valygar (there are unused soundfiles of him calling your character "my love," and an unused conversation with Mazzy in which he feels obliged to tell her his feelings for her are strictly platonic and that your character has his heart). I really wish the game designers had found time to complete this. Female main characters are so often considered as an afterthought if at all, and regrettably Baldur's Gate 2 is not an exception.

2) The action sprites were customizable, but extraordinarily limited. In particular, it was flatly impossible to give a character a non-Caucasian appearance. (This was especially glaring because several of the NPCs were not Caucasian. Valygar, a black man with black hair, had to be represented by a bronze-skinned action sprite with silver hair.) Would it have been so hard to include one tan color and one basic dark brown as possible skin tones, and one black hair color? Sprite options for curly hair and no hair would have been a little harder to add, but also well worthwhile (the bald Minsc with a shock of floppy white hair is very very silly looking).

3) The manner in which your party is capped at six characters is very frustrating. I don't mind the constraint itself--more than six characters would have been very unwieldy. What I mind is how impossible the Baldur's Gate series makes it for you to forget the artificiality of the constraint. The NPCs act hurt and upset if you remove them from the party, even temporarily, and some of them give you massive guilt trips about it. In real life, you don't need one friend to leave if you want to talk to a new person, and the way this game dwells on such an artificial limit by making your NPCs all start whining "Don't you like me anymore?" every time you rearrange the party brings it glaringly and repeatedly to your attention.

4) The reputation system was OK, but it gets very repetitive and annoying to have evil party members constantly complaining that the party is too good when your reputation gets high. For one thing, a high reputation provides the party with immediate benefits (financial and otherwise), and there's no reason on earth that an evil character wouldn't recognize and appreciate this, especially an insatiably greedy one (like Korgan) or a highly intelligent one (like Edwin and Viconia). For another, the game itself is so slanted towards good that merely completing necessary or rewarding quests improves your reputation. In order to keep your reputation low, a normal party would have to walk around doing counterproductive things like deliberately getting caught shoplifting. Evil != stupid, guys.

5) The interface would have been drastically improved by automating or at least streamlining pre-combat buffing routines. Because of different casting recovery times and spell durations, preparing for battle became a very annoying routine of Aerie casting one protective spell, Jaheira casting another, then Haerdalis, then Jaheira again, then Anomen, then Aerie, then Haerdalis using his spin ability, Minsc going berserk, and go. There is nothing fun about this timing exercise. Healing everyone who's injured after a bad fight or casting long-term spells after waking up in the morning is similarly aggravating. There really should have been an option to save and repeat different whole-party sequences of spellcasting, the way Bard's Tale or those old Gold Box D&D games used to let you do.

6) Cut the damn fawning cameos of Greyhawk personages. Seriously. Does anyone really enjoy seeing wise, kindly old Elminster wander through with his uselessly cryptic words of wisdom and condescending pats on the head for the young adventuring party? No one I've met. In fact, most of us exploit every loophole in the game in the attempt to kill his sorry butt or at least rob him blind. It's like that bad Champions GM back in high school who forced your team to run into Superman every single mission, no matter if you were in the backwoods of Bulgaria somewhere or orbiting Saturn. You could go to another plane, and Supe would still somehow manage to put in his stupid cameo. Remember how you wanted to kill Superman just to get him out of your face? Same thing here.

7) Why does Viconia have no subplot in the Underdark? This was a major opportunity lost (especially since Viconia has no personal quest back in Athkatla, other than the romance certain male characters can have with her). Viconia doesn't even react to the conversation between her imprisoned kinfolk and their taunters, if you bring her up there.

8) I loved the fact that you can develop Anomen in one of two distinctly different directions, but it was very frustrating that in neither case did his voiceset, comments, or reactions to anything change at all. Anomen starts out the game as an arrogant jerk who is lawful neutral and sees the world completely in terms of black and white. As the game progresses and his family situation reveals itself, he becomes a more sympathetic character, and then eventually he becomes either a less pompous, more flexible good-aligned person or a bitter, unstable chaotic-aligned person whose dreams have all gone into the crapper. Yet even if he takes a turn for the better and acknowledges the errors of his ways, he continues to issue the same arrogant comments every time you click on him; even if he fails his test and declares the Order his bitter enemy, he continues to cry "For the Order!" as he charges into battle each time. There should have been three different basic voicesets recorded for him; it wouldn't have taken more than an hour of the actor's time to do.

9) The kuo-toa and illithid dungeons in the Underdark are really lame. They are small, pointless, and uninspired, and completing each area depends solely on using random objects because they're the only clickable things around.

10) Jan's personal quest about the illithids was also terribly poorly done. You can't stop the mother of the abused girl from going back to her husband and taking her daughter with her (unsatisfying to say the least), the game makes decisions for you (assuming you're loyal to the illithids, when I personally would have preferred to have betrayed them), and the plot makes no sense. Where did the gnome child get cursed with this incurable psionic disease? Did the illithid give it to her? Did her gangster father have some connection to them somehow? What about Jan's uncle? Not only is none of this ever explained, there's the smug non-explanation that it's all just too mysterious and Illuminatish for you to get to the bottom of. Nothing pisses me off faster than a gamesmaster who pulls that kind of crap.

11) The Forest of Tethir should have been axed. This was my least favorite section of the entire game. This area was extremely difficult to move around, because the whole forest floor is littered in fallen trees. Some of them you can walk over, others you cannot. You can't tell the difference by looking. Basically, the forest is one big maze you have to stumble through by trial and error. Oh, and there's nothing in it. You can spend fifteen minutes trying to get to one darkened quadrant of the map, only to find there is absolutely nothing there. As if that's not enough, the entire area is plagued by annoying, low-level wandering monsters who get in your way constantly--and it's hard to reach them to shut them up because of the fallen trees in the way.

12) It's frustrating that you never have the chance to say anything insulting, uncomplimentary, or accusatory to Ellisime, whose self-righteous idiocy is what caused your character (and Imoen, and Jaheira and Minsc) so much pain in the first place. You have the option of insulting or being snide to or even attacking every friend you have in the game, but Ellisime is off-limits.

Not, of course, that any of these minor problems will stop me from pre-ordering any damn thing these guys put their name on next. They've well and truly earned my fannish loyalty with this ground-breaking game. I just hope they call me for help with the female romances next time. ;-D

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