I have a confession – I am a massive nerd. I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. Most of my time was spent on 3e and 3.5e, but I had a not insignificant teething period on AD&D, with its many mechanical intricacies. I lived and breathed THAC0, saving throws, special abilities, and character class restrictions for a time, until it made way for ECL, feats, and ability bonuses. Subsequently, BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate was my first real RPG. I felt comfortable with the rules when I first played it as a wide-eyed teen back in ’98. The scope of the story and complexity of the rules has irrevocably shaped my expectations of what to expect from an RPG. Baldur’s Gate is the yardstick to which I measure all party-based RPGs, and while some have since eclipsed it in terms of the overall package of story and gameplay, none have come close to instilling the sense of overwhelming wonder that I felt upon first leaving Candlekeep.
I know it’s a tangent, but I feel it is important for me to make clear my love and respect for the series, before you read the words below, because what I have written is only out of love.
Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is a modern day update by Overhaul Games of the BioWare’s classic. Overhaul, founded and headed by BioWare/ Interplay alumni Trent Oster and Cameron Tofer, both of whom worked on the original title, along with many of the other BioWare greats like BG2, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins, seem to be the right studio for the task. With the intimate knowledge of the engine and the content that the team undoubtedly have, as well as the reverence for the original story and characters, at the very least the remake has been treated with respect.
In which lies the inherent issue with Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition – it is perhaps too faithful to the original.
I can understand why they’d want to keep so much of the original – series fans would complain if a new direction was taken, and the original game is quite strong by itself. The problem is that many of the enhancements just aren’t obvious enough. I’m torn by that – I don’t want the enhancements to be obvious, because I want MY Baldur’s Gate experience, just the way I remember it. It shows the developer’s skill and familiarity with the series, too, to be able to add new content that does not feel out of place. It’s just, for a re-release, I want something extra – something to modernise the experience enough to justify the purchase.
For those new to the series, the game is an epic tale of loss, wonder, and divinity reborn as you, Gorion’s Ward, set out from your sheltered home of Candlekeep. Upon the road, you and your adoptive father Gorion encounter a party of strangers, headed by the evil Sarevok. Gorion is killed, leaving you with a simple task – meet two adventurers in an inn not far from you. The story naturally opens from there, allowing you almost complete freedom in how and when you will follow your quest for your adoptive father’s murderer and experience the greater, overarching purpose behind that dreadful act. The world map is vast, and each location has some new task or interaction to explore. Baldur’s Gate’s world of Faerun is wonderfully rich and full. There are many dozens of side-quests, ranging from simple item retrieval to complex negotiations between several factions. The game is hard, slow, and long, and amazingly, wonderfully, beautifully deep.
The game follows the six person party structure, with the main player character as the protagonist, and five other NPC party members available at one time to supplement your skill set. There are quite a number of recruitable NPCs smattered around the world, each with their own distinct personalities. The complexity of the role-play mechanics are intimidating in a way, and wonderfully adaptable. Following the basic mage/fighter/rogue class triad, and expanding upon it with divine magic, different forms of arcane magic users, to basic fighters and specialised rangers and paladins, the PC customisation options are extensive. Throw in well over 100 hours of gameplay time to full completion and a daunting difficulty curve, and you have the ingredients of a truly classic, truly epic RPG in the tradition of Dungeons and Dragons. The original game, in and of itself, has always been one of the very best.
The core game is great, and all of the original, plus the expansion Tales of the Sword Coast, are included and remade in full, but for an RPG the mechanics have not aged very well at all. To those used to the streamlined approach taken by more modern RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins, the mechanics will at first appear obtuse. This is a fault of the AD&D system, which relied on an unintuitive reverse bonus system for resolving the semi-turn-based attacks – the dreaded THAC0 (to hit armour class 0). Basically, your character starts with requiring a roll of 20 to hit an opponent with an armour class of 0. What this means is that an opponent with an armour class of 8 is being attacked by a creature with a THAC0 of 18, the attacker requires a roll of 18 minus 8 (10) or higher to hit. This round-about way of approaching attacks is difficult to understand wholly or on the fly, beyond the unintuitive general rule of lower is better.
For its part, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition does its best to help the player to understand this outdated system by displaying the total THAC0 for each equipped weapon in the much improved inventory screen, rather than in the character screen, like its predecessors. This allows quick comparison between weapons. Enhanced Edition also displays the damage range in the inventory screen, which is a pleasant addition, however it seems to neglect the damage bonus granted by high ability scores.
Attack and THAC0 is displayed, with a breakdown of where each reduction comes from, but the inventory fails to list attack speed, which is a complicated mechanic introduced in the original Baldur’s Gate to adapt the initiative system of the PnP game into the PC title. For the lay-person, attack speed can usually be ignored, but those who want to create power builds, or even when going up against a powerful spellcaster where attack speed matters, the stat isn’t shown in the inventory screen, rather back in the character screen like the original. Arguably, attack speed belongs on the character screen, but if you’re going to put a breakdown of what makes up your armour or THAC0 on the inventory screen, and even part of your total damage, then doesn’t it also make sense to group attack speed there somewhere too? Likewise, the inventory AC breakdown doesn’t show elemental resistances or saving throws, which are again relegated to the character screen. I can see what they were doing by putting the most key information on the inventory screen, and it is largely an improvement over the original, but I would have perhaps liked to have seen a more comprehensive streamlining of the way the information was displayed.
The screen that received the largest improvement, however, is the journal screen. Quests are conveniently grouped in expandable lists, which makes viewing active quest details a much less exhausting process than the original. The simple decision to streamline the journal process and bring it into line with more modern design processes shows what the team is capable of at its best.
the game has not changed that much, either. The game still has the original sprites and backgrounds upscaled for HD and widescreen. You can now zoom in and out of the main screen with the mouse wheel, allowing you to appreciate the action from a closer, if pixellated, point of view. The sprites and graphics look dated, but authentic. The main UI has received a few tweaks, too, with a colour change from gold/green to gold/blue. The AI and select all buttons have been enlarged and moved, and the entire UI stretched for widescreen. An unfortunate side-effect of stretching the UI is large gaps between skill buttons, leaving a large gap every four tiles or so. This extends to spell lists, which results in a segmented spell bar. It looks clumsy and wasteful, and is one of few parts of the game that gives an unpleasant feeling of hurriedness.
Spells and on-screen effects have received the bulk of the noticeable graphical changes, with some gaining a completely new look. You’ll notice a new depth to colour and movement in the effects, which adds a nice graphical touch and added spectacle to magical combat in particular.
Cutscenes have been remade in the comic book cut-out style. While they are undoubtedly pretty, the style and delivery of this cartoon-like aesthetic is somewhat jarring when compared to the tone and delivery of the rest of the game. Some will love it, and I appreciate the work that has gone into these gorgeous sequences, however for me it doesn’t quite capture the high fantasy spirit of Baldur’s Gate’s Faerun.
The worst change to graphics is the lack of graphics options, which extends to “fullscreen”. That’s it. No other graphics options are on offer here. Luckily, the game is so lightweight to run on a modern system that it doesn’t have an impact on performance, but not having graphics settings is a travesty for a PC game. Strangely, the .cfg file in the game directory lists several graphics options as changeable. I hope that this is an instance of early review code oversight, and not indicative of the finished product.
Sound is mostly the same as the original, with the familiar background tracks and ambient sounds playing their part in creating the world. Combat sounds as solid as before, and characters retain their voices. Some new voice work has been added for players to customise their characters with, as well as keeping the original six voice sets.
The main featured content for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition revolves around the three new characters and their respective quests, and the new adventure The Black Pit. Three NPC party members are recruitable – a wild mage called Neera, a monk called Rasaad, and the all-new Blackguard Dorn. I’ve been hanging out with Neera and Rasaad for a while now, and, while I’m an Immy/Minsc/Khalid/Jaheira/Branwen kind of guy myself, I have to say the new NPCs aren’t bad. Neera is not quite Edwin in magical ability, but she makes up for it with a bubbly personality and charming presence. I can safely say that Neera is my favourite new NPC, and is even up there with the likes of Minsc and Xan. Rasaad is the first NPC monk in the series, and, while low level monks suffer under the low level cap, he’s not a total loss. Their personal side-quests are not long compared to NPC side-quests in Baldur’s Gate 2, however they are focused and well-written. All three characters are also fully voiced, which is a great touch. Overall, the new characters are a solid addition to the game.
The Black Pit module, however, does not follow the high quality of the character quests. In essence, it is a series of 15 ring matches, with a loose narrative holding it together. In between each fight, you are able to restock from an increasing pool of magical weapons and items. The XP and gold rewards flow thick and fast, although you’ll quickly find yourself replaying some of the lower level battles for either more gold or XP, as the difficulty of the fights ramps up quite steeply. As a quest, the narrative and choices do not hold much for a dedicated RPG fan, although what’s there is solidly written and fully voiced. As a tool for testing builds and quickly power-levelling a PC for import with some nifty and unique magic items, however, it is a rather effective tool. I suspect that this was the main reason for including this short module, as the variety of combat situations gives an effective overview of the more difficult challenges presented by the main story.
The engine itself has had an overhaul, bringing it up to speed for modern systems, however the key upgrade is the inclusion of features from Baldur’s Gate 2 and Throne of Bhaal. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition features all of the classes introduced in 2 and ToB, meaning you can start the game from scratch as a kit, or a class like the sorcerer or monk. This is a very welcome addition to the original, and an essential one for anyone who has played the original with either TuTu or BGT. The game also implements the tab to highlight feature of ToB, which can break some of the early hidden items, such as the (spoilers) Ankheg plate in Nashkel, or the Ring Of Wizardry in The Friendly Arms Inn. Some of the old exploits also still exist, such as the import high level character tactic, which is arguably made worse with the inclusion of The Black Pit campaign being accessible right from the beginning. Others, like multiplayer soloing, and single player soloing for XP are still there, as is kicking a paired party member and then leaving the building to retain the other half of the pair in your party.
There are one or two other noticeable gameplay changes. There are some new, beautiful character portraits – I counted fourteen. Potions now stack above 5, which is useful for inventory management. The ground inventory is expanded to two columns, allowing more room. Skull Trap has had its casting range increased, reducing accidental friendly fire. Character circles around party members reflects the colours of their clothes. A character’s action will display on their portrait. I’m sure there are other minor changes that I either haven’t noticed or haven’t encountered yet, but it’s nothing truly game-changing. Personally, I would have liked some of the enhancements added from later RPGs, like action queuing, or AOE radius indicators, or even something like the Take 20 action from Neverwinter Nights, just to prevent clicking on the same locked chest half a dozen times just to make sure. The mechanics are dated, and there are many small tweaks that could have been made to the gameplay to enhance accessibility, however I understand and respect the desire to keep it as pure as possible.
I am unsure who the audience for this game is, exactly. Those who love the original and replay it every few years will find that the price-point of $20 may be too high, when compared to the $10 for the original game on GoG. It would be hard to justify a re-purchase for a game already owned, especially for an experienced player with a good knowledge of available mods. On the other hand, newcomers to the series may find the dated mechanics and graphics too much of an obstacle and want to pass this over for something a little more modern. I suspect that iOS and Android tablet capability may interest both of those markets, however those who buy the PC version don’t get a copy of the portable versions. There is a decent amount of new content here, but apart from the new character quests and Black Pits, most of the fixes and content can be found in free mods for the original games.
I suppose that criticism is one shared by most re-releases, and compared to others (cough… Capcom… cough), Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition does offer a lot more for your money. The Overhaul team could never be accused of doing a lazy port with this effort. It has clearly been treated with love and respect. I’m just not sure if that’s enough for me, though. Overhaul say there are over 400 improvements, and I believe them – I really do – I just can’t see that many. Maybe if I had a thousand hours to spend with the games side-by-side I could be able to see more of the improvements, but I don’t, and even if I did, I’d be comparing the outdated original, when I usually play with at least the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy or TuTu mods installed, either of which do a great job of improving the original already.
It comes down to what you want from the remake. If you replay the game annually and are looking for something new, want to play on a tablet, don’t own BG2/ToB, or don’t have the time to look for and install a few mods, this is worth a look. If you are new to the series and relatively computer savvy, or want to buy the entire Baldur’s Gate series, I am not sure if I could recommend this game to you just yet, since the older titles hold up perfectly well with one or two simple mods, and for half the price. What I would instead say is wait. Wait until Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition is released next year, and for the modding community to get their teeth into the updated engine. Wait for the amount of extra content already made for the original release to be introduced into the Enhanced Edition.
Baldur’s Gate was a near-perfect game, and the Enhanced Edition has most of the rougher edges polished. As a standalone title, you’d be foolish to miss it. But it isn’t a standalone title, and I can’t pretend it is. By itself it is much better than the original – and it is the best commercially available Baldur’s Gate – but compared to the entire series with mods added, it is a slightly inferior product. For now.
I don’t want to leave this review on a sour note. What the Overhaul team have achieved is wondrous, and nothing can take that away from them. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is the same game I love. I just wanted more from it than I got.
(Reviewed on PC. Review code provided by Overhaul Games/Interplay. Thanks.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 10/10
Gameplay/Design – 8/10
Visuals – 6.5/10
Sound – 7/10
Lasting Appeal – 10/10
Overall – 8.5/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS tablets, Android tablets
Developer: Overhaul Games