Saturday, August 21, 2010

Baldur's Gate, part 1

It was while playing Dragon Age: Origins that I saw much talk of the Baldur's Gate series. I had heard of it many times before, of course, but it wasn't until about four years ago that I developed an interest in RPGs, so I had never played it. The general consensus in all the reviews I've seen is that the Baldur's Gate series (with emphasis on the second one in the series) is the best CRPG of all time. My limited experience with RPGs prevents me from making that statement myself, but if you've read the discussion about it in the comments on the Freespace 2 post from earlier, you can probably tell that I've been enjoying my experience with it.

On the Dragon Age forums, people said that many of the things I liked about Dragon Age were also present in Baldur's Gate, such as the quality of writing, the party banter, romances, and many stylistic elements, among other things. I proceeded to view some Let's Play videos on Youtube to see how it played and how it looked, and it seemed workable, more so with the graphical improvement mods that were shown in action in the videos.


Before I even bought the game, I scoured the net for mod sites, and found Baldur's Gate 1 TuTu (which is read as "Baldur's Gate 1, to 2"), which allows you to play Baldur's Gate 1 in the improved Baldur's Gate 2 version of the game engine. Also I found a mod that allows higher video resolutions with widescreen, and various other mods that add extra banter and such (BG1 NPC Project is the banter one). I also found many alternate character portrait packs, including some that make Imoen look more like Alyson Hannigan than she already did, from her Willow days on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which premiered the year before BG1 came out, so perhaps the resemblance was intentional). I would eventually make my own portraits, after I had played for a while. But that's skipping ahead.

The purchase

I found a very good deal on the game, in the form of the 4-in-1 DVD box set version, which includes Baldur's Gate 1, its expansion pack Tales of the Sword Coast, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, and its expansion pack Throne of Bhaal. Really, the game is a steal at this price, if you go by the length of entertainment alone.

The packaging is decent enough, as it comes in a single DVD case, although I was disappointed to find that each of the expansions occupied separate CD-ROMs on their own, so it came out to 4 discs, where I think it could have been 2, or 3 at most. Also, the blurb on the back of the case is rather garish and unprofessional looking, and misnames "Tales of the Sword Coast" as "Sword of the Coast."

No printed materials (such as manuals or maps) were included, however each disc comes with PDF manuals for each game, in multiple languages. Not scanned manuals, but with high resolution colour images and live vector text for easy searching and crisp printing. Would have been nice if they also included high resolution maps on the discs as well.

I read about half of the first manual, but these manuals total over 300 pages and are full of charts and graphs and tables, so I have to admit I jumped into playing without being fully informed on how to play. The discs also included trailers for various other games of the time, such as Descent, which are good for a look back at the past (but not as far back as the Angry Video Game Nerd takes you), but viewing the trailers appears to be mandatory upon a successful installation, as I could not find a way to stop them.

First experience

In order to maximise my gameplay experience, I installed both games and both expansion packs right away, and let Tutu (actually EasyTutu) figure out how to put them all together. It took some fiddling to get the high resolution widescreen mod working, but it finally did, and I settled in to play. The starting movie began, but unknown to me, this was the starting movie from Baldur's Gate 2, not 1, so I was treated to several spoilers before I figured out what was going on and stopped it.

Creating my character and picking spells and stats was tiresome and difficult, as I didn't really know what I was doing, and I was impatient to get to playing the actual game. I do have some experience with pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons, but not enough, apparently. I'd sat in and played on several pen & paper campaigns, and even ran a game or two as a GM using an official module. I used to own a few of the source books, as well. That said, it took a lot of time to get acquainted with the spells, armour class, and other things that came straight out of second edition D&D. I still don't understand what a THAC0 is.

I'm not all that familiar with D&D from a lore perspective, either. I suppose it's fortunate enough that these games take place in the Forgotten Realms, since the one D&D novel I've read (The Crystal Shard, Icewind Dale Trilogy #1 by R.A. Salvatore) was in that setting as well, so at least I know about a couple of characters and locations that appear in this game, like Drizzt Do'Urden and the Underdark, but I have to say I'm liking this game a lot better than that book. I'd never read or even heard about the books starring Elminster, so I thought at first that the character that appears in the game was some kind of in-joke based on a member of the Bioware staff.

Anyway, once I did get to the game, my first impressions were very positive, aside from the odd and rather unpleasant-looking paperdoll figure of my character (the one that shows in the inventory screen, to show what you're wearing), which didn't look female at all, and more closely resembled the fiery-haired Ford Prefect from the comic book version of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy than a half-elven woman. I found a couple of mods that said they would replace the paperdolls, but there were no screenshots, and they actually said they'd change them to the way they looked in Baldur's Gate 1, which may or may not be an improvement.

Another speech about text vs spoken dialogue in games

This game comes from a more enlightened time, when it was not required that all lines by all characters be voiced, which has the effect of immensely increasing the required disk space for the game, drastically limiting the amount of dialogue, and allowing far fewer dialogue branches. This game does dialogue the same way Morrowind did it, which was to voice only greetings, various battle and action lines, special cutscenes, and catch phrases, with everything else being text. This, in my opinion, is the superior way to handle dialogue in a game.

Games today seem to try to be interactive movies, whereas these kinds of games are more like interactive books (or perhaps interactive comics), where the story is told primarily through text. I like text. I like reading. I like good stories. Movies are all well and good, but I really think we're losing something unique as games keep scaling back the amount of dialogue. Could we ever see something as amusing as Minsc's shaggy-dog story of the retainers of Fyrra Vsevolod in a game with full voice acting?

Taking Bioware as a single example, I would compare Baldur's Gate, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and the upcoming Dragon Age 2 in the way they handle dialogue. I put Mass Effect in there out of sequence, only because Dragon Age 2 seems to be building on ideas they introduced in Mass Effect. If I were using Bethesda as an example, Morrowind and Oblivion would go in place of Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age, as the effects are pretty much identical. So the evolution of character dialogue seems to go like this:

  1. Baldur's Gate: No voices except for character catch-phrases and special encounters. Long, detailed conversations with many possible responses. Responses were sometimes paragraphs in themselves, allowing you to express a very strong viewpoint. Many races, sub-races, and classes to choose from.
  2. Dragon Age: Voices for everyone except the player character. Three races to choose from, either male or female. Conversations are now a fraction of the length of the ones in Baldur's Gate, but feel longer because I read faster than these people speak their lines. Responses are now limited to 1 or 2 lines of text. Maybe 3 on rare occasions. Responses are assumed to be delivered exactly as worded.
  3. Mass Effect: Voices for everyone, including the player character. Only 1 race to play, male or female. Conversation length is about the same as in Dragon Age, but the responses are not even full lines anymore. Instead, you get a summary of your response, and when you choose one, the character speaks a slightly longer and different response (occasionally not quite what you intended to say).
  4. Dragon Age 2: Like Mass Effect, the player character is also voiced. As a result, unlike in Dragon Age 1, you are limited to a single race. According to reports, the dialogue responses have been simplified even further than in Mass Effect, to the point at which you don't even get a summary of what you'll say, but only a "mood" or general subject. You can still play as male or female, but the way these things are going, I wouldn't be surprised if they eventually offer only a single character choice, opting to drop more and more character customisation and story elements for the sake of the "full voice-over" crap that I don't want!

Do these companies even really care about games anymore, or do they actually want to be making movies instead? Some games sure seem to be going that way (Heavy Rain, the Metal Gear series...)

Large amounts of text are not gamer-bane! Look at WoW, perhaps the most successful video game ever, and it's still going strong with no spoken dialogue aside from little things like the "hello/goodbye" lines they say when you click on them or end a dialogue, and brief lines spoken by bosses during encounters. Blizzard, at least, doesn't seem to be falling into this trap. (Yet?)

Back to talking about Baldur's Gate

The characters are very vivid and memorable. I immediately took a liking to Gorion, the main character's foster father, and Imoen, the cheerful pink-haired thief. I'm not exactly sure which parts of the dialogue are from the original and which are added or enhanced by the NPC Project, but I've read that Imoen had hardly any dialogue interaction in the original game, whereas now she's a real chatterbox. But in a good way.

Some more customisation

As I mentioned earlier, I ended up making some custom portraits for my character. The included portraits were well-made and had an interesting look to them, but there were no portraits that looked like how I'd want to see my character. Most of the fan-made portrait packs attempted to duplicate the style of the original portraits, though there were some that departed from that style and simply used general fantasy art. Well, there's been a lot more fantasy-themed art available online since the time of BG's heydey, and I was able to find plenty that would make a good portrait. However, I ended up finding these great alternate portraits on Deviant Art (and the artist's second version, which include more characters), which were so great I had to go with them. Unfortunately not all characters and companions are included here, so I try to improvise where I can when I come across a new companion that doesn't have one. It's a rather unique style, though, so it's hard to find art that matches it.

Alternatively, there are also some other realistic style portraits that cast celebrities in these character roles. They're scattered in amongst the many other portraits in this gallery, and I couldn't find a grouping that just included the celebrities, but seeing a party including Vin Diesel, Halle Berry, Ed Norton, Sean Connery, Ben Stiller, and many others is very tempting. A lot of them happen to be grouped together on this page in the Fighters category, but don't miss the ones in the other categories.

The portraits are really the only view you have of the characters in the game, so they're very important. The characters' representations that you move around on the game screen are so small and vague, you can only make out a basic body shape and colours of their clothes (which you can adjust to your liking in the character profile pages), and the aforementioned paperdolls are extremely abstract. For these portrait changes, I used Shadowkeeper, a nice little tool for handling BG saved games.

After this rather clumsy introduction, I should get into the actual gameplay and strategies I've been using, and my opinions of various characters and encounters which I've experienced so far. I'm going to have to split this off into another post, though, so stay tuned.

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