In case you've forgotten, Baldur's Gate was one of the definitive computer RPGs of recent years and it sold well over a million copies. Now the same developer, Canadian company Bioware, has released the sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows Of Amn with an updated graphics engine and a vast number of additional spells, monsters, weapons, magical items and new character classes.
Baldur's Gate fans expecting more of the same are unlikely to be as disappointed as they were with the intermediate release, Icewind Dale, but anyone expecting Baldur's Gate II to herald a new era in role-playing may as well give up now. BG II is simply BG with knobs on. Big knobs in places and many more of them, but knobs all the same.
So what's it all about? Well, it's set on the Sword Coast, part of the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons And Dragons fame and you take on the role of the character you played in the original game. If you've kept your character in the form of a saved game, you can import him or her into BGII. If you haven't, you simply create a new character but pretend it's the same one, if you see what I mean...
It's several months after your battle with the wizard Sarevok and you come round in a prison cell complex underneath the city of Athkatla, where you've been tortured by a nasty fellow called Irenicus. Fortunately, as happens in RPG plots, some assassins are attacking the complex and you're freed by your old friend Imoen from the original BG. Close by, you discover more old friends, Jaheira, the fighter druid and mad Minsc, the hamster-loving ranger.
Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to escape through two big levels of demonic dungeon and make it back to the surface. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy, more reminiscent of the brooding world of Planescape: Torment than the blissful fairy world of BG.
The starting level is 89,000 experience points, which makes you anything from sixth to eighth level, depending on your choice of class. Owners of the Tales Of The Sword Coast expansion pack get to start at 161,000 XPs as a bonus. Maximum levels vary from 14th for a druid, 17th for a mage, ranger or paladin to 19th for a fighter, 21st for a cleric and 23rd for a thief, with an XP cap of 2,950,000. This means you can become a pretty powerful character and even own your own stronghold.
The locations to be visited are many and varied, including the Elven forests of Tethyr, the Cloudpeak Mountains, a Drow underground city and even the Abyss, although the main adventure is based around the capital of Amn, Athkatla. There are twice as many monsters as in BG - 130 to be precise - and 130 new spells to take the total to over 300. More than you can hope to shake a magic wand at, in fact. New items to be claimed include the Holy Avenger +5 sword and the Staff of the Magi. Oh, and there are now 15 different non-player characters who can join your party - up to a maximum of six, of course.
Monsters include beholders, djinni, elementals, vampires, wraiths, werewolves, golems, spectres and trolls as well as many more spellcasters and other interesting characters to fight. Trolls have to be burned or disintegrated with acid even when they're dead, otherwise they regenerate.
The graphics have definitely been improved,even if they're still not state of the art. And although still resolutely 2D, 3D cards are supported via OpenGL drivers to enhance spell effects and things like mist and shadows. And, you can expand the resolution to 800 x 600 instead of the bog-standard 640 x 480 the original was limited to. Each character and monster avatar now has twice as many animation frames as in BG - 280,000 in all - making them look more realistic.
The game interface has also had a facelift. Perhaps the best feature is the ability to remove all panels and toolbars to display more of the landscape in full-screen mode with a single key press. The inventory has been redesigned from the ground up but, frankly, it's made little difference. It's about as good as it gets anyway.
The real meat comes in character development and combat. BGII follows the second-edition D&D; rules pretty closely, although some things have had to be left out. You can't climb walls or use levitate spells, for example, because of the limitations of the 2D engine.
Combat has been made much more complex and, as a result, considerably more interesting. For instance, there are now up to five levels of proficiency in each weapon for fighter types, but it's also possible to spend weapon proficiency points on different fighting styles, such as the two-handed weapon style and the sword-and-shield style, single-weapon style and double-weapon style. Each gets different hit and damage bonuses or improves your armour class. Coupled with the 20-odd extra 'kits', that expand character development noticeably, Baldur's Gate II offers some absorbing customisation opportunities.
Combat in Baldur's Gate II is carried out in real time by default, but you really do have to change that. You can pause at any stage by pressing the space bar and then tell each character who to attack and with what. Various game options allow you to set the game to auto-pause when certain conditions occur - enemy sighted, trap found, weapon broken and so on.
Almost as good is the new storyline, which has a lot more depth and characterisation - the NPCs are much more intelligent, with better and more complicated scripts. They're also aware of whatever sex you choose to be. OK, you've only got a choice of two sexes, but you can't have everything. The encounters are much more challenging than in the original BG and even on the first level of the game, you're faced with some tough choices. At least they're tough if you've selected normal gameplay - you can make it easier or harder with a choice of five levels of difficulty.
As in BG, multiplayer is a bit of a disappointment. In essence, you play co-operatively with up to five other players either over a network or the Internet. Same plot, same everything. Come on guys, let's have some multiplayer maps or something.
Despite the sameness of the 2D engine, albeit with a few little improvements here and there, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows Of Amn is a great hack 'n' slay adventure that stretches over five CDs, and it should appeal to all fans of the original who are gasping for more - and anyone like me who was disappointed with Icewind Dale.
The plot is much better, the range of characters and equipment is awesome and the whole things looks the business. Bioware reckon there's about 200 to 300 gaming hours in it, including all the sub-plots and quests that you have to carry out to boost your experience. Some of them are tedious fetch-and-carry tasks, but others are a lot more challenging.
Unfortunately, there do seem to be bugs. My first party wasn't able to sleep in the city of Athkatl, even at an inn, for some unfathomable reason. And it crashed frequently when trying to access one particular location. If you can put up with this though, BGII is a thoroughly welcome addition to the ageing 2D RPG genre. The next stop has got to be inside the third dimension.
What more can we say, big name, huge game
Gob-smacking range of character types Dozens of vast locations Much-improved graphics hundreds of new spells and magic items
Some alarming bugs have got through Silly quests are a pain