If you've been visiting GameBanshee for a very long time, then you know that BioWare's Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn was the title that officially "put us on the map" not long after we launched back in 2000. We loved the game and covered it extensively, but couldn't have possibly realized at the time that so few titles would ever approach its splendor nearly two decades later. We editorialized about this phenomenon back in 2005, and I suppose that is partially why I find this post on NeoGAF declaring that "17 years later, Baldur's Gate II is still one of the best RPGs ever made" so interesting. Will it ever be toppled from its lofty place in the echelons of video gaming?
Which brings me to my next point - side quests. There's very little filler here. Most are pretty lengthy and involved, having you trek across different locations, solve (not so simple) puzzles, collect interesting items and fight foes (and what a diverse lineup it is!) of varying power. There are many twists and surprises along the way and what may start out as a kobold or slaver hunt could easily turn into a battle against a lich. The stories and npcs involved, while part of a typical fantasy setting, are competently written and leave a lasting impression - even minor characters are worth remembering. My favorite thing about the side quests in BG2 however is the motivation for doing them - it starts out with a nice tie-in to the main quest where you're tasked with collecting resources so you can buy the help of a shadowy group, and continues when you realize your party could really use those few pricey items you spotted in Adventurer's Mart (*cough* Robe of Vecna *cough) or you find yourself tangled in a situation that caught you off guard because you stuck your nose where you weren't supposed to. Your party members each come with their own quest and because they are a decent bunch you'll probably want to help them out.
Main quest is surprisingly intimate, which is fascinating when one considers the gigantic scope of the game, and features an enigmatic villain with real motivations for his actions. Again, considering how painfully typical this fantasy setting is, the writing is anything but.
This extends to companions who come in all shapes and sizes, with different levels of combat usefulness, alignments, class kits, interesting backstories, quests and relationships that might cause clashes within the party further down the line, if not kept in check. In truth, these things might make putting a party together a little painful for new players because there are quite a few things (like story triggers) that can really blindside if you're not prepared for them, but at the same time it offers a lot of options for interesting party compositions and interactions within them as different personalities find themselves facing various situations together. Each companion also feels like a real person, with realistic motivations (again, fascinating considering the setting) and morals, and they will not hesitate to show you their disapproval if it comes to it.
And now to my favorite part - the loot! This is one of those things that unfortunately keeps letting me down in newer RPGs - even games like Pillars of Eternity, made by seasoned rpg developers, fumbled in this area, not to mention Witcher 3 and it's painful attempt at trying to scale loot, or how they managed to make 99% of loot obsolete with the introduction of witcher sets - but I digress. Games like Dragon Age with its marginal incremental upgrades on gear are not much better, and neither are the Elder Scrolls games - what good is a daedric artifact if it's mechanically identical to any other enchanted item and does some pitiful extra elemental damage on each attack? No, Baldur's Gate will have none of that. This is the RPG if you're looking for interesting loot and actual artifacts. First of all, their acquisition is often tied to memorable quests or encounters - chances are that if you want a particularly powerful weapon you'll probably have to kill a dragon for it, or at the very least a very powerful mage or a lich. There are some notable exceptions of course (*cough* Robe of Vecna *cough*) but for the most part this game does an excellent job with matching the quality of the loot with the difficulty of the task. Second, due to the nature of the round based RTwP system, some mechanics of these items make them far stronger than they sound on paper. Celestial Fury is one such example. Or how about that Mace of Disruption +2? Sounds like your typical weapon that's decent at fighting undead, right? Well, yes, but also WRONG! How about killing one of the strongest liches in the game with a single swing of this bad boy - provided the dice like you, of course? Or wearing an amulet that makes you immune to most spells? Or a sword that dispells magic effects on the enemy with each swing? And it doesn't end there. At some point you will WANT stronger weapons because there will be enemies that will be completely immune to weapons that are not at least +4, or don't have the correct damage type. All these things make collecting artifacts a joy, and putting them to use an even greater joy (seriously, you have not lived until you've seen your fighter solo a horde of vampires while laughing at their pitiful attempts at energy drain).