Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Beamdog
Developer:Overhaul Games
Release Date:2012-11-28
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
There are dozens of classic PC RPGs, but few of them, at least amongst the masses, are as well-remembered and loved as Baldur's Gate. Originally released in 1998, the game blended a strategy game interface with gorgeous pre-rendered visuals, a stirring soundtrack and, of course, the trademark Dungeons & Dragons gameplay and Forgotten Realms universe, which have definitely stood the test of time. While not BioWare's first game, it became the title that all of their subsequent releases would be based on, and compared to.

Led by Trent Oster, who worked on the original game, Overhaul Games have now created Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, a re-release which modernizes the title with new technology, new features and new content. While their effort is commendable, and some of the additions are worthwhile, even only an hour's play-time reveals that many, many corners have been cut, even after the title was delayed for a bit over a month. Ultimately, and unfortunately, this new "enhanced" version of Baldur's Gate is, for the most part, anything but.

Content Additions

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition certainly doesn't waste time in showing its new colors - literally. Upon first booting up the title, the old green stone menu screens have been replaced with gold-lined purple, described fairly accurately by the developers as "dwarven." From there, jumping into the original campaign shows off an all-new intro movie, drawn up in a series of moving stills that evoke the motion comic technique used in some other games, and when it comes time to create your character, you'll be treated to new voice packs and character portraits, all of which are quite well done.  The changes are obvious and immediate.

This new version of Baldur's Gate integrates many features from its sequel, Baldur's Gate II, a feat previously requiring mods to pull off. New character classes, spells, racial options and more are all present and accounted for, which, if you've never modded the game before, make character development that much more interesting. Once you've actually got past the new interface and come to terms with the updates to the ruleset, you'll find yourself starting out in Candlekeep just like in the original title, however, and the old game (including the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion) is preserved intact, for better or for worse.

The new additions to the game content itself don't take too long to appear.  As you adventure about, three characters join the fray: Rasaad the monk, Neera the wild mage, and Dorn the Blackguard. Each falls into an archetypical category - Neera is basically a "manic pixie dream girl", Dorn is a half-orc who is, yes, evil, and Rasaad is disillusioned with his faith following the death of his brother. You'll run into all of them by the game's second act assuming that you explore the game's main locations thoroughly, but it's nice to see the game doesn't necessarily highlight them or force them on you. All in all, they are fairly well written and decent additions to the game, but they certainly won't win awards for originality, and you'll be able to figure out their personalities, arcs and stories as soon as you lay eyes on them.  At least they're all different classes than the original characters, so if you want to experiment more with unconventional party members, now you can.

The second major content addition to Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition comes in the form of The Black Pits, a stand-alone adventure bearing no relation to the main game. In it, your party is captured by the wizard Baeloth the Entertainer, and forced to fight a series of arena battles - the arena host expects you to die in the pit, and it's your goal to stick it to him by getting out alive. Although Overhaul Games boast "over six hours of gameplay", that is not accurate, as I completed it in closer to three, and I found it very repetitive after the first 30 minutes or so. Some of the battles are interesting from a tactical standpoint (a necromancer who summons skeletons, or a bunch of archers who have set up traps between you and them), but it's still the same old combat in the same two near-identical levels over and over, against the same old enemies. Let's face it - as an arena mode, The Black Pits seems to have been chosen to allow for the developers to reuse as much content as possible.  It has some value as a way of testing party combinations and character builds, but none of your accomplishments there transfer into the main campaign.
The rest of the additions are smaller, but noticeable. The best of these is the new journal - anyone who has played the original knows it was simply not very good, and it has been vastly improved, with much better sorting options available that bring it in line with what newer games offer. The ability to zoom the "camera" in and out is also here, although I found no good use for it. To be honest, though, there were a lot of little things that stood out for me as strangely absent. For instance, item stack limits in the inventory have not been increased as far as to what I'd consider convenient, and using gem bags, scroll cases and similar to expand the inventory size is also still unnecessarily cumbersome. There is also, despite popular demand from fans and several available work-arounds, no way to create a full custom party like in Icewind Dale, which to me would have been a feature to really make the Enhanced Edition stand out.

Technical Updates

The other side to the Enhanced Edition is that it has been updated for today's computers. While clearly a lot of effort has gone into modernizing the game, unfortunately, this is also where it most stumbles. The simple fact is that, technically speaking, Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is a mess, and the issues it has drastically overshadow the brand new content.

First, there are the major issues. The game crashes, a lot. Playing it over the last couple of days, I had about a dozen crashes, most of them related to switching between areas, but some just in the middle of combat or exploring the environment. Every time I tried to add a marker to the area map, the game would crash to desktop. Many players, according to the commentary on the official forums, have not be able to get the game running at all, while others report issues with sound and music not playing back properly.  Although not quite a headline feature, multiplayer, despite offering "improved" matchmaking features, is also pretty much completely unplayable thanks both to lag as well as crippling bugs.

Second, there are the less game-breaking, but no less frustrating problems. Sometimes characters won't follow your orders and require you to issue them multiple times. There are graphical bugs such as flickering status icons and doors which have apparently have their graphics reversed, so they appear open when closed and vice-versa. Some of the old quests in the game do not progress or complete properly, such as saving Dynaheir from the gnolls' fortress. I frequently saw text errors saying "missing string." Sometimes during the more chaotic battles, the game would periodically hitch up and resume in a way that made things nearly unplayable.

Even then, there are more problems. Some of the rules for certain character class and race combinations are incorrect compared to the original game. Though the inventory screen has been modified to show additional statistics, some of these statistics are reported wrong (though the correct info is used when in battle). The list really does go on and on, and if you have played the original game, which is mostly bug-free and stable on current computers, it's simply appalling how many problems there are in this supposed "new and improved" version of Baldur's Gate.

There are also plenty of niggling issues which aren't really bugs, but speak to what is apparently Overhaul Games' lack of understanding for PC gaming. The graphics options in the game are non-existent, with no way to change resolution, or even brightness and gamma. Environmental audio effects, previously delegated to Creative's EAX, have simply been removed with no replacement to be heard. There have been no key bindings or customizations added. There is no way to scroll the camera diagonally using the arrow keys, and neither can the camera be moved by clicking and dragging with the middle mouse button. The interface, despite its stylistic shift, has received only minor upgrades (the best of which is the journal), and functionality that could have been improved upon remains almost entirely unchanged.
Presentation

What's perhaps the worst of all, though, is the way the game simply looks. Where the original version's graphics are sharp and pristine as ever, Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition is blurry and eye-straining when played in full-screen mode. As a result of adding the camera-zooming feature to a game with 2D artwork, the graphics have to be blown up to two, three or four times their original size. Not only is this feature near-useless because of how ugly it makes the game look, you also can't fully zoom the camera back out to regain the sharpness of the original graphics.  The only way to get the game looking sharp is to play in windowed mode, which has its share of problems like difficulty in scrolling the screen using the mouse, and of course, the lack of resolution options that prevent you from resizing the window.

On top of that, the user interface and updated fonts have apparently been drawn at a low resolution, and are scaled up. This means that the brand-new interface, regardless of art style, simply looks bad, and on top of that, much of the game text is hard to read as well. Even the new environments added for the personal quests of the new characters are underwhelming too - they don't match the sharpness or painterly attention to detail in any of the previous Infinity Engine games, instead looking more like screenshots taken from an early 3D strategy title, complete with low-resolution textures.  The brand-new cutscenes that replace the old ones are drawn well, but have stiff, barebones animation and don't mesh well with the game's established art style... and call me old fashioned, but I don't think the new interface colors suit the game either, as they're just too dark when put next to the bright, vibrant forests and cities.

I realize that I'm going on a bit of a tangent here, but it really is worth saying: this "enhanced" version of the game, designed specifically to run better on modern computers, and to look better, actually looks and runs substantially worse than the 1998 release. I do not purport to know why this might be the case, though judging by all the other technical problems, my bet is that the title was simply rushed out the door. No matter how, though, the end result is simply that the new version of the game is less enjoyable to play than the old one.

At least the new soundtrack and voice acting are both well done. The additional music found in The Black Pits and throughout the various game menus comes courtesy of Sam Hulick, who has done an admirable job of building on the original compositions in a way that doesn't feel out of place with the original score, though long-time fans will probably be able to tell his songs apart. The new voice-acting is fairly extensive and quite well-performed, and all involved do a fine job - save perhaps Mark Meer, who for some reason was cast as a monk with a bad Middle Eastern-esque accent.

Conclusion

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition could have been great, a tribute to a classic RPG and a promise of things to come for the franchise and for party-based RPGs in general. Its creators clearly had their hearts in the right place in trying to update Baldur's Gate for a newer generation, that's hard to deny. It's also hard to argue with new characters, quests, areas to explore, and a new adventure, all of which are, for the most part, competently done, if ultimately non-essential.

However, the lack of real advancement in terms of interface and controls, as well as the crippling number of glitches, simply makes it impossible to recommend this new version of Baldur's Gate over the original. The sad and ironic thing is that this version of the game, which boasts hundreds of bug fixes (mostly taken from the years-old work of modders), better performance and new features, ultimately looks like it will require multiple patches and mods to even reach parity with the modded-up original version. Unless you are desperate for the new content, I cannot in good conscience recommend Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, considering the original is still available, has hundreds of mods and bug fix packs, costs $10 USD less, and is just as great as it's ever been.