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Siege of Dragonspear uses the same engine as Beamdog's Enhanced Editions, which means that everything is in 2D and you get an isometric view of your surroundings. All commands can be controlled via the mouse. You click where you want your party to move, and you click on who (or what) you want to attack or otherwise interact with. Characters also get a hotkey bar, making it easier to trigger their quick items and abilities, but sadly it can't be configured, and it's sort of iffy for some of the class combinations (like for the new companion Glint, who is a cleric / thief).
Combat is played out in real time, but you can pause the game at any time to issue commands. You can also set up some auto-pause conditions, like pausing whenever a trap or enemy is spotted. Basic fighters and rangers don't have much in the way of combat skills, but there are plenty of spells, and setting up your clerics and mages correctly is one of the keys to winning the tougher battles. Characters can be healed by spells or by resting. Spells must be memorized by resting, which means you only have a limited arsenal for each fight, and you have to think about when and where to use your best spells. But there isn't a time limit for the campaign, and there aren't many places where you aren't allowed to rest.
Each creature you kill grants some experience, which is split evenly by your party. The experience cap was increased from 161,000 to 500,000, so you can gain a couple of levels while playing. Some creatures also drop equipment, but since Siege of Dragonspear is a Dungeons & Dragons game, a lot of it is of the unexciting +1 and +2 variety. Unique, named items are few and far between.
When the game opens up, you learn that somebody named Caelar Argent has started a crusade to free the souls of the people captured by demons during the Dragonspear Wars. This sounds noble, but the crusade is heavily into the ends justifying the means, and they don't care who they trample on as long as they get closer to what they want. You become aware of the problem when refugees start pouring into Baldur's Gate while fleeing from the crusade, and then when Caelar mysteriously sends assassins to ambush you, you decide to get involved. There are also whispers that maybe Caelar is a Bhaalspawn, which gives you extra incentive.
Sadly, while the premise seems fine, it's also about 90% of the story. You never learn much more about Caelar, or about the Dragonspear Wars, or about the crusade. You just set off with a coalition of forces from Daggerford, Baldur's Gate and Waterdeep to confront Caelar, and this trip takes up the majority of the game. I've mentioned in other reviews that I much prefer my RPG campaigns to be novels rather than anthologies, but Siege of Dragonspear is heavily into the latter category. It's basically a road movie with generic fantasy encounters.
Luckily, the individual parts of the campaign work out reasonably well. There are over a dozen major map areas to explore (making Siege of Dragonspear roughly twice as large as Tales of the Sword Coast), the dialogue is well-written and frequently voice acted, and the quests have some heft to them and usually give you two or more ways to complete them. There are also some tough fights to deal with, including one variation of the final boss battle that I worked on for a couple of hours and couldn't complete -- even when cheating. Siege of Dragonspear is definitely more challenging than Baldur's Gate.
If I were to use one word to describe the Siege of Dragonspear campaign, I might select "competent" or "functional" or maybe even "good," but I'd stop well short of "exciting," "memorable," or "great." Everything is playable, and everything works... but it's fine, with both the good and bad connotations of the word intended. Beamdog probably would have been better off not trying to tie their game to the Baldur's Gate franchise, especially since it's a major whiff in its stated purpose of bridging the gap between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II. Outside of some brief and cryptic cameos by Jon Irenicus and some hand-waving at the end, Siege of Dragonspear could have taken place at any time in any game universe. The whole Caelar business doesn't have anything to do with anything.
I didn't love Siege of Dragonspear, but I didn't hate it, either. I played through the campaign twice, once with a good party and once with an evil party, and I enjoyed it well enough both times. It took me well over 60 hours to complete the two playthroughs, and that's not bad for a $20 price tag. So if you liked the Infinity Engine games and you want to try something new, then Siege of Dragonspear is a worthwhile purchase. Just try to keep your expectations tempered, as Beamdog isn't quite in the same class as old BioWare.
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