Thursday, August 13, 2015

Baldur's Gate (without the nostalgia glasses)

It's a good game. Good, not great... and I say that while making great allowance for the Infinity Engine's primordial manifestation. As the engine's first showing, Baldur's Gate suffered most from the clunky movements and object interactions we used to take for granted in the games of yesteryear. I say without prejudice that most of my death / curse at screen / re-load moments have been caused by characters' hopelessly lemmingish pathing algorithm. Finding that your hero decided to take the scenic route around a bush by climbing a mountain gets old fast, as does looking at a character pacing endlessly back and forth stuck in an algorithmic loop, or seeing a mage stuck between your two fighters and the enemy because there's exactly one pixel's worth of room lacking between them to retreat through.

That's sort of a given though. When you buy a good old game, you take it for granted and even revel in re-living the bad old days of both brilliant creativity and amateurish, unintelligible, counter-intuitive and bug-riddled storytelling and programming. You grit your teeth and learn to move everything one arduous step at a time and hope those olden-days design mavericks make it worth your while. The real issue is the gameplay found within those limitations.

Take movement speed for instance. Computers' capacity was just growing to the point where designers gloried in painting lush, heavily-decorated and above all large 2D environments but they didn't realize this would incur much tedium for customers repeatedly traversing giant landscapes at the same "walk" speed which had been scaled for ten-by-ten-foot rooms. You'd think Black Isle would've conceded this point after players' complaints about the exact same issue in Blizzard's Diablo a year or two prior. Of course, there was an obvious balance issue to it, as you're supposed to be slow enough to be somewhat vulnerable to chasing enemies, but the developers seem to have been blissfully unaware there was even a need to seek some sort of compromise between the two elements. Lesson learned? You need, neeeeed plenty of outside testing by people who don't know where every single NPC and item is and can tell you how annoying it is having to run back and forth trying to find everything, much less walk.

Mob respawns also harried the player unnecessarily, being so frequent as to make revisiting any wilderness area a mind-numbing grind.

Hero death = party death, though it makes sense from a storytelling standpoint, restricts player character choice unnecessarily. Playing as either a one-shottable wizard or a melee fighter pales in comparison to a back-row thief, ranger or cleric.

Then again, any character's death quickly starts to warrant a re-load, not because the revive costs are at all exorbitant but because picking up everything the corpse dropped is rendered wholly impractical by the game's painstakingly rudimentary inventory system.

Open-air resting ambush spawning seems to have been implemented without a thought as to how it fails to translate from pen-and-paper to a save/load cRPG. Re-load to re-roll the dice until you avoid ambushes or keep resting to spawn ambushes and farm them for EXP, either way this was lazy design.

Random encounters spawning all around you and insta-gibbing your spellcasters are, as in Icewind Dale, used much too heavily. A big part of strategically designing a party is selecting the order of engagement, and while some randomness is always good if for no other reason than to punish min-maxing, entirely too many fights throw you into a cramped little room with no way to maneuver or place enemies right on top of you. Combined with the aforementioned joke of a pathing algorithm, this again racks up the death/curse/reload count unnecessarily. Equally annoying are all the long-winded, unskippable dialogues which drop you right into difficult fights, denying any tactical ability.
These last flaws especially seem to have been left unaddressed for a decade, until Dragon Age at last started auto-saving in between dialogues and fights and placing ambushes in highly threatening but not cumbersome positions. NWN 1 and 2 certainly still suffered from "behindja! (dead)" despite their overall very low difficulty setting.

Speaking of Dragon Age, I've heard it said that it was intended as the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate and y'know... I can see it. The emphasis on several towns and nonlinear gameplay while not attempting to be truly sandboxy, the not quite open world, the even mix of combat and storytelling, the party roster, yeah, it makes sense. The NWN games were much less... adventurous, I suppose I'd say. When discussing Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale I noted that Torment's dialogue-heavy player involvement has aged much better than Icewind's program-dependent combat focus. Writing is writing, in 1999 or 2015, but dealing with a chore of an antiquated game engine detracts quite heavily from even the best combat mechanics. As the all-encompassing precursor and trendsetter for later games, Baldur's Gate is neither here nor there, more immersive than Icewind Dale's linear combat progression but lacking Torment's much deeper characters and world.

But ah, the world. If you've read this far and you're wondering why despite my complaints I'm still talking BG slightly up instead of down, there you have it. Baldur's Gate is wonderfully, astoundingly, even stupidly big. Like Dragon Age, it was meant to establish a franchise, make a name for itself, dazzle players with oodles of content, and it does so with gusto. Feel free to tell the first few companions you meet to take a long walk off a short pier if you feel like it. You'll meet two dozen of them along your journeys, and you only need five. You'll meet a few unique challenges (though admittedly less so than in Icewind Dale) like basilisks, sirens and wyverns all requiring purposeful counters instead of mindless bullrushing, which is a welcome break from most RPGs' complete reliance on undead as boogeymen. Above all, explore, explore and explore some more. Though it falls far short of open-world games like the Elder Scrolls series in this respect, it still offers more than enough gimmicks to keep you looking, from simple visual additions like a mysterious blood smear on some rocks to convoluted NPC dialogues and seemingly endless side-quests.

Yet here's where I again say: good, not great. Even ignoring all the clunky interface issues which can be partly addressed by more modern rehashing like the enhanced edition, Baldur's Gate never quite gels. It lacks personality. Partly it's because it's very generic and all-encompassing, not detailed enough to be truly immersive, hampered once again by its technological limitations. Partly it's because the developers, caught up in the rush of "look, ma, no pen or paper" stuck in just a few too many easter eggs and sardonic asides like medieval merchants with Lockian economic theories, the miniature giant space hamster, the gnomish museum or a goblin (musical) band handing out autographs. It feels less like a thematically cohesive story and more like a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Largely, this is simply part of D&D's decades-long baggage as it tried to compete with all the other roleplaying systems it inspired, trying to be something for everyone (comedy and tragedy, faith and inventiveness, feudalism and freedom) and losing its focus. Planescape: Torment  remains the true gem of Black Isle's old collection because it managed to own such whimsy instead of being carried along by it. Dragon Age: Origins instead did away with the unnecessary baggage and refocused on the D&D-ish fighter/thief/mage feudal swashbuckling backbone before expanding it into something much more satisfyingly coherent.

Play Torment and DA:O first. Then, if you like those, go back and give Baldur's Gate a try to see what set their groundwork. It was a great achievement... for its time.

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