Sunday, March 12, 2017

Baldur's Gate 2

While visiting Nalia's mansion, I found a jewel in a toilet. If that's not a metaphor for entertainment products in general, I don't know what is.

Torment:Tides of Numenera's finally come out and I have yet to play Tyranny, but before I dive headlong into new stuff I wanted to prioritize finishing off Throne of Bhaal and with that complete my impression of the game which has most strongly influenced cRPGs, Baldur's Gate 2. For my purposes here I'll forego any bitching about the Infinity Engine's limitations and assume the "Enhanced" editions of these games fixes their technical issues. Benefit of the doubt and all that.

Comparing the first Baldur's Gate to the second, the most obvious change seems the switch from a wide-ranging exploration adventure story to a more narrowly focused plot. Where BG1 attempted to lay out a lavish, expansive vision of the Sword Coast, from isolated hamlets to mining towns to a large city and seemingly endless wilderness areas, BG2 (and especially ToB) is all about YOU, dear customer. You're speshul. Aaaand, you know, I was gonna rant more against unduly flattering the player at this point, but Bhaal bless whoever wrote Jan Jansen's dialogue, that little rascal took the words right out of my mouth:
Granted this progression works admirably well for the Baldur's Gate series as a whole, ramping up the drama along the hero's journey, but it bears noting that BG2's railroading has unfortunately predominated in Bioware's later games and cRPGs as a whole, and not BG1's wider scope. Everyone wants the feel of BG2's epicness (epicosity?) while ignoring the necessary foundation provided by BG1, endlessly referenced and worked into BG2's main and side quests. Finding yourself lost in a big wide scary world is integral to adventuring.

BG2's increasingly heroic focus as the story wears on mandated other sacrifices as well. Quests were built around and reward the "good" option to the point where it's usually the only way to get paid. Granted me droog Viconia's proudly sporting her vest of Human Flesh +5, but siding with the evil red dragon meant giving up on 5/6 of the exp reward for a very long quest chain and killing the good white dragon was ramped up in difficulty until it's obvious you're being punished for picking the wrong side in a genre that's supposed to give you choices. In order to even remain fairly (chaotic) neutral, I had to balance the force-fed heroics with a burglary and murder of an unsuspecting nobleman. At least it's marginally more dignified than the default "evil" option, gutting random bums in the streets. Throne of Bhaal thankfully included evil options for some stages of its quest, but then it also progressed more linearly toward the big finish.

Overall though, BG2 benefited greatly from discarding most of the first game's random goofiness and nonsequiturs. Aside from the unwelcome steampunk mechanomagical gadgetry which breaks up Faerun's otherwise decidedly Tolkienish medievalism, the second game simply adheres much more successfully to its main thematic elements and keeps its dialogue from careening into buffoonery at every turn. This supports my impression, as an outsider to tabletop games, that DnD has always struggled with its own haphazard build-up of disparate game elements over the decades, never successfully balancing drama and comedy, never having benefited from the much more purposeful, conscious world-building seen in the myriad RPGs which grew from it and around it, the subculture and industry it fueled. My guess would be that many DnD fans loved BG2 simply for lending some much-needed coherence to an otherwise highly gelatinous cube.

I'll also have to reiterate my distaste for cutscenes and scripted encounters that force you into melee combat without preparation, dumping enemies right on top of you. They're especially heinous if, like me, you like playing squishy caster types.
In each Infinity Engine game I've played I quickly got annoyed at the denial of tactical planning. Often combat starts immediately after you go through a doorway, leaving no time to reposition, summon and buff. Above, I carefully approached the blatantly obvious trap, staying behind my army of underlings, only to have the dialogue script drag my character forward into danger regardless of my choices. Guess I'm only supposed to be playing a beefy deadhead meat-shield. No room for nerds in computer games, right? While forcing the player into bad positioning can be entertaining when used sparingly, overusing it punishes most of the more interesting RPG character options.

In any case, I doubt the Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale games will stand the test of time alongside Planescape:Torment. We look back on them fondly now simply because the relevant side of the computer game industry degenerated for fifteen years afterwards, dominated by moronically simplistic WoW-clones and "action" RPGs like Diablo, Torchlight and Divinity. The Inifinity Engine games on the whole, though, were plagued not only by technological limitations (which can be enhanced-editioned into playability) but by a slew of unsophisticated gameplay mechanics (the way they handled resting, inventory and resource management, spell timers, doorways, cutscenes, spawns and respawns, dependence on companions, etc.) whose unwieldiness only became apparent through many reiterations.

The Baldur's Gate games look like gems now merely for being found in the greater latrine of the game industry as a whole. An objective look quickly reveals the cracks. They're good, better in most ways than the Neverwinter Nights games were at any rate, and I confidently recommend a playthrough for anyone interested in cRPGs, but don't get taken in by the grandiloquent praise heaped upon them by fanboys frustrated by a generation's worth of absent competition in this field.

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