Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance Review

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Publisher: Black Isle (Interplay)
Developer: Snowblind Studios

Platform: Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube
Reviewed on Xbox

The city of Baldur's Gate is under siege from within. A new guild of thieves has taken up residence beneath the city. Unlike the old guild, they are not content to co-exist in an uneasy peace with the city's people and authorities. This new group has extended their turf war from just driving the old guild out of town, and is assaulting townsfolk and the city watch with equal disregard. As a would-be adventurer, your travels have taken you to the great city of Baldur's Gate in search of excitement, fame and power. Of course, as soon as you pass through the city gates, you are assaulted and robbed by this new guild, and your execution at their hands is only stayed by the arrival of a well-armed patrol.

When you seek shelter from the darkness in the Elfsong Tavern, the barkeep offers you work cleaning out her cellar to help you back on your feet. Killing rats seems to universally lead to something greater, and in seeking revenge on your assailants you are ultimately led to a sinister plot that began with the execution of Eldrith, commander of the Company of the Western Sun, and her betrayal of Baldur's Gate.

Kyle Ackerman

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is an excellent adaptation of the AD&D 3rd Edition rules to an action-rich console game. Past installments of the Baldur's Gate series (Baldur's Gate, Tales of the Sword Coast, Shadows of Amn and Throne of Bhaal) have been extensive adventures for the PC, filled with dialog, side quests, character development and complex relationships. Dark Alliance takes the same setting into the action genre, a world that will be more familiar to countless console gamers and PC gamers who favor stemming the tide of evil, Diablo-style.

As with many games, if you look past the pretty graphical package and plot, you run around, collect items and kill monsters. Dark Alliance wraps these nicely in a familiar fantasy setting of the Forgotten Realms and lets you slay multitudinous monsters on the way to ultimately defeating a foe of pure fury. At any difficulty past the easiest, Dark Alliance will require some coordination and reflexes, as your character's position is just as important as the timing of your blows and blocking to your character's survival. The challenge of dexterity that Dark Alliance poses (at the appropriate difficulty) is significant, but surmountable, and just difficult enough to instill a sense of accomplishment each time you progress to another save point. When that feat is combined with the spectacular environment, enemies and creature animations, the game is a pleasure to play to completion, and may have substantial replay value.

Snowblind Studios, the developers, appear to have paid attention to good design in other games. Most of all, they have captured a lot of what made the Diablo series fun. Even some of the moves will seem familiar. The warrior has a sweeping Whirlwind Attack, the archer can fire volleys of arrows, and the sorceress can rain meteors from the sky, which will prevent her from casting spells for a few seconds. Save points are scattered throughout the game, and while it would be nice to have the ability to save your progress, there are recall potions which can be used to return to a safe location to save, sell items and re-provision your adventurer. Most of all, while single player play is great, the game is far better as a multiplayer experience. Two people can adventure together, splitting experience, but allowing one character's strengths to offset the other's weaknesses. This adds a social aspect to the game and a spirit of cooperative accomplishment that is hard to beat. A weakness, similar to other such games (yet drawn, in part, from the AD&D 3rd ed. rules) is that you must allocate improvements among skills as you advance in power, and it is possible to do so in a way that will handicap your progress. In general it is better to concentrate your skills, but it is possible to play the sorceress to the end, specializing in lightning skills to which the final foe is largely immune.

The myriad nasties of varying power you plough through ultimately culminate in battles against bosses which require the usual pattern recognition and exploitation. While I'm not typically in favor of bosses, they can be a nice counterpoint when creative enough of concept and beatable with minimal repetition. Some of the major fights, such as that with thief-lord Karne, are more irritating than exciting, while others, such as that at the end of Chapter One, are incredibly designed and exciting.

The graphics are great, bringing a three-dimensional environment to the hack-and-slash gameplay. The camera perspective is above and to the side so the area of your view is limited, but what can be seen is gorgeous. The water effects and ripples are particularly nice. Some of the later foes are displacer beasts, which go invisible, but can be found by tracking the wake they create in the water. When battling zombies, they are slowly dismembered. You can hack off the limbs and head, but the creatures keep coming, with the torso sometimes crawling towards you long after it has been hacked from the legs. One strange bug recurred, in which large sections of the world disappeared, but restarting the Xbox cured the problem. There are also occasionally some odd lighting effects, but the environments, such as a keep in a marsh or the guild headquarters under Baldur's Gate, are thoughtfully detailed, and the character animations are superb. While Alyth the barkeep's animations may be excessively detailed, Sleyvas the lizardman shaman and Keledon in the Hall of Remembrance move in a very lifelike way, punctuating their dialog effectively. All of these animations are accompanied by great voice acting, including actors such as John Rhys-Davies.

Plot is not the main strength of an action-heavy game, but the plot that exists is decent. Clearly a lot more effort was sunk into scripting the first chapter, which takes place in Baldur's Gate, than thereafter, but there is an overall arc to carry the player from beginning to end. In the city, characters are constantly filtering into the Elfsong Tavern, needing help and offering advice or little tasks that can be completed for helpful rewards. There is even some foreshadowing of the chapter's end. As the game progresses, extraneous characters seem to be whittled away. A dwarven camp holds mainly a chieftain with tasks and a shopkeeper with items, and the final safe location has a single character to serve all functions. The early variety was nice.

There are some minor issues with Dark Alliance worth mentioning. While save points are usually plentiful, and recall potions fill in the gaps, there is a long stretch after the completion of Chapter One in which you have no safe location to recall to, save points are sparse, and you are poorly equipped, having just fought a major battle. Stores stock useful items, and after the game's beginning, all the way until the last few moments, items you can purchase are usually far better than anything that is found, limiting the thrill of discovery. Found items mostly just provide cash with which to purchase better equipment. Perhaps worst of all, there are jumping puzzles in the game, which thankfully only exist in the guild, and have save points on both sides.

From beginning to completion, on normal difficulty, the single player campaign will take between ten and twenty hours to complete. Not only are there multiple difficulty levels, but the three characters available offer reasonably different play styles. Kromlech, the Dwarven Fighter, can be played successfully by just learning the attack and block buttons, and relying on brute strength. Adrianna, the Elven Sorceress, requires more planning to play, as her spells need to be aimed, timed properly, and used in appropriate combinations. Vahn, the Arcane Archer, requires the most finesse, as well as careful inventory management, lest he run out of his arsenal of arrows. Each character can be developed in multiple ways, and with three different characters and multiple difficulties (even though the map and enemies stay the same), the game has replay potential. Also, once you complete the game a single time, a mode called The Gauntlet becomes available. In The Gauntlet, you guide the famous Forgotten Realms personality Drizzt the Dark Elf Ranger through a series of rooms, where you need to defeat all available monsters before a time limit expires. Completing The Gauntlet is a necessary test of skill that unlocks the extreme level of difficulty (harder than "hard"). While you can import advanced characters and items into other games, extreme mode takes an advanced character, strips them of all items, and starts the adventure over against even more powerful monsters. If you complete extreme mode you can play the adventure again with Drizzt.

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance contains a lot of fun, and is an even better experience with an ally. You'll find you want to break the Dark Alliance's hold on Baldur's Gate at least once, and you may need to rescue the town's denizens several times for good measure.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 1, 2002 2:40 PM.

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