Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II
Can the surprise hit original foster an equally superb sequel? Come on in and check out the details.
Black Isle Studios
By Ben S. Dutka
When the announcement first reached the public of a new Baldur's Gate for consoles, RPG fans were skeptical. It was called an "action blend of Baldur's Gate and Diablo," and this, of course, was the source of the skepticism. It was released with little fanfare and a high level of public apprehension. But then the glimmers of positive feedback began to arise, and by the day of the release, glowing reviews were hijacking the Internet and game magazines nationwide. And although Snowblind Studios jumped ship, the sequel is here. Does it continue the excellence of its predecessor?
One of the most noticeable positive aspects of the original Baldur's Gate was the wonderfully smooth graphics. The water rippled fluidly, the lighting and coloring was spot-on, and both the enemy and character designs were beautiful. Is it any surprise that the sequel looks just about the same? There is essentially no major visual enhancement here, but due to the unusually high level of quality, that really shouldn't disappoint anyone. For those not familiar with the original, think "jaggie-less," spotless, and well-detailed. For those familiar with the original, think... the original.
The sound effects are spot-on; each physical blow, spell cast, and enemy grunt, screech, and roar are heard clearly and distinctly. Even when the action gets fierce, the sound effects never stray from the utmost position of clarity and distinction. The soundtrack is typical "dungeon-crawler," with mostly classical tracks blended over low tones and ominous beats. There are times when the soundtracks almost seem superimposed on the sharp sound effects, and the two don't blend together perfectly, but for the most part, it's a great effort.
The most surprising and alluring aspect of the original was its highly addictive and fluid gameplay. Combining the hack 'n slash format of Diablo with the D&D Forgotten Realms role-playing foundation; the developers created a fast-moving action/adventure game with several deep RPG elements. The battle was intense and entirely real-time, but behind the scenes, invisible to the player, the rolling of the dice D&D fans knew so well was taking place.
The sequel takes this tried-and-true formula and uses it quite effectively once again, as well as incorporating several new, and much-appreciated, additions. The base of the game still lies in the combat, which changes drastically depending on what type of character you wish to use. There are five types to choose from (as opposed to only three in the original), and they are: Allessia, the human Cleric, Borador, the dwarf Rogue, Dorn, the human Barbarian, Vhaidra, the Drow Monk, and Ysuran, the Elven Wizard. Obviously, the game plays very differently when using a Barbarian versus a Wizard.
On top of these wonderfully diversified classes, the unique skill sets have returned with all new abilities for each class. When you gain a level up, you may allocate the points you are given into your list of skills; learning and strengthening some extraordinarily effective abilities. As was the case with the original, you may also allocate one point to a statistic of your choosing every fourth level.
So on the surface, the game looks and plays identically to the original. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but you'll soon realize that there are several new elements that have a direct impact on the gameplay. First of all, there is a unique story and accompanying side-quest specific to each character, and if you want to find all the secrets the game has to offer, you'll have to play through the game with all five characters.
Furthermore, there is the Workshop, offered at the store in the town of Baldur's Gate. By purchasing and finding valuable gems, they can be affixed to weapons, armor, and accessories. Each gem adds a specific attribute; it could boost a skill, a statistic, or provide increased resistance to various forms of attack. You can experiment with dozens of different combinations until you find a fit that works best for your character and your playing style. However, this is an expensive proposition, so it's always best to be 100% happy with the arrangement before you create that flashy new piece of armor.
Whichever character you choose, you will always be able to maneuver smoothly and even jump over obstacles. Certain skills (i.e., Haste, Sprint, etc.) can add to your speed, but no matter how fast you're moving; the control you have is almost always perfect. However, while the speed of tough battles may not hinder you, it sure can hinder the frames. Slowdown can be a major issue at times, but thankfully, it isn't often. It's quite comical when it does occur, though, and seems to be more of a problem than it was in the original.
Despite this one minor drawback, the game still plays beautifully. Although the premise is mostly straightforward, there's some great stuff going on behind the scenes, in terms of both gameplay mechanics and sheer artistic capability. The strength of Dark Alliance lies in the wonderfully balanced gameplay and the fantastic visuals only add to the rock-solid foundation. Multi-player is a special treat as well, although you are limited to only two players at a time.
The game offers tons of skills to learn and master, hundreds of weapons, armor, accessories, and items, upgrades through the Workshop, five very different characters, and four challenging difficulty levels. It may not have the level of role-playing depth that Baldur's Gate on the PC sported, but then again, this isn't that type of game. However, make no mistake: it may be easy to pick up and play, but there's a lot of substance underneath.
The story behind Dark Alliance 2 is a direct follow-up from the original. Those who completed the first Dark Alliance will instantly realize that the sequel picks right up where they left off. The story is, quite frankly, not the strongest part of either game, but it's still written relatively well. It can take an unfortunate back seat with the sheer amount of time spent battling, but that can be construed as either a positive or a negative, depending on what kind of gamer you are. The town is small, but there is always somewhere new to explore elsewhere. The rest of the game's presentation is simple and solid, and effective without being overbearing.
Overall, some could say that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is too much like the original. First of all, given the superior production of the original, that couldn't possibly be too terrible. Secondly and finally, those that say it's "identical" have quite simply not played it. Given the definition of the word "sequel," Dark Alliance 2 is very nearly the perfect sequel. It uses the same wonderful gameplay mechanics and graphics engine, and makes several additions to an already successful formula. In my book, that's a darn fine step in what could be one of the very best series of this generation.