(PC Review) Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

Developer: BioWare / Overhaul Games
Publisher: Beamdog
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 6.5 = Fair

Minimum Requirements:
P4 1 GHz, 512MB RAM, OpenGL 2.0 comp. video card (Intel graphics chipsets are not supported)

Indulging your nostalgia can be a tricky move, as books, movies, and games you once enjoyed passionately as a youth sometimes show their age when you revisit them years later. Luckily, Baldur’s Gate has always seemed to be pretty immune to this effect, with its solid gameplay and enduring characters still a joy to experience even today. Indeed, Overhaul Games is banking on that fact with its own revival of the game in the form of Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, which attempts to simplify the process of going back and enjoying this particular gaming achievement. Whether or not it actually succeeds, however, is far from a simple yes or no answer.

Baldur’s Gate is an enduring classic, more than a decade old, so summarizing the actual game seems rather silly. In many ways, the tale is archetypal, seen repeated in many tales before, and certainly in countless CRPGs since: the naive youth is forced by tragedy to travel the realm to set right an ancient wrong. In this case, the tragedy is the death of your mentor, the realm is the Forgotten Coast, and the ancient wrong is…well, that would be spoiling it. Suffice to say this entertaining tale will carry you through monster-infested forests and mines, through ancient dungeons filled with powerful artifacts, and through villages and cities rife with new allies and old enemies. It’s a classic story that’s as fun to play today as it was when it came out years ago, as you assemble a party of colorful characters and embark on all manner of quests.

So that aside, how does the new edition improve upon the original release? Well, for starters, there’s the fact that it offers you a rather old PC game in full widescreen glory. Right “out of the box,” and with no additional tweaks, you can bypass the old 640×480 resolution of yesteryear and simply play in whatever resolution you’re working with. Also built right into the game are all the delicious improvements offered by Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, including bottomless storage options of potion bags and gem bags—though oddly, scroll cases are absent. Other interface improvements that are purloined from the sequel include map annotation, larger item stacks, and the ability to hide parts of the interface. Even better are the instant use of BG2’s class kits, including the wonderful wild mage class, as well as the many weapon and spell abilities that go along with the various additions. Even the ability to hit Tab in order to highlight the lootable sections of the screen is present, happily. Although the original is a great game, its sequel was superior in nearly every way, and BG:EE does its best to borrow liberally from the best aspects.

If you’re even slightly familiar with the Baldur’s Gate scene, however, much of this likely sounds familiar to you, and with good reason. Right this moment, you can run a quick search for a wonderful free mod called BGTutu, which uses an existing install of BG2 to essentially import the first game into the second, providing it with many of the advantages and interface upgrades it provides. This means being able to bring class kits, better resolution, larger item stacks, gem bags, and so on. In other words, for the same price of the BG:EE, you can purchase both the first game and its fantastic sequel at GOG.com, and install any number of terrific free mods—including BGTutu, bug fixes, and some widescreen mods—that bring all the benefits that the new edition counts as a feature, and the mind-blowing sequel as part of the bargain.

The question then becomes, what does BG:EE bring that you can’t get elsewhere? The most obvious answer to that question is that it does away with the need for tinkering with a number of mods by offering a simple, one-stop solution that requires nothing more but downloading and firing up the game. For some, this will be more than enough, as being able to avoid any additional mod-hunting and installations and so on may well be worth the price of admission. Anyone with even a slight amount of patience and technical inclination may disagree, though, and will likely find the GOG-and-mod path to provide far greater value.

To help make the decision a bit easier, the developers have attempted to provide some additional benefits, few of which are particularly satisfactory. There are three new recruitable NPCs, each with their own voice acting, backstories, and side quests. They are of admittedly fairly good quality, in many ways as good or better than many of the old characters.

Other small but interesting additions include The Black Pits, a well-done if wholly superfluous combat arena whose content is completely separate from the main game. It’s a nice, challenging, combat-centric distraction, which is more likely to appeal to players who prefer Icewind Dale to Planescape: Torment. To help bring players a bit closer to the action, BG:EE also allows you the ability to zoom in and out with a simple mouse scroll, which is a nice touch even if it tends to make the visuals far too chunky at even a few steps in. Finally, there’s also a handy quicksave button built right into the main screen, which is perfect given how insanely and satisfyingly difficult the game can actually be.

Unfortunately, these nice touches are all too often offset by the many issues that plague BG:EE, not the least of which are the frequent crashes, freezes, odd design choices, and utterly random bugs. There are a great many to list, almost too many to include here, but some of the highlights include tooltip text (such as hit points and character names) that is far too small and without any way to increase its size, as well as blanks in the character creation screens that strip out information you need to decide whether or not to select that class/race/etc. Even the journal, which is supposedly improved, cannot be explored adequately in some sections because the game assumes you want to select an item for editing when you’re really just trying to scroll through; combined with the complete lack of a scroll bar, this leaves some sections of the journal effectively useless, since you can’t move past the first screen without being forced into edit mode. Here’s hoping you didn’t actually need to read what was being stored there. Even the stock characters don’t come away unscathed, with many now using what seems to be the joke version of their commentary as you carry them along in your adventures. Unfortunately, the game abuses these lines ad nauseum, to the point where I had to ensure that only my main character—with his tolerable dialogue—was at the head of the party. Hearing poor Khalid stutter through “Ch-ch-ch-ch-chia” for the fiftieth time in four minutes was much too much for me.

Most appalling of all, however, is a particular issue introduced by the Beamdog client itself: in one instance of attempting to update my game, it claimed the hard drive had insufficient space, and cancelled out. I made room, and attempted to update again, at which point it repeated its now incorrect claim of having insufficient space. However, this also prevented me from booting the game proper, completely locking me out of Baldur’s Gate. After fruitless searches on support forums and random decisions, it was only through dumb luck that I thought to rename one of the data folders before attempting another boot-up, and then renaming it back. It was a silly fix found purely by chance that found me cursing the client for failing to allow me to do the one very simple thing it’s supposed to, i.e., load the actual game. While its use for alerting players to fixes and automatically installing updates is appreciable, it otherwise can seem like a pointless step in accessing the game proper, and these bizarre and frustrating game-killing bugs don’t help its case.

And for all these frustrations, we need to come back full circle to one of the advantages of this client, and indeed one of the major benefits of BG:EE: support. With this version, the developers are working diligently to address player issues and the many problems inherent in their take on the game, which is of course something you’d expect from a product you’ve just paid for. However, it’s a level of service you certainly can’t hope for when purchasing and modding the original version. Indeed, seeing tech support for Baldur’s Gate is not only great for nostalgia but also for potential tweaks to any number of remaining bugs in the core game.

In attempting to create a version of Baldur’s Gate playable on all modern systems with a minimum of fuss, Overhaul Games has unfortunately succeeded only in half-measures. Gamers who might be mystified by mods can simply boot up the new edition and enjoy without any additional complications, but that enjoyment arguably comes at somewhat of a price. For every step forward BG:EE offers, it also takes a step back, with any number of nasty bugs and issues cropping up almost right from the get-go. That said, Baldur’s Gate remains one of the great classics of computer role-playing games, and it’s a testament to its sheer enduring strength that its core gameplay remains utterly addictive even in the face of unending complications. Many of these complications are avoided through the original version and a little elbow grease, of course, meaning that those who will most enjoy Overhaul’s version will do so due to its total simplicity and technical support. Whether or not this is appealing will unlikely be enough to dispel its fog of issues, one that will hopefully dissipate over time.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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