So ever since I started reading gaming forums regularly, Baldur's Gate 2 has been one of those games against which all other similar games are judged. It constantly shows up in gamers' top 5 lists and every review I've read about it has been absolutely glowing. So well over a year ago I began to keep an eye on it in the stores. It was still being sold in the big boxes and was still selling for $40-$50. I never wanted to drop that kind of coin on an old game when there were so many new releases that deserved that kind of cash. I eventually grabbed it on eBay for a decent price and gave it a whirl. I played through the tutorial, started the actual game, trudged through the opening scenes and dialog, quit, and uninstalled.Read on for a story of true redemption.
I chalked it up to "not my kind of game" and the fact that I have very little experience with D&D. Having to learn and play multiple characters with spells and skills and equipment I didn't really know anything about seemed like an insurmountable chore. I mean, this was a game actual D&D players called epic! I had no business playing this game. Into the archives it was tossed.
Fast forward to this past weekend. I was dumb enough to play with the Budget feature of Quicken and, in order to eat and pay my mortgage and stuff, was forced to actually put a limit on my gaming expenditures. I won't go into specifics, but let's just say that now I have to "save up" for a new release. I'm afraid that Xbox purchase just got pushed out to somewhere in 2007. Of course, for all I know, this budget will be as short-lived as, well, any other budget I ever created. But this past weekend I needed a game. I let my mouse hover over the catalog of game icons on my desktop, but couldn't really muster up the enthusiasm to click. I downloaded and installed Steam and watched with horror as it spawned a half dozen windows and created a progress bar that informed me that I would be ready to play Counter-Strike in 347 hours and 22 minutes. I whined to Certis a little over ICQ, but all he could talk about was Temple of Elemental Evil. In fact, he talked so much about all the RPG goodness it would bestow upon the gaming world that I even started to believe I needed a piece of that. But, having bought my first retail copy of Half Life earlier this month, my budget wasn't going to allow me anywhere near it. By now I was feeling pretty desperate to play a game. I even half-considered going downstairs and playing that Luigi Vacuums game that I got with my Cube on launch day. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I hit the archives.
I flipped past Myth 1, 2, and 3. I slowed going through the next lot. Unreal Tournament, MDK2, Deus Ex, and Thief all came free with my SoundBlaster so long ago. I'd given them each their short spin in the drive before moving on. I know many of you will find this sacrilegious, but I enjoyed MDK2 the most out of all of those. I even paused when I got to my Blizzard section, but it was mainly just to smile at them and assure them that I still cared about them. Then I stumbled upon an entire series of discs that all belonged to one single game. Baldur's Gate 2's four CDs stared at me and issued a challenge. A breeze blew open the shades in the room, the creepy wooden box in my attic groaned, and the spiral bound tome of a manual that came with the game practically leaped from my bookcase. I made a deal with the game. If I tried to install and run this antique software on my XP computer, and it didn't flake out, I'd play it past the point where I quit the last time.
Not only did it install, patch, and run cleanly, but it even ran smoothly when I cranked every setting up and even used an unsupported video resolution. Having played some of Neverwinter Nights, I was worried that the graphics of such an old game as BG2 would drive me away. However, since Neverwinter was all 3D, and Baldur's Gate 2 still used the 2D "painted" backgrounds, much of the scenery in BG2 actually looks superior. Of course all the pretty scenery in the world wouldn't save the game for me if I didn't enjoy playing it. I forced myself through the tutorial again so I could learn to cast a spell or search for traps. Some of the time I spent with Neverwinter Nights actually helped smooth out the learning curve this time through. I finally booted into a New Game and attacked the opening dialogs armed with something I didn't have the first time through, patience. I allowed Minsc and Jaheira to tell their stories while I freed them and we all set out to take our time and explore. What did I find out once all the NPCs shut up? I found out Baldur's Gate 2 is a well crafted game with an engaging storyline.
I played for hours that day. I didn't get very far since combat is still very much, literally, a trial by fire. I save like I'm getting paid for it. I'm worried that I'm going to do something irreversible and suddenly be faced with a "Game Over. Try Again." screen, at which time I will promptly uninstall. It feels a little like those Choose Your Own Adventure books I was hooked on as a kid. Those were notorious for suddenly punishing you for making the wrong choice by pretty much ending the book in one short paragraph on page 74. If this game does the same, I might not ever forgive it. So far it hasn't happened, though, and I've progressed through a story that I feel I've taken an active role in creating. I'm guessing that kind of involvement is what we're all looking for in an RPG.
That night I went to bed reading the manual. I woke up and read some more while my coffee was brewing. When I got home from work yesterday the first thing I did was finish reading the NPC descriptions I had left off at when I went to work. I played and played last night uncovering additional plots and picking up new party members and their quests. What I found particularly impressive was that some of the quests never even felt like quests. We are all dreadfully familiar with the standard library of quests: Please deliver this [insert item here]; Please find this key to [insert item here]; Please draw me a hot bath and pour in some essence of [insert item here]. Well some of the events and quests just sort of happen around you in this game without anyone actually instructing or asking you to do anything. It's pretty ingenious and certainly welcome.
I'm not going to bother reviewing the game for you. I may, in fact, be the only remaining gamer who hasn't played it. And I can't even say if I'll even be playing it a week from now. At the pace I've been advancing, it could take me until that date in 2007 when my budget will allow me to get an Xbox. But I felt it was important for me to make a public statement concerning the fact that Baldur's Gate 2 is a good game. How's that for a news flash? Stay tuned to GWJ when we bring you the breaking story of a humble plumber on a quest to climb a bunch of ladders to confront a barrel-throwing gorilla about a kidnapping.