|Title Screen & Main Menu|
|Starting Out in Candlekeep|
|World Map (portion)|
|Attacked inside a house|
|Chapter One Introduction|
|Aftermath of an ambush and a new party member|
|Aftermath of a battle, don't let this happen to you|
Baldur's Gate supported cooperative multiplayer. While there was no central matchmaking service like Battle.net integrated into the game, TCP/IP hosts were supported. This allows the game to be played over the modern Internet today with comparative ease over games that just supported a serial null-modem, modem or IPX network connection. Baldur's Gate allows the players to go through the game with each player controlling his or her own character, up to six characters can join a game at a time. The first player would act as the leader and would be the central character in the game. If he died, you would have to reload. Because the game had to pause for dialogue and gold was always pooled in the party, the leader could control who could do what with a permissions control. If you do not like the NPCs available in the single player game, by playing multiplayer alone you can generate all six characters to your liking.
One of the more praiseworthy elements of Baldur's Gate is the amount of customization offered. For any created character, you can assign a portrait and voice samples to him or her from any jpg and wav file that meets the engine's specifications. You can also generate A.I. scripts to control the character in combat or use the ones the game provides. However, when creating a new character, you cannot simply set all your ability scores to 18s as you can with the Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder series. You have to add and subtract points, and it is easy to spend half an hour trying to a high total number and exceptional strength at the character creation screen. While the game does roll for your gold, it starts you off with maximum HP for the first level characters you create, but leveling up will give a random HP increase according to the class hit die. You can import and export characters, and they will come with their experience and equipment intact. There is also a built-in cheat system.
The game world is fleshed out in a variety of ways. The first way is with the material included in the box. The game comes with a large bound book called Volo's Guide to the Realms. This book acts as the game manual, gives an overview of the Forgotten Realms and the Sword Coast and describes the relevant AD&D rules. The book itself is 156 pages and bound with glue and uses a parchment style of printing, brown text on cream-colored paper. There is also a double-sided poster. The first side gives you a map of the Sword Coast, similar to the in-game map but with more detail and color. The reverse side gives you a map of Baldur's Gate indicating where various locations are within the city. This was very useful in the days before sites like GameBanshee laid them out using screenshots from the game itself. The City of Baldur's Gateitself is absolutely huge, with nine full areas and teeming with quests.
In addition to the material in the box, you can read books and item descriptions. There is a good amount of dialog and some encounters can be solved without violence. Your character keeps a journal describing what was said and what he or she did. The entries will be different depending on the moral alignment of your character. All this helps to bring life to the game world. Enemies are standard early AD&D fare. You have kobolds, xvarts and gibberlings, Hobgoblins, Flinds and Gnolls, Bandits and Mercenaries, Green Slimes, Gray Oozes and Ochre Jellies, Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls and Ghasts, Ogres and Half-Ogres, Sirens and Basiliks, Skeleton Warriors and Battle Horrors, Spiders, Wolves and Bears, and others. This gives a sufficient variety of enemies to fight, although strangely enough Orcs are absent. You will encounter plenty of assassins and evil NPC parties to kill. Do not expect enemies which would be inappropriate for characters at level 7 by the end of the game.
Baldur's Gate is not beyond criticism. Most of the wilderness areas are vast but comparatively empty of set encounters. Many of the NPC quests are simple fetch and return or kill the foozle quests. Unlike later games, your journal does not list the assigned quests and identifies completed quests, so it can be a bit of a chore to figure out which ones you have completed if your memory is lacking. There is a lot of combat in this game, but the variety of the combat is a bit limited. Bows feel very overpowered, especially when Hobgoblins employ them against your party as they are wont to do early in the game. When you travel across areas on the map, you may be ambushed. If your party is still at the lower levels and you have Hobgoblins or Black Talon Mercenaries shooting fire arrows at you, be prepared to reload your game. Charm and confusion spells are incredibly annoying if your party gets hit by one and they always seem to work when cast against you.
Traveling across non-Town land areas is very tedious due to the fog of war and the number of random encounters you can trigger. Every map has trigger points where monsters will spawn. You have to carefully send out a scout because a single character can easily be overwhelmed. Resurrecting characters is an expense because no PC or NPC will ever be able to cast the Raise Dead spell without a scroll except for a Druid. Also, if characters (or enemies) get killed with a critical hit, they will explode into chunks and that character is dead permanently. But before you think you can get away with reloading, the developers devised a way to discourage that. If you reload in an area with spawning enemies, more and more enemies will be present as you keep reloading the saved game.
Good and Evil bears some criticism in how it is handled. Despite choosing your alignment for the main character, you cannot change it no matter how contrary to it you may act. You can be a good character and steal all you want from locked chests and drawers so long as you do not get caught and kill the now-hostile witnesses and guards. Playing an evil character is discouraged because the rewards for completing quests in the "evil" fashion are exceptionally stingy compared to completing quests in the "good" fashion. Being "good" increases your reputation, which leads to lower selling prices in the shops. Also, merchants will pay more for your goods. Even evil parties would enjoy the benefit of lower prices, but if your reputation gets too high, then the evil NPCs will leave your party. If you become too evil, steal too often, kill too many innocents, then the game will send parties or mercenaries or guards against you that will likely kill you.
The Expansion Pack, Tales of the Sword Coast, mainly offers more of the same. It does address a perceived shortcoming in the original game by adding a traditional, multi-level dungeon for you to explore. It also adds a few new areas and items and three major quests. However, perhaps its most useful feature is that it raises the XP cap from 89,000 to 161,000. If you were to go through the the basic game and begin to do quests outside the main storyline, your main character will easily earn well in excess of 89,000 XP. If you do not let your NPCs die or change them too often, they will also be maxed out. The Expansion Pack allows you to gain one more level on average for each character which you otherwise would not have been able to appreciate. Finally, you can increase the number of character nodes eight-fold to improve pathfinding. This is very important for the few tight maze-like maps in the game.
Thanks to the success of Baldur's Gate and other Infinity Engine games, there is a world of modifications available for Baldur's Gate. New characters, items, spells, quests, expansion packs, you name it. There While other Infinity Engine games may have more mods, the game that started it all has plenty of extra free content available for it. If you do not want to buy Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, you can still get the game up to more modern standards thanks to a widescreen patch. However, while widescreen patches will allow you to see more of the game world, they will make your characters smaller and smaller. Although Baldur's Gate is not a bug-ridden minefield after the official patches, there are several fan patches to fix outstanding bugs. There are Infinity Engine viewers where you can look at the game assets in a convenient way and extract them. The game has a screenshot feature that works most of the time, just press Print Screen and it will save to bmp in 24-bit color. That is how I generated the screenshots in this blog entry.
If you are playing Baldur's Gate on hardware that it was current when it shipped, make sure you are using a 5-CD version (+1 CD for the Expansion Pack). It was also released on DVD-ROM before the Expansion Pack was released and is patched and support the standard five languages, that one is good too. Avoid the 3-CD versions, sometimes called "The Original Saga". They saved disc space by compressing the large area files. This may be good for saving space but bad for performance on this hardware. I also read somewhere several years ago that this version suffered from random crashes when loading new areas. The best installation for those with the CDs is to do a full install of the whole game, then fully install the expansion and finally apply the 5512 patch. Do not apply later official patches, they are not necessary if you are not using DirectX 8.0 or higher and multiplayer. If you want to use unofficial patches, there are sites which can direct you further.