Saturday, September 12, 2015

AD&D Done Right : Baldur's Gate

Title Screen & Main Menu
In 1998, Bioware released Baldur's Gate, a PC RPG that would have tremendous impact on RPGs of the future.  PC RPGs were coming out of the doldrums of the mid-90s, and along with The Elder Scrolls - Daggerfall and Fallout, Baldur's Gate would forge new ways of playing RPGs.  The older CRPG series, Might and Magic, Wizardry and Ultima were no longer what they once were.  New blood was being pumped into the genre.

Character Creation
Interestingly, there is quite the technological progression at work here among these three games.  Daggerfall, released on August 31, 1996, was strictly a DOS game.  It only supported 320x200 VGA graphics with 8-bit color and separate choices for music and sound effects/speech.  Fallout, released on September 30, 1997, was a game that had separate DOS and Windows 95 executables.  It supported 640x480 SVGA graphics with 8-bit color and used all digital sound and music.  Inevitably it was ported to the Macintosh platform.  When Baldur's Gate was released on December 21, 1998, DOS was no longer receiving much support and the game ran only in Windows 95 and 98 and (unofficially) NT 4.0.  While Baldur's Gate is still using a 640x480 resolution, it requires 16/24/32-bit color support and even supports EAX extensions to DirectSound 3D.  Baldur's Gate also received the obligatory Mac port.

Starting Out in Candlekeep
Baldur's Gate was a huge game for its time.   It came on five CDs, and unlike the FMV games of the day, those CDs were packed with data you could interact with instead of just watch.  A full installation of the game with its Expansion Pack weighed in at 2.5GB.  This was during a time when many PCs had hard drives with sizes from 6-10GB.  Unless you had a substantial portion of your free space to devote to this game, you had to engage in disc swapping.  Since the game pretty much installed the contents of the first CD, that left you with four CDs to swap.  Fortunately, the content on the discs roughly mirrors the player's progression in the game.  Moreover, the content of the discs was modular.  Everything outside the first disc was optional, so you could save space by not installing the less-vital areas on your hard drive and letting the movies stream off the CDs.

Area Map
While Daggerfall's huge world was generated procedurally with 3-D graphics and Fallout's maps were primarily tile-designed based, Baldur's Gate's areas looked much more unique.  The game uses 2-D artwork throughout and the maps require a lot of memory to load.  Unless you are using a very marginal system, they do not take an unreasonable time to load. Like Fallout, Baldur's Gate uses a top down view but the perspective is not isometric (except in certain areas) but more of a bird's eye view like Ultima VII.  The game's engine will show your character even if he would otherwise be blocked by background objects.  It also utilizes the fog of war which hides portions of the area you have not explored and dims those areas where your characters are not present.

World Map (portion)
Aurally, the game has a terrific score.  The music changes from bombastic in the title screen and the city of Baldur's Gate, to softly domestic for the towns, alternately heroic and grand for the wilderness and subdued and ominous for dungeons.  Sound effects and ambient sounds like hawk cries and town chatter help sell the game world.  EAX, if supported by your hardware and software allows for effects, such as muffling in the mines and echoing in a grand hall.  When day transitions to night and vice versa, frequently the music will change to suit the time of day.

Character Journal
The game's world is taken from the Forgotten Realms AD&D setting.  The Forgotten Realms is essentially the most typical high fantasy AD&D 1st and 2nd campaign world.  It also has a very rich development since it was introduced in 1988 with sourcebooks, adventure modules and novels fleshing out the world.  The developers of Bioware decided to use this campaign setting to avoid having to construct a newly detailed world.  They did place their story in the lesser developed area of the Sword Coast in order that their stories would not be butting heads with ten years of continuous world-building and characters like Drizzt and Elminster at every step (even though both make cameos in the game).

Character Record
While some characterize the story as weak, I believe it is one of the more interesting of any AD&D game. Instead of presenting you with an Epic Quest right from the start, instead you are presented with a series of smaller quests.  This makes more sense for first level characters.  After you leave Candlekeep and find some companions, your first major quest in the storyline is to figure out what is going on in the Nashkel Mines and what is the cause of the iron plague.  Then you need to infiltrate the Bandit Camp.  Once the bandits have been pacified, you must then try to solve the mystery of the iron shortage.  Finally, you get to enter the City of Baldur's Gate to discover who is behind the Iron Throne.  Until you obtain magical weapons, the iron plague can cause your characters non-magical metal weapons to break randomly.  Parallel to these chapter goals, you are struggling to realize your true destiny and figure out why assassins keep dogging your trail.  Your main character acquires minor powers in connection to his ethical alignment (good, neutral, evil) as you learn about your true heritage.  The game is appropriately epic and sets you up for the sequel, into which you get to import your character.

Inventory
The AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset is adhered to fairly strictly in this game.  The Gold Box games used the 1st Edition ruleset and they have been acknowledged as the highlight of AD&D CRPGs until Baldur's Gate came along.  Both rulesets are substantially similar and someone used to the 1st Edition rules will have no trouble adapting to the 2nd Edition rules used in this game.  The ability scores, character classes and weapons, spells and items, the basics are all here.  In some ways the game rules are simplified, there are no hirelings, coins other than gold and weapon specialization is simplified.  Unfortunately, healing your characters is a bit tedious because there is no healing spells between 1st level Cure Light Wounds and 4th level Cure Serious Wounds as a result of maintaining to canonical AD&D.  However, the 2nd level spell Slow Poison will cure rather than merely delay poison, a merciful boon to the players.

Attacked inside a house
By licensing the AD&D ruleset, the developers already had a tried and tested RPG system to use.  They could focus less on balancing some new system and concentrate more on content.  While there had been several AD&D games released between the Gold Box and Baldur's Gate, all were either forgettable (Blood & Magic), mediocre (Menzoberranzan) or just downright garbage (Descent to Undermountain).  Baldur's Gate did justice to the table top game and demonstrated that it could be adapted to a more real-time style of gameplay.

Chapter One Introduction
NPC development took a big stride in this game.  There are many good, neutral and evil NPCs and all have their strengths and weaknesses.  The NPCs have large character portraits, voice acting for various lines and can be encountered across the world.  Each has a little backstory and some are paired with other characters.  You can't have one without the other unless one dies (officially anyway).  Some NPCs have a minor quest or task you need to complete to obtain or keep them.  Good NPCs tend not to work well with Evil NPCs in the same party.  Some will fight to the death if both are kept too long in the party, especially if the main character does not have a high charisma.  While there are no PC-NPC romances or lengthy NPC quests in the official game, the developers were beginning to show that NPCs were more than just a list of stats and equipment. Unlike the Gold Box series or Fallout, you maintain complete control over all NPCs, unless charmed, confused or turned hostile.

Aftermath of an ambush and a new party member
The interface in this game is easy to grasp.  The mouse can control everything, but most actions can be executed with hotkeys and most hotkeys can be reassigned.  Every spell can be assigned to its own hotkey if you wish.  There is a very useful Quick Save and Quick Load function, but be careful when you use the latter (see below).  Inventory management is drag and drop. The action occurs in the main window surrounded on three sides by borders.  This was necessary considering the game was targeting fast Pentium MMX processors.  The interface is very responsive with buttons and sliders that give an audible click. Helpful popups are available.  You can set the game to automatically pause when an event like a character death occurs.  You can also make the game show the hit and damage rolls, so if you are constantly missing your target you know why.  The main window scrolling speed should be increased to make for a faster experience.  Additionally, except for automatic cutscenes, the A.I. speed should be updated to 35 or 40.  The speed at which the characters react is so much more fluid at the faster speed.  While inventory management is a bit of a chore due to the lack of containers and some items that should be stackable, it is nothing compared to the cumbersome management system of Pool of Radiance and other Gold Box games.  The game can be played in a Window with the Windows desktop in the background, but I prefer full screen.  A lot of thought was put into this interface and it shows.

Aftermath of a battle, don't let this happen to you
Combat is another area which received some needed attention.  When you fight, your characters attack automatically how you indicate.  You can click on the enemy they wish to attack or leave it up to the A.I., which can be customized, to attack as it thinks it should.  You don't have to direct every swing of your character's sword.  Spells are easy to cast and target.  Fireball is a particular Godsend in this game, it can clear out packs of enemies.  Lighning Bolt, however, is usually as much of a danger to your party as to the enemy because of how it ricochets off walls.  Tactics, positioning and scouting out areas with a hidden thief are very important.  You can direct summoned monsters as you would NPCs.  Potions and wands can be used via the quick items bar.  You can pause the game to direct your characters' actions, but the game will not stay paused if you enter the inventory screen.  While this may take liberties with the AD&D combat rules, it is a welcome change from the Gold Box games where every battle requires your constant attention or Temple of Elemental Evil where the fighting looks unnatural because characters act only when you tell them to act.

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 Gate itself 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 at the default difficulty level.  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 supports 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.

5 comments:

bleuge* said...

1996: This was during a time when many PCs had hard drives with sizes from 6-10GB

Hi!, are you sure? i remember much bigger hard disks by this year!

Very good article btw!

Anonymous said...

"While there was no central matchmaking service like Battle.net integrated into the game, TCP/IP hosts were supported."

Unfortunately, this is not correct. "Unfortunately" because Bioware integrated hidden GameSpy registration matchmaking functionality into the multiplayer module and enabled it by default for TCP/IP hosts. Yes, you read that right. If you hosted a TCP/IP game, BG would clandestinely register the game at the Gamespy servers - without your knowledge or consent. If you were hosting a TCP/IP session anyone could and would appear (unless you either disabled the functionality/otherwise blocked connections with your firewall or/password protected the game/disabled "listen to join requests").

This had to be disabled with a setting in baldur.ini (not documented, just like the hidden GameSpy functionality wasnt) as follows:

[Gamespy]
Enabled=0

That's what the strange vague reference to the Gamespy "region" setting in the README.TXT file and the Baldur's Gate Config utility refer to - configuring which region to register the hidden in-game Gamespy multiplayer matchmaking functionality with (which is based on DirectPlay functionality) in the baldur.ini file.

So yeah any time you hosted a game all the details of it were listed and advertised (unbeknownst to you most likely unless you disabled it of course) at the GameSpy matchmaking servers for all the (GameSpy) gamingverse to see...and join, if they so chose.

In fact, BG even came with the GameSpyLite client (not documented and installed without consent along with the HEAT client) so that you could find these "undocumented hidden" multiplayer games (through Gamespy/HEAT).

So while its true there is no "in-game" CLIENT matchmaking service, there IS an "in-game" SERVER matching-making service - the undocumented hidden auto-enabled Gamespy server registration. And it was easy enough to find any/one of these games via the GameSpyLite client (or any other GameSpy client etc) which one could Alt-Tab to if needed to find a game.

In fact, when this clear violation of user privacy/connectivity control (not to mention lack of transparency and forced third party software install with no user knowledge or consent) was later made known to BioWare circa 1999/2000, they at first officially denied it, then later officially claimed that "privacy and security was not a concern when the game was first published back in 1998".

So there you have it, the scandalous sordid history of BG's in-game hidden undocumented Gamespy server registration for hosted TCP/IP games.

FWIW, some people find that disabling the (now useless due to GameSpy defunctness) hidden Gamespy server registration for hosts/servers fixes direct connection issues with clients.

bananan said...

to Bleuge
Your memory failed, 6gb were more than ok in 1996
http://redhill.net.au/d/51.php

Great Hierophant said...

Check out Maximum PC's 1998 Dream Machine article : http://www.maximumpc.com/old-school-monday-dream-machine-1998/

Their high end machines are sporting 9-10GB hard drives on average, although there is a 14.4GB Desktar included. Still, 6-10GB is not unreasonable for what an average home PC from 1998-1999 may have been using.

feamatar said...

For Christmas 1998 6-10 GB might be reasonable. My friend got his first PC around Christmas 1997. I remeber it quite sharply, he had a P200 or P233, 32MB , Voodoo I, and a 2GB or 2.1GB HD and it was a top of the line machine at the time.

Then a friend got a Celeran 366 maybe with a 8GB drive, but I cant remember the year, maybe 1999. And another with a 433. I can't remember my first HDD, even if I got it much later, my first PC in the fall of 2001... with maybe 20 or 40GB?