Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition

When you consider the pioneering, influential PC RPGs of the nineties, Baldur's Gate is an essential selection. Bioware's D&D-governed fantasy series has rightfully earned its place in a lot of people's hearts, and it's an exciting prospect to receive special re-releases of some of the best role-playing games ever created as developer Overhaul Games envisions here. Sadly, like many video game remakes that sport such superlative suffixes, this attempted rejuvenation of an RPG classic spends its effort in all the wrong places, leaving a confusing, unremarkable version of Baldur's Gate that does little to elevate itself from the aged source material.

Dialogue and story do not play a huge part in the first Baldur's Gate. Not in nearly the same way that other, later RPGs of the same era have invested. There's a decent amount of chatter between you and your fleshed out party members, and you can change the way these kinships play out by tipping your character's alignment toward good or evil, which members of your crew will either dig or trip on in numerous ways. That's all well and good but with such a thin premise and lacking followthrough, I can't say that the plot or dialogue ever had me rapt in any serious way.

Thankfully, the combat survives the test of time with surprisingly sturdy results. This is hardcore, Dungeons and Dragons styled, pause and issue commands to six characters and watch them all unload their attacks for two seconds before pausing again kind of game, and although its very cold to total newcomers, there's undeniably a lot to get into and tool around with here. The game still uses AD&D 2nd edition rules and if you're into lots of stat checks, there's plenty of numbers to crunch here. There's also a ton of classes and races to choose from, and each combination and party formation makes a fundamental difference in how you win battles and tackle quests. Figuring out how to make your party work together to devastating effect is undoubtedly where the best moments of Baldur's Gate come from and even in such old skin, that formula satisfies. Having to cut through the game's dense battle system with your wits and manage six sets of equipment and tactics can feel exhausting, but it is hard to argue that the the system is not flexible.

A decent amount of features from the sequel, Shadows of Amn, have been dropped into the Enhanced Edition and although their presence isn't earth-shattering, it's inclusion seemed like a somewhat defeated approach at making the this aging game feel a bit more engaging to play. Again, the fights still feel pretty good, but with a far more lackadaisical storytelling style and aimless gameplay, the original Baldur's Gate doesn't really hold up too well as a role-playing experience. I'm all for open-world role-playing, but when left this much to my own devices in such a clunky, aged world, I often feel like I'm accomplishing nothing and slowly. The old, pause-and-play Infinity Engine combat is still essentially fun at its core but without much in the way of an overarching objective or interesting writing to carry the load like later games did, I often found myself burning out an hour or less into each play session I had with Baldur's Gate.

That's not to say there's a shortage of content here. Completing the base game takes dozens of hours and this package also includes the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion set, which doesn't do much to address the dearth of story but nonetheless adds in more areas, items, and monsters to see. There's even a couple new characters unique to the Enhanced Edition, each with fresh quests and dialogue trees that flesh out the world a bit and give both old and new players some more variety in combat. Rasaad the Monk is a cool and intriguing character that, after some nursing in the early-going, became a juggernaut in combat as well. The developers have also included an arena called The Black Pits which allows you to dig right into the meaty combat without any storyline or surrounding context. These challenge room additions are OK, if unremarkable. In a game as sprawling, dense and fondly remembered as this, tacking on lukewarm content where it's not needed feels like the wrong direction to go with its restoration. This is especially true when much of that content is remixed from old assets and less-than-great new texture work. It's not an inherently bad thing that these extrapolations on the main game exist, but none of them are particularly gripping, either.

Baldur's Gate was the first game powered by the Infinity Engine, a legendary RPG development platform that went on to spawn the likes of Icewind Dale and Planetscape: Torment. Moreso than any other Infinity game, though, Baldur's Gate  suffers from some seriously worn-looking backgrounds, borderline-incomprehensible character sprites, and a minutia of other rough spots that make the game look all-around ugly today. Enhanced Edition does spruce up these ancient-looking visuals a little by supporting modern resolutions, and although it's great to play in the correct aspect ratio with no further tweaking necessary, playing in 1920x1080 just made all those muddy backgrounds even more noticeable to me. I also had some trouble with some blurry, overblown text that was pretty rough to look at. Otherwise, though, the graphics are pretty much the same as they were way back when. It's not unexpected, and redrawing all of the assets is obviously a massive undertaking, but it's a little disappointing that nothing could be done about the aging look at the same time.

It's comforting to know that a game as aged as this can still offer some legitimate thrills and a zealous disposition many modern role-playing games lack. A lot of modern RPGs take forever to bring the party into their world, as if hesitant to let you make your own way. Balder's Gate is pretty well open from the outset. That means you'll run the risk of having the party killed upon entering a new area meant for much later on in the tale, but that flexibility really lets you feel like you're forging a unique path through the game and tackling things in a unique order.

If I had to sum up Baldur's Gate in one word, though, it would be "sluggish." Everything is choppy, slow to react. Characters crawl across the screen, and the the crude way they change direction and gesticulate to cast spells looks crummy. Performance can be a little spotty, a pretty ridiculous notion for a 14-year-old game, and although I didn't get it too bad, some chugging sessions were not an uncommon occurrence for my GTX 460. Travelling across the map for long stretches almost seemed to tank my machine, well above the recommended requirements. Even clicking tiles in the massive, all-encompassing interface has a noticeable, irritating delay. These issues were in the original release, of course, relics of the technical limitations that plagued many an RPG in the nineties. But why aren't the enhancements made in this edition not all in an effort to fix age-old frustrations of the Infinity Engine like these? Why not make the original, authentic product be the best it can be before adding in any new stuff?

Instead, Baldur's Gate veterans and newcomers alike will be more than a little miffed by bugs and other technical issues, the worst of which has to be the awful pathfinding for your party. Party members get stuck on walls, hills, and just about anything else you could imagine like idiots. Characters can't totally clip through each other, either, which leads to huge problems in the game's many interior areas. There were more than a few times when my party would all squish into a doorway, get stuck, and stand idly by while they were annihilated by enemy magic. No fun. Of all the things to fix in an Enhanced Edition, this seems like the one thing that should have gotten a lot of attention. No such luck. If you're the serious fan of Baldur's Gate this package panders to, you've likely tried a number of involved, easy-to-install mods on your original game before, and those do what the Enhanced Edition does and beyond in fixing the original release and its performance in respectful ways. This release was shaky at launch and still isn't all that stable after some patches.  Dialogue can sometimes loop several times in-game, interrupting and requiring skipping each time it happens. And although its not a bug, hearing the grating voiceover more than once definitely grinds. It's a shame that a re-release of such a long-standing game isn't releasing in tip-top shape, but alas, that's sort of the story of this re-release.

This is an alright delivery of the classic RPG, but all of the "enhancements" feel like wasted effort. The re-done but still pretty dinky cutscenes. The terrible, no-good pathfinding. The technical issues. Why stack things on top of a game that desperately needs fine-tuning to be at all palatable these days? I feel like a good amount of development could have been put to more urgent use that would have made the game more relevant.

Baldur's Gate is unquestionably an extremely influential role-playing game, and a PC classic. I'm just not sure who this edition is for. Purists won't have any reason to take a shine to the new content, and for new players interested in playing as a lesson in game history, this version simply isn't the original, totally authentic product. The unfortunately named Enhanced Edition fails to make a compelling case for its existence in any meaningful way, especially when you consider its asking price of twenty bucks can net you both the original Baldur's Gate and the far-superior sequel from a site like GOG, and downloading a few free mods that make them really shine takes mere minutes of your time. I would highly recommend that course of action instead.