My fondest PC gaming memories are playing single player games tag-team with my best friend 15-some years ago. It’s easy to be nostalgic about a time when personal computing itself had limitless possibilities. I fondly remember sitting in my friend’s basement eating Campbell’s soup out of microwavable bowls, both of us huddled around his computer playing BioWare‘s Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series. Exploring those Forgotten Realms together was an experience that had a meaningful impact on my hobbies as an adult.
You can imagine my excitement when I found out that Overhaul Games announced Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. They promised to keep the eccentric 2nd Edition D&D rules and the 2d Infinity Engine but with added stability, modernization, and new content. But the original Baldur’s Gate is already available through other means, like Good Old Games. Is Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition offer enough to make it worth the $20 price tag?
An Oldie but a Goodie
Anyone who enjoys modern PC RPGs have Bladur’s Gate to thank. Its success blazed the trail for games that create worlds and told memorable stories. The game is the prototypical fantasy RPG: you create a character that is the fulcrum for a world-threatening story, you grow stronger with a team of colorful characters, and you go poke around a fully realized fantasy world until you’re done. I don’t have much more to say about the plot of Baldur’s Gate because it seems unfair to call the original blockbuster PC RPG “clichéd”. (You’re an orphan with a mysterious background on a grand adventure after your mentor dies.) I can’t deny that it’s formulaic, but it’s good.
Despite its predictability, the writing is pure gold. The characters will stay with you long after you are done playing and the game is filled with moments of real humor and touching stories. The party members you can recruit feel particularly alive as they bicker among themselves and openly praise or deride your decisions depending on their alignment. The Forgotten Realms feel huge and real, bursting at the seams with fleshed out NPCs and hidden dungeons full of treasure.
The presentation in Baldur’s Gate is also old but charming. The painstakingly rendered 2d graphics in the Infinity Engine still hold up. The voice acting is also top notch, you can count on your brain being filled with quotable lines within the first 30 minutes of play. The music, while never being too exciting, also remains a grade-A fantasy adventure soundtrack.
The gameplay, however, hasn’t aged well. I won’t dive into the idiosyncrasies of 2nd Edition D&D, the rules need to be taken at face value. But the design itself is wildly unbalanced. Baldur’s Gate is a minefield filled with explosively lethal encounters. Forehead-slappingly hard fights will wear out the reload button. Add some obtuse puzzles and confusing maps and you have a game that will require a trip or two to GameFAQs to complete. The pacing of the game is also ponderous; explore each map inch by inch is a test of patience as your just-slow-enough-to-be-frustrating characters mosey along. Character advancement rewards (leveling up and gear upgrades) are disappointingly few and far between.
Baldur’s Gate is an old and creaky game that’s showing its age, just waiting for someone to come along and… enhance it, perhaps?
For better and for worse, Overhaul Games left most of the original content unchanged.
The Enhanced Edition adds content, bug fixes, and UI improvements. The UI can now handle modern resolutions, a welcome change for gamers like me that like their games old but their pixels small. With the accommodation for larger UIs, the game also has larger text and more information on the screen at any one time. Much of the information has also been better presented: breakdowns of AC modifiers and attack bonuses are shown right on your character sheet without having to dig for them. All welcome features!
The bug fixes, though, should be a huge feature in theory. The original Baldur’s Gate was notorious for progression-stopping bugs. However, fan created patches have fixed these bugs and have existed for years. On top of this, Overhaul chose to keep in the painful balancing issues that modern gamers will have trouble swallowing. They also ignored the slow pacing, the frequent clicking to explore maps, and the horrible pathfinding that will split your party up at the worst times. What was fixed was already fixed by fans years ago and obvious usability issues that wouldn’t change the spirit of the game were ignored.
I have yet to dive headlong into the additional content, but I know there are three new characters with their own stories as well as added challenges to accompany a raised level cap. There is the notable new “Black Pits” mode, an arena where you craft 6 characters and fight for your life through waves of enemies. I’m a sucker for “horde/survival” modes and mixing in old school 2nd Edition gameplay is an easy home run for me. The Enhanced Edition is also the only way to play Baldur’s Gate on the iPad and (eventually) Android tablets, which is great. If you want to play it on a mobile device, this is your chance.
A Catch-22, a Missed Opportunity
Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is caught in a catch-22 that it won’t see itself out of. There are two kinds of consumers that would be interested in Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition: those that want to experience the game for the first time and those that love the original but want a new experience. Good Old Games offers Baldur’s Gate for $10 instead of $20 and free mods that have been available for years (BGTutu) will provide nearly all of the changes that the Enhanced Edition offers. Overhaul’s decision to keep the core of the game unchanged prevents the Enhanced Edition from measuring up for anyone who has played the original.
The consumer that wants to experience Baldur’s Gate for the first time would still be better off getting the Good Old Games version and downloading mods. But if it’s worth $10 for a new player to bypass installing mods, get a nicer resolution than they’d get with the Good Old Games version, and have a mitt full of UI enhancements, then the Enhanced Edition is a good choice.
Either way, I still can’t recommend the Enhanced Edition when the Good Old Games version is half the price. Overhaul had an opportunity to take a game with timeless characters and iconic setting and create a revamped well designed modern CRPG with it. Unfortunately, they decided to leave aging design decisions intact and instead just add an all-too-thin layer of polish over the top.
*Edit: The iPad version of Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition is only $9.99, which is a great deal. Thanks for the clarification, Alison!