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Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn

Released in late 1998, the original Baldur's Gate was an immediate classic that translated the incredible depth and detail of an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper RPG into an addictive and exciting computer game. In the almost two years since developer BioWare and publisher Interplay's game hit shelves, we've seen Interplay's in-house developer Black Isle Studios crank out two similar games, Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale, plus a BG expansion pack, Tales of the Sword Coast. BioWare has now retaken the reins as developer to successfully reinvent the wheel with this, its long-awaited, full-blown sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn.

Baldur's Gate II takes place far to the south of the titular city, and begins with an almost disappointingly contrived opening: your character and a few of his closest friends are captured and imprisoned by a powerful and sadistic wizard named Jon Irenicus (who is voiced by noted character actor David Warner). He tortures and mocks you, and before the game even begins, rivals beset him and you are freed. And while this might seem like a spoiler, it is revealed, literally, within the first 30 seconds of the game. From there it gets much better, though, and at an almost dizzying speed.

After this miraculous and immediate escape, you begin the familiar tasks of character and party building, performing quests with an eye on a rematch with your mysterious captor. All this in a city that mixes Asian and Arabic as well as the expected western European themes together into a more compelling world than the original Baldur's Gate--or the more recent Icewind Dale--could manage. The pace is frenetic, as tasks and quests are offered to you faster than you can turn them down.

click to enlargeAt the beginning of the game you can choose to import your Baldur's Gate character (Icewind Dale characters cannot be imported) or create a new one. There is some advantage to starting a new character, as BioWare has added a few new classes. Monks, Barbarians and Sorcerers are now offered, and class (KIT) variants like Cavaliers, Bounty Hunters, Assassins, and specialist Priests are now available (to name but a few). You can even play as the Half-Orc race. BioWare also answered our prayers by including the always hilarious Minsc (complete with Boo, the battle hamster), and the developer brought back Imoen and Jaheira as well. Through the course of the game other familiar faces can be found, and new friends can be made. In total there are four old friends from BG and about ten or so new ones, with all sorts of interesting powers and unique perspectives. BioWare has upped the ante in terms of character interaction as well. These characters argue and fight with and compliment each other as their personalities dictate. Rare is the single-player experience where you find yourself taking sides in an NPC argument, but these guys really seem alive at times.

Baldur's Gate II keeps its pace lively with compelling quests. From the game's first day you will meet countless people who have all kinds of interesting problems for you to solve. Some of these problems and conflicts come from your own party members and must be dealt with swiftly, or you lose that character, whereas others are timed. Almost all of them lead to interesting twists and turns inside and outside the main plot line, and BioWare has gone a long way to making sure the quests aren't just something to keep you occupied between showdowns; instead they form a larger tale and a cohesive world. The story delineates a region of the Forgotten Realms at war and beset by various factions struggling for power. What's remarkable is that some characters are completely incidental to the overarching plot, yet all of them help make the game a riveting experience.

New monsters cross your path as well, from oddities like Otyughs, Mind Flayers, Beholders, Golems, and Myconids to more familiar creatures like dragons, demons, vampires, and genies. New concepts (to BG, anyhow) like level draining and all sorts of bizarre summoned creatures (such as Elementals, for instance), add a Dungeons & Dragons-style dash to the fun and tactics--we especially liked Edwin the Conjurer's summoning prowess. The experience-point cap now allows characters to reach between the 17th and 23rd levels, making the gameplay very different from, and much more difficult than, that of its predecessor.


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