Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Twitter Commentary, Part 1
By Dwip January 11, 2013, 8:33 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

This is part 1 of my expanded Twitter commentary on Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. You can find the master list of all parts here.

If you’re just tuning in, there are spoilers below the fold. Go play the game, then come back here.

Because I’m no philosopher, don’t play one on TV, and except for the beginning of BG1 and 15 minutes I spent in high school trying to read Plato and Marcus Aurelius, don’t have much use for philosophy. However, the abyss quote is pretty great.

Since the intersection of somewhat popular culture and deeper subjects interests me, I always sort of wonder how many people played BG1 and then picked up Nietzsche. And how many people know that quote and his work through the game. Dunno.

Here is the original intro, in all its 1998 glory:

And here is the EE intro:

A few things to be said about all of this so we can stop talking about the cinematics.

1. Seriously, what the hell is up with YouTube’s recommendations? What does the original intro have to do with Sir Mix-A-Lot, and what does the EE intro have to do with sexy Korean dances or the A-29 Super Tucano? DO NOT UNDERSTAND.

Anyway.

2. While that FMV in the original is stellar for the 1990s, really it is, the entire effect is diminished if not outright ruined by the fact that Sarevok’s victim looks like the biggest tool in the toolshed. I don’t know what was going on in the 90s, but if your main evil villain is throwing a dude off a roof and I’m laughing, you should ask yourself: “Is he a psychopath, or does that guy look like an idiot?”

The name of this blog aside, chances are it’s the latter.

3. I’m not clear if the decision to use still frame instead of FMV for the new intros was an artistic choice or a budget choice (probably, I understand cinematics are extremely expensive), but the simple fact that the BG:EE intro doesn’t act like other intros immediately throws you out and breaks immersion just as bad as the original, just in a different way. Which is a shame, since I think the new intro fits the tone of the game much better. As it is, unfortunately, it would probably be better and more immersive if we just went straight to the menu screen.

Because I don’t know. Maybe you liked tedious micromanagement. I was a gamer in the 80s and 90s too, I understand. But casting spells and banging the rest key twice in a row just seems excessive, even to me.

As far as the interface goes, you’ve got to understand that the original BG1 cracked grey stone interface is one of my favorite interfaces of all time. It fits the game (and the Forgotten Realms), looks good (great, actually, for the 90s), and works well. As much as BG2 is possibly my favorite game of all time, I’ve always hated how they diminished that look and feel.

BG:EE tries to blend those two, and I don’t think entirely makes it. The stone isn’t cracked enough to evoke that olde tymes 2nd edition FR logo, and given some strange font choices and a missing parchment background in certain places (character menu, I mean you), the whole thing never quite coalesces and feels kind of hackish. It’s certainly usable, and after 60 hours you’re not going to care, but I kind of wanted my nostalgia’s worth here and didn’t get it.

Actually, for all I know this is how the original version played it too, but maybe not. This was the 90s, when boys were men (never mind the Boyz II Men), games were lethal, and if you didn’t have friendly fire turned on you got laughed straight out of school.

There’s an entire rant here about friendly fire that you can pretty much discover for yourself by playing Dragon Age 2. There’s also another rant in here about companies seem to think we’re all console generation whiners if we can’t hack a little challenge in our games. I don’t know, maybe it was a sound business decision. What I do know is that Baldur’s Gate has some of the best tactical combat of any RPG, and if you’re not playing that experience you’re missing about half the game, IMHO.

Or maybe I’m just old and spent way too many reloads beating up Sarevok back in the day.

Yeah, so, assuming you want a custom portrait for your character, and if you don’t go back to playing solitaire you noob, you need to go through a process involving creating a directory in the damnable My DocumentsBGEE dir, and throwing some properly formatted BMP files into it. Since these are all of differing sizes from the 5,987,436 portraits everybody created in the olden tymes for BG1, pretty much this means you need to love your image editing software. It also turns out that the old sizes don’t properly resize to the quoted new sizes, but you can apparently ignore if it’s off by a couple of pixels. I hacked up some portraits to find this out so you don’t have to.

However, it did take me half an hour or so in between launching the game and actually rolling my character, which was a little sad.

I have a sort of religion built up around starting a new BG game, and I think a lot of other people do too, which involves being fairly detailed in planning which NPCs you’re taking, how those choices revolve around your main PC, what weapons you’re planning on, and so on. And you do this because the game is somewhat of a harsh mistress to people who pick up and discard characters like you would in, say, Dragon Age.

On the downside of that sort of experience, there’s a bunch of characters you may never see or use, and while that’s not overly harsh with BG1’s somewhat characterless NPCs, it really bites you in the ass in BG2, or once you start rolling with mods.

On the other hand, a party camp-style mechanic like Dragon Age leads to a certain disposability of characters and lack of replayability, because while you might switch between Sten and Oghren (or be forced to) a dozen times over the course of Dragon Age, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to have Kagain for the whole game unless you totally hate him.

What this ends up doing is making your team in BG really feel like a team, because you’ve spent such a long time with them, growing them, defining them. A lot of this, especially in BG1, is mechanics and not character story (though it’s amazing how much character you can derive out of a bunch of voiced combat taunts, to go straight for the eyes of the matter), but there’s a lot to be said for mechanics.

Too, this is the 90s, before we got all obsessed with point buy systems and game balance. Yeah, maybe you rerolled for an hour, but you got 90 friggin’ stat points. I dig that. Makes me feel less cookie cutter and more superheroic or something. Or maybe you really do want to play 75 stat point guy, in which case rock on. Point is it’s up to you and the endurance of your mouse.

As I was saying about characterization through voices above, it’s sort of amazing how well the BG games give their characters character through what by today’s standards would be laughably pitiful amounts of voice work. Literally the entire character of Minsc is like 3 combat taunts and a quest, and he’s one of the most beloved NPCs of all time. I’ll grant you that I prefer BG2-era renditions on this, but there’s something to be said for hearing a combat taunt so many times you can repeat it from memory.

The scrolling text in Baldur’s Gate has always been VERY SLOW. It is what it is.

As to the halfling dart fighter, I’ve played a bunch of different characters now, but never a halfling, and never a dart-wielder. And while flipping through my 2nd edition PHB looking up stuff for our 2e revival game, I happened to look at the attacks/round for specialist dart fighters. And I said to myself “Self, this has potential.”

And so it did.

And here we have a discussion of the merits and pitfalls of 2D vs. 3D interfaces. This is probably worth its own blog post, but I’ll try to summarize.

Briefly, one of the things the Baldur’s Gate series has always understood itself to be is a party-based RPG with very serious tactical combat elements to it – round-based combat, pausable action, individually controllable party members, and an interface that would let you adequately command your party members.

Pretty much without exception no Bioware game has approached this level of control since Baldur’s Gate 2. Some have tried, all have failed. And while it’s a little more complicated than this, the main sticking point has always been the 3D camera.

The upside of BG’s 2D fixed camera may be summarized thusly: with it, you can scroll anywhere on the map, click anywhere on the map, and you will always get the view you expected without fail.

On the downside, the original BG didn’t have a very big view radius (mostly fixed in BG2), and it was hard to see items and doors (mostly fixed in BG2 with the TAB = highlight key). In some ways it’s also less immersive than well done 3D camera views, but I think especially in the case of Bioware games that you could argue this point – either BG is vastly superior visually to Neverwinter Nights, for instance.

3D cameras were supposed to fix a lot of this percieved immersion issue, but I would argue that they never quite did, for a couple of reasons. First, most systems tether the camera to the player, restricting camera movement and, combined with real-time combat and less-controllable party members (in the name of More! Action!) destroying a lot of BG’s tactical feel.

Second (and maybe most importantly), camera controls (and especially Bioware camera controls) are often very clunky, and it’s not uncommon to spend over half your time fighting the camera instead of fighting your enemies, even if you’re good with the camera. As far in as Dragon Age you still had to wonder if THIS was going to be the corridor that had your camera staring at some piece of blackness with you on the other side of a wall wondering what was going on.

What you see in 3D, then, is not always what you get, in other words.

It’s extremely telling to me that any given Total War game seems to understand what the stakes are here better than any given Bioware RPG.

Go into the inn, talk to Winthrop and Firebead Elvenhair. Buy a thing of bolts. Make a quick trip to the middle to get the scroll from Tethoril, then go talk to Phlydia and work your way back around the keep until you’ve done all the quests. Then buy all your gear from Winthrop and go talk to Gorion to leave.

I’ve probably done this intro 20 times now.

So, take, for example, Beregost in BG:EE.

And then, for the sake of an I don’t have NWN installed example, Lowtown from Dragon Age 2:

But if you’d like, insert Ostagar, or whatever was with those walls in Neverwinter in NWN, or a dozen other examples of the trope. Notice how Beregost isn’t 18 stories tall and doesn’t have random rusted spikes all over everything. Notice how Beregost looks like people who weren’t in a video game maybe actually built that.

I don’t think I need to make a whole lot of point about it here, but this sort of thing kills me. It’s one of the easiest ways I know to take your RPG with deep lore and backstory, immersive storytelling, and great characters, and turn it into LOLWUT. Keep a rein on your art team, is all I’m saying.

Likewise, armor and weapons. They don’t look badass, they make you look like an idiot. Functional tools are made functional for a reason.

And lest you think I’m going to give the BG series a free pass on this, shields in BG2. Watcher’s Keep in BG2. What the hell is up with that?

Closer to 15 years, but who’s counting?

If you’re just now tuning in, the line I’m talking about is “Listen carefully. If we should ever become seperated, it is imperative that you make your way to the Friendly Arm Inn. There, you will meet Khalid and Jahiera. They have long been my friends, and you can trust them.”

I forget if it was a patch or what, but basically that line got made completely inaudible at some point, which amounts to basically all the time I’ve been playing. It was really surprising to hear it like it should have been.


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