Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Twitter Commentary, Part 4
By Dwip January 14, 2013, 1:29 pm Comments (0) RSS Feed for this post

This is part 4 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.

I’ve spent, in various postings, a lot of verbiage on this subject. And given it a great deal of thought besides. And there’s a few things I really enjoy about the random maps in Baldur’s Gate that I think got lost in later games.

First is the maps themselves. Most of them are very freeform, with lots of varied terrain and lots of interesting little touches. For instance, you often see little streams, wooded areas, or cliffs with little paths running down them that you can traverse instead of going around. Almost all the time you have total freedom in how you complete each map, or even if you do complete it. By contrast, even the random maps in a game like Dragon Age: Origins (don’t get me started on Mass Effect) are completely on rails, even when they don’t need to be.

I’ve talked a fair amount now about what we’ve lost in the 2D to 3D transition, and terrain quality is undoubtedly one of those things. If you look at the maps from Baldur’s Gate, some of the elevation changes might be slightly contrived, but by and large they look like natural areas that you’ve probably seen. By contrast, I’ve never been in a forest that had so many bizzare elevation changes at the one in Dragon Age: Origins. And, as I’ve said before, we’re only now getting to the point where 3D texture quality is as evocative as BG’s 2D maps.

Second is number and type of encounters. For instance, using the maps I just linked, the Brecilian forest has, discounting the random combat encounters not shown, a very high density of encounters to map space. In addition, the overwhelming majority of these are combat encounters, which means that exploration is generally jogging 5 feet from one combat encounter to the next one.

By contrast, there’s a large amount on that Baldur’s Gate map with nothing going on, with a fairly even split between combat encounters and people giving you information or other non-combat encounters.

Ultimately, this means you spend a lot more time in Baldur’s Gate simply walking around enjoying the (quite enjoyable) scenery, exploring the landscape, and wondering what the outcome of any given encounter is going to be rather than when it’s going to break down into a fight.

For the record, I think this sort of pacing and choice is something that the Elder Scrolls games (particularly Morrowind and Skyrim) understand very well.

I don’t want to rehash the lengthy discussion I already had about the interface aspects of this, and I talk a fair bit about Dragon Age combat in this post, but it seems to me that Baldur’s Gate understands tactical combat in a way that neither Dragon Age game (never mind Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, or other Bioware offerings, let alone Skyrim or other non-tactical RPGs) really does.

Combat in Baldur’s Gate is pausable, turn-based instead of animation-based, quasi-realistic (with a certain degree of friendly fire), features conservation of resources to an extreme degree, has an interface focused on the actual combat at hand, and is based on numbers that are discoverable and understandable.

Here’s why all of these are important.

First, pausable turn-based combat promotes thought over reaction time. The big draw to reaction-based combat is that it’s very visceral and intense, which is fine for a limited group game like Skyrim, but poor for a large group game like Baldur’s Gate or Dragon Age where you have to think and react for several people at the same time. Only worrying about a single round instead of 20 different cooldowns is a much nicer experience. In tactical combat like this, the intensity comes from the decision making over the dudes swinging swords, as anyone who has ever played a Total War game knows well.

Second, friendly fire and conservation of resources are a big deal, because they introduce complexity in decision-making in a way that cooldown management cannot. Casting fireball in Dragon Age 2 wasn’t a very big deal – you did it several times per combat, without regard to the location of your people because there was no friendly fire. Area spells were basically a win button. Casting a single fireball in Baldur’s Gate is often a very big deal – you have to move your team into the right spots so as not to get fried, and unless you’re high level, you only have one or two of them. Mages in general have to be conserved, because if you spent your fireball in that last fight, you assuredly don’t have it for the next one.

This doesn’t always work (there are probably too many consumables in Baldur’s Gate), but taken as a whole, these things provide a more intellectual combat model than the visceral model you’d get in Skyrim (or Mass Effect, or Stonekeep, or whatever). For a large party-based game, I think this is probably a better way to derive your enjoyment – watching guys dodge sword blows doesn’t scale above 1-2 people very well, whereas intellectual tactical combat scales infinitely.

I’ve already talk interface a lot, but I do want to say that it’s important to be able to understand the combat system you’re using. It’s a big gripe I had with Dragon Age’s combat – even when DA:O showed me numbers, they didn’t always make sense, and it was hard to know how it all fit together. One of the benefits of using AD&D in Baldur’s Gate is that even the complexities of 2nd edition are fairly understandable with minimal teaching, and Baldur’s Gate isn’t shy about telling you exactly what you’re doing in mechanical terms, whereas Dragon Age (or Mass Effect, or others I could name) are extremely coy to the point you may not even understand the choices you’re making, or if you even are making choices.

I think I just rehashed several lengthy discussions. Hopefully you’re used to it by now, because I don’t think we’re going to be slowing down much.

It turns out that hobgoblins are one of the best sources of low-level spell scrolls in the game. Why that is, I’m not really sure, but there it is. I’ve always found it a bit curious, though I don’t suppose there’s a better race to be dropping said scrolls.

The number of monsters that drop clerical scrolls are practically zero, though, never mind what your 2nd edition DMG says about it. For that matter, your 2nd edition Monstrous Manual is going to be pretty confused about scroll-carrying hobgoblins too, but Baldur’s Gate is only so faithful an adaptation, you know.

I was really wondering if they’d leave Lord Foreshadow and his now highly dated reference to the 2002 release (hey, only 3 years late there) of Neverwinter Nights. It amuses me greatly that they did, never mind that I think NWN is a terrible game.

I didn’t pick up on this at all at the time, might I note, until NWN was actually set for release and I suddenly and belatedly got the joke. I don’t really have a good excuse for that.

I’m so used to modern games at this point that I’ve sort of forgotten how games used to be – loaded with references to geek humor, TV shows, Shakespeare, you name it. Breaking the fourth wall, no problem. At one point you get jumped by ogres named Arghhh and Ugghhh, and there are plenty of other joke names to be had.

And this is pretty funny stuff, believe me, but it’s mostly stuff you’d never get away with these days – breaking the fourth wall is pretty bad news, and other than the obligatory single Shakespeare, Cthulhu, Monty Python, and Princess Bride reference that got buried, you’re pretty much not getting much else.

And honestly, if you care about plot realism and setting moods and all that, we’re probably better off that way. And there’s definitely a point where “reference” turns into “your writers are lazy.” Doesn’t stop Baldur’s Gate from being fun though.

If you can’t read the screenshot:

“Okay, I’ve just about had my FILL of riddle asking, quest assigning, insult throwing, pun hurling, hostage taking, iron mongering, smart arsed fools, freaks, and felons that continuously test my will, mettle, strength, intelligence, and most of all, patience! If you’ve got a straight answer ANYWHERE in that bent little head of yours, I want to hear it pretty damn quick or I’m going to take a large blunt object roughly the size of Elminster AND his hat, and stuff it lengthwise into a crevice of your being so seldom seen that even the denizens of the Nine Hells themselves wouldn’t touch it with a twenty foot rusty halberd! Have I MADE myself perfectly CLEAR!?!”

Heh.

I don’t think you can do a thing like this and NOT reference the classic lines. You have been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself.

Random encounters really vary in BG1. They’re always meaningless combat, which is slightly unfortunate (something BG2 and DA:O did better), they run the gammut from 6 gibberlings (eek!) to this, which is between 8-12 bandits each armed with a bow, each with a unquenchable thirst for the blood of your very weak to arrows mages and thieves.

Tymora help you if you were trying to get back to the temple with your dead teammates, is all I’m saying.

You must gather your party before venturing forth.

One of the vagaries of the various Thief AI packages is that when they stop to hide in shadows, they actually stop moving. And if you forget about that, let’s say in town, and don’t ride herd on them, you’ll wonder why all your guys are over by Feldepost’s Inn while Safana and Imoen are hanging out over by the Red Sheaf all the way across town.

Which is why I stopped using those packages, obviously.

Noober makes me laugh. Also, listening to him for long enough is worth a lot of XP at that part of the game.

As I was saying. That’s 60-70% of the price of a +1 weapon, and that’s a big deal at level 3.

There’s this giant jousting arena at the Nashkel carnival, and that entire area is completely deserted. I’ve always thought that was a bit of a wasted opportunity, though the carnival itself is excellent.

It’s also possible to get randomly attacked by kobolds, which is something.

There aren’t that many, Yeslick and Tiax come late (and aren’t that good), Viconia has serious drawbacks and is hard to get to, Branwen costs money and isn’t that good, and Jahiera is a druid and part-time at that.

And there’s a reason for that. Clerics are a bit of a god class (so to speak) in AD&D. They can get good AC, fight in melee well enough, and can heal everything, which is absolutely critical. Give one the right equipment or the right spells and they’re brutal. By limiting the effectiveness of clerics, the BG devs are making things a lot more difficult than they might otherwise be.

That said, the Branwen/Jahiera choice for good parties gets a bit old.

I’ll have more to say about most of them individually later, but this worked out to be a reasonably effective for the most part. Really short on party interaction, but BG1 is sort of like that anyway, so I put up with it. Man was that a big deal in BG2 and later.

As far as the 6 man vs. 4 man party thing, I really hated dropping to 4 man parties in later Bioware games. 6 or even 5 people offers you far more options than 4 man (which usually locks you into the standard fighter/cleric/mage/thief party), letting you pick up a bard, say (who are kind of useless), a multiclass, or a character that might otherwise not be all that useful but who you want to pal around with anyway. After playing with 6 man parties, 4 man just seems incredibly sparse to me.

You may notice I like options.

Gibberlings: furry little balls of lemminglike death.
Tasloi: Anything that’s green and carries a spear is at least sort of legit.
Ogres: Oshi-

Xvarts: Tiny, have big heads, and are blue. Plus, say “xvart” several times in a row and try not to laugh. I bet you can’t.

Mellicamp for the win. I love that quest, though I absolutely despise High Hedge for its too many instantly respawning encounters, cramped layout, and flesh golems that kill me.


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