Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II

Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II

Deeper, longer, and... worse than the original?
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: January 16, 2004
I can still remember when Interplay first showed off Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. The hack and slash hit from newcomers Snowblind Studios was such an impressive feat of programming prowess that at first I couldn't believe it was running on PlayStation 2 hardware. But, as I've seen time and time again, my expectations for what the PS2 is able to kick out have been torn down and rebuilt on a nearly monthly basis. What was perhaps more surprising, however, was how darn fun the game was, offering a mindless couple hours of gorgeous dungeon crawls that, while light on story and tie-ins to the Baldur's Gates series proper, was still a fantastic waste of time.

The sequel, this time handled entirely by now-defunct Black Isle Studios, offers a stronger tether to Baldur's Gate lore, more variety in environments and characters, more weapons, and improved item creation system, and generally just an order of magnitude more options for digesting the game. The problem is, even with all this added stuff, it still manages to feel like a waste of time.

I'm not entirely sure where it happened, but somewhere during the development of the sequel, the magic that had permeated every refractive chunk of ice and rippling pool of water in the first game gave way to tired, monotonous trudges through vaguely different environments explored on endless fetch quests. Somehow, by adding a new system for creating unique items (any weapon or piece of armor above a certain quality can have jewels attached to create unique new weapons at the expense of the materials and a decent amount of cash) and introducing more areas to explore, the fun got sucked out of the game, leaving a dull, lifeless husk that gets old far before it gets interesting.

For those that didn't experience the first game, imagine taking the basic hack and slash gameplay of Gauntlet, expand it to include more weapons and armor, and then infuse the whole mess with role-playing game elements. The result was a game that shook off the usually stale feel of a mindless dungeon crawl with character advancement and unique upgrades to add replay value. BGDAII is the exact same concept, only gussied up with far more options for character advancement and more unique goals for the five different selectable characters.

In all, BGDAII stretches just a bit longer than the first game in total length, but offers quite a bit more replay value, since each character has his/her unique upgrades and storyline details to reveal. Whether or not you actually want to go through these, however, is another story since about halfway through the game (anywhere from 5-7 hours depending on how taken with gathering, upgrading and selling weapons and armor you are) the action really starts to run out of steam, and the storyline that should be buoying the action when it dies down a bit doesn't kick in for at least another couple hours. When it does, things quickly come to a head and race on to the end of the game, but that lag in the middle is interminable as a sappy middle section of an action movie "epic." It just throws the whole flow of the game off and unfortunately will probably turn most people off to the point of never really pushing forward to the good stuff.

It should be noted, however, that the transition into the knowing hands of Black Isle helped solidify some of the Baldur's Gate mythos quite a bit more. Rather that taking place in a generic mountain or cave, you're shown where in relation to Baldur's Gate and the Sword Coast proper everything is, and there's more little goodies in enemies and storyline details to bait former BG PC fans into exploring a little more. It's mainly fan service, but it does help seat the series a bit more in the whole BG universe, which is sad, really, because now that the studio responsible for building up that whole world is essentially toast, there'll be no one to resolve the sequel's cliffhanger ending (which, by the way, is FAR better than the first game's rather cheap hook).

If Snowblind didn't create the whole engine that BGDAII runs on (there's no mention in the credits), it's damn hard to tell. The world itself seems to be able to handle far more population, which means small crowds of people in town and more Gauntlet-esque enemy swarms than the first game, but it also means a sacrifice in detail when things zoom in. Gone are the first game's more... fetching female character designs, as is the spot on, almost exaggerated lip synching that was such a wow. There's still limited synch with the mouths, but the effect in enunciation isn't nearly as striking.

Luckily, the tradeoffs in detail (and yes, it's a shame there aren't more protruding nipples) are met with a nice increase in looks otherwise. Improved lighting means actual light sources have a bit more of a chance to shine (no pun intended), and the reflection effects are a bit more toned down. While I do miss oohing and ahhing at the ice caverns of the first game, the overall look is a bit more natural, and when combined with more attractive and natural use of the game's trademark water effects (though there's far less exploitation of it this time around, which means no invisible enemies identifiable only by their wakes in the water), the overall graphical effect just a hair improved over the first game.

In all but a very few instances of texture seaming in a close-up, the texture detail and polish of the game are top notch. If this isn't Snowblind's engine, it still uses the same technique of drawing things at a higher resolution then scaling it down to fit the TV. The result is a game that boasts literally zero aliasing, and the effect is a welcome one, especially to us PS2 gamers used to the system's 640x448 goofy jaggy-prone resolution. Nary a single time did the engine choke on all the improved detail, which is quite impressive.

If nothing else, it should be almost commonplace to find impressive dialogue and audio in a Baldur's Gate game. Say what you will about the actual text itself (I personally don't mind, but it's safe to assume that it could probably cause a few eyes to roll), but the delivery is top notch across the board. The female characters don't seem to ooze quite so much sensuality this time around, but again the overall deliveries of every character, as well as the crisp, clean effects of gold falling, steel meeting wood or rock or other blades, and grunts and cries from the countless monsters that will fall to your blade, spell or arrow are all fantastic.

Things falter a bit musically, not necessarily because the soundtrack isn't great (though it's certainly not Jeremy Soule's best work), but more because there isn't enough of it, and what's there is used all too often - which is saying something considering most of the time the music cycles from blaring to dead quiet about every five minutes or so.

BGDAII is a classic case of more not necessarily being better. The sheer amount of extraneous technique (certain attacks/spells work better on different monsters, requiring a bit of strategy at all times), and the extra per-character goodies are great additions to an RPG, but this isn't really a role playing game, and I can't help but feel like the extra effort was wasted a bit when there should have been more attention paid to the pacing and flow of the game and the story that goes along with it.

By no means is this a terrible sequel, but it falls flat when compared to the original mainly because it recycles too much without injecting that same intangible sense of fun that really great games have. Perhaps it's just that the freshness of the first game has waned after a couple years, or perhaps some of the strife that circled the Black Isle offices before the axe finally fell transferred into the game, but whatever the reason, for all of BGDAII's extra stuff, it still feels like a weaker game. Give this a rental - especially if you're a Baldur's Gate freak and gave the first game a chance, but otherwise, it's probably best to wait until there's a rather steep discount for a proper purchase.
The Verdict