Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition Review (PC)

While Baldur’s Gate started Bioware off on the path to fame and is still a great RPG, many players will point to the sequel as the greatest RPG of all time. How fortunate then that after developer Beamdog’s success with the Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition, and them sorting out all the D&D license legal problems with Atari and the notorious Wizards of the Coast, they’re now back with a fresh special edition of Baldur’s Gate II. You will meet genies, beholders, Cowled Wizards, dragons and that evil bloke from Tron. You will also have to decide whether to shell out on this or soup up the GOG version instead.

Firstly story for anyone who doesn’t know it intimately. After defeating Sarevok in the first game you found out that you both were actually sons of Bhaal, the god of murder. Sometime afterwards you and your party are abducted by the sinister mage Irenicus who wants to unlock the power of Bhaal within you, but after escaping from his dungeons Irenicus and your best friend Imoen are arrested and imprisoned by a magical enforcement group called the Cowled Wizards. You must explore the city of Athkatla, find the Cowled Wizards, free Imoen and discover what Irenicus is really up to. And that’s just the beginning.

Hang on, aren’t you that guy from Tron? And played Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series?

What makes Baldur’s Gate II special is that it is considered the best written RPG of all time (yes, yes, Planescape: Torment, fine). There are plenty of tough choices, quests have cute twists in them and rarely go how you expect, and then there’s the dialogue. Pages upon pages of glorious dialogue, a great deal more spoken this time, all of it interesting and/or funny to read. Baldur’s Gate II would mark the last time before Bioware had every line voice acted, and consequently their subsequent games have had a lot less dialogue and characters. The original had seventeen NPCs who could join your team (you can have six at any one time), all with their own stories to tell and comments to make on your actions and the surroundings. It’s the characters that make Baldur’s Gate II so compelling, and it also has Minsc and Boo the Space Hamster who could hold together a whole game on their own.

There is a ridiculous amount of content here, we’re talking Skyrim-levels. We’re talking 60 hours at minimum to complete the main quest, then there’s the Throne of Bhaal expansion and all the various side-quests in both, not to mention the extras Beamdog have added… 300-400 hours of gameplay potentially? All of it a truly solid gold RPG, with fantastic characters, a great story, intelligent and interesting quests, and a wonderful world, all wrapped up in the well-established Dungeons & Dragons universe that Bioware clearly knew inside-out. You’ll love it all, as long as you can stomach a few quirks.

The first and most obvious fact is, it’s hard. The most obvious comparison would be Dark Souls where death and defeat can come in any battle if you don’t attack enemies correctly, and death is meant to be informative. You’ll be saving/loading and sleeping (to regain health and recover spells) a lot, probably after every battle if you’re anything like me, and Sleeping brings its own perils as you can be attacked during that time. You should expect to be examining what every spell does, checking out Hints & Tips on forum threads, and probably even reading the manual too (a foreign concept in this day and age). The game can get really frustrating. At the very least of course I’ll say this: play Baldur’s Gate, Enhanced or otherwise, first. It’ll get you used to the systems, and if you play Beamdog’s version there’s even a nifty tutorial which annoyingly isn’t present here.

Where’s Brendan Fraser when you need him?

There are plenty of people who may have played Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition and couldn’t get on with it who will love the sequel. While the original is more like a straight open world where you’re expected to find things to do and find out how things work yourself, and the overall story is a little basic, Baldur’s Gate II is a little more linear but much more encouraging. People will come up to you and offer you quests, you’ll have more of an idea of where to head, the Journal is excellent at recording and updating quests, and while there’s no tutorial there’s a handy “how to play” on the menu. People who’ve played Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition to its conclusion of course are rewarded by being able to import their character in the sequel, something everyone made a big deal about in Mass Effect 2 but Bioware had already done 10 years previously. In short Baldur’s Gate II is just a better game all round, and while you’ll still need to know the mysteries of what the hell THAC0 is it’s generally a more user-friendly experience.

Once again though the question comes down to what’s actually new in the Enhanced Edition and what makes it better than just buying Baldur’s Gate II on GOG (which too comes with the Throne of Bhaal expansion). The most obvious thing is the widescreen support, which admittedly is available as a mod but still it’s nice to have it out of the box. Beamdog claims to have “remastered” the artwork but it’s only really a slight buff, which is good since Baldur’s Gate II is still an attractive game (the original CGI cutscenes are still here too, they haven’t been replaced like Beamdog did with the first game’s). Effects, like spells and such, seem a bit nicer to me. While there are still players mentioning bugs on the forums I certainly didn’t encounter anything catastrophic like I did in the first game’s Enhanced Edition - although there was the odd one or two, like missing dialogue on the new characters or Minsc continually talking to me while I tried to do one of the new quests.

Ah yes, new characters. I mentioned 17 recruitable NPCs earlier, but the Enhanced Edition brings in four more. The dark orc warrior Dorn Il-Khan, Meera the Wild Mage, and fighter monk Rasaad yn Bashir continue their new stories introduced by Beamdog into the first game right up until Throne of Bhaal, while sleepy-sounding thief Hexxat is brand new with a quest that takes you into an unexplored tomb in the Graveyard District. All are well-written and acted and fit naturally into the proceedings, although I’m a little suspicious of the fact that they were marked as “purchased” on the main menu. I think that’s just a layover from the iOS version however.

Additionally there’s The Black Pits II: Gladiators of Thay, a “sequel” to the first Enhanced Edition’s arena-based Black Pits expansion, where you have to survive waves of enemies (in single-player or multiplayer) designed as the ultimate test of your AD&D tactical combat skills. For those who don’t like the sound of that it’s a great deal more story-focused this time around, with a lot of extra dialogue that’s almost entirely voice acted. It’s all very entertaining, and main pit boss Dennaton sounds like Phil Hartman. It’s basically a little indicative slice of what Beamdog could be capable of if they succeed in their goal to make Baldur’s Gate III, which I’d be cautiously excited about if the story didn’t completely wrap up with Throne of Bhaal.

New girl thief Hexxat seems fixated on the Tomb of Dragomir. Annoyingly so, if you don’t go there straight away.

All very nice then, but now we reach the crucial point where I decide whether this is all worth buying. If you do have the game on GOG and don’t mind getting your hands dirty with some mods, then it’ll be entirely your own decision on whether four new characters with their own quests and stories and a combat-focused expansion is worth buying the game again for £18.99/$24.99. Yes, that price is higher than the first game’s already rather cheeky price. At least Beamdog and Atari have sensibly put it on Steam immediately this time. If you want to replay Baldur’s Gate II or are an RPG fan who hasn’t played it this is definitely the version to get, but unless you’re desperate to get it now I suggest waiting until a Steam sale.

The new content is fun and adds to the experience, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about Baldur’s Gate II here. While balls-hard and requiring a lot of patience if you’re prepared to take it on you’ll discover what is arguably the best and deepest RPG of all time, that many people believe represents Bioware at their peak. That there’s a version updated for modern systems with excellent widescreen support (without having to fuss about with mods), improved UI, new characters, new quests and an additional expansion, not to mention being available on Steam, should be all you need: buy it. However at £18.99/$24.99 and with a fair few bugs I advise waiting until a delicious sale and a decent patch comes along. Which shouldn’t be too long – winter is coming, after all. Yes, I know that’s a different fantasy franchise.

Top Game Moment: It’s a cliché, but I’m still saying Minsc the barbarian and his pet hamster Boo. “Go for the eyes Boo, go for the eyes!”

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