Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II
Roy Rossi / Jun 25th, 2003 No Comments
Despite the game’s actual cliffhanger ending, Dark Alliance II comes as a final ending to one of the most beloved game development companies since Origin. Black Isle Studios was shut down last December in the midst of Interplay’s financial troubles. Their legacy includes what still stand as the finest RPG games – D&D and otherwise – in the genre. I need to make sure next bar night to raise a stein to the Black Isle guys and gals who formulated the adventures in Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape, and the Fallout wasteland. These games kept me captivated through replay after replay. *sigh* No Fallout 3 or Black Isle Dragonlance RPG, I guess…
As their last game, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II (DA2) contains all the trappings that made the first game a best seller. What it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in a diverse selection of interesting characters, a well-written story with multiple side quests, and a new item creation feature. Whether that stacks up against the formidable competition of Champions of Norrath likely hinges on how important graphics and online play are to a player.
Picking up immediately where Dark Alliance I left off, DA2 tells the tale of adventurers becoming involved against a plot to bring back a powerful onyx tower and use it to conquer the Realms. While it involves some characters from the first game, DA2 is a fully self-contained story that is easy to follow whether one is familiar with Eldrith or not. Through four chapters, the adventurer(s) hack and cast their way toward the evil influence behind the plan. The story includes plenty of references to the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons, but whether a player is familiar with that or not, the story retains Black Isle’s ability to fashion an epic without falling into fantasy cliché. The game’s dialogue sequences are all well-written and acted, and the tale takes some surprising twists – some involving monstrous D&D favorites – that give incentive to march through the next dungeon. By adding separate side quests for the five different characters, the game also personalizes the story more than Champions of Norrath did.
The core game play in DA2 is the same as the first, mow down monsters, build up one’s character, exchange treasure for better equipment, and advance the plot. Some of the new player characters depart from familiar action RPG classes, particularly the dwarven rogue who adds a stealth ability to the mix. Whether by shooting, frying, or chopping, the monsters end up just as dead; as far as game play goes, the Gauntlet-style action still works. Even so, additional features like online play that would have taken the series to the, um, next level are absent. Magic item creation, the most notable new feature, adds an involving layer to shopping, but it’s separate from the main action.
Dark Alliance II is the third game in the action RPG category that I’ve played recently. It does little different than the other games, yet it remains as fun as ever thanks to its mix of button mashing, minor tactical decision-making, and character management. After choosing a character, players immediately set off against goblin hordes using their combat style of choice: melee, ranged, and/or spellcasting. Killing monsters builds up experience, which levels characters and grants them new abilities.
Monster AI is somewhat uneven. Most rush right at the character and occasionally get stuck running in circles where a player can easily shoot them down. This problem doesn’t occur often though, and the levels are designed in such a way that monsters can quickly gang up on a player who isn’t committing at least some thought to the game. Monsters with ranged weapons or spell casters are more challenging, since they’re smart enough to keep their distance, which can sometimes lead to chases right into another waiting group of monsters.
Epic boss fights ramp the challenge up considerably. The frame rate remained steady no matter how many monsters swarmed on the screen. Load times are quick and include helpful hints about the game. Some levels throw twists into the main game play; such as one where a monster chases you throughout or another that requires careful movement. These levels tend to be the exception, however, most are just wading through monsters until one reaches the boss.
One of DA2’s most enjoyable features is the wide range of skills available to the characters, most of these skills available for choosing early in the game. This opens up more options for character diversity, something I found more involving than Champions of Norrath’s limitations on skill selection. It’s possible to create a heavily armored mage or a melee-capable thief with certain skills, and this makes the game play experience feel more personalized.
The characters themselves are further set apart by individualized side quests that become available from some of the people in town. This feature alone gave DA2 the feel of a classic Black Isle RPG, although these side quests are strictly that – on the side and completely optional with no impact on the main plot. It’s a shame that the multiple story paths weren’t expanded to impact the main plot, but that’s more the realm of regular RPGs, not action RPGs. Sometimes, dungeons in the main path have minor side quests built in that a thorough player can uncover. Additional areas also open up for the player, but these are simply straightforward dungeon crawls; they could have benefited from a bit of story like the character-specific side quests have.
The interface includes a handy quick button setup feature that allows players to map an oft-used spell or ability to a button for easy access. The old skill/spell menu system from DA1 remains as well. Otherwise, the game controls the same as before. A two-player cooperative mode is available for adventuring with a friend, but it’s limited to two players – no 3-4 player multitap or online options available in DA2.
The item creation system is the most prominent new feature in the game, and it presents players with a dizzying number of item possibilities. Any regular weapon, armor, or accessory can have three different stones added to it to give it magical properties. One of these gives the item its plus modifier (and we all know that it just doesn’t get any better than +5), while the others give a variety of different bonuses. Players interested can spend a lot of time tinkering with the system, but it’s optional, as the shop offers magic items for sale and others can be found in the course of the adventure. It’s possible to unbalance the game a bit by creating an ultra-powerful magic item early, but higher levels and boss battles are difficult enough to keep a player busy no matter how well equipped they are.
DA2’s dungeon designs tended to lack the diversity and color of Champions of Norrath. Even a level set high in the clouds, which I expected to be a visual feast, was less than impressive due to an unadorned white texture (a flat featureless cloud) under the main terrain. Likewise, a water-based level was filled with unimpressive ice terrain and lots of flat unadorned water.
This is not to say that DA2 has bad graphics, just dated. Most environments look alright when they’re not too dark, and all have easily distinguishable items and chests. Character models are particularly good; the non-player characters feature excellent lip syncing and animation. Effects, including the rather hypnotic water wake effect from the first game, look impressive, but some such as rain falling in one level are so subtle that they’re easy to overlook. Despite these positives, the lack of graphical diversity causes DA2 to be a graphical step behind its competition.
Sound effects are a high point in DA2. The action produces all the clang and clatter of battle convincingly, one high point being the squeal of a goblin following my character’s taunt which backed up his boot. Voice acting is uniformly excellent for the game, and music, some by Black Isle favorite Jeremy Soule, fits the action and adds to the atmosphere.
While I’ve seen reports that DA2 can be completed quickly, it took me about 20 hours to complete on normal difficulty, doing a rather thorough job of exploring and questing. The game has four difficulty modes and unlockable characters, but key to the game’s longevity are the character side quests. I’d much rather replay a game where I’ll get an entirely new area to explore than just more powerful items or bigger challenges, and DA2 has that. Even so, online capabilities would have extended the value even further.
The bottom line is, of course, which would be the better buy for PS2 owners: Champions of Norrath or Dark Alliance II? GI’s scoring system aside, I personally preferred Dark Alliance II. Its story and character development options kept me more involved than Champions’ linear quests, weak story, and more limited skill system. Still, it’s impossible to overlook DA2’s lack of online play or multitap options – all of which Champions has, plus much prettier graphics. As such Champions is a better value for casual gamers or others who aren’t interested in seeing an illithid in action or playing a dwarven rogue. But D&D fans or players looking for a single player action RPG game will probably find DA2 more enjoyable.
FINAL SCORE: 82%