Even if Baldur's Gate II was technically a new millennium release, it was very much the product of late 20th Century game design. Now, Beamdog has resurrected revered RPG Baldur's Gate II, reworked its engine, made numerous bug and rule fixes, and even added new content. But tastes in gaming can be fickle as modes change. Beamdog set itself an enormously steep challenge: to bring back a classic that can please longtime fans, and just as importantly, to engage with a new audience and deliver an experience in line with their expectations.
Set a few years after the original, Baldur's Gate II opens with the player’s character, the half-god bastard offspring of the Lord of Murder, imprisoned by Jon Irenicus. The evil wizard intends to unlock your full potential by any means, and after escaping from his dungeons, the player and his or her surviving allies are swept up in a tale that is the very definition of an epic adventure.
Baldur's Gate II is a true “oldschool” RPG. It is a party-based isometric RPG wherein the player controls the actions of six group members. Combat is real time, but the player can pause the game at any point to give specific commands to any character, whether it be casting a spell, attacking a monster, or retreating.
Combat in Baldur's Gate II is dated. It’s still fun, but does perhaps represent the biggest hurdle for someone new to the game or the genre. It’s fast and brutally unforgiving, a combination that can quickly lead to one or more party members perishing in an explosion of gibblets. The system worked very well 13 years ago, but may seem anachronistic to anyone used to modern first- or third-person RPGs with more immediate combat controls. It’s still very rewarding and, with careful planning and tactical use of the pause button, provides a challenge that is never unfair.
This game predates the fully-voiced RPG that has since become the norm. Actual spoken dialogue is usually kept to a sentence or two with the majority of conversations being written onscreen text. This may be a disappointment to some, but the writing in Baldur's Gate II is phenomenal, the story not only holds up extremely well compared to modern RPGs, but in many ways remains superior in its depth and detail. Not having to record every line of dialogue frees up writers to wander more, to delve deeper into the story and its characters in a way that modern RPGs can’t or don’t allow for. It also means that dialogue choices are even more varied and numerous, often with multiple dialogue paths with multiple outcomes when conversing with the game’s many non-player characters.
Visually the game is a bit of a contradiction. its backgrounds are lush and spectacular even today. Beamdog was given access to the original high-resolution renders for the game’s backgrounds and has applied some polish and care so that they really pop. Baldur's Gate II has never looked this good. Unfortunately, the same care has not been afforded the character and monster sprites. These have not been updated in any meaningful way. They are low resolution and for the most part are rather poorly animated, and when compared to the stunning artwork of the game world not only look like a missed opportunity, but look completely out of place.
Nonetheless, Beamdog has clearly done much work behind the scenes to bring Baldur's Gate II to modern audiences. These include various if minor bug fixes, rule corrections, and updating the engine to work natively on modern OS’s. These are all appreciated, but don’t actually add anything to the overall experience. Baldur's Gate II is still the same game, and for the vast majority of players these improvements won’t actually go noticed. The amount of time spent on these enhancements just doesn’t show up on screen.
There are some additions though that are actually very helpful and do improve the game albeit in minor ways. The added ability to zoom in and out is a boon and makes the tactical combat easier to manage as well as improving navigation of the world. The UI has also seen some much needed attention, and now displays in whatever resolution the screen is set to. Unfortunately no care has been taken to streamline it, and while it remains functional it is also unwieldy and rather clunky. Again, this may have been acceptable a decade ago, but it’s dated and another obvious opportunity to really wax on some of that enhancement billed in the title.
Perhaps the most notable additions in the Enhanced Edition are the four new recruitable characters written specifically for this edition. Each new character is well written and offers up interesting story-based side quests that provide both character development and a genuinely enjoyable diversion from the main plot line. The limited voice acting is serviceable, and each characters addition to the game is seamless. Even so, they only provide at best a few extra hours of adventuring, and they don't represent a substantive addition to the game or player enjoyment.
The Enhanced Edition also includes The Black Pits 2. This is a separate mode and contained story outside of the narrative of the core game, and is essentially a gladiatorial arena where the player is pitted against various monsters of escalating strength or number. The addition The Black Pits 2 is a confusing one as it provides no enhancement to Baldur's Gate II proper and is completely irrelevant to the core game. Combat has never been Baldur's Gate II's greatest strength, and spending time and resources to build a combat-focused arena experience unrelated to the core game is just plain confusing. For what it is, it's competent, but it’s also bland and uninteresting in equal measure. Its real sin though it that it exists as an example of time and resources that could have been better spent on actually enhancing the core game further.
Baldur's Gate II is a very difficult game to evaluate. The same excellent adventure awaits, and to this day it provides one of the most compelling RPG experiences to have ever existed in the medium. It is testament to the skill of the BioWare team that put so much care and attention in to the game that it still shines just as brightly to this day in spite of its age and dated mechanics.
On the other hand, this is the “Enhanced Edition” promising a revamped game and an improved experience. To be honest that isn’t the case. The enhancements are minor, with only a few actually improving on BioWare's work. The only real compelling reason to buy this edition over the GOG.com version is that the Enhanced Edition will work on modern machines in widescreen with no issues, whereas the original version may require some extra attention and a mod or two to provide the same functionality.
A missed opportunity to be sure, but an exceptional game nonetheless.