Going boldly where no Baldur's Gate title has gone before, Black Isle Studios’ Dark Alliance makes the leap onto the Playstation 2. Famous for their successes with the Baldur's Gate series (teaming up with BioWare) and other successes on the same basic engine in Planescape Torment and the Icewind Dale series, Black Isle Studios is back. We've come to expect the usual PC role-playing experience from them (ie: Icewind Dale 2) and while Black Isle hasn't particularly been very focused on consoles, they've teamed up with Snowblind Studios to create a brand spanking new game in all regards to what Black Isle's done before.
What kind of game have they come up with? It's a little bit of a combination of some very successful games. Take one part Diablo, one part Gauntlet Legends/Dark Legacy and one part Baldur's Gate, and you get basically that which is Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Polish it up with some superb graphics, slap the Baldur's Gate license on it and rush that puppy to the stores, and, well gentle readers, we have a winner. Black Isle has yet again managed to squeeze another game into my collection of classics.
The game itself plays a little bit like Diablo; a semi-fast paced action based role-playing game. Unlike Diablo, with it's fixed camera and dated 2D graphics, Dark Alliance is equipped with an amazingly beautiful graphics engine complete with a very useful user manipulated 360 degree camera. It’s probably one of the best implementations of a 360 cam I’ve ever seen. Can’t see something too well? Just spin the cam on the fly while you’re still running. Spell effects are very nicely done as are all the in-game models. Fire effects are THE best looking I've seen on the PS2 thus far (I mean come on, MGS2’s fire was awful), from the burning hands spell to the flaming swords to the torches on the wall that show heat radiation, it is just fantastic to look at. The common monster types usually have two or three models so it does a good job of adding little touches here and there. The animations are once again well done with only a few minor issues.
Dark Alliance has three characters to choose from; the down and dirty dwarf fighter, the utility human archer, and the scantily clad elven mage. Each has its own characteristics and special abilities suited to their play style. The dwarf is primarily a close combat specialist; so his specialties include whirlwinds, hammer strikes, etc. The archer can be a fine hand-to-hand combatant, but his special abilities are geared for the bow, flame arrows, ice arrows, shock arrows, you name it, he’s got it (many of his abilities are very similar to the archer in Diablo II). Finally, the mage wields the usual AD&D spells albeit simplified into the most popular like magic missile and fireball. I wish the game offered more characters or even the ability to generate your own, but the balance of the three here is well done.
The game offers four difficultly levels, with the most difficult setting only available after you beat the game on the second highest difficulty setting. The game plays similar to the Diablo formula, beat it on normal and then use your same character on hard, and then use the same character on nightmare (although you can start directly on hard). It also has a side quest game that runs along the lines of the original gauntlet (aptly named Gauntlet mode) where you must make it through a level, killing everything, in under fifteen minutes. This is a pretty cool mode since you get to play as Drizzt Do’urden, although it’s a one time only affair. Once you complete it AND beat the game on hard, you get to use Drizzt in the regular game.
Audio is what you’d expect from a Black Isle title. While there’s not an overwhelming score, it does what it needs to stay with the mood of the game. The sound effects, once again, are quality, although there aren’t particularly a lot.
How true is Dark Alliance to a real role-playing game? Well, it's got a decent interaction system with NPC's and it loosely follows the AD&D 3rd Edition rules. Your character has experience levels and skill levels, along with the usual attributes like a traditional RPG, but moves toward a points system and special abilities. Each level up grants points toward “upgrading” your character. It’s streamlined down to create a Diablo-esque dungeon hack with a decent storyline. It also has a relatively easy-to-use inventory system that doesn't require the annoying find and click Diablo technique. Stand near an item and hit square, that's it. There are three major acts in the game, all broken down in to sub-quests. While most of the quests follow the storyline, Dark Alliance does implement a few side quests to add a little more variety to the game.
Dark Alliance features a two player multiplay co-op mode and it really works well. Teaming up allows a better array of weaponry and special abilities to make the game a little more fun. There are some limited drawbacks to the multiplayer. One large exploit is to have one character carry a shield and just stand there in a block while the other player uses ranged weapons to take out the enemies. This works on most every enemy in the game, including many of the bosses (of course this strategy doesn’t work when you’re fighting numerous enemies). I wish it would have come with support for four players for a little more mayhem, but I’m not sure how well it would have worked. Gauntlet works pretty well in four-player mode, so I’d assume it could have been done.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is an entertaining romp, built on past successful games. Every aspect of the game was well thought out and great care was obviously put in. While there are various things I would have liked to have seen in here, like four-player options, more character races (a cleric would be great in multiplayer), random dungeon maps and better cutscenes, Dark Alliance is still everything that a great game needs to be.