Looking forward to my vacation on the Sword Coast, I reached Baldur’s Gate late that fateful night. But before I could enjoy my first Mai Tai, a couple of muggers relieved me of my gold. I’m sure they would have killed me too, if not for a pair of town guards patrolling the area.
“Stay off the streets”, one of the guards suggested, “It’s not safe here at night.”
Oh great, a curfew, just what I need on my vacation. Despite being a little light in the pockets, I headed to the nearest drinking establishment, hoping I could persuade a sorceress to buy me a pint of ale. That’s when I saw her, the barkeep of said tavern. She looked glowing in her cloak of… glowing, and voluptuous to boot. So I went over to the bar and struck up a conversation. She sympathized with my ordeal and offered to assist, but first I had to do something for her.
“I have an infestation problem down below”, she said.
“Crabs?”, I asked, slowly pulling away.
“Rats”, she replied, “…in my cellar.”
I sighed in relief. I’m a fighter after all, not a cleric. And there I was, presented with the opportunity to be a hero for the pretty lady. How could I say no? Chicks dig heroes, don’t they? I laced up my leather boots, wielded my dagger, and prepared to enter the wine cellar to mutilate a few over-sized rats. Oh, and get a bottle of Dom Perignon for the alcoholic in the corner, in exchange for his last prized possession. Hey, I never said I wasn’t evil. Yep, I was on vacation, and it was only getting started.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is an overhead, action role-playing game, a modern-day Gauntlet with a little more depth. Players select one of three pre-defined characters: Kromlech the dwarven fighter, Vahn the arcane archer, or Adrianna the elven sorceress, as they begin their adventure (no party here, it’s all solo). Character customization is thus limited to increasing attributes and assigning points through a “Feats” system, which allows the sorceress, for example, to cast powerful spells, the archer to shoot special arrows, and the fighter to perform unique attacks. The game uses the Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules. I’m not going to pretend I know the difference between the Second Edition and Third Edition, let alone the First Edition, but it’s worth mentioning for those that do.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance is your basic sword-and-sorcery game. You’ll hack ‘n slash your way through countless enemies, raid hundreds of chests, gather numerous items, barter with merchants, and complete sub-quests to obtain special items and experience. The game is linear in nature so don’t expect to be able to venture off on your own path. Considering the enormity of some of the levels, the developers have cleverly implemented recall potions that whisk you back to the last town you visited, and return you back again at the sip of a flask. Just as inventive, a first-rate camera system allows you to seamlessly explore and/or engage in combat while adjusting the camera angle at the same time.
The adventure begins in Baldur’s Gate, as depicted fairly accurately in the introduction. But with 3 acts and 40 levels, the action quickly moves beyond the city walls, taking you to the Sunset Mountains, the Marsh of Chellimber, and lastly to a fortress known as Onyx Tower. As such, you’ll traverse a variety of environments, starting with the aforementioned wine cellar and moving down to the sewer system, on to a thieves’ guild, a crypt, a mountain trail, and so on. You’ll encounter giant rats, spiders, gelatinous cubes, kobolds, skeletons, frost giants, wolves, trolls, and the rest of the usual suspects from the monster manual. Arguably the greatest creatures in the game are the end-bosses, which include such deadly encounters as a Beholder and an Ice Dragon.
That brings us to a couple of the problem areas in Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. First up is the enemy AI. Just about every enemy has a weakness, to be expected, but for the most part, the trick is to run circles around them. A number of the creatures just aren’t quick enough to keep up with you. Second, the sorceress character has a clear advantage over the dwarf and archer. Her spells are incredibly powerful and when it comes to the tougher portions of the game, she simply outclasses the other… classes. A bit of a balance issue there.
While you might figure playing through Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance once is enough, there are plenty of secrets to unlock by playing through multiple times. Finish the game once and you’ll unlock the Gauntlet mode. Run through the Gauntlet with Drizzt, the infamous drow ranger, and you’ll unlock an Extreme difficulty level. And if you manage to complete the game on Extreme, you’ll be able to play as Drizzt in the actual game. Ok, maybe that’s asking a bit much, but Forgotten Realms fans might think it’s a treat.
Visually, Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for the Xbox isn’t much different than its year-old PlayStation 2 counterpart. The graphics are a little crisper, but you’d be hard pressed to notice any real difference. With that said, character and creature animations are plentiful, with death animations taking the cake, and the effects, weapon and spell alike, are fantastic. Water effects are equally as impressive, although it can be difficult to locate creatures with all the ripples… rippling. The audio is right up there with the visuals. The game features an excellent soundtrack that really adds to the atmosphere, and loads of voiceovers that are well acted. The sound effects are spot-on as well. Whether it’s a barrel exploding, weapons clashing or enemies grunting, it all sounds great.
Oddly enough, despite offering three characters to choose from, multiplayer is limited to a two-player co-op mode. I’m not sure why there’s no support for a third player, but multiplayer is a blast none the less. Just don’t pull Dark Alliance out when you’ve got a group of friends over.
Thus ended my vacation in Baldur’s Gate. Oh sure, I foiled an evil plot, collected a fortune in gold, and brought an old drunk some booze, but I didn’t get the girl, I never did get to drink a Mai Tai, and I got frostbite something awful in one of those icy mountain caves. So was it really worth it? You’re damn right it was! If you like a little action mixed in with your role-playing, journey into Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, you won’t be disappointed.