Any discussion of Baldur’s Gate brings with it a lot of baggage. The game is a legend. When it hit store shelves in 1998, it was met with universal praise and vaulted then relatively unknown developers BioWare into superstar status. The success of Baldur’s Gate ushered in a new era of roleplaying games made exclusively for the PC; classics such as Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura all owe their existence to Baldur’s Gate. It’s easy to see why the game is still a household name a decade and a half after after it’s original release.
Recently Overhaul Games, the game development arm of the Beamdog digital distribution service, took up the task of revitalizing the aged title with an enhanced edition. This move was well received by fans of the series. The game had long since languished in digital purgatory due to its age, and Overhaul Games ensured that the rerelease would be playable on all modern operating systems. True to their word, Overhaul Games released Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition for Windows in November of last year, closely followed by a release for Mac OSX and the iPad. Having not touched the game since I was a bright-eyed boy of thirteen, I decided to give it a try.
There’s an elephant in the room I need to get out of the way first: the graphics have aged badly. Incredibly badly. Although Overhaul Games has done their damnedest to smooth out the edges – including offering screen resolutions that a gamer could only dream about in 1998 – there’s a limit to what they can do without completely demolishing the game’s engine. Baldur’s Gate is unfortunately built using prerendered isometric graphics. This graphical method was popular during the late 1990s as a means to emulate true 3D before the technology had quite caught up to the notion. It was a technological dead-end, and now that true 3D is the norm, the visuals in Baldur’s Gate appear blurry and dated. Those who weren’t reared on titles such Baldur’s Gate and Super Mario RPG might have difficulty stomaching the aesthetic.
But the graphics are likely the last thing any Baldur’s Gate fan will heap praise on. The strength of Baldur’s Gate has always been its story and characterization. In all honesty though, there’s really not much to say about the writing except that it has stood up well over the years. The game sometimes overwhelms you with its enormous walls of text (these were the days before full voice acting was practical), but the story has good momentum and the characters are as memorable as they’ve ever been. It’s worth the price of admission alone to reacquaint yourself with the lovably deranged berserker Minsc and the Machiavellian mage Edwin. The new characters and side quests Overhaul Games has inserted seem of high calibre as well, and their insertion in the game world is thankfully seamless. No veteran of the Baldur’s Gate saga will find themselves jarred out of their nostalgia by a haphazard alien element.
That might actually be a problem. After pouring a dozen or so hours into Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, it’s occurred to me that it all feels very familiar. Too familiar. The graphics are virtually identical to the original release, the user interface has received only modest (albeit much obliged) tweaks, and the content additions are so subtle they could almost be missed. Although I’m appreciative that Overhaul Games has taken the initiative to ensure that a classic like Baldur’s Gate doesn’t fall prey to digital obsolescence, there’s not a lot here to motivate someone who has already played through the game to play through it again. While I’m sure fans of the series will throw their support behind the title (perhaps in hope of spurring the development of a Baldur’s Gate 3), I’m curious to see how many will actually power through the whole game.
I’m actually more interested in the iPad release. The iPad’s touchscreen is notoriously ill-equipped to handle the control scheme of all but the simplest bird-and-fruit-themed games, but Baldur’s Gate may be an exception. The game’s interface is entirely mouse-driven and would seemingly transition well to avid finger tapping. More importantly the game forfeits any reliance on twitch reflexes thanks to its hallmark pause-at-an-time battle system, largely compensating for the inherent imprecision of touchscreen devices. Although I quickly burned out on the PC release, the notion of playing the game in fifteen minute increments on transit, in bed, or on the toilet seems much more palatable. If anyone wants to send me a free iPad, I’d be happy to test this theory.
Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition isn’t a title I can recommend to everyone. For better and for worse, it’s a vanilla port of the original game. If you’ve been aching to play this old classic again, then by all means pick it up. If you’re not interested in an unapologetic slice of PC gaming history, then move along. I enjoyed it for the dozen or so hours it managed to hold my attention, if only because it reminded me how janky the rules of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition were. Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition is currently retailing for $19.99 on Beamdog and Steam.