I love this game. As with Fallout 3 before it, even if I didn’t think of the game fondly in itself, I’d still have to admit anything I spent a hundred hours doing voluntarily couldn’t be something I hated. I can’t talk about Baldur’s Gate 2, a game I marinated in, a game that I played over and over for days at a time, without making it clear, from the outset, that I love this game. It’s just such a basic, absolute background radiation to the conversation about Baldur’s Gate 2 that it seems impossible to describe, seems meaningless to describe. I can’t tell you how air tastes. I can’t describe to you what left is.
What that means is that when I talk about the game, and I tell you oh that’s nonsense, or I complain about the wonky balance or the plot or the voice acting or the bits that drag it’s the complaints of someone who has played every single moment of a game over a dozen times, someone who has played the game in various challenge modes and mods and been part of the conversation about its future.
I need you to understand this because when I talk to you about Baldur’s Gate 2 it’s mostly a festival of complaints about the ways the game is hilariously, completely, incompetently busted.
The Broken Foundation
Baldur’s Gate 2 is an expansion-sequel point-and-click RPG from 2000 building on 1998’s Baldur’s Gate, which implemented the cutting-edge 9-year old 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules system into a software package that was so advanced it didn’t like it when you pushed two different arrows at the same time. While at the time it was cutting-edge, the interface of the game was designed for navigation on very small screens and that meant all the game action took place in tight little spaces of poorly-defined pre-rendered background, and moving around a map was a laborious process of dragging your mouse to the edge of the screen and waiting until you got where you were going. It’s very pre-web, an interface that shows when it was being developed, videogames had to make their own ideas of how players treated being presented with a pile of nonmoving visual information. To call it primitive is to insult it, but to call it classic is to overstate its elegance.
And to compliment this is this computer game strives to run the mechanics of 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, a game system that’s what we can politely call arcane. Now, it’s fashionable these days to criticise D&D on a few different axes, such as how 5th edition fans like to complain about 4th edition being ‘MMO-ey’, or to complain about the entire game structure itself where ‘going on an adventure’ is colonialist or ‘XP’ is so much worse an incentive system than piles of money, but let’s not let the fashion keep us from saying what’s true here: Whatever virtues 2ed D&D had for a play-based system with a human adjudicator, it was pants for cramming into a CRPG where players who might never know the rules of the game could actually play it.
No worries, you say, just print the game rules that are relevant in the manual, right?
Yeah, they couldn’t do that.
The licensing of D&D to Bioware for Baldur’s Gate 2 was a cluster of bad decisions, and to give you the full run-down would take more time than you’re going to spare this article, so let’s give you the sequence of cause and effect:
- Bioware couldn’t explain the rules to the game, because
- Nobody was allowed to explain the rules to the game, because
- TSR had licensed the rules as mechanics, but not the rights to replicate those rules, because
- They were hoping the need for rules explanations would drive people to buy the books because
- Catastrophic losses in the company had resulted in a need for cash flow because
- The player base was shrinking massively with the rise of the internet, because
- The head of TSR was trying to sue random forum-goers for defining ‘Thac0’ to people.
This story is bananas, it goes some extremely weird and wild places, and it’s mostly a matter of public record thanks to all the goddamn lawsuits. A place to start is when Kevin and Brian Blume, burned through their attempts to corner the market on D&D Latchhook Rugs (seriously), were removed from their place running TSR by Gary Gygax (and a lawsuit), and out of spite, sold their controlling interest to Lorraine Williams. Lorraine Williams was a businesswoman who ran TSR from around 1986 to 1997, during which time she oversaw business decisions (that seemed okay) and a personal agenda (which was hecking disastrous).
See, Lorraine Williams had two important things about her for this position. First, she utterly disdained gamers; she saw the entire subculture that were buying her products very poorly, and it showed in the kind of products she was trying to sell to them (including a lot of follow-the-leader products including an attempt to cash in on the success of Magic: The Gathering). But the other big – and extremely weird – thing is that Williams was one of the heirs to the Buck Rogers intellectual property – yeah, the old 1920s sci-fi adventure comic. TSR had some Buck Rogers products – and she received direct benefits from their sale.
This conflict of interest was part of why she tried to ruin D&D’s sales – and I can say that because the lawsuit brought against her (again!) by Gygax ruled that she did try to impoverish TSR’s D&D brand to enrich herself via sales of the Buck Rogers goods.
And into this tumult, we have Bioware, making an adventure game that uses these rules systems that they can’t talk about. Lorraine Williams wasn’t likely to sue anyone over explaining Thac0 on the forums any more, since she was out, but the license still meant they definitely, definitely couldn’t explain the rules too much.
Even if the rules for 2E D&D were the most elegant and obvious ones ever presented (and they weren’t), this level of deliberate obtuseness and an online culture of don’t talk about it or you might get sued meant that the rules system was shaky as hell to start with, and it shows.
The Diegetic Mess
When it comes time to experience this rules system, it does this mix of numbery-mathy stuff and instant-action stuff. It’s a mathy combat system – you click on a bad creature and your character moves towards them to hit them, or you click on a spell button then on the enemy. You can set the game up to pause in time increments (a good system), or at specific triggers, letting you play the game in full real time, or as a thoughtful tactical game with minimal wasted effort. That interface however, while it seems pretty consistant, is full of really weird inconsistancies.
Sometimes enemy facing matters, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes enemies have special abilities that ignore some of your special abilities; sometimes your special abilities invert their effects. Some enemy abilities are explained and some aren’t, and it’s baffling at times, with the sheer variety of enemies you face, which are capable of oddball immunities and special effects or which are bugged, which are the result of a room and which are the result of just plain 2e weirdness. Oh, golems are immune to spells, but the stone construct isn’t a golem, okay.
What’s more you don’t know what’s intentional and what’s accidental. It’s probably not intentional that the Guarded Compound in the Temple District holds the most incompetent Kensei, so utterly lost as to doing his job he isn’t even wielding the best weapon in the game he’s holding in his inventory, or his hat, but the game is just so shakily put together you can’t be sure. The game is massive and its resource base is enormous and there are dozens of characters and their interactions are varied and you’re never going to be bored if you’re looking for new things to throw against one another to see how they stick.
It’s just also a game where it can soft-lock in a dream sequence and strand you. It can lose key items, it can give you extra key items and permanently strand them in your limited inventory space. And then, even if you do avoid bugs or glitches or peculiarities (like how maze works when you’re solo), you’re still facing a game where enemies range from reasonably sensible (like thieves stab you with knives) to the seemingly incomprehensible (what exactly do you do when an enemy casts invisibility and immunity to divination?).
Yet you can muddle through, and that’s partly because your character is some variety of incredibly overpowered as soon as you pick up any of the options that let you get there. All you have to do is work out what’s good and what’s not, what you can do and what works, and try to piece it all together over the time you get in the second chapter –
Which if you’re paying attention to the plot, kind of really messes with the pace of the story.
And that story, what a story it is.
Okay, so here is the plot outline: You’re a special person, captured by a villain, who tortures you for no reason you understand. You escape, with your friends, only for the villain and one of your friends to be captured by the authorities. *. You chase after the villain, find that he has taken over the prison and has been torturing your friend. You rescue your friend, but the villain flees, having taken something from your friend. You pursue, then find the villain at another, new location where they’re using the special powers they obtained through torturing you and your friend, to visit revenge on someone who wronged them a long time ago, and you stop them. Then, there is a final moral trial connected to that special trait and then a final confrontation with the villain.
None of that plot is particularly bad but you can definitely see ways it opens itself up to pacing problems, right? What if I told you that the * there could take a literal year or two?
Reducing this story down like this is pretty tricky because while I played this game a ton and I know the components of the story, they’re small events in the whole days-long experience of the game, and none of them stand out as important in any way compared to the other things you’re doing. It’s like small beads on a mile long string.
The plot’s coherent, but it’s so amazingly bad at making sure you know it’s plot. You’ve got this wonderful small cast of characters who hang around you and talk to one another and bicker and sometimes fight, people you romance and people you can barter with and one who can even have a Whacky Gender Change antic. There are evil parties you can make and good parties and you can treat building your party as a puzzle that involves fulfilling roles and getting plot events is all part of the game. There are strongholds you can acquire and questlines there that also take months of in-game time. And then there’s an expansion that adds a whole new dimension to the game – and we’ll talk about that later.
None of the screenshots I’ve shared here are mine – they’re from a google search. My screenshots are all pretty weird and different because I solo this game 99% of the time, or occasionally bring along a lone NPC to play their particular plot beats. This is because, as I said, I love this game and have played it over and over again. I cannot stress enough that I am a flawed source to talk about this game because even here, in this article where I explicitly was trying to point out garbage things about it, I was still doing it itching of thinking about when to play it next.
I can’t tell you how the enhanced edition plays, nor can I really comment on the game, un-modded, because I’ve been playing it modded for going on twenty years now. This is an excellent game experience, but you’re going to have to go into it expecting some degree of discovery as to whether or not you’re okay with its clunkiness.
There is some general D&D-level content warnings here. There are bugs, there’s darkness, there’s parental endagerment, implications of sexual assault (but maybe I’m reading into that), there’s a lot of violence, some talk of slavery, there’s vampires and awkward D&D-style moral quandraries and a lot of elfy racism.
One final final thing is that Baldur’s Gate 2 is massively improved as a modern game because loading time and disc swapping doesn’t happen. Loading times used to be measured in minutes, but now they’re seconds, sometimes less.
Get it if:
- You want a really big old-school RPG
- You like something moddable and with a lot of replay value
Avoid it if:
- You dislike clunky games and interfaces
- You really appreciate modern RPG design, which tend to be better structured