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Out with the old, in with the new
By: Lord Craxton
Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn does nearly everything a good sequel should: It expands upon the original, shores up old flaws and advances new ideas while still staying true to the original's spirit.
The story picks up after your defeat of Sarevok at the end of Baldur's Gate. On the road again, you're captured by the minions of one Jon Irenicus, a sadistic mage who looks like he just stepped out of a Hellraiser movie. He imprisons you and subjects you to torturous experiments having something to do with your "untapped power" as a Child of Baal. An attack on Irenicus' lair provides a diversion allowing you and your old friend Imoen to break out of your cages. So, your immediate objectives are: 1) escape and 2) Revenge. Of course, it's never really that simple. Before long you're mixed up in Irenicus' machinations, and must thwart his plans and regain...well, something very important that he's stolen from you.
The only bad thing about Shadows of Amnís plot is that it's very straightforward. Unlike the original, which had a lot of mystery and sleuthing inherent in its story, here everything is laid out for you at the start- you're introduced to the villain right away, and ultimately your goal is to stop him. Sure, there are a few interesting twists along the way, but only one is especially surprising. There are also some problems with pacing- virtually all the subquests in the game are concentrated in the second chapter. Once you hit chapter four, it's essentially a straight line from there to the final showdown. And annoyingly, for the first two chapters, you have a plot objective that seems to motivate haste. Thus, during the time that your character should logically want to push as fast as he can, to reach his goal quickly, it is more practical from the player's viewpoint to hang out and go off on tangents. The paradox puts a strain on suspension of disbelief. There's also the Underdark chapter, which is just completely pointless. There's some effort to establish the drow as Irenicus' allies, but outside this chapter, there are only three drow in the entire game, one of whom is an ally and another Drizzit Do'Urden making his contractual cameo. A treat for Forgotten Realms fans is okay, but the Underdark chapter is padding. It could be chopped out entirely and not affect the plot one whit.
However, while it's true that the story is pretty plain, the digressions are a lot of fun. Sidequests can spin out into minor epics, such as the delightfully convoluted Firkraag quest. The characters are also much better developed this time around- in Baldur's Gate, they were more or less sprites with one-dimensional personalities and annoying speech files. In Shadows of Amn, they speak up more often outside of combat, and have better things to say. Minsc, whose shtick got very old in the first game, now has some of the game's best lines, and even a few inspiring moments. Jaheria, also from the first game, has mellowed considerably and is both less abrasive and more respectful. Imoen has abandoned her "sprightly little sister" routine for a darker, more brooding personality. There are new characters too, including the knowledgeable rogue Yoshimo, the frail and introverted Aerie, the brazen, silver-tongued Haer'Daelis, and many others both new and old. The voice acting helps immensely in developing a sense of character. Irenicus (voiced by veteran character actor David Warner) is the best, a character both dignified and utterly malicious despite dialogue that looks pretty standard on paper. The rest of the cast is more then adequate, but they do occasionally trip over uneven writing. During long, melodramatic monologues, instances of "Shatner acting", with hammy deliveries and overplayed pauses, are irritatingly common. Additionally, you have a lot more interaction with your party this time around. They'll quarrel, make friends, bond with each other, and voice their opinions. There are romantic subplots- three possibilities for a male hero, one for a female- which must be tread carefully, or else end in heartbreak. Most characters also have a specific quest you can undertake which will expose their past, or reshape their future. And always, you get some input in the scenario.
Character creation is also notably improved. You can import your old _Baldur's Gate_ characters, and they'll be just as viable here. Or, you can make a new character using a marvelously varied set of classes and kits. In addition to the old fantasy standbys, you can play a duel-wielding Swashbuckler, a sword-master called a "Kensai", a Werewolf Shapeshifter, and many, many others. Each class also has a stronghold you can acquire along a particular subquest, and the strongholds will also provide you with unique quests. Regrettably, though, regardless of the class you pick, they all play pretty much the same- most of the unique classes are fighters with a little spin, the others are minor variations on the existing thief/archer, priest, and mage classes. So there's not much motivation to try out different characters, other then the stronghold quests. The strongholds are pretty useless too. Often they're too far off the beaten path, requiring long treks. And frequently they have no functionality other then a place to rest, store trophies, and maybe visit from time to time for a little extra cash. You can't expand them either, or affect them much in any particular way. Sure, the quests are good, but it's still a far cry from, say, the town-building in Dragon Warrior 7.
There's not much to say about the interface. It's pretty much the same as Baldur's Gate, apparently under the wisdom of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Some minor improvements are worth noting. You now have containers to hold more loot, and going to inventory no longer unpauses the game. You also have more options for auto-pause, which helps a lot in difficult combats. You don't get constantly asked to switch disks, at least not with the full install. Mages now gain experience from copying spells to their spellbooks. Welcome additions, but the game plays pretty much the same.
Except for combat. Here we've taken a big step up from the frustrating ordeals in _Baldur's Gate_. The enemies are no longer quite so cheap, and more strategies are viable. Summoning spells have been nerfed, so no more gnoll attack forces, but they're still useful. Area effect spells require judicious use, since they put your fighters at risk. Less powerful but more restrained attack spells are not to be disregarded. In many cases plain old Magic Missile is your best bet. Archers and slingers are still powerful, but no longer death machines. Protective magics, and the spells to make them fall, are a very significant factor. And front-liners stay alive easier thanks to improved healing potions and restorative magics. Still, there are problems. It seems that BioWare went a little too far making mages less godlike- incapacitating the enemy with fear or webs is a lot more difficult, and many foes have magic resistance that will need to be brought down before you can do anything. It must also be said that too many times the winning strategy involves cheap AI exploits. Room full of Mind Flayers? Have Minsc lure them out one at a time, then gang up on them in the next room. Powerful enemy hiding around the corner? Toss a few fireballs at him before he notices you. Big, bad Golem? Counter with small, narrow doorway plus sniping archer. I sometimes felt as if I was winning unfairly.
The production values for _Shadows of Amn_ are adequate, but not terribly impressive. The usual dungeons and cities and wilderness and miscellanea, but at least it uses color, unlike too many recent PC Games. Sound is serviceable. Occasionally something stands out as interesting- for example, most of what you learn about Irenicus in the first chapter comes not from his words or actions, but from the dungeon- his home- that you have to escape from. VERY nice. Level design is a lot better then in _Baldur's Gate_- fewer cramped corridors makes pathfinding easier, and less generic rooms ensure exploring is worthwhile. Still, most environs are pretty generic- I had to remind myself to take some screenshots. Likewise, the music on display is inoffensive but unimpressive, although if you listen to the villagers in the background during the city scenes, you get some hilarious lines.
Once you know what you're doing, _Baldur's Gate 2_ isn't overly difficult. Aside from a few tough battles and tricky situations, you can blow through most quests in a few hours. But there's quite a bit of it to work through- enough that the entire game can take nearly 100 hours, if you aim to get everything. Once you have, though, a replay may seem pointless. Even accounting for new characters, quests, strongholds, romances, and so forth, there's just not enough you can do different second time around. You can maybe play a few different characters through the second chapter, but after that it's the same old song.
Overall, I'd have to say _Shadows of Amn_ is one of the better RPGs I've played in recent years. Maybe it's a bit thin in some areas, but it's still an exemplary game that is well worth the time invested.
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