Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Review
There are hundreds of excellent, classic PC games out there that could be getting remake-type treatment, but for many reasons, those games continue to live on best in the memories of those of us older gamers that remember where today's big-budget AAA successes came from. Many times, reliving those past classics turns out to be a disappointment, as the rose-tinted glasses have often washed away the issues and ugliness that most of the best games of the past truly had. But there are a few titles here and there that deserve to see the light of day once again, and that's especially true when today's developers have failed to bring the lessons learned from yesteryear into the present.
One such example would be the Baldur's Gate series, and that's why developer Overhaul Games and publisher Beamdog - made up of past veterans of RPG developer BioWare - have brought the original back to life in Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. It wasn't going to be an easy job bringing this classic back into the light, as the old Infinity Engine that many of these games ran on was kind of outdated and difficult to deal with even back then in the late 90s. But with a few little improvements and a treatment that leaves the game's graphics and style intact, Beamdog has succeeded in reviving this classic on modern PCs without falling into the trap of trying to reinvent the whole game and everything in it. But is that enough? We'll have to answer that by the end of this review.
The biggest thing Beamdog did with BG:EE was simply bring the Infinity Engine into the 21st century, supporting widescreen resolutions and running on today's hardware without issues. It can run on pretty much any PC that's still alive today, including those with integrated Intel video cards. (As it should, as the Infinity Engine was previously adapted by fans to run even on older Android devices.) Overhaul Games didn't just work on the engine, though; they've added a few extra characters you can add as party members, redone some of the cutscenes, and thrown in a new stand-alone area called the Black Pits to try out your best party setups. The characters are great and the Black Pits can be interesting for those tactical geniuses who love playing with full party combat, but don't expect much from the narrative perspective. The replaced cutscenes aren't really much to sing about, though, and I kind of wish that the developers had either left the original ones in or allowed players to turn the old ones back on, but it's not a big deal.
The thing is, when you bring back a game like this and charge for it, you've got to justify it - not just by making the game work on today's PCs, but by showing gamers that out of all the old games you could resurrect, there's a reason to bother in the first place. In the case of Baldur's Gate, the developers are generally justified, because party-based, tactical combat in this classic Forgotten Realms, D&D style is dead in the modern day. BioWare did a solid job in starting to bring back something like that with Dragon Age, but then faltered with its more action-oriented sequel. Simply put, Baldur's Gate still has a few things to teach modern RPGs about depth in its combat options, narrative, and in lush hand-drawn visuals.
One nice addition is that the classes and kits created in BG2 have been yanked backwards into BG1 with this port, allowing players to create these additional character types and take them through the full adventure through both games (and their expansions). Of course, there's been a mod that does the same thing that's been around for years and years, and this becomes a bit of a recurring issue as nearly every convenience they've added, maybe aside from the new modern quest log-like journal system, has already been added to the original game with a mod. I'm not suggesting Overhaul Games stole or copied anything, as many of the enhancements they made that were also previously available from the community are simple common-sense changes that they'd be stupid to have not implemented. But the simple fact is that this stuff was already freely available, even if it takes a few minutes to get it all running on a vanilla installation.
And that's the real problem: BG:EE costs twenty bucks, and that might be too much to ask considering what the community has already done with the Infinity Engine classics, Baldur's Gate included. The source code for the engine was released years ago and with that, the community has reworked the games that run on the engine backwards and forwards, releasing easy-to-install mods that do most of the same basic compatibility work that Overhaul and Beamdog are charging for rather handsomely. Many mods can also be installed to add plenty of the types of things Overhaul has, like new characters and quests, all for free.
Now, none of that stuff comes in an easy-to-install package like BG:EE is, but how important can that be when we're talking about a game that's fourteen years old? I might be wrong, but I'm guessing the target audience for this consists of gamers who enjoyed the classic, not new gamers that have no idea who Baldur is and what he's doing with this Gate. If I have this right, I'm reasonably sure that the vast majority of people who would even be remotely interested in BG:EE already own the original game somewhere and might be willing to install a few mods, as that's what we're used to from the old days. And the new characters that Overhaul created means that a save compatibility problem will appear. If you ever want to export your BG:EE characters over to Baldur's Gate 2, then not only will that mean ponying up another twenty bucks for the inevitable Enhanced Edition version of BG2, but it also means waiting for Overhaul to finish and release it - and right now, there's no estimated release date.
Pile up all of these issues together, and all of a sudden, it doesn't seem like Overhaul is really doing any of this with the Infinity Engine community in mind. Admittedly, what could they really do? Some of these guys actually had a part in making these games originally, and the only way they even had a chance of gaining that kind of grassroots old-school-gamer support properly is by reviving their own game; that's just how it is with the classic CRPG community, it seems. But the Infinity Engine games have already had years' worth of post-release support done by the community, and that makes this whole effort a little redundant. It'd have been different if Baldur's Gate couldn't be made to work on today's Windows, if the source code hadn't getting improvements for years already, or if players had to deal with frustrations the Glide library back from the 3Dfx era. It seems to me like the true intention behind all of this work was to eventually get the game running on other devices, and the upcoming mobile ports to iPad that Overhaul has promised seem to be the real point of resurrecting the Infinity Engine in this way. (I doubt they'll get away with charging $20, though...) Unfortunately, it feels like we're being asked to pay too much for too little, just so Overhaul can eventually get to the real point of making these enhanced editions.
It pains me to do this because this is a proper revival of Baldur's Gate, without any mucking around in what made it such a great game. BG:EE should get a very high score from me just on that alone, but it's not going to. All of the Infinity Engine games are brilliant pieces of work that still stand out from the RPG pack more than a decade after their release dates, and here Overhaul Games made a perfectly competent "port" of the game that started it all. But it costs twenty bucks, and that's too much when you can get the original version with the same Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack over at GOG for half the price - even less when it goes on sale - and a few minutes of installing mods gets you to nearly the same point. So I'm really hoping that the mobile port(s) that Overhaul is working on turn out great, and I'm expecting more out of their EE versions of BG2 and future games, assuming they still plan on making them. Or at the very least, they could sell them for a more reasonable price.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.