Chapter 1: The Spirit of the Game

          Unlike some Role-Playing Games, which are arranged so that the protagonist is always the same character (with the same name, appearance, abilities, & so on), in Baldur's Gate you build the protagonist from the ground up, with traits that you select. This facet of the game is probably the #1 contributor to the "replayability" of Baldur's Gate, because gameplay is so different from one type of character to another (a Fighter is handled nothing like a Shapeshifter is nothing like a Transmuter is nothing like a Cleric/Thief) that players want to beat the game over & over with different characters—most even stop playing their first game before they've gotten very far and roll up an entirely new protagonist, not because they found the game too difficult, but simply because they want to explore what a completely different set of abilities and restrictions feels like.

          The protagonist is frequently referred to as the Main Character or Player Character, or just "PC." The entire rest of the game is populated
with Non-Player Characters, or NPCs. Some of these NPCs are adventurers like yourself, and you can recruit them to join your party to aid you in your various quests and endeavors. The maximum party size is 6, so you can have no more than 5 other people assisting you at once. Much depends on the type and number of people you select to accompany you (more people in your group means you can handle large fights more easily, but your character will gain power more rapidly if you travel alone), as well as the qualities of the individual NPCs: More Warriors means you can handle run-of-the-mill fights more easily, more Priests means the party will be in generally better health all the time, a party that lacks a Thief could be stopped cold by a locked door, etc. The large variety of recruitable NPCs available to accompany you is the #2 reason for BG's replayability, because different NPCs have different personalities, different relationships with other party members, and in BG2, most have their own quests as well. Playing with a different set of NPCs can make it feel like an entirely different game.

          In Baldur's Gate, the PC must always be in active play: He (assuming you've made the main character a male) cannot leave the party, and must be kept alive at all costs, because his survival is critical to the Main Plot, the overarching story arcs of both BG1 and BG2. So the PC must never be allowed to die—if he does get killed, all gameplay immediately halts, and you must Reload to an earlier point at which you Saved the game. You can Reload at any time, and for any reason: Because a battle went badly for your side, because you want to find out what would have happened if you'd said this instead of that, because an innocent bystander got killed in the crossfire, because you just realized that you spent so much money on beer that you can't afford that shiny new helmet, etc. Being able to Reload is like a free "Go Back
in Time" button, and every time you enter a new map area, the game makes a new Auto-Save for you, so you always have a recent Savepoint to fall back on. This is by far the most powerful weapon you have in your crusade to beat the game, as it essentially makes it impossible for you to be defeated: If you lose a battle, you can always go back and try it again, and again, and again, literally as many times as you want, until you beat it or until you decide to leave that fight for later—because you can almost always come back to it when your characters are stronger and have better equipment. The second most important tool at your disposal is the Space Bar. Hitting Space will Pause and un-Pause the game, and gives you complete control: Even in the middle of an extremely frenzied, full-scale battle, you can Pause, scroll the screen around to take a good long look at everything that's happening all around you, issue detailed commands to each of your party members, and then un-Pause and watch those commands be carried out.

          Both BG1 and BG2 are jam-packed with quests for you to go on: Each game has a very strong, well-written Main Plot that forms the overarching story arc for the whole game, as well as dozens of smaller side-quests . . . although in this case, "smaller" doesn't always mean small. Sure, some of the sidequests are doltishly simple "take this item across town for me" kinds of errands, but others are major enterprises that involve long journeys, convoluted intrigue, and/or harrowing combat. Closely tied to the Main Plot is the World Map, which is rather inappropriately named as you can't visit (or even see) the entire world, just the country that you're in.
In BG1, the "World" Map is of a territory known as the Sword Coast, ruled from the walled city of Baldur's Gate. You start the game with
a map that is almost completely blank: Only the more well-known towns and villages, and the roads connecting them, are marked down. As you progress, you will explore more and more new map areas, gradually filling in the entire map. Visiting new lands is almost entirely at your own prerogative, and is entirely optional: If you followed the Main Plot and nothing but the Main Plot, you would explore no more than 25% of the map. Large sections of territory are plot-related, and will be completely inaccessible to you until you have reached certain points of the Main Plot.
In BG2, you have left the Sword Coast and are now in the nation of Amn (directly to the south of the Sword Coast), which has the great city of Athkatla as its capital. The map is both more open and more restrictive than BG1: Very little of the map needs to be "unlocked" by following the Main Plot, but the number of map areas to visit is also sharply diminished from BG1—it has almost none of the sense of "Let's go explore the wilderness" that BG1 had.
Also of note is your Journal, which automatically makes note of anything quest-related, so you can scroll through it to see if there are any quests that you've started (or been offered) but haven't finished yet. The BG2 Journal is far superior to the BG1 version, because it has separate sections for "Quests" and "Done Quests," allowing you to easily see what loose ends are still lying around, and also a third section that keeps track of major events in the Main Plot. In BG2, you can also write in your own Journal, in case you run into something you might want to remember later (like a door you can't open or an enemy you can't beat . . . yet). The Journal in both games is chapter-specific: If you're in, say, Chapter 4, and you want to see what quests you already wrapped up in Chapter 2, you can scroll back to Chapter 2 and start reading. In the BG1 Journal, you move between chapters by clicking on the little silver arrowheads, and in BG2 they're big purple things.

          One of the key elements of Baldur's Gate is the sheer flexibility it offers: Sure, the Main Plot is always pretty much the same, and you will have to face the Main Bad Guy eventually, but the gap between rolling up your character and the final encounter is quite a big one . . . and you can fill that gap with just about anything you want. If you want to rescue princesses, slay evil monsters, and be a mighty hero, yeah, you can do that. If you want to murder people in their sleep, sell folks into slavery, and destroy entire ecosystems, yeah, you can do that too. Go get drunk and get into bar fights? Spout some insane gibberish with a bunch of crazed lunatics? Run a theater and put on plays? Pit your combat skills against rabid chickens? Patronize whorehouses? Rob churches? Bust somebody out of jail? Rescue
innocent livestock from certain death? Go shoplifting from various stores and markets? Yeah. You can do that. In fact, there are really only four major things that you can't do in this game: Swim, ride things (horses, wagons), climb things (trees, walls), and set buildings on fire. But apart from that stuff, you're free to roleplay pretty much any type of character you want, from Lawful Good Paladin to Neutral Evil Assassin to Chaotic Neutral Wild Mage.

          The main thing that I dislike about the BG series is its lack of randomness—an odd trait for the game to have, considering that it's constantly rolling dice and otherwise generating random numbers that determine the course of the game. But compare Baldur's Gate with related RPGs like Diablo and Fate: In Diablo, each dungeon level is randomly generated (never the same map twice) and filled with similarly random monsters who, when killed, drop random loot—and even the properties and enchantments on the magical equipment are set completely by chance. In Baldur's Gate, on the other hand, you can enter Durlag's Tower and
(provided you've been there before) you already know where enemies gather, what types of enemies they are, which ones drop what specific items, where all the traps are, etc. It's a delicate balance, and though I dislike Baldur's Gate being so predictable, in my view its designers made the right decision: It allows Baldur's Gate greater degrees of depth and realism. The quests in BG are frequently convoluted and rich in atmosphere; the quests in Diablo and Fate are mostly very basic "Go kill creature X, and/or bring Item Y back to me." The loot in Baldur's Gate is exactly what the enemy actually uses: If you're fighting a guy wearing enchanted Splint mail and swinging a really cool magical Halberd, when you kill him you will get that armor and that Halberd. In Diablo, you can kill some tiny little bat-thing, and watch it suddenly drop a huge set of Full Plate armor—in precisely what pocket was it carrying that? So I prefer BG's method of handling probabilities . . . even though it's not perfect, and the amount of truly random loot is a mere pittance compared with what enemies always drop, I find the in-depth and realistic world of Baldur's Gate vastly preferable to the random dungeons of Diablo and Fate.

          So yes, there are a few things that I don't like about the BG series. There are things that other people don't like, too. Which brings us to the #3, and perhaps the most important, reason why Baldur's Gate is still being played, more than 10 years after it first came out: Those negative traits can be changed. The construction of the game was such that it is possible to open up the files that the game engine uses, and change them, remove them, add new ones . . . making very real changes in gameplay. These modifications can also be put online, for other people to download and install on their own computers, so that players around the would could be using new items, new spells, new quests, new recruitable NPCs, new map areas . . . all produced by fellow players, for free, simply for everyone's mutual enjoyment of the game. There are literally hundreds of modifications, or "mods," from dozens of modders, and translated into several languages. There are also several online BG communities, both for simply playing the game and for modding it—the latter is getting more and more prevalent, as making the mods isn't terribly difficult, and even those who don't make mods themselves can offer feedback and make suggestions. Despite having been commercially "dead" for quite some time, the game itself is still around, and still evolving—even when you think you've seen it all, somebody else comes around the corner with an entirely new wrinkle.

Q: You don't seem to be mentioning the game of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance at all. Isn't it part of the same series?
          A: Hell no.
BG: Dark Alliance does in fact start off in the city of Baldur's Gate, and you do play a sword-&-sorcery adventurer who goes on quests and kills monsters and stuff . . . but the similarities pretty much end there. The two sets of games were made and released by entirely different companies, and gameplay is wholly different: While the genuine BG games allow you full control over Character Creation, with literally millions of possible results, and you pick a party of up to 5 other NPCs to aid you in your journey, BG:DA lets you choose between a whopping three pre-made characters to play, and you're all alone. I'm not even sure it's based on D&D rules. BG:DA is, essentially, Gauntlet by another name, they simply called it Baldur's Gate to cash in on BioWare's success, and to confuse people into thinking that their game was actually good.

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