Published in The National on March 23, 2001

Gateway to the Forgotten Realms

By Daniel Lam
Dunael Sparrowhawk knew something was wrong. Gorion, his foster father, who had been silent since they left their home in Candlekeep, had stopped.

"We are not alone," the wise old man said to the youth. Dunael sensed fear in his voice.

Figures emerged from the shadows. There were five; two were obviously too big to be human. Ogres perhaps, Dunael thought.

The leader, a man in full armour, was threatening Gorion. The youth gripped his rarely-used dagger. 

Somehow, he knew there would be use for it before the night is over.

It was 1998. All the waiting would come to an end. When word came out that BioWare's Baldur's Gate had hit the shelves, I did what came naturally ... I ran for it. 

A wee bit of background...
Baldur's Gate is a computer role-playing game (CRPG) based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) pen-and-paper role playing game system published by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR, now taken over by collectible trading card game company Wizards of the Coast). Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is the grand-daddy of RPGs ... but that is another story. 

A role-playing game (RPG) is a game played between two or more (ideally five) players, usually on the dining table, using lots of pens, various dice, paper and healthy amounts of imagination. 

One player is usually the gamemaster (GM), and the rest are players. The players play characters defined by a bunch of numbers (to measure attributes like strength, speed, brains, etc) while the GM fleshes out the game world and just about everything else. 

The players "imagine" being heroes in a fantasy world where dragons are real, magic helps the world go round and damsels may well wield swords on the sly.

The GM might describe the setting, the environment, the characters and monsters, and the players decide what their characters do. 

The rules (there are rules, of course) govern how the fantasy world relates to the player characters (PCs) and vice versa. 

The dice (not just your common six-sided dice, but four-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, twelve-sided and twenty-sided too!) add an element of randomness to the game.

Anyway, there had always been talk about when RPGs would make the final transition to the computer world (believe it or not, many of the pioneer computer programmers were RPGers). There were attempts in the 1980s and early 1990s, but RPG purists scoffed at the two-dimensional products.

Then, Interplay released Fallout in the mid-1990s, and the purists took note: here was a CRPG that had depth, with a gripping storyline that made sense. But Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, not in a fantasy setting.

In 1998, Baldur's Gate (BG) was released.

There had been plenty of marketing hype as to what the game was about. Blizzard's Diablo had already been released long before, and many PC gamers wondered if BG would be any good. And RPG purists waited, hoping.

BG did not disappoint.

It came in five CDs and has pretty low systems requirements (now ... they weren't so in 1998). 

You need to have at least a Pentium 166 system with 16MB RAM and 200MB hard disk space. 
My recommendations are at least a Pentium II 350 with 64MB RAM and 2.5GB hard disk space. That's right, we are talking a full install here (you still need the first CD in the CD-ROM drive to play the game).

Dunael had never known fear like he did now. Mere moments before he was standing alongside Gorion, confident that his foster father would be more than a match for a bunch of bandits. Now the youth was running for his life. His foster father lay dead, slain by the armoured figure.

"Hand over your ward," the armoured figure had demanded of Gorion.

Gorion's refusal had not been well-received.

The game takes place in the Sword Coast region of AD&D's most popular fantasy world setting, the Forgotten Realms. One thing that endeared BG to RPG purists was that many elements of AD&D were preserved - previous CRPGs based on the AD&D game system were often poorly conceived products. Not BG.

The player starts of by creating a character. On the character creation screen, the player gets to pick from six different races (human, elf, dwarf....) and eight core character classes. Add in eight specialty mage classes and RPG stuff like experience points and character levels, and you have to count your blessings. 

Multi-classes and dual-classes, too? Oh my! And other aspects of the AD&D game, like Charisma effects on others, morale, weapon speed, thief abilities and the like, which have never had much of an impact on gameplay in previous AD&D-based CRPGs, feature prominently in BG.

BG has a real-time combat system (i.e. battles take place in real-time), but the BioWare gaming engine allows players to pause the game at any time, and even instruct the game to pause whenever certain events are fulfilled (character wounded, enemy dead, etc).

So what happens is you enter combat, pause the game, issue instructions, unpause the game, watch the action, pause when needed, issue new instructions.... Sounds dull? Not so!

BioWare has incorporated most of AD&D's many magical spells, weaponry and armour into the gaming engine, and seamlessly they play, too.

And the game world is beautifully rendered in 32-bit graphics and there is support for 3D sound. But wait, other CRPGs have similar systems too, right? So what makes BG any better?

It felt good to be among friends. Even as hidden enemies stalk him, seeking his death, Dunael knew he was not alone. 

Jaheira the druid with the courage of a warrior, Khalid the swordsman, Imoen whose slyness and cunning hid a kind heart, Minsc the ranger and his pet hamster Boo. 

Together they face the darkness that is seeking him.

BG is a party-based game. You would have, in addition to the main character, other heroes who would travel with you. But the storyline revolves around your hero, even in the multiplayer version of the game.

The main character grew up in Candlekeep, a place of learning. Learning of a mysterious, impending threat, the hero flees Candlekeep with his foster father Gorion. Then Gorion is slain by assassins while the hero manages to escape. And the hero is left to figure out why his enemies want him, which forms the main goal in the game.

The main storyline in BG is divided into chapters, during which certain key tasks have to be accomplished by the hero's party in order to advance the plot. This does not in any way limit the player's freedom to explore the gaming world (although some parts are off-limits until later chapters).

The game gives you plenty of clues to help you advance the main plot, but along the way you are free to do so at your own pace, often without really knowing what actions will bring an end to each of the seven chapters in the game.

You also get to choose who makes up your party. There are dozens of characters whom you can invite to join your party of up to six. Unlike other CRPGs, where interesting non-player characters (NPCs) have no real impact on gameplay, in BG personalities matter. Here they will pursue their own agenda, even if they may be contrary to your intentions. Continue to ignore the fellow and he or she may leave, or even attack, your party!

The NPCs also respond to certain events in the game or carry out conversations among themselves. They are also prone to criticising your hero's leadership!

There's more: you can also play a solo multiplayer game. Simply start a multiplayer game and assign control of all characters (whom you get to create) to yourself. In the multiplayer game, which I did not have the pleasure of trying out, each player controls one PC, playing over the Internet or local area network.

Who was this fiend who would start an iron shortage, take control of the Iron Throne and fan the flames of racism, Dunael wondered. Who would consort with the shapeshifters that feast on human flesh, and to what end? All clues seem to point to the North, to the largest city in the Sword Coast.

The city of Baldur's Gate.

There are many things going for BG: great gaming system, excellent music, gorgeous graphics, solid storyline. But it is not a perfect game. There were quite a number of bugs, some just irritating, others downright frustrating. The characters, for example, seem to have poor sense of direction (they frequently get stuck in corners). Also, the featured weather visual and sound effects can be out of place. You could find yourself caught in day-long rains.

The graphics, though beautifully rendered and all, are limited by the low 640x480 resolution, when 800x600 would have been a more common resolution.

On top of that, the game's minimum requirements are a major understatement. When I first played BG on a Pentium II 350MHz with 64MB RAM a few years back (on a full install to boot), the game choked on the larger battles (when there are 20+ characters on-screen). I dread to think how it runs on a Pentium 166 with 16MB RAM.

Nevertheless, BG is a great game. It came at a time when fantasy CRPGs seemed to have lost direction, or were simply excuses for the player to hack and slash at fantasy monsters. 

BioWare has meanwhile released Tales of the Sword Coast, an expansion for BG, which fixes the various bugs in the game and adds quite a number of new sites where the hero can explore. Plus, the experience point cap has been raised to allow for slightly higher level characters. If you are looking for the game that, according to many gaming magazines, "sparked off a role-playing renaissance", this is it!

His blood ran cold when he realised the truth. Gorion had sheltered him all these years, to protect him from his past. A past that led to his foster father's murder. A past that would welcome the desolation of war, to colour the earth scarlet with the blood of the fallen. The past had a name.

Bhaal, Lord of Murder.

Baldur's Gate
Developer: BioWare Corp
Publisher: Black Isle Studios (a division of Interplay)