Its generally agreed that, in the PC era of the 1990s, the role-playing game genre peaked with the release of BioWares Baldurs Gate in 1998. After 20 years of trying to port the tabletop D&D experience to computer games, Baldurs Gate finally got it right. The game spawned multiple expansion sets, sequels and the next-generation series Neverwinter Nights.
Grandma, Grandpa, you remember all this?
The classic RPG has been resurrected yet again, for the touchscreen era, with Baldurs Gate: Enhanced Edition (iPad; $9.99; rated 12+). Essentially a port of the original adventure game with some additional tweaks, fixes and bonus adventures the new Baldurs Gate is an enjoyable stroll down the cobblestones of memory lane.
Among the enhancements is a new tutorial mode thats helpful for returning players, and essential for new ones. Baldurs Gate was the last video game based on the old AD&D 2.0 rule set, an infamously weird and complicated system. Mastering it was (and is) a point of pride for a certain subset of dedicated RPG gamers.
Dig into Baldurs Gate and youll find the conceptual DNA of todays state-of-the-art RPGs, such as the Elder Scroll or Dragon Age series. It begins with the delights of character creation. You start by choosing standard building blocks like race (elf, dwarf, etc.) class (fighter, mage, etc.) and weapon specializations (crossbow, katana).
Attributes like strength and dexterity are determined the old fashioned way by rolling three six-sided dice and totaling the numbers. You can adjust or re-roll, just like in the old days. (If youre not into the excruciating minutia of character creation, you can choose from pre-made characters and kits.)
Faithful to the original
Playing on the iPad, the Enhanced Edition is remarkably faithful to the original Baldurs Gate experience. (The new edition is also available on PC, and coming soon for Android tablets and Mac.) The familiar top-down isometric perspective remains, as does the real-time, third-person combat system.
The graphic specs are bumped up a bit, but everything from character portraits to combat animations looks exactly like they did in the original. I know because I still have after-images burned in my retinas from the months I spent playing this game in 1999.
Story mode in the new edition follows the same adventure presented in the original, starting in library of Candlekeep and expanding out into old Forgotten Realms fantasy setting. Three new playable characters are introduced, each of which comes with additional side-quest locations to explore. Among your stalwart companions is Neera the Wild Mage, a confused but enthusiastic elven wizard with the looks and attitude of a distracted 16-year-old. (Thats 96 in elf years, by the way.)
Also new this go-around is The Black Pits adventure, which works more-or-less like an arena mode. In the Pits, your assembled heroes square off against increasingly difficult opponents over the course of 15 gladiator-style levels.
New players can use this mode to get the hang of combat, while returning players will find it useful for play-testing tactical ideas that you can then bring into the story mode. You can bring up to six party members in the Pits, and I like that the designers have provided an interesting narrative and back story for this part of the game.
Trade-offs are worthwhile
The inventory and journal screens two more staples of the RPG genre have been largely preserved, though placement has been tweaked to accommodate touchscreen tapping and swiping, and drop down menus have been added to conserve space.
The touchscreen controls work reasonably well with combat, too. Baldurs Gate famously introduced the pause option to real-time combat, allowing you to queue up your commands in the heat of battle. Since this is largely a matter of selecting targets, it can be done just as easily with a tap as with a mouse click.
The developers promise more than 100 hours of gameplay with the Enhanced edition. In my adventures so far, Ive encountered some minor frustrations with navigating maps and menus by way of tapping and swiping. But Im getting better at working around the issues, and the trade-offs are worthwhile just to have access to this game on the iPad.
Its amazing to think that when I first played through Baldurs Gate, the game required seven CD-ROMs and a desktop system the size of a small sedan. This time around, I downloaded the game in minutes and play on a device smaller and lighter than a print magazine. Progress!
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