Review: Baldur’s Gate 2: Dark Alliance (XB)

Interplay, Interplay, Interplay. You’re no stranger to stupid decisions. You piss off Fallout fans by not giving them the game they wanted. Granted you gave them a good hack N slash game, and something to introduce new fans to the series, but in the end you wanked off a large portion of your fan base.

You killed Black Isle studios, the team you chose other than Snowblind studios to do the sequel to a game they designed that won 2002’s RPG of the year: Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. So not only have you alienated Fallout fans, but fans of Snowblind and Black Isle as well. Clap clap clap.

So how is it even while shooting yourself in the foot repeatedly with a Desert Eagle, that you can still manage to publish good games? Arrrgh! Curse you for this love hate relationship you have put me into.

What’s great about Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance 2 is it is a sequel, and yet not a sequel. The game begins with the ending of the first DA, and familiar faces, names and places are alluded to in DA2, but in fact, the game stands on it’s own with five incredible new characters each possessing something the original three did not: a detailed backstory and character development that occurs through gameplay.

This is by far the best Action RPG I’ve played in a very long time. I’d put it almost on par with Guardian Heroes and River City Ransom (Although I hesitate to call the latter an RPG, but in fact the case can be made for it. Plus I love to shill that game.)

It’s only the end of January, but it’s safe to say when December rolls around, this is a game you will see on the ballot for 2004’s RPG of the year.

Let’s Review

1. Story

The game begins exactly where the original left off. The original three characters have defeated Eldrith the Betrayer only to find themselves in the clutching of a new and greater foe, one who has been manipulating both sides for his own ends for quite some time.

Enter five playable characters: A drow monk who seeks power, a greedy but loveable dwarven thief, a hormone driven human barbarian, a human cleric, and an amnesiac elven necromancer. Unlike the first Dark Alliance, where all three characters were noble and just, Dark Alliance 2 takes you down the rout of the anti hero with four out of the five characters being unusual choices for heroes. Only the female cleric noble and chaste is stereotypical in regards to good and evil.

However, as atypical as these characters may be, they grow into the role of hero as the game goes on. Yes ladies and gentlemen, there is character development. Each character has a richly detailed story, not only in the manual, but in the game itself. Watch as your Necromancer regains his memories to reveal and very intricate story indeed. Or as the Dwarf begins to realize there is more to life than gold. Or maybe not…

It’s great to see character specific quests in this game as well. This was a great treat that was missing in the original Dark Alliance that left it feel kind of generic. Now it each game is specialized in terms of plot instead of just abilities. A little more meat for your buck.

Unlike a highly over-rated game called Beyond Good and Evil, Dark Alliance 2 is able to have a mysterious plot without it being generic as hell until the last hour when there’s so many swerve’s you might as well be playing F-Zero GX on the highest difficulty. The plot slowly but surely reveals the plans of the vampire king to where at times you just want to know what he has up his sleeve instead of paying attention to the Harpers (good guys).

The first Dark Alliance seemed extremely linear. There were minor quests to do while engaging in a much bigger one, but now, you can have 3-4 quests going at once, and can do them in any order. Yes there is a straight storyline you have to advance in, but with optional repeatable dungeons, and the ability to take the main story and do a lot of quests in whatever order you choose (so long as they get done) makes the game feel a lot more free form that it really is.

With 5 playable characters (and a few to unlock, including a playable character from Dark Alliance 1), each with their own distinct personality and subquests, Dark Alliance 2 has managed to pack a lot of plot into an action RPG, something that tends to be an oxymoron.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Beautiful. Unlike Fallout: BoS, Dark Alliance 2 has improved the graphics on the DA engine. Everything is bright an vibrant. Even creatures clad in black or the shadows are striking. Nothing is blotchy. I noticed no jags or glitches. The game looks and feels like a fantasy world. When you drop a pair of boots, lo, lying there on the ground is a pair of boots that make you go “Hey! That’s a pair of boots!’ ;-) I love little touches like that or the fact the character obvious changes appearance when in new garb or wearing new weapons.

Characters models are wonderful to look at. Whether on the status screen or in the real game, they look exactly the same. One is just smaller than the other. But the details remains.

BTW, the Dragon, the Lich-King, and the Chimera all had me marking out. But the best of the best is the Mind Flayer. She is beautiful. And not hot or sexy beautiful. Unless you’re into tentacle hentai. What can I say? Cephalopods rock!

Graphically superior to the original Dark Alliance, DA 2 is brighter and bolder than I could have expected. Are they the best graphics ever? Certainly not. But Black Isle got a LOT out of this engine.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound

Incredible voice acting! Hard to believe just a generation, voice acting was pretty rank. And even today, it can be hit or miss. But like Fallout, BoS, another game that uses the DA engine, DA2 has incredible voice acting with some big name players. Mike Bell is back! Why does he always play mysterious good guys with a hidden agenda in Interplay games.

But the ultimate reason to worship this game: FRANK WELKER! The voice of Fred from Scooby Doo. The voice of MEGATRON. The REAL original G1 Megatron! Jim Cummings (Winnie the Pooh), Alan Oppenheimer (The original Skeletor!), Corey Burton (GI Joe’s Tomax and TF’s Brawn/Sunstreaker) and many more comprise an A list cast of an 80’s cartoon fan’s favorite voices.

And listen to your character’s vocal noises change as they grow in levels and power. Hear how a morning star sounds different than an arrow or battle axe against an enemy. Listen to foots steps and characters breathing. The sound of running water or the death rattle of a dying foe. This game has it all for vocal fanatics. Whenever I recognized a voice it was almost as fun and exciting while playing Valkyrie Profile.

Look at the games I am using to help compare DA2 people. Guardian Heroes! Valkyrie Profile. River City Ransom! This should be big clues as to this game’s greatness.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control

It’s the Dark Alliance engine people. It can not be anything less than Brilliance incarnate. Every button has a purpose. The left trigger allows you to have four “fast’ feats or spells instead of menu cycling. And you will be holding said L trigger a lot BTW. There’s a button for healing, one for magic regeneration, and so on.

And little things are improved. There’s an automatic ability to aim with ranged weapons instead of needing to buy it. You have unlimited ammo when you use a missile weapon which cuts down on the weight load you carry (and the realism). Again, great improvements over the original.
Dark Alliance 2 is the rpg for non rpg fans. People who want real time play instead of turn based or tactical strategy. And with controls like these, DA can make anyone an RPG fan. Plus no random battles!

Control Rating: 10/10

5. Replayability

In one tiny word: UNLIMITED. Five characters to choose from, each one with countless customization. Create a Necromancer with full vampiric touch and empower feats filled up and watch him able to go hand to hand in combat with a DRAGON. Let your Dwarf thief run around in plate mail armour. You name it, you can do it in this game.

And of course with unlockable characters, the replay goes up and up and up.

And my god. Multiplayer mode? It puts a whole new spin on the game. Feats and spells you wouldn’t use in single player like the Cleric’s bless or the Necromancer’s haste become some of, if not THE, most important skills in multiplayer. And with the Necromancer’s animate dead spell, you can have a party of three, even if only two are playable by humans.

If you had to buy one RPG and only one with the promise that it would never bore you and that each time the game could feel completely different thanks to the number of characters and customization…it would be Shining Force 2. BUT, on any next gen console…the nod goes to Dark Alliance 2.

Replayability Rating: 10/10

6. Balance

And here’s the weak point of the game. The ONLY weak point. If you know what you are doing, your character is immortal. Take my Necromancer I mentioned above. Max out Animate Dead, Flame Arrow, and Vampiric Touch ASAP. Then go for empower and Clarity. You can be beaten. For undead, you nuke them with the flame arrows at a close distance so they get hit will all 5. All others you vampirize doing between 60-110 points of damage. And most of the enemies will be doing a quarter of that to you at best. And as vampiric touch HEALS you, you are set for life. Plus your undead skeletal sidekick, BOB, is quite powerful in his own right, has excellent AI and can even notice hiding monsters that you can’t see and kick some ass. As long as you can dodge boss attack, you are set.

And the same holds with other characters. Max out cure light wounds and flame strike for the cleric. Or Sneak for the Monk and Thief. If you spend your points wisely, your character is the epitome of munchkining. However, you have to know what you’re doing first.

The game’s AI is decent, but no match for anyone who has played a game like this before. The patterns of the non bosses are almost always the same. But the bosses themselves, such as the Lich and the Mind Flayer can be tricky. Still a lot of them are quite easy and just involve heavy cheese. At least it’s just like a real D&D game, right?

It’s an easy game if you know what to power up in your guy, but even then without a lot of healing spells/potions you can die if you get cocky or stupid. The game has a decent level of challenge, but not one you can’t outdo with some magic fingerwork.

Balance: 6/10

7. Originality

Well, it’s a sequel and using the same engine another two games (and Champions of Norrath on it’s way to boot) before have used. It’s also got a slightly similar story to the original with a lot of intrigue, betrayal, double dealing and other D&D stereotypes.

However with highly original characters (an elven necromancer?) and some great characterization and memorable villains, it’s easy to forget that bits of the game are fantasy RPG cliches wrapped up in beautiful graphics and amazing gameplay.

New character specifics quests, a much longer and less linear game, new abilities and powers for players to discover, and the ability to summon an undead warrior that kicks all kinds of ass (if only he wore golden armour…sigh.) helps make the game feel new and original and easily surpass the original.

Still, it’s a sequel. But one that does it’s best to improve every aspect of the original while capturing the magic that made the first one a success.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

Okay here’s an example conversation with me while I was testing the game.

Friend: Hey Alex, what are you up to?

Me: LEVEL FIFTEEEN!

Or here’s another one.

Friend: Why the hell are you still up?

Me: I have to get the Brazier of Eternal Flame. How can I sleep for even a moment when I know that the safety of humanity depends on me retrieving this item from within the bowels of the Underdark?

Friend: Oooooookay.

This game sucked me in and ruined my social life for an entire week. And then when people tried to talk to me, they only got mindless D&D gibberish from me. And I generally loathe D&D as a basic rule. Not an advanced rule as WotC got rid of AD&D when they made 3rd Edition. AHHHH! SEE? Do you not see? Shades of TSR have possessed my brain. I must make a will based saving throw and…AHHHH! FUCK! GET OUT OF MY HEAD

This game is crack. Sweet wonderful delicious crack that you would gladly punch your mother in the kidneys for if it meant you got a freebase from the brutality.

Addictiveness Rating: 10/10

9. Appeal Factor

You like RPG’s? You like Action Adventure games? You like games where you can die if you don’t jump properly? You like total control and customization? You like purty graphics and shiny sharp things that go through soft things that scream and bleed? Then buy this game and let it devour your soul.

Non RPG fans will like this game. Cory and Pankonin will enjoy this game. I can just see Cory saying “Evil subterranean elfish kung fu fighters RULE!’

This game has it all: A great plot, great graphics, an easy learning curve with deep gameplay. AND NINJAS! There are ninjas! And the ninjas even get a cut scene!

Ninjas vs Necromancers totally reeks of awesomeness.

Even if you hate D&D or RPG’s, you have to rent this game. You will be shocked by how much you get into it.

Appeal Factor: 8/10

10.Miscellaneous

Along with a bonus disc filled with the entire plot of the original game, early artwork of the characters, and commercials that had me laughing my tightly toned keister off, you get a game packed full of everything I could ever want in an action RPG.

I keep harping on the fact there are so many playable characters and so many ways to customize them that the reply value is infinite. Especially with multiplayer mode. DA 2 is wonderful. Simply wonderful. The only thing that could have made it even greater would to have included the ability to import DA1 characters to DA2 after you beat the game or something of that accord.

But this game is wonderful. Truly wonderful.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

Dark Alliance 2 and Disgaea gives me hope that RPG gaming hasn’t bit the big one yet in terms of quality this generation. Now go buy it.

Short Attention Span Summary
Okay. It came close. It almost got my third ever 9.0 rating, joining Pokemon Pinball R/S and Ikaruga as games that made me into a slathering fanboy instead of the Spooky monochromatically garbed Simon Cowell of VG journalism that so many of you think I am. But it was close. DAMN close. This is the best D&D video game since Eye of the Beholder. This is the best action RPG since Guardian Heroes. This is the best Sequel to an RPG since Shining Force 2 blew away the original Shining Force. This is the measuring stick for every RPG that will come out in 2004. And choosing between this and PokeCol is like a parent choosing between which child he loves most.