Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Just begun

Postnihilist, gamer.

I recently restarted the Baldur's Gate series, and have a few things to say about its superiority over BG2.

I just finished running through Baldur's Gate 1 with a fighter/thief, elf. I was True Neutral, but ramped up my alignment to 20 as soon as possible for the better prices. I couldn't take anyone evil in the party because of this, so Edwin was out. Frankly, in this game, the mage is not so important, so Dynaheir did just fine. Anyway, I found all the tomes for characteristic improvement, which is nice. BG1 is the best game of this series.

I just imported my guy to BG2, using the little trick of pausing in the first moment of gameplay in order that I could actually import items from BG1, so I've got that advantage. Playing on hard makes me feel better about this small cheat. Anyway, I was immediately chagrined by BG2's story and method of introduction.

BG1 starts you off in an eminently safe haven. Given that it's the start of the game and you've experienced nothing else of the game world, you don't realize just how safe Candlekeep is compared with everywhere else. Of course there are those two raggedy assassins you run into if you explore the whole place, but the quests are so pastoral and silly, it's hard not to see how simple life was there. (By the way, if you have enough lockpick you can find a star sapphire in the inn in candlekeep. If you start as a dwarf with a level in thief and pump everything into lockpick you can get this thing at level 1. It's worth 1000 so it's pretty cool.) Anyway, this post isn't intended to be about BG1, so I'll cut it off shortly. The point is the plot in BG1 has this essential characteristic: no matter who you are or what your motivation is, you always have a good reason to go to the next plot related area. Part of the reason for this is the assassins who dog you constantly, and the other reason is that the central plot is the only real game in town.

By comparison, BG2 starts you in, basically, a mad scientists lab as a pet project. It's good that they mixed it up, right? This is a sequel after all and they can hardly go in the same direction. I'm not sure what to think about the way this decides the tone for the rest of the game. You break out, and Irenicus abducts Imoen. Well, boo-hoo. Personally, I've decided that my character (and actually most characters I've played have shared in this, no marks for creativity on my part) really cares about Imoen, because she's the only link he has to his own past and childhood. So I do genuinely want to rescue her. On the other hand, I'm true neutral.

What happened to her, that is her abduction, can reasonably be construed as her own fault, what with provoking and attacking Irenicus after we break out and find him battling mages. I've been traveling with her for a while (all through Baldur's Gate (hey, I had no score in find traps)) and maybe I've gotten tired of her constant looking back. She's extremely needy in the beginning dungeon, also retrospective, neither of which is even slightly helpful to the situation you find yourself in. So, the point of all this is, Almost any given character could very reasonably just say to himself, "well, that's life", and let Imoen fade to black. After all, she appears to have been taken by an immensely powerful local law institution.

The other motive to chase Irenicus is that he talks about your "untapped power". I admit in my first play-through I found this rather appealing, so I have to give them credit, even if it holds zero draw for me now as character motivation. The guy locks you in a cage and does experiments that generally involve inflicting damage on you. Even though, as a player, I thought more power would be cool, most actual game characters would not see this as a draw to follow the guy.

Already we've lost one of the two essential points which drew us onward in the plot of BG1; the main story just isn't a draw for many characters who'd start this game, if neither power nor a childhood friend is enough to make them spend 20 000 gold to rescue her (find him). It bears saying that Irenicus never ever sends assassins after you, though at one point, after you've chased him through the Underdark, he sends Bodhi after you, this confrontation leads to Bodhi's death.

I'd like to take a brief aside to mention something else that was utterly galling in the first few hours of gameplay. Immediately after leaving the first area you find yourself in after the starting dungeon, you're accosted by a man who, no matter what you say to him, you will follow to his house, even though he gives you many reasons not to and is very suspicious (he knows everything that's happened to you up to this point, and seems to be a thief). Not only this, but once in his house, no matter what conversation options you follow, you will agree to employ the organization he represents, the SHADOW THIEVES, 20 000 gold to find Imoen. So, in a few hours into the game, you agree to pay 20 000 gold to thieves to help you find a renegade mage who appears immensely powerful, and your childhood friend, both of whom are captives of a big 'ole legal institution run by mages. Great. They're thnieves. Shadow thieves in particular, but Shadow is not the word that bears attending to. By definition they take things from people without remorse or renumeration. And the player character can't avoid promising them 20 000 gold? It's an eminently stupid idea.

First off, the thief (Gaelan Bayle) does talk you into the idea that the Shadow Thieves and only them can help you find Irenicus and save Imoen. I've already mentioned that this is something many characters and players may not really want to do, but what the hey. So, he gets us there? I guess so. But the guy's a fucking thief. And we're promising him tons of money. We don't know where their hideout is. We could torch his house if he rips us off I guess, but fuck me, with that much money he could buy a hundred such houses. They're thieves! They are almost certainly ripping you off!! It turns out they're not ripping you off, but that's actually a point against the game for being stupid rather than a point in it's favour for being nice.

The last thing I want to say here is that there are about 10 major, time-consuming quests that are available in Athkatla (the starting city) before you go after Irenicus. You can acquire a "stronghold" no matter what class you are, which provides a permanent residence, and if you do all the quests, probably around 60 000 gold and a wide array of powerful items. There are just so many reasons not to leave Athkatla and chase after this obviously game-breakingly powerful mage and your little sister (she's also a child of Bhaal). The main quest in BG2 is not the only game in town, in fact, if you only did the main quest, you'd find the game extremely spare in content. In BG1 you'd be missing a lot of content for sure, but only the main quest offers the dungeons, the best booty, and the opportunity to do something your character really cares about. In BG2, the main quest is kind of just... what you have to do. It's like in a D&D adventure, when your DM puts a fucking golden exclamation mark over a guys head. Ok, man, I get it, but like... we're RPGing because it has greater possibilities than that, you know?

Anyway. Long fucking rant I know, but one that's been in me for a few years. More on BG2 forthcoming probably, and the series at any rate (Throne of Bhaal gets way, way worse). And definitely more on other games.