Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is the sequel to BioWare's highly acclaimed 1998 role-playing game based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms universe. Baldur's Gate was an impressive game, and the subsequent role-playing games published by Interplay were also generally excellent, so a lot of players will understandably have very high expectations for Baldur's Gate II. Even so, the game will more than likely exceed those expectations. It's a worthy successor to Baldur's Gate and a superior role-playing game in its own right.
Initially, Baldur's Gate II looks very similar to its 1998 predecessor. The isometric perspective, the controls, and the interface bars along the edges of the screen will all be instantly recognizable to anyone who's played the original or either of Black Isle Studios' two most recent RPGs, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment. That's because Baldur's Gate II uses the same engine as in all those games and consequently plays in much the same way. Various similarities between Baldur's Gate II and previous games using the Infinity engine are readily apparent, and a lot of these similarities may be initially disappointing, as they may seem derivative of previous games, rather than reveal what's certainly the best of Black Isle Studios' AD&D-based role-playing games to date.
Baldur's Gate II picks up soon after the conclusion of the first game: A stylish cinematic sequence explains that your character is captured, jailed, and experimented upon, presumably because of his unusual lineage. Your character starts off at a relatively high experience level, based on his previous adventures. And you'll immediately need to put these honed combat skills to use: The first chapter in the game mostly consists of a dangerous prison-break sequence that's presumably meant to be an action-packed opening for the game. However, the sequence falls flat - you'll spend a lot of time trying to equip your character, and the battles even in this early part in the game can be quite difficult. You'll see several bizarre events in the prison that won't make much sense, and you'll be glad the whole escape scene is over after a few hours of play. The game gets much better at that point, once you've escaped to the city of Athkatla, and from then on, throughout the dozens of subsequent hours you'll spend with the game, Baldur's Gate II remains highly enjoyable and very involving.
Some players felt that the original Baldur's Gate was too drawn out - you had to thoroughly explore each area and keep track of all the characters you met as well as the tasks you needed to accomplish. Since then, role-playing games using the Infinity engine have been refined so that they're more cohesive, and Baldur's Gate II represents the ultimate stage of this refinement. It's an enormous game that lets you do a lot of different things, yet it's surprisingly easy to keep track of your main objectives. This is possible partly because of a well-implemented map feature. You'll refer to the automap often, because its miniaturized depiction of each of the game's hundreds of big areas clearly notes the various landmarks you've encountered, such as important structures, exit paths, and more. Some areas are fully mapped for you as soon as you get there - namely, the city of Athkatla. You can conveniently check your map to find locations you'd be interested in visiting such as taverns, guilds, shops, and temples. This is very fortunate, because Athkatla is huge.
However, one of the things that makes Baldur's Gate II so great is that in spite of the fact that you're free to travel throughout the entire city, many of your objectives will quickly become apparent. You need to find your captor and discover the nature of his experiments. Accomplishing this is anything but simple, yet Baldur's Gate II does a great job of keeping you from getting too lost or bewildered in your search, partly through the map, but mostly because of the well-designed quests. There are seemingly countless quests in Baldur's Gate II, and amazingly, most of them are very substantial. You'll almost never encounter a situation so simple as having to retrieve lost property or clear out some small monster infestation somewhere - there's always more to it than that. Also, since your character has already earned himself some notoriety based on the events in Baldur's Gate, it's understandable that rather than having to pry information out of everyone you meet, oftentimes it's you who'll be approached and asked for help. And just as often, as you're working on solving a particular quest, you'll end up discovering more than you expected and will take on other quests as a result. All this makes the pacing in Baldur's Gate II very fluid.
Once you get to Athkatla, the subsequent chapters of the game mostly alternate from being open-ended to more linear. You'll travel through a huge variety of settings and encounter hundreds of different characters to speak with and monsters to fight. All this variety somehow manages to maintain the game's tight pacing throughout the long duration of Baldur's Gate II. It helps that the party members that travel with your main character are generally very well developed. Your party members will often interject a comment into conversations you have with other characters, and over the course of the game, they'll all take some time to speak with you and even with each other. Some of these characters are entertaining, while others offer a real sense of camaraderie over the course of the game as they do their best to support your decisions and to offer their advice whenever appropriate. All your party members have a lot of dialogue, and a good portion of it is actually audible speech, which is put to good use throughout the game in order to provide deeper characterizations for many of the more important individuals you'll meet. At any rate, since you won't be able to travel extensively with all the characters in Baldur's Gate II if you play it through once, you'll actually want to play it a second time if only to learn more about your companions.