Very few computer games based upon Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the most influential role-playing game system of them all, have been released over the past several years, and those that did make it to retail shelves have been ill-conceived, substandard products. In that context, it's hardly surprising that Baldur's Gate, which many gamers suspected would finally bring AD&D back to the forefront of computer gaming, has been one of the most anxiously anticipated role-playing games ever. Less expected, however, has been the extent to which non-hard-core role-playing gamers have expressed interest in Baldur's Gate, perhaps lured by promises of features atypical of RPGs, such as detailed 32-bit graphics, 3D sound, and multiplayer support. Now that the game has finally been released, perhaps the biggest surprise is that Baldur's Gate, with its thoroughly addictive gameplay and meticulous attention to detail, largely manages to meet, and even surpass, gamers' high expectations for this ambitious game.
Many role-playing gamers openly expressed their disappointment when developer BioWare Corporation announced that it was adapting AD&D's turn-based gameplay to its proprietary real-time engine. Stats-loving, rule-abiding, Gnoll-stomping AD&D fans obstinately asserted that AD&D just couldn't be successfully adapted into a real-time game engine. Fortunately, BioWare stuck to its game designing instincts, because no computer game has ever done a better job at simulating AD&D. Character creation and development is steadfastly accurate to AD&D second-edition rules, allowing gamers to create characters from six different races, eight core character classes, and eight specialty mage classes and to advance in experience points and character levels as tasks are accomplished and beasties are slain. Multiclassed and dual-classed characters are permitted, subject to the applicable AD&D rules governing such characters. Many aspects of AD&D that have never been emulated in a computer game, at least in any meaningful manner, are featured prominently in Baldur's Gate, such as the significance of a party leader's charisma, character morale, the speed factors of weapons and spells, the special abilities of thief characters and the tensions between characters of differing alignments. The real-time adaptation of AD&D's combat, which is really the core of the game, works exceptionally well, modeling dozens of weapons and the 100-plus included spells in a manner that provides visceral, immediate feedback, is visually appealing, and is eminently controllable, since you can pause the action at any time to issue new orders to your characters. Almost all of the monsters, spells, and magic items, and even some of the locations and characters in the game, are taken straight out of the core AD&D source books and related lore. BioWare took some liberties with the AD&D rules in the interest of game balance, as the number of spells available to certain mage specialty classes was increased, for example, and the abilities of paladins and rangers were tweaked, but only an ideologue would deny that there's never been a more faithful adaptation of AD&D.
Baldur's Gate is set in the Sword Coast region of AD&D's most popular milieu, the Forgotten Realms. Interestingly, although Baldur's Gate is a party-based game, the storyline is based around a single main character, even in the multiplayer version of the game. The main character has grown up in the monk-infested citadel of learning, Candlekeep. Learning of a mysterious, impending threat, the character is forced to flee Candlekeep early on and is constantly assailed by would-be assassins throughout the course of the game. The motivations of your character's enemies are not entirely intuitive, other than their obvious intention to smack your character's head into applesauce, and uncovering the rationale behind the actions of your character's enemies is your main goal in the game. As in games such as Betrayal at Krondor, the main storyline in Baldur's Gate is divided into chapters, during which certain key tasks have to be accomplished by your party in order to advance the plot. While using a chapter structure creates a more story-driven game, it also potentially creates unduly linear gameplay, where the actions of your characters are arbitrarily limited in order to fit within the constraints of the chapter structure. Baldur's Gate deftly avoids that design trap and is perhaps the first game to implement a chapter structure and yet still grant you tremendous freedom to explore the gaming world in a very nonlinear fashion with a party composed of members chosen by you. In fact, while the game will always give you ample clues to help you to advance the main plot, you're generally free to do so at your own pace and often without specifically knowing which particular actions will bring an end to the seven chapters in the game, allowing the plot to advance in a more natural fashion.
Freedom to explore within a story-driven game sounds like the best of both worlds, but the plot of Baldur's Gate is advanced almost exclusively through scrolling text and voice-narrated messages that play at the beginning of each chapter and aren't particularly compelling. Nonplayer characters in the game tend to only give your characters simple messages and basic tasks to accomplish. The lack of significant interaction with NPCs other than your party members, who are quite colorful, combined with the frequency of combat in the game, makes Baldur's Gate feel far more like a hack and slash game than a story-driven one, which is a trait that's certainly consistent with previous AD&D computer games.
There are a couple of dozen nonplayer characters capable of joining your player character to create a party of up to six adventurers, and some of the party member NPCs have particularly distinctive personalities. Unlike in most other RPGs, where NPCs are routinely given colorful introductions and backgrounds that ultimately have no impact whatsoever on gameplay, party member NPCs in Baldur's Gate will vigorously pursue their own agendas, even if they are contrary to your own intentions. Continue to act in a manner contrary to a party member's alignment and that character will voice his displeasure and eventually unilaterally leave the party and attack your character. In a manner similar to the way the companions in Ultima VII or the mercenaries in Jagged Alliance behaved, NPCs in Baldur's Gate will occasionally respond to events in the game or will even carry on short dialogues amongst themselves. The interactions work well, although they are quite repetitive, and because there are so many potential members, there's a lot of potential replayability if you're eager to see all of the character interactions.