The Baldur's Gate series of role-playing games has been well known among PC gamers since 1998, but it hit consoles for the first time in last year's surprisingly good Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. Set in the popular Dungeons & Dragons-inspired Forgotten Realms universe, Dark Alliance was thematically similar to other Baldur's Gate games but was otherwise completely different right down to its developer, the talented but little known Snowblind Studios. At its core, Dark Alliance was an action RPG, pitting one or two players against armies of many of Dungeons & Dragons' most recognizable monsters in hack-and-slash dungeon crawls reminiscent of Diablo or Gauntlet--only much better looking. Dark Alliance was released exclusively on the PlayStation 2 late last year, and many months later, it still remains one of the best-looking games on the platform. It's the ultimate testament to the game's technical accomplishments that the new Xbox port of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance also looks fantastic, even though it essentially looks identical to a 1-year-old PlayStation 2 game. Of course, Dark Alliance has a lot more going for it than good looks, and it's especially welcome given the Xbox's relative lack of decent fantasy role-playing games.
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a perfect port of one of last year's better PlayStation 2 games.
But yes, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance looks superb. The game has incredible atmosphere, and its outstanding production values are a big part of what makes Dark Alliance so enjoyable overall. You view the action from an isometric vantage point, rather high above your character's head, and at a glance it's hard to tell what's so special about the game's appearance. Then you realize that no matter what sort of madness is happening onscreen, the game maintains its incredibly smooth frame rate, and no matter where you are, the game retains its incredibly high graphical quality.
Choose from Vahn the arcane archer, Kromlech the fighter, or Adrianna the sorceress.
You'll realize that no visual detail has been spared in the production. Slay even a pitiful monster such as one of the doglike kobolds you'll fight early on, and you'll see it tumble backward as its weapon, buckler, and helmet go clattering to the ground in different directions, and its foul blood stains the surroundings. Seemingly no two foes in the game perish the same way--an amazing accomplishment for a game that's all about slaying foes--and the game miraculously keeps the repetitive hack-and-slash action from actually seeming repetitive. For good measure, all those enemies you'll be fighting also leave behind an equal number of corpses, a permanent reminder of your handiwork. Enemies, ranging from the walking dead, to pantherlike displacer beasts, to evil drow elves, to gelatinous cubes, move with incredible realism while they're still alive, too, and the environments use subtle lighting effects, bump-mapped textures, and lots of ambient animation to truly give them a sense of mass and being. Perhaps the best way to describe the effect of the graphics in Dark Alliance is to say that you never get the sense that you're just chugging through a level in a game, but rather you constantly get the sense that you're exploring deeper into uncharted territory.
Beyond the visuals, you'll find that the gameplay of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is pretty simple but purely fun and addictive. Most of your time will be spent journeying through various twisting dungeons, caves, and catacombs while fighting hordes of enemies. You gain experience points as you defeat opponents, and you eventually gain experience levels that make you significantly more powerful and allow you to customize your character by spending points on all the various special abilities, feats, and spells that he or she can learn. You'll also constantly be finding new and better equipment, which you can either equip or sell back in town in exchange for gold that you can use to buy whatever else you need. Best to come prepared, since to be sure, the road ahead of you will be fraught with peril, and many of the battles will be quite difficult. But playing Dark Alliance is rarely frustrating. An onscreen automap prevents you from losing your bearings even in the most winding subterranean mazes. You can save your progress frequently at pedestals densely spread throughout the game's world, and even from within the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the world, you can easily teleport back to town (and then back again) using commonly available recall potions. You'll often have to, if only because you'll become encumbered with all the loot you pick up in the field, and you'll certainly prefer to sell it than leave it lying there.