Sixteen years ago, BioWare bridged the gap between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2 with, more or less, "And then some other stuff happened." Now Beamdog has gone back, filling in the gaps with Siege of Dragonspear [official site]. Is it worth putting the band back together for one more trip to the Sword Coast? Here's Wot I Think.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It persuades us that what we want is what we once had, but all too often deflects what that actually was. It's not the Saturday morning cartoon, it's the wistful innocence and youthful excitement where magically mutated hamsters with nunchucks could be the coolest thing ever. It's not the old game for its lingering quality, but the lingering memory of the new, the exciting, the changing. Very rarely, things hold up exactly as we remember, and are great. More often, picking at the past is at best the ironic pleasure of picking at a scab; a burst of fondness tinged with awkwardness.
I'm not saying that Baldur's Gate counts as that, though secretly, I was never as fond of BioWare's first offering as most. I'm not saying it's a bad game, but in matters of pacing, specific decisions, and a lot of the writing, it was one that wore its inexperience on its sleeve. The opening ambush at the Friendly Arms Inn, almost impossible for some classes to survive. Unpausing the game in the inventory screen. A spectacularly poorly paced story. Often little attention paid to proper player direction.
None of this is an attempt to try and tear Baldur's Gate down - far from it - and the fact that Baldur's Gate 2 learned so well from its mistakes is the big reason that it became one of my favourite RPGs. I'm just saying that to look back on the original game as a golden nugget of role-playing bliss is to not so much look back with rose-tinted glasses as Cyclops of the X-Men's ruby-quartz lens. Siege of Dragonspear has problems, definitely, but the least we owe it is to be fair, not to pit it against some image of idealised perfection that never actually was.
Onto Dragonspear then. This is just as much Beamdog's game as it is BioWare's series. Despite using the same (albeit upgraded) engine, mechanics, characters and basic design philosophies, it never quite fits as a 'lost' part of the series. That's not necessarily because it does things wrong. Often, it's simply that it's taken lessons from later games as far as scripting and narrative flow goes, or takes advantage of being able to fill the city with townspeople instead of just a handful. It's a much more modern experience out the gate. Elsewhere, some differences are just a matter of focus. Baldur's Gate, for instance, regularly allowed snarky responses, but the new script is Discovery's Snark Week 90% of the time, give or take a few options to be modest in ways that nobody quite believes from the Hero of Baldur's Gate.
Despite all of this, it's still very much Baldur's Gate in every way that matters, and does a great job of narratively linking the first two games. The action kicks off where the first game ended, hunting down your brother Sarevok's last few minions in a decent-sized starter dungeon. You can import your character from BG:EE or start afresh with a suitably aligned party, but soon enough business is finished and everyone goes their own ways. Shortly afterwards a new threat rises, the Shining Lady Caelar Argent, leading a crusade that once again threatens the Sword Coast, and it's time to track down anyone willing to help and go on the warpath to her seat of power, Dragonspear Castle.
Structurally, that's another example of this new adventure feeling different - rather than being dropped into a world and more or less making your own way, you're set on a controlled, linear path. Once you've moved onto a new chapter and the army has advanced, there's no heading back to previous areas to finish up any odd jobs.
I'm mixed on how much I like this structure, though not for the obvious reason that it's too linear. Within each area you get at least a couple of major locations, with lots of hidden caves, treasure, quests and other things to do, as well as choices about how things should progress, so there's plenty to do. While fighting is often essential, Beamdog also doubles-down on allowing roleplaying encounters, with new options based on whether for instance you meet some drow with Viconia in tow, what your race and class are, and ways to talk your way out of trouble, including going undercover under a Crusade camp and getting past a couple of monsters by retelling your life story as if it was the actions of a brave sahuagin.
There's a lot of good stuff here. Beamdog brought back as many of the original voice actors as they could (a few sounding different after so long, and Jaheira's actress MIA leaving her oddly mute) and there's a fair whack of party banter and enemies voicing at least their critical lines. It's also a more cinematic experience, to the extent that the Infinity Engine can be, with scenes like departing Baldur's Gate in-engine, surrounded by cheering citizens, assorted visits from a certain Hooded Man played by David Warner (really not a spoiler, he appears at the start), and various more linear adventurey bits for going undercover or unleashing in-engine cut-scene hell on enemies.
The character levels also feel just right for a roleplaying game. Baldur's Gate left most classes underpowered until right at the end, while Baldur's Gate 2 quite quickly became a game-breaking assault by gods. Here, the whole team can cut loose with satisfyingly powerful attacks and options, but don't quickly get so crazily over-powered that the army backing you up feels like it's just there to carry your gear.
Going up against crowds also switches the tactics up a little, making crowd-control particularly important. Not all the characters from the original show up, and some who do aren't party members any more (Skie for instance has been demoted to NPC), but you can quickly build up a good, mixed team capable of taking on everything. And then also recruit Edwin, because obviously. One little touch I really liked is that at least one of the characters you can approach in Baldur's Gate who refuses to come on the quest later shows up having changed their mind - a nice little reminder that these people have their own lives outside the Child of Bhaal's quest and aren't simply handy conscriptees.
There's already been a lot of talk online about certain elements of the writing, so let's address that before moving on to the bigger picture. One of the members of the camp is a transgender woman, Mizhena, who has exactly one short dialogue entry on the subject when asked, followed by the player character going "Okay," and changing the subject. The controversy around this character isn't a mountain out of a molehill, but a mountain out of an empty prairie. The rest of the game also includes female characters like Corwin, a single mother who serves as an archer and regrets duty keeping her away from her daughter. It also adds Voghiln, a skirt-chasing skald who cheerfully hits on every female member of the cast.
Like most RPGs, Siege of Dragonspear is a game that celebrates diversity because whatever else it means and whatever the author's reason for specific inclusions, it means more interesting games. There are no long lectures here, no pointed quests about the subject (unlike, say, Dragon Age Inquisition's very on-the-nose stuff with Dorian). Siege of Dragonspear makes no more particular fuss about anything than any other RPG that features quests where you do things like, say, try and understand complex issues before acting violently, bring together groups separated by ignorance or mistake, stand up for the weak... y'know, the horrible 'SJW agenda' which used to simply be called 'being a fucking hero'. Oh, and also the kind of thing that's been a stock part of the RPG genre since Ultima VI took on racism back in 1990.
Which isn't to say that there aren't actual issues with the writing. Mostly, it's fine. Good even. I particularly like the ending sequence for how it factors in prior decisions and directly bridges the two games, and the villain, Caelor, for not just being another power-hungry Child of Bhaal or similar. An early scene showing her taking time to write letters to the families of her fallen men sets an interesting level for someone threatening the Sword Coast, and encounters with her men generally show them to be devout followers for a good reason, rather than just another horde of nasties. But there are definite head-thump moments too, especially casual villains who talk like they're cartoon baddies in a PSA once exposed to the main character's righteousness ("We needed what we took, but that doesn't excuse what we did. We'll turn ourselves in. Farewell, hero.")
Elsewhere, quite few of the minor characters end up sounding more trite than anything else, unfortunately including Mizhena - though that's to do with a line about collecting syllables from various languages to make her name rather than anything gender-related. The running problem tends to be less the individual lines though as the general conversation flow that undercuts the main bit. Another in the main warcamp for instance is the quartermaster, who spends most of his lines telling you that he doesn't trust you, only to cap it off with a cheery "If you need anything, come find me and I'll see what I can do." In both cases, the 'big' thing about the character is left isolated, and the attempts to make them stand out ironically end up making them feel more like a cardboard cutout than if there'd been nothing about them worth remembering.
I could point to other specific bits here and there, but it's largely pointless. In a game with this much text, you'll always find a few duff lines. Perhaps most notably of the returning cast, Jaheira's dialogue very obviously comes from a different author. Honestly, I never liked her much so I don't particularly care, but fans and anyone with her face tattooed onto their flesh might want to look away when she speaks. I'd add that the head-thumps mostly faded as the game went on - very much as if the opening chapters were the writers bedding in and getting comfortable with the world and story. Dragonspear is never Planescape Torment, but it's no Eragon either.
On a wider level, the story is also well linked to the central themes of the series without simply rehashing them, and while the ending leaves a fairly major story element incomplete (unless I'm forgetting a plot point in Baldur's Gate 2, which is possible!) it's a very effective way of linking between games while still feeling like its own unique thing. It's a new game, not just an expansion pack. Well, technically it is an expansion pack, but... wait, we'll get to that. In spirit, it's a fully standalone chapter.
Despite some of the qualities that do work, many of the big scenes don't quite come off as planned. Part of the draw of Siege of Dragonspear was Beamdog getting to play with NPC counts that BioWare could only dream of back in the day, and while yes, there are more on offer here, in practice you can see the exact point where excited game design decisions like "We'll have ARMIES!" hits engineering reality.
The titular Siege is a pretty pathetic affair that almost desperately backs down in favour of clearing most of the opposition via a one-on-one duel instead, with the few scenes of lots of characters going at it driving my Intel i7 PC with 8GB of RAM down to about 11-15 frames a second every time someone cast a magic spell. I was hoping for a really dramatic, extended encounter here - stages, tactics, sabotage, spies, etc, and while you certainly do get most of those options in some form, they're all pretty trivial. There's also a truly terrible scene where Caelor basically promises to stand down entirely if the Child of Bhaal goes with her peacefully. Free RPG design tip here, folks: if you're going to offer that kind of option, be sure to have a far better response to the player saying "Okay" than simply "LALALA YOU SAID NO YOU SAID NO!"
The switch to a war campaign too often jars with the existing mechanics - not usually in a particularly egregious fashion, but in several little ways. Having to pay for room and board for instance, with tents having master bedrooms apparently. Still not being able to split up teams like Minsc and Dynaheir. It's one thing to expect one to leave the party entirely, but can't I at least borrow Minsc to go and scout that cave over there while Dynaheir puts her feet up for a few minutes? Nope. Nor can you expect any real freebies, with the quartermaster pointedly acting as a shop because you're not a soldier. Even by in-game shopkeeper dickery standards, that's pushing it. Not that you really need anything of course, since every enemy is a walking wardrobe of gear and gold to hoover up.
Other smaller details are a real pain, including bugs and poor quest direction. Several times the game stopped because an enemy had called in the cavalry and was left just standing there as nobody showed up. In one chapter, where I was sent to check out a Crusade camp, the game simply came to a stop when a key character vanished from the base and neither the quest log nor running around offered any idea of what to do next. I ended up having to switch to the Story Mode for the duration to clear it out personally, at which point the army that was meant to have been backing me up in the fight finally warped in and thankfully the plot moved on. Grrr.
That was the biggest issue, but the problems kept coming. At one point I received the achievement "ACH_DARK_PLACES". Weather effects would tend to fire for a second or two and then think better of it. And quite a few of the quests needed just a little more attention. When someone asks me to go beat up some half-orcs for no better reason than racism and I say 'no', for example, I really don't want to see the pop-up "New Quest: I'm to pick a fight with half-orc mercenaries in this area." Though even that's better than some of the others which simply wouldn't update even after a stage.
None of these were game-breakers for me, thankfully, but some more patching certainly wouldn't hurt. And Beamdog say that patches are indeed on the way. The UI however never stopped being a pain, or the graphics tough on the eyes. At my monitor's native 1920x1200 on standard zoom, everything is tiny and characterless. Zooming in though, the backgrounds become little more than a blur and the characters messy sprites that either get lost in the scenery or have ugly black lines drawn around them.
This seems fair enough for the original Baldur's Gate graphics, which are what they are, but also seems like something that could have been at least tweaked a bit for better performance in the brand new stuff here. Similarly, a little more oomph wouldn't have gone amiss. Individual areas of Siege of Dragonspear look decent - especially the last major zone that you visit, which I can't name because it would be a spoiler. There's little of real note to see though, and that was disappointing. A couple of semi-hidden areas aside, it's stock landscapes, caves and city stuff as far as the eye can see. All fine, just nothing that showed any particular artistic zing or fantastical creativity.
The interface is a constant fiddly pain too. I hate the UI, which only has two scale settings - normal, where it's hard to make out the icons on character portraits down the side, and scaled, where everything is far too big - you can't give a percentage, never mind scale everything individually. It also took me half the game swearing at the terrible pop-up boxes full of loot after killing enemies, before I realised that the anonymous red gem on the task bar is an 'auto loot' button that nicely sorts and categorises everything you're nearby, and makes it far easier to grab the unique stuff. It's still clumsy though, as are most of the interactions. Polished up a bit by the Enhanced Edition or not, the Infinity Engine seriously creaks these days.
Speaking of the Enhanced Edition - it's essential. For reasons that I'm assuming are licensing related rather than a silly artistic choice, Siege of Dragonspear is an expansion for it rather than a standalone game. That's unfortunate, because if you don't have it, you're looking at £30 for Siege of Dragonspear instead of the far more reasonable £15. It's a full game's worth of content, at around 30-40 hours, and Beamdog hasn't skimped on quests, dialogue, voices, optional objectives and all that good stuff. Being an interquel though, and based on such an out of date game and engine, £30 is a big ask unless you're in a particular mood to start from the very beginning of the saga again. Also, if there are any mods you want to use for this or the main game, be sure to check them for EE compatibility first.
For previous users of the Enhanced Edition, I found its additional characters Dorn and Rasaad in my game pretty quickly, but never bumped into Neera (she's apparently in there somewhere). Not having been a fan of any of their stories when I played that, I generally stuck to the old guard and new addition Corwin, even if the game did seem to think I'd made overtures to her at some point that I clearly hadn't intended to. The writing and new characters here are a big step up from Beamdog's previous attempts to add to the universe, I think in part because they're connected to the main story, rather than being shoe-horned in in a way that smacked more of the team playing around and indulging in a little fan-fiction on the side of a creatively uninteresting technical upgrade job.
With Siege of Dragonspear, Beamdog has come on a long way. It's not perfect, either at matching the style or being a great new RPG in its own right, and future games will need some heavy QA loving. But, as the company's first big attempt to both follow in BioWare's wake (the presence of former BioWare people notwithstanding), it's a good start and at least a good first step to one day giving us that Baldur's Gate 3 we've been waiting so long for - another nostalgia trip, but with a slightly more practiced eye on the future.
Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear is available now.