Armagideon Time

Better gate than never

February 18th, 2020

Talk of a console port of Baldur’s Gate dates almost as far back as the game itself. Playstation and Dreamcast versions of the AD&D-branded RPG showed up under the “season + year” bottom end of upcoming releases lists through the dawn of the new millennium before quietly vanishing. The increasingly apparent unlikelihood of ever getting a console release was a significant factor in my decision to buy my very first “grown up” computer — a Celeron II eMachine jobber — which occasionally struggled with a few resource-intensive chokepoints in the game, but still enabled me to experience what it had to offer.

For those of you who aren’t hopeless videogame geeks of a certain age, Baldur’s Gate — along with its “Infinity Engine” sequels and spin-offs — helped revive an ailing computer RPG scene by reworking real-time strategy into something more skirmish-level and exploration-driven, which was then married to a faithful approximation of the 2nd edition AD&D rules.

While the player’s party had the scripted agency to whack away at any opponents until one side or the other was dead, any foes above cannon fodder level required judicious use of the “autopause” system, where a tap of the spacebar froze the action while you queued up spells, quaffed potions, and micromanaged your tactical options. (These could also be performed without pausing, typically as acts of frantic desperation.)

It captured the feel of the tabletop source material, but as a fast-flowing isometric exercise staged across a score of gorgeously pre-rendered environmental backdrops, full of side quests and secrets to uncover. I was well and truly done with anything D&D related at the time, but Baldur’s Gate‘s blend of familiar and innovative elements hooked me something fierce.

Playing the game on its native platform did make me wonder how a theoretic console release would’ve functioned. A fair number of macros and hotkeys are required to navigate the gameworld and manage one’s adventuring party, with moving and character/team/party grouping mechanics handled by some agile mousework. Even with the expanded number of inputs on the Dualshock and later crop of controllers, it seemed like a lot of compromises would have to be made. It’s no wonder that the “Baldur’s Gate” games we did get on console were a pair of brand-coasting Diablo clones — great fun, but hardly rulebook-accurate, detail-intensive epic AD&D adventures.*

And now, after two decades, we finally have actual console versions of the Infinity Engine suite — BG 1&2 plus the Throne of Bhaal expansion, Icewind Dale, and Placescape: Torment. The ports are pulled from the “enhanced edition” releases from Beamdog in the early 2010s, which cleaned up some of the creakier bits of the originals while adding new and/or consolidating older content.

I passed on these at the time because I already had my “definitive” versions of the games — GOG’s current OS-enabled original versions tweaked and modded to my personal standards of perfection. The most notable of these was the “Trilogy” mod, an ambitious fan-made project which imported the assets of the original Baldur’s Gate into its more robust sequel for a (mostly) seamless mega-epic. Other, smaller tweaks included scripts allowing for same-sex romances and removing class-requirements for stronghold quests. No matter how great the enhanced editions were, they weren’t going to be the game as I’d grown to love it over the past two decades.

Yet I did end up picking up the PS4 bundle of BG 1&2. Mostly because I had a surfeit of holiday gift cards and I’d already received the Icewind Dale/Planescape PS4 bundle as a Christmas present.

If I was going to revisit any of these games — especially on console — Icewind Dale seemed like the place to start. The game was a narrative-lite spin-off of the BG series which dropped and franchise’s signature character interaction in favor of hacking and looting one’s way across multiple dungeons. It was still an Infinity Engine game — meaning it was still more involved and complex than a straight-up action-RPG — but I assumed its stripped-down gameplay would be more manageable in the absence of a mouse and keyboard.

It was a mixed experience, though mostly a positive one. The controller-based interface was a massive pain in the ass to navigate at first, and only improved slightly once I go the hang of things. Detailed tactical combat movement took more effort than it was usually worth, as was engaging in the complex buff/debuff/damage spell duels that made the original IWD’s higher end battles feel so rewarding and intense. It was just as easy to obtain the same results by brute force melee rushes, with the occasional drop down to can’t-be-slain “story mode” difficulty.

At the same time, I had a blast reconnecting with a no-longer-so-familiar favorite, chasing trophies while relying on my reflexes, wits, and dim memories of hidden treasures and other secrets. Upon hitting the home stretch, I decided to continue the streak with a cheap second-hand copy of the Baldur’s Gate game ports.

Even so, I didn’t have much confidence about how far I’d actually progress in the games. For all my tweaking and adjusting and custom portrait-making, I haven’t made it past the first third of BG1 on PC for at least fifteen years. Second edition AD&D can be extremely unforgiving to low-level characters, and even more so when dealing with an utterly impartial computerized dungeonmaster. The slog to survive until my character could take a couple of heavy hits tended to sap my urge to continue once I finally hit that point. I gravitated toward the cavalier subclass in the game because it offered intrinsic immunities against attacks for which there was no practical defense until a character had a half-dozen levels under their belt or girdle or whatever.

I barely made it out of the first wilderness zone before realizing this was not going to be the case with the PS4 version. Battles that had been white-knuckle affairs on PC became cakewalks on console, even though the difficulty sliders were set identically in both. I guess the enhanced edition developers realized how punishing the original could be and decided to dial things back a bit. It also helps mitigate the awkwardness of the controller interface, as do the default character AI scripts which are helpfully proactive when it comes to spell-casting.

At times, the game feels almost too easy, but my attempts to up the difficulty have run afoul of my aged hands’ ability to manage the clunky interface. It has freed things up for me to play the game instead of get mired in one micromanaged battle after another. The absence of my custom portraits and standard suite of mods means I’m second-guessing less than I would be on the PC version, and more inclined to just roll with less than optimal outcomes. Taken together, that’s probably why I’ve been able to progress through three-quarters of the story quest and most of the major side quests with the space of a long weekend.

It may not be my preferred way to experience the game, but at least I’m actually playing it. We’ll see if that lasts through BG2, where the PC mods had a greater impact on how I played, but I’m not feeling the same trepidation I felt when I dived into the PS4 edition of the first game.

As for the enhanced edition stuff, the fixes are appreciated but the new content is forgettable. The added characters and their BG2 style personal quest-lines are all right, but BG1 already had an overstuffed roster of recruitable party members. A few more, even from previously non-represented classes, doesn’t add much. I’m much more pleased that nearly all of the original’s little secrets and oddities were retained, such as the “free” Ring of Wizardry and suit of Ankheg mail still being stashed away in the environment for the finding.

The shovelware origins of the ports does show through in a couple of places, however. Most notably, the display tends to run outside the screen of older TVs (such as mine) with no easy fix or in-game option to adjust it, which makes it impossible to see the lead party member’s hit point total or the little icon which indicates a character is eligible for leveling up. It’s entirely characteristic of a late console cycle port of ten year old reissues of twenty year old PC games, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating.

If you want to truly play these games as they ought be played, go for the either the original or enhanced PC versions. If you’re looking for a more casual, forgiving, or couch-conducive experience — either to reconnect without full immersion or just to check out why folks raved about this shit back in the day — then you’ll probably be fine hunting down a cheap copy of the console bundles.

*A “mostly complete” beta of the PS1 port of Baldur’s Gate has surfaced in some of the shadier sections of the internet. It’s an interesting historical artifact and technical achievement, but only drives home my point about the number of shortcuts required to replicate even a rough iteration of the original PC game.

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