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Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
Score: 86%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Interplay / Black Isle
Developer: Snowblind Studios
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Miscellaneous

Graphics & Sound:
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is one of the most graphically impressive games I've seen on the PS2. This comes not from the articulation of the characters; although they're very well done, they're hard to see because of the zoomed-out view. The larger creatures look fantastic, though, and just about precisely as I've imagined them in my D&D wanderings. The environments are extremely well-detailed, even if they are repetitive. And the spell effects . . . I don't know what to say about the spells, other than that they are absolutely amazing. Add to that the near-criminal water effects and a framerate that never stutters, and you have a game that looks better than it has a right to. Oh, did I mention that your character model actually wears the proper armour and wields their current weapon? Yeah.

The game's sound is more of a mixed bag. The voice acting is superb, with professional-quality actors and a complete lack of groaners. I found myself actually looking forward to what people had to say, which is very rare in any voiced game. The music is basically non-existent, using ambient tones for most of the game and occasionally swelling up into an actual battle theme, sometimes randomly and sometimes because of a big fight. The ambient bits are nice; the actual music is all right, in the generic 'high fantasy epic' style that you'd expect, but they don't really awe. The sound effects are strictly standard, from the sword clashes and gibberish of the enemies to the splats of the gelatinous cube's assaults. They certainly work, but it's not anything overly impressive.

I'll admit it. At first play, I was completely entranced by Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. It's everything that Diablo II wasn't--gorgeous, fast-paced, and with a huge variety of environments to keep you interested. But as I got further and further into the game, I realized that it descended to the same sort of 'mouse click' syndrome that the aforementioned game had, with just a few twists on the gameplay. After beating it, I realized that it was merely a good game, one that can serve as a nice appetizer to the meatier courses of more serious RPGs. The addition of a Cooperative mode makes for an even more satisfying experience, if you have a friend to play with, but in the end that's really all that will have you pulling the game back out.

Unlike most action-RPGs, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance actually has a fairly solid plot. The quests that you do are occasionally arbitrary, but just as often you're doing something to further your own goals, rather than those of the people around you. It's a nice change of pace, and while the plot certainly won't win any awards for originality--the game's title just about gives it away, after all--there's at least one good twist to the game that will have you waiting for the inevitable sequel.

You can choose to be one of three characters--the Elven Sorceress, the Human Archer, and the Dwarven Fighter. Each has their strengths and weaknesses; the elf casts mighty damaging spells with ease, but has more trouble with hand-to-hand combat; the archer can toss spells out as well, but is best with the bow and arrow; the fighter is all about mixing it up with the big weapons and causing serious melee damage.

Unfortunately, by the end of the game you may have found some decidedly cheap ways to get around the game's AI. I blazed through the last half of the game with my Elven Sorceress by using a particular spell almost exclusively. The melee combat engine is actually a little more intelligent than its brethren, because you have to block the enemies attacks with a well-timed press of a button; this is actually necessary with some of the magic-resistant foes, and it makes for a more harrowing combat experience.

Along the way, you'll be picking up vast amounts of money, tons of weapons and armour, and gaining the requisite levels. You put points in 'feats', which may be spells or skills, and occasionally you even get a stat point to boost. Your inventory is limited by weight, although you can carry any amount of money (which is a little disconcerting), so careful item management is sometimes a must. There are almost always new and badder weapons to use, making for a sense of 'growth' with equipment.

The game spans three different chapters, each with a number of unique and gorgeously-rendered settings. Unfortunately, the variety of enemies is lower than I would have liked, and the coolest enemy in the game (a beast of, ah, displacing personage) appears not nearly often enough for my tastes.

You can play the game solo, but you can also play it with two folks at once, making for an enjoyable game experience. Unfortunately, the game compensates by making the enemies twice as strong, which makes for frustrating fights. What's nice is that you can import characters from other games, so you can bring your butt-kicking sorceress from another game in to help your friend that's just starting out. You can't trade money back and forth, though, which seems a little silly, since the best way to play two-player is to let the character with the most Charisma pick up all of the cash and buy everything since their prices are lower.

Add in some nice secrets when you complete the game and you have a fairly complete game experience.

The game starts with three difficulty levels, with another available once the game is complete and a secret challenge bested. Depending on the boss and the situation, the game can be frighteningly easy or extremely challenging. I breezed through a Normal game with my sorceress, once I got Ball Lightning; your results may vary, though. The Dwarven Fighter, for example, is considerably more difficult to utilize effectively, especially in group attacks, but fares better against the largely magic-resistant bosses.

Game Mechanics:
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance uses most of the buttons on the controller, for actions ranging from jumping to blocking and casting spells. The left stick is used to move, the right stick to rotate the camera, and the D-Pad to scroll through your available skills. There are 'hot buttons' for magic and healing potions, which are extremely useful, and the entire control scheme is quite intuitive once you get used to it. Most of the game's mechanics are quite solid, although I didn't like the slow lack of differentiation as the game progresses. It seems as if the developers' ideas were flagging near the end, and the last levels felt weaker than those found earlier in the game. I also found myself saving my money, buying amazing armour and weapons near the start of chapters, and being stuck with it for the rest of that section of the game, selling off everything I came across. There were also a number of technical glitches I experienced, the most obvious being some weird sprite issues in the inventory, but there was nothing so major as to dampen the game experience.

With a little more variety in the enemies and the later levels of the game, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance would stand as the ultimate action RPG so far. As it is, the game is still a fine specimen of the genre. While it suffers from some balance issues, the two-player experience is as exciting as console action-RPGs have been since the days of Secret of Mana. Every fan of the genre should be more than satisfied with this game, and everyone else should at least rent it, just to get a feel for the gorgeous environments presented in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance. The sequel (whose future existence is made painfully obvious in the game, moreso than just about any other title I've played) will hopefully fix these issues; until then, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is plenty enjoyable.

-Sunfall to-Ennien, GameVortex Communications
AKA Phil Bordelon

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