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<  Game reviews  ~  Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (PS2)

Posted: Thu Jul 25, 2002 11:14 am Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium

I'm not a big fan of adventure games. I'm not a fan of any game genre in particular. In fact I think I dislike all those silly conventions in games. Adventure games in particular seem to stand stiff with conventions. There seems to be a long tradition of a game called "Dungeons and Dragons" in the USA and for some reason, many computer adventure games feel that they should adhere to the rigid rules of this game.

Especially on the PC, this can result in painfully convoluted interfaces that involve more reading through badly written pseudo-medieval dialog than anything else. The action in the game seems to be only an excuse for showing more text. What a waste of technology!

Not so in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance! True, all the clichés are there: elves and dwarves, health potions and arcane energy for magic spells, dungeons, giants, a dragon, medieval setting, ridiculously complex plot, fake accents, the lot! But Dark Alliance is first and foremost a slash and hack fest. One of the clichés in these D&D adventure games that I approve of is smashing barrels to find goodies. I know it's childish but it's a lot of fun to just run through a cellar smashing everything you see, making a complete mess of the scene. Not just because of the physical pleasure of the action but it also gives you creative impact on the environment: the ability to change it. And that's always fun.

Dark Alliance has a two player mode in which two people can each steer an avatar through the world and work together to complete the quests. This adds a whole extra dimension to the gameplay because you have to come up with strategies of working together. This is the way I played the game, so I can't comment on single player mode.

You see the world of Dark Alliance always from a camera high above the level. These levels don't have roofs, so the whole thing looks like an old-school isometric tile-based game. Which results in a gameplay that is more reminiscent of playing with dolls than walking through a real environment. But this environment is in fact a full 3D world and a very well made one at that. The models seem to consist of millions of polygons, the particle effects are masterful and the textures are amazing. Especially when you start climbing the Burning Eye, the way the landscape changes from forest to icy mountain top with seemingly fosforescent snow is breath-taking.

And yes yes, every Dungeons & Dragons cliché is there, including the capitalist game of finding, selling and buying stuff, drinking special potions, wearing amulets, increasing your experience level and acquiring new spells. But all these things, which in any other game never fail to destroy the atmosphere and the immersion, are done in a very non-obtrusive and fluent way.

True enough, the focus of a game like Dark Alliance is not on "taking you to another world" but rather on the more simple pleasures of physical games. The interface is very functional for that and hardly ever dramatic cinema is used for emotional effect. The story did not engage us at all (so writing these complicated stories seems like a waste of time,...) and the characters are extremely non-specific. In the game, you only ever see the characters from above as tiny five centimeter dolls with which it is difficult to empathise. So it is great fun to see your character up close when you are buying new armour for it. The Elven Sorceress looks particularly sexy in her tiny bikini. Wink Running around naked (that is "naked" in the American sense=in underwear) is one of the many min-sub-games we invented while hacking our way through wolves, thieves and cyclopses. Another was to jump before you save at one of the many little "save pedestals" in the world, so our avatar would freeze, hanging in the air while the game was being saved.

Since there are a lot of things you can make your avatar do, the designers used to PS2 gamepad fully: one analog joystick for moving the character, the other for rotating the camera; directional buttons for switching weapons and selecting spells; L2 & R2 for drinking potions; R1 to block and L1 to see a very nice map overlaying the screen oriented in the same direction you are. This is a very well designed interface: it feels very comfortable very quickly. The triangle button is used for jumping, x for attacking, circle for casting spells and square for "using". The latter is the only one that gave us some issues. Since "use" means "pick up object" as well as "go through door" and save, we often found ourselves looking at the "Loading" or "Save" screen when quickly trying to pick up an object in the heat of the fight near a door or a save place.

I dislike boss rounds and Dark Aliiance had quite a few. Especially the "Orb of the Undead", quite early in the game, proved extremely frustrating and almost made me stop playing altogether. I did not get any pleasure out of that at all. Boss rounds that could be solved by two-player strategy where slightly more entertaining though sometimes the inherent frustration resulted in being angry with your partner for doing or not doing this or that. So I repeat my plea: Kill the boss round!

Despite the great job they already did, the game designers left a lot of opportunities concerning this two-player mode unused. It would have been nice if the psychology of that mode would have been developed a bit more. If only by making one character walk slower than the other, e.g. Or by letting them have or develop some form of relationship with each other. Not necessarily on the level of complexity of The Sims but just away for them to acknowledge each other's existence other than mumbling "I'll avenge her" or "Someone will pay for this" when one of the dies -which ironically is the only moment in the game when the characters seem to be aware of each other.

The style of the animations of the Non Playing Characters that we talk to is hilarious. They have much more personality than our avatars but they all make similar motions: raising eyebrows, waving hands and fists, illustrating what their words in a very exaggerated fashion. But very amusing nonetheless. In a way, as a player, you develop a deeper relationship with these figures than with your own Elf, Dwarf or Archer.

Oh, and before we forget: the water... It's physics are not realistic because the water in the game responds to characters that walk through it as if they were very tiny. This enhances the feeling that you are playing with dolls in a toy house rather than steering real humanoids through a real world. But it's so much fun! We found ourselves running and jumping through the water many times just for fun. There is a strange little pleasure in experiencing this effect. Is it because of it's novelty and technical merit? Or is it similar to the real-world pleasure of moving your hands through sand or water? (And why is that such a nice thing to do?...)

We're going through the game again now. This time in "extreme mode" because we want to play with the new avatar that the game promises to give you when you complete the game in extreme mode. This mode is pretty, well, extreme but not as impossible or plain silly as the "hardcore" "nightmare" modes in many other games. This mode too is very well designed and it hardly ever turns design flaws into game challenges like so many bad game designs do.

Thank you, Auriea, for this birthday gift! Very Happy
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Posted: Thu Jul 25, 2002 3:30 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
I forgot to mention that the environment sounds are very nice as well: little details like drops and a howl in the distance can send shivers down your spine. And even the music, though cliché-Carmina-Burana-esque, is well made and used.
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Posted: Thu Jul 25, 2002 11:15 pm Reply with quote
Site Administrator Joined: 07 Jun 2002 Posts: 8065 Location: Gent, Belgium
Dark Alliance excells at being a "subset of relaity"*. It does not try to imitate reality but it creates a complete world in which everything fits. Rather than trying to be as realistic as possible and failing, the designers choose to limit the realism of the game in favor of perfection on a smaller scale.

*"a game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality."

"The Art of Computer Game Design", Chris Crawford.

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