Genre : Action/RPG
Developer: Black Isle Studios
Release Date: January 20, 2004
Developer Snowblind Studios did an amazing job on the original Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. The game was drop-dead gorgeous, and did things on the PS2 that just shouldn’t be possible. The hack-and-slash, dungeon-crawling gameplay was visceral and satisfying, and the character customization/maintenance aspects of the game made it extremely difficult to put down the controller. Dark Alliance was truly a work of art. Nearly two years after the release of the original game comes the sequel; Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II. While it retains the majority of the first game’s charm and appeal, it just doesn’t stack up in comparison. It still delivers a very fun and engrossing experience for fans of the first game or the RPG genre in general however, and it stays true to its roots, for whatever that’s worth. But DAII simply doesn’t shine as brightly as the first game, no doubt due to the fact that Snowblind Studios wasn’t involved with the development of the game this time around.
Like Dark Alliance, part two does not skimp on story. The plot is continually pushed forward via cut-scenes and plenty of in-game dialogue transactions. The game begins right where the last one left off. The first game’s human archer, dwarven fighter, and elven sorceress are seen in the opening sequence right after their final battle with Eldritch the Betrayer. Fresh from the fight, the trio is captured by Mordoc and sent to the dungeons. Not exactly the reward they were hoping for, no doubt. Nevertheless, the journey continues, but with a whole new cast of adventurers. As you make your way through Dark Alliance II the story will often refer to events from the last game, though it isn’t necessary to be familiar with the original game’s story to enjoy the sequel since it is there mainly to give the player bite-size bits of encouragement to continue playing.
Obviously, you won’t get to play as your favorite character from the first game, being that they are under lock-and-key in Mordoc’s dungeon, but you can choose from five different, completely new characters. There is a human barbarian, an elf monk, a moon elf necromancer, a dwarven rogue, and a human cleric. Each character goes about dispatching foes in very unique ways; the barbarian relies mostly on melee attacks, the monk can dish out some serious martial arts, the rogue focuses on stealth and ranged attacks, the cleric has an assortment of white magic at her disposal, and the necromancer can perform a wide range of dark magic.
Initially I chose the cleric as my character, but soon realized that I’d need a offensively-driven partner to play with since defeating foes is simply too hard when all you have are healing spells. So a buddy plugged in and adopted the black magic-wielding necromancer. Together, we made an unstoppable team. Playing solo can still be a lot of fun, but getting another person in on the action is the best way to really enjoy the game. Dark Alliance II only allows two-player co-op, which should be fine for most, but it is somewhat disappointing that the game doesn’t support four-player action like the original Dark Alliance did.
After a short initial interlude you’ll find yourself in Baldur’s Gate. Here you can talk to various NPC characters and take on quests and side-missions. There are usually a few different objectives that you can attempt to complete at any given time in Dark Alliance II, and overall the game just seems a bit more open-ended than its predecessor. Advancing the story in DAII can only be done by accomplishing certain quests, and regardless of the order you tackle objectives, the story remains the same. But the inclusion of more side-quests this time around does help to feign a non-linear style of progression.
But regardless of what mission you decide to take on the action still revolves around navigating a dungeon-like environment while hacking and slashing hordes of enemies, most of whom will attack you on sight. You’re rewarded by the bucketfuls for your efforts via all sorts of plunder and loot, including armor, weapons, accessories, health and mana potions, and gold pieces. Not much has changed in terms of gameplay from the first game. The action is shown from a slightly slanted isometric perspective that you can effortlessly pan around at 360 degrees with the right analog stick, but this time you can zoom in for a closer look as well. To streamline navigation, a handy on-screen map shows your position and your immediate surroundings. A slight modification in terms of equipping weapons includes the ability to equip three different weapons in the menu screen allowing you to switch between fighting styles on the fly during combat by pressing a direction on the D pad. Other slight changes have been made here and there but nothing that alters the fundamental gameplay dynamics of the original game.
Visually speaking, Dark Alliance II leaves a bit to be desired. The overall quality of graphics has actually taken a step backwards, especially in terms of the human-like character models, which now lack the detail and polish that made them so attractive in the first game. The water effects that wowed players in Dark Alliance are still present, but don’t seem quite as impressive two years later. Reflective surfaces are used pretty sparingly, the lighting effects are mostly static, and the environments just don’t seem very inspired. When looking at this game next to the original, it’s hard to deny how much cleaner and detailed the first game was compared to the sequel. But taken on its own merits, it’s not a bad looking game by any means, it’s just not frickin’ amazing looking like Dark Alliance was back in 2001.
The sound, however, is just as majestic and enchanting as ever. Tons of voiced dialogue was used for character conversations and occasional narration and it is all delivered with an appropriately believable tone and medieval inflection. The script is also pretty tight, so that makes the voice actor’s job a little easier. The soundtrack has bouts of magnificence, often building to rousing crescendos before pivotal in-game moments, though the music does cut out for minutes at a time when you’re just wandering around. Sound effects are excellent throughout, to the point where you’ll actually take notice and appreciate them, which is pretty rare. The different spells in the game sound unique and believable, and the realistic clinking of potions or items as they hit the ground gives you an aural indication of exactly what the enemy dropped.
It’s not quite as good as its forerunner but Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II is an entertaining and satisfying diversion that should appeal to anyone who likes a little hacking and slashing with their RPG. The lack of four-player co-op is regrettable, and the lack of graphical sheen is disappointing, but the highly addictive gameplay is fully intact. If you’ve already devoured Snowblind Studio’s excellent Champions of Norrath and are still hungry for more action/RPG style goodness, then you can’t go wrong with Dark Alliance II.
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