I have new posts up for Insiders analyzing the Nick Swisher and Edwin Jackson signings. I’ll write up the Pirates/Red Sox trade if and when the clubs finalize it and we know all of the names involved.
I’ve never gotten into role-playing games as a genre, even though I think I probably fit the stereotype of avid RPG players, aside from the fact that I never actually lived in my parents’ basement. I tried the pen-and-paper version of D&D in high school with some friends but found it way too slow for my short attention span, and most of the computer versions I tried were too focused on combat (“hack-and-slash” games), which becomes really monotonous over a game that’s expected to take 30 or 40 or more hours to play. I played The Bard’s Tale in high school, but that game was horribly designed (you had to keep fighting the same battles over and over again to make your characters strong enough for the final encounter), and also tried the first of the “gold box” D&D games, Pool of Radiance (bad graphics, some clever subquests, but once I got to the Big Foozle at the end of the game he treated my party like we were the 2012 Astros), but neither of these was good enough to turn me into a fan of the genre.
Baldur’s Gate remains the one exception, and I think the main reason is that its writing is better than those of other games in the genre. It’s a D&D game, both in mechanics and in setting, but contains a fairly well-written central story, lots of dialogue (much of it funny, at least the first or second time around), and enough opportunities to roam outside of the linear core plot (also of the Kill-the-Big-Foozle variety) to give the game some replay value. Most importantly, the game worked: Early challenges are balanced enough to give you a shot even when your character is weak, and later challenges are difficult but don’t require advance knowledge or cheat codes to survive them. I played Baldur’s Gate and its two-part sequel through several times, using different character types to vary the experience slightly from time to time. I’ve tried other games that were supposedly similar, but nothing lasted me more than an hour or so.
A group of the original Baldur’s Gate designers have now reissued the game and ported it to new formats, starting with an iPad version, with good-not-great results. The game looks and feels just like the original, with some enhancements that were either only found in BG2 or that appeared in user-created mods, but retaining the original graphics (looking a little dated), voices, and music (both big positives). Aside from the creation of a few new NPCs, one in the base game and a few available as in-app purchases, this is the original Baldur’s Gate game in every aspect. If you feel a little nostalgia for the original game, you’ll love the reissue.
The story, in brief, is a little cliched for the fantasy genre – you’re an orphan, and you’re being hunted by an unknown enemy for reasons that don’t become apparent until much later in the game, but it turns out you’re something of a Chosen One. That’s all blah-de-blah, but the overlaid story of an iron shortage in the region and bandit attacks up and down the coast give the story some texture beyond the linear who’s-trying-to-kill-me plot that drives a lot of these games. You’ll also get a ton of subquests if you talk to every named character you come across, only some of whom want to kill you or pick your pockets, and the game is loaded with enough non-player characters and special items to allow you significant flexibility in constructing your party however you like.
That said, playing BG on the iPad has its frustrations. Using a touchscreen to play a game that expects the precision of a mouseclick is extremely aggravating – it can be hard to get your party to enter a building or to get a character to attack the right enemy. Sometimes I find my characters are just standing around in the middle of combat while their mates are being disemboweled. (I still don’t know if that’s a game error or mine.) The app crashes way too often, so you’ll want to quick-save (one click on the left-hand bar) as often as you can – and once or twice I’ve crashed while quick-saving, unfortunately. (I also crashed once because I tried to take Boo from Minsc. Squeaky wheel gets the kick, I suppose.) The port didn’t update the graphics, so zooming to try to tap more accurately on the screen just produces a blur. I’ve spoken with one of the designers about the touchscreen issue, which they were already aware of and are working on for future updates. I’ve had to fight certain battles, not just major ones, multiple times strictly because of that one issue – either a character went where s/he wasn’t supposed to go, or I couldn’t get a character to attack the right opponent. I’ve adapted to the latter issue by specifically selecting the weapon (turning its highlight orange) and then selecting the opponent, but that adds up to a ton of extra taps over the course of a game.
The base game app is $10, about the maximum I’d be willing to pay for a port of an older game that is available in a complete four-in-one boxset, with BG2 and the two expansions, for $15 on DVD-ROM for Windows. I’ve played probably ten hours or so in total – I just wiped out the bandit camp, for those of you who’ve played the game before, and don’t act like those little pricks didn’t have it coming – and appreciate the fact that starting and quitting the game is so much faster than it was on CDs when I played it around ten years ago. If it wasn’t so crash-prone, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it, but even with that flaw I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it even if I decide not to go after the Big Foozle after all.