Blog 398: Return to the Sword Coast

I had been waiting so long for this. Finally achieving Planescape: Torment a while back gave me the insatiable urge to revisit all things Infinity Engine, but I was somewhat hampered by… oh, sundry concerns like the last exams ever, nothing important.

As I mentioned before, Baldur’s Gate‘s expansion pack was to be my own little leaving present. With all the trifling concerns out of the way, I started playing it.

I was going to begin by saying that I don’t remember Baldur’s Gate being this short; then I realised that over a single day of solid playing I crammed in about ten hours’ worth of time… Repeat this for about four days. Compared to the ‘half hour a day’ that would have been in effect when I first got the game, which would have cause it to take a considerable length of time to finish… Then again, on my first playthrough I managed to take up about 365 days of in-game time too.

This time I was a little bit more savvy, and my party micromanagement skills were somewhat improved (though still pretty sloppy). It only took half a year to comb most of the landscape, bringing all party members up to the expansion-improved experience cap of 161000.

The Modern World

I was delightfully and pleasantly surprised by how well Baldur’s Gate bore up to the modern setup. The last Infinity Engine game I played here was Planescape: Torment, and even with everything on ‘software’ mode it suffered from dreadful graphical anomalies during its super-powered spell effects, plus it ran like a dog with some of the more full-on animated background parts. So, as an older Infinity Engine game, I wasn’t expecting much better from Baldur’s Gate; but ho!

(I should really stop using ‘run like a dog’ as a bad thing, since dogs tend to run pretty fast…)

There aren’t no graphical anomalies; the fog of war edges all used the top and right edge pieces instead of the correct ones, and putting the graphics onto software mode didn’t seem to have any effect. Wyverns also suffered from such sprite mix-ups when they turned in a certain direction, and missiles sometimes faced the wrong way; but by and large, the game looked as fine as it ever did. Magic Missiles fired as normal, characters were rendered beautifully (especially with my shiny new expansion item Cloak of Displacement which provides a permanent Blur spell effect).

It's no deal-breaker, though. I have strong eyes. I can resist.

I even managed to coax it into working with the 5.1 speakers. As I’m sure I’ve ranted in the past, old games have a tendancy to use only the two fronts, completely ignoring the two backs and the middle when the desired effect is just to push the generic stereo stream out of all of them. As with Planescape, the game also resisted using Creative’s ALchemy program to make it modern… Until I put the soundcard on ‘game mode’, and then it worked. It was on ‘entertainment mode’… I don’t know why it has modes either.

Naturally, the installer was really daft. I only have 128MB of space left on my hard drive this time (“Are you sure you want to install this? You will run out of space.”), and it’s always nice to tick the box that says my CPU is “faster than 166MHz”.

The Party Starts Here

Completely standard fare this time. Up front was Robe the paladin (I got fed up of being a fighter and being useless, but I didn’t want to go mage (even with the promise of the Robes of Vecna in Shadows of Amn from the final patch) for fear of the early stages of the game being completely impossible).

The usual suspects. Look at that perma-blur on me. LOOK AT IT. ISN'T IT BEAUTIFUL?

Covering his buttox were second paladin Ajantis (you never realise just how handy “Lay on Hands” is… “Imoen is hurt, go and touch her for me Janty. I can’t, that would be–“. Not to mention it casts a lot faster than Cure Light Wounds from your cleric) and ranger Minsc (oh how could anyone ever play without him? Even with him missing one quick slot).

Then came Branwen the cleric, the only neutral member of the party (and as such, she complained all the damn time about our 20 (heroic) reputation). Not to mention I scammed her off the fairground man by purchasing my own Stone to Flesh scroll for 100 gold instead of paying him 500 for one on the spot (okay, I admit, that was meta-gaming, I picked up that scroll as soon as I hit the Friendly Arm Inn in preparation).

Next up was ranged support thief Imoen with a beefed up short bow and the Shadowmaster’s Armour… That cost me over 10k gold, Imoen, I hope you appreciated it. Not to mention the amount of cash I lavished on you for fancy ammunition…

Finally, as we had Minsc we had to have mage Dynaheir (if you fail to rescue her for long enough, Minsc goes berserk and attacks you, as I discovered in my first game where I didn’t realise she was hidden down in one of the pits and cleaned out the entire gnoll stronghold without finding her… then kept playing the rest of the game). Equipped with the ring that gives you double the number of first level spells, she was adept at tearing people to shreds with Magic Missiles and, oh me oh my, Chromatic Orb (such an underrated spell). Stinking Cloud was also a new favourite of mine; okay, so my guys spent most of the fights asleep too, but at least enemy mages could be safely neutralised with ranged attacks.

The Expansion

The most immediately obvious change was that Winthrop, the first merchant you ever meet in the game, now sells scimitars. Nobody else on the entire coast seemed to (except new expansion shops), though. I’m always a bastard sword man, myself (‘Krondar’, +3 versus shapeshifters… and it’s a stylish shade of purple), and I never encountered a scimitar to sway me.

“My hotel’s as clean as an elven arse!”

– Winthrop, Baldur’s Gate

I didn’t realise that’s what he was saying either, until I turned on subtitles.

I didn’t have much leave to explore the expansion content until well on into the game because, well, it’s all bloody difficult and high level. Durlag’s Tower, a dungeon crawl rather like Watcher’s Keep in many ways (well, Watcher’s Keep is like it etc etc etc), was guarded by two god damn Battle Horrors; basically, to coin  a phrase, they are rape machines, and they kept me out until waaay on in my game. Luckily with access to Baldur’s Gate itself I could purchase Wands of Monster Summoning to horribly abuse every difficult fight from then on. Then I found that the basement of the tower was all traps and puzzles and no amount of spamming monsters was going to help me (they don’t set off traps, and half of them were repeating traps anyway).

Not to mention that in Ulgoth’s Beard, a small town stuffed way up in the corner, there was a quest somewhat reminiscent of the Secret Seashell bonus wish quest in This Wreckage; you and your party get teleported to a secret place and can’t leave until you collect an item. It was serious business. I mean, couldn’t the guy have said “this is going to be really difficult, maybe you should come back in two levels’ time? Or at least with a couple of wands?” At least I had the decency to put down “This looks like a really dangerous wish.”

Oh look, there's a rape machine! I'd go inside if he'd look the other way...

And then I only discovered the next reasonably-sized segment of the expansion when I went back to Ulgoth’s Beard to case homes for loot and hand in a couple of quests. You can take a trip to a secret island where there are loads of inbred people… But I think this was designed for a slightly lower-level party, because it was piss easy to my nigh-on full crew.

So basically, the lesson is this: all the really really tough expansion content is right there in the middle of town, clear as day and very obvious and easy to pick up. Then the l0w-level stuff you should be doing earlier is… hidden away… in a small and unassuming generic house… Oh well.

The Final Fight…

… Was still stupidly difficult, despite the additional one (or even two) levels the upgraded experience cap allowed my team. Even all the bonus expansion pack loot didn’t help me — of course I fell back to swamping everyone with Wands of Monster Summoning. It doesn’t help that Sarevok is completely magic immune, so he won’t fall foul of the old Chromatic Orb chance-to-stun trick (got my buttox saved on a number of occasions, that daft little spell did). What is it Jack tells me… Sarevok is level 14, or something daft like that? I mean, come on guys.

But now that is out of the way (four days completely solid, except for the short amount of time spent with the Lego models), it’s time to install the sequel and continue the saga…

New Game -> Import Character -> CHAR1…

And you tell me...

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