Black Isle wasn’t the only company releasing brave new CRPGs that were willing to abandon the old swords and sorcery formula.
A company named Troika scored a triumph in 2001 with Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscure, a game published by Sierra that quickly gained a large and devoted cult following. It certainly wasn’t the first CRPG to try to marry magic and technology; many of the early Ultima and Might & Magic games blended the two quite freely, but SSI’s Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace is probably a more direct precursor. At any rate, Arcanum is the game people think of when they hear the word “steampunk,” and deservedly so.
Arcanum is most often praised for its open-ended gameplay and intriguing game world, which is best described as an industrial revolution taking place in the midst of a high fantasy setting. Usually, magic and technology are pretty strange bedfellows, but when done right (as in Arcanum), the result is “magical realism,” in which objects that would ordinarily look familiar are placed in settings that make them seem strange and exotic.
It can be quite exhilarating, for instance, for a dwarf to draw a flintlock pistol rather than the clichéd old axe or hammer. The outcome of the game depends on whether players follow the magical or the technological path; the choice is left to the player.
"If you're serious about role-playing games--so serious that you don't care about graphics but instead just want to immerse yourself in a different world and try to explore it, perhaps even exploit it, as fully as possible--then Arcanum is well worth the investment of time, money, and effort.”
–Greg Kasavin on GameSpot, Aug. 21, 2001.
Unfortunately, Arcanum is not without its flaws, particularly in the all-important criteria of combat. As we’ve seen countless times, the combat system is often enough to make or break a CRPG. Although the game offers three different modes (real-time, turn-based, and “fast” turn-based), none of them are perfect, though the third comes the closest.
The key problem is the way experience points are doled out; the player only wins them by hitting rather than defeating enemies. This fact makes strength and dexterity all-important, thus ruling out many of the more exciting possibilities. The difficulty also seems a bit skewed towards the magical path; technologists had a tough time finding equipment and surviving long enough to use it. Thankfully, there are usually alternatives to brute force combat.
Arcanum has much in common with the Fallout series, no doubt due in part to sharing some key members on the development team. Both games also share the same wonderful sense of irony and humor, and the aesthetics are guided by a coherent and refreshing style that helps balance out the bugs and difficulty issues. While not as polished and playable as Fallout, Arcanum nevertheless stands out as a viable alternative to the standard formula.
We've seen how TSR's valuable license had fallen upon hard times after SSI's last "Black Box" games, the Eye of the Beholder series created by Westwood Studios. SSI's own efforts went from bad to worse, ultimately costing them their exclusive license with TSR, and other companies fared little better despite plastering AD&D all over their products.
Nevertheless, cherished AD&D franchises like the Forgotten Realms were just too promising to remain out of sight for long, and many CRPG fans longed for a return to those halcyon days of Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, games with great stories and gameplay set in the familiar and beloved worlds of high fantasy. The problem was how to "update" these hallowed games for the late 1990s. Two possible models existed in Elder Scrolls and Diablo, but these action-oriented games seemed to have little to offer fans of the hardcore, stat-tastic games of the 1980s.
The development team that would finally succeed in winning players back to the Forgotten Realms would
not be SSI, Interplay, or Sierra, but rather a trio of Canadian medical
doctors turned game developers: BioWare. BioWare created what is
perhaps the greatest CRPG engine ever designed; the famous Infinity Engine, an isometric engine used in some of the greatest CRPGs of all time.
Like Blizzard, BioWare's first foray into CRPGs was a critical success: Baldur's Gate, released in 1998. Like Diablo, Baldur's Gate features isometric perspective and allows players to create only a single character. Both games feature real-time gameplay, but with one key difference: Baldur's Gate switches to a hybrid turn-based mode for combat, which allows for much more tactical-style battles than Diablo.
The engine is designed to allow most battles to be fought by a highly configurable artificial intelligence system; the player need only sit back and watch. However, players can always hit the space bar to pause the game and manually assign actions, then resume the game to see them carried out. This compromise between real-time and turn-based combat resulted in very compelling gameplay, and has much to offer both novices and aficionados of the genre.
"The entire game is played exactly like a true game of AD&D with savings throws, armor classes and to-hit rolls and combat range and speed all computed with every scrap the party gets into. The thing that makes this all so impressive (and very different from SSI's Gold Box series) is that it all goes on behind the scenes where it belongs...Baldur's Gate is, simply put, the best computer representation of Dungeons and Dragons ever made." --Trent C. Ward on IGN, Jan 18, 1999.
Furthermore, Baldur's Gate turns what fans of SSI's Gold and Black Box players might see as a limitation--creation of only a single character rather than a party--into a key story-telling asset. Although players can only create and directly control one character, they can allow up to five other characters to join their party. These characters not only have greatly varied skills, but unique personalities and implications for the plot. Characters of different political and ethical outlook may not get along; a few characters may actually betray the party at a critical juncture.
In short, the gameplay changes
considerably depending on which characters the player adds (or doesn't
add) to the party. Rather than simplify or dumb down battle tactics,
the real-time aspect adds a new dimension to them--the time it takes to
perform an action (casting a spell, quaffing a potion, switching
weapons, etc.) may leave a character more vulnerable. I lost track of
the times I started casting a powerful magical spell, only to see it
wasted on enemies who'd already died or fled. Finally, to further
sweeten the pot, BioWare offered a multi-player option which let
players trade the non-player characters in their party for friends.
Although somewhat buggy and not perfectly integrated, this option
helped the game compete against Diablo, whose Battle.net servers had become a swirling vortex for daddy's money.
Like any great CRPG, Baldur's Gate features a rich, nuanced storyline that resists easy summary (and, indeed, reading such a summary would ruin much of the fun of the game; the point is to learn what's happening as you play). The basic gist is that something (or someone) has been causing a serious iron shortage, which has led to widespread banditry across the countryside. Meanwhile, two young wards of a mage named Gorion (the beautiful rogue Imoen and the player's character) have been separated from their guardian and left to fend for themselves. Gradually, the player learns of a large conspiracy involving a secretive organization named the Iron Throne. By the end of the game, the player learns that both the avatar and Imoen are much more than what they seem. It's a complex but not plausible story of political intrigue, and offers much more than the standard black and white view of morality that runs through most CRPGs.
Baldur's Gate was followed up one year later with the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion pack. This pack added new areas, spells, weapons, and made some minor improvements to the gameplay and interface. More importantly, it added four new quests. The general consensus among reviewers was that the pack offered "a little more meat to chew on," but was certainly not to be mistaken as a full sequel. Some gamers resented the lack of true story developments, but others were just glad to have a little more Baldur's Gate to whet their appetites.
The true sequel, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, appeared in 2000 and became an instant best-seller. While the game continued to use the Infinity Engine, the graphics were overhauled (800x600 as well as the old 640x480) and took advantage of the new 3D accelerators that were all the rage among Windows gamers. Shadows of Amn also added new classes, specializations, and cool skills like fighting with two weapons simultaneously. Furthermore, several of the beloved characters are back from the first game, including Imoen, and this time personality (and even romantic) conflicts among party members are even more instrumental to the gameplay. Contemporary reviewers fell over themselves praising the game and giving it the highest possible marks; it didn't take an orb of true seeing to know this game was platinum. For what it's worth, I consider it the finest CRPG ever designed.
The story picks up where the first Baldur's Gate leaves off (which is all the more reason for new players to start with the first game). Unfortunately, it's a bit difficult to talk about the story to Shadows of Amn without giving away the shocking ending to part one, so I'll just briefly state that it's mostly concerned with the sinister blood running through your avatar's veins. Unfortunately, your quest for answers is rudely halted by one Jon Irenicus, a wicked mage who captures you and your friends in an effort to steal your powers for himself. The story quickly gets much more complicated and involved, but suffice it to say you'll be going to hell and back.
"There's little doubt that Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn deserves to stand among the very best games of the era, or indeed among the greatest games of all time." -- GameSpot Editorial Team, Mar. 27, 2006.
One of the most-praised aspects of Shadows of Amn is
the degree of freedom it presents to players. Many quests are optional,
and there are many different paths through the game that substantially
alter events. Players can either "stick to the main plot" and ignore
these many diversions, or get so involved in them that they might lose
track of the main story altogether. And, as with the original game,
party dynamics play a huge role in the gameplay that goes far beyond
just simple combat tactics. Mixing and matching characters with
differing ethics and values can lead to some very interesting "drama"
that everyone should experience at least once--particularly in a game
with such good voice acting. Multi-player is also supported, so gamers
with a few similarly-devoted friends can get even closer to the old
tabletop experience via their home network.
In 2001, BioWare released an expansion for Baldur's Gate II called Throne of Baal. This important expansion represents the final chapter of the saga, and required playing for any fan of the other games. It also adds new items, spells, and even more class abilities. The expansion also adds a dungeon named "Watcher's Keep" that can be accessed during certain chapters in the Shadows of Amn game. However, perhaps the aspect most people remember of this game is the degree of god-like power your avatar has achieved by the game's ending. It's a fine ending for a fine series.
What makes the Baldur's Gate games so great? Again, I think it's clear it's more a question of craft than genius. With Baldur's Gate we get good stories, fun characters, meaningful quests, high-stakes combat, and an intuitive interface. The graphics, sound, and music are appealing and add much to the game's subtle ambiance. Perhaps the best testament to the game's lasting appeal is that no single element seems to rise above the others. There are no gimmicks; just solid platinum gameplay.
It just doesn't get better than Baldur's Gate.