Even though the original was a commercial and critical success, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn improves on some shortcomings and enhances gameplay. This follow-up to Baldur's Gate is artfully designed with graphics, storyline, voices, features, variety and action leagues above its predecessor.
The interface is the same as the original as you manipulate and use items, move characters and engage in combat with a combination of mouse and configurable hot keys. The journal is slightly different, as you can now create your own entries, and the interface toolbars can be hidden, giving you a larger panoramic view of the action. If needed, pausing the game will bring up the toolbars again.
The mood is darker and more mystical, though many references to areas explored in the first game crop up during play. Character creation, a top feature in the original, is even better. An entirely new race is introduced: the Half-Orc, spawned from human and orc parentage, is very strong but not so intelligent. Three new class additions include the Monk, Sorcerer and Barbarian. The Monk receives a bonus for hand-to-hand combat and fights with kicks and punches, but he cannot wear armor or use two-handed weapons. Sorcerers intuitively learn new spells with each level but can't learn from scrolls, and the Barbarian is strong and fast and voluntarily invokes a berserker's rage. The drawback is that the Barbarian can't use plate mail or specialize.
Specialization plays a large part in BGII and "kits" offer advancement for each type of character. For example, fighters can become a Berserker, Wizard Slayer or Kensai. The Berserker has traits of the Barbarian class and the Wizard Slayer is awarded magic resistance with spell disruption. The Kensai, also known as "Sword Saints," can fight without encumbrance and are trained to become one with their sword but can't wear armor, gauntlets, bracers or use missile weapons of any kind.
Other kits offer advancements for Rangers (Archer, Stalker and Beast Master), Paladins (Cavalier, Inquisitor or Undead Hunter), Priests ( Priest of Talos, Helm or Lathander and Druids ( Totemic Druid, Shape Shifter or Avenger). One notable enhancement is the ability of certain characters to use two weapons (e.g., swords, flail, hammer) simultaneously.
At first impression, the game world of the sequel seems smaller than the original. Baldur's Gate had more than two dozen areas to explore as opposed to only 18 in BGII, but each area is packed with more monsters and locales of importance. Many of the areas are hidden and most are far more interesting than the simple stone and tree images of the first game, though it has its share of simple forests and villages as well. You venture forth into such locations as an underwater fish city, the first Drow city of the Underdark, the elfin city of Suldanessellar, hell and even another plane of existence.
The storylines are fascinating and include a daunting number of quests. Jon Irenicus appears in your dreams as you discover the meaning of your lineage and his dark plan. Some sub-quests take on epic proportions, such as foiling another plan for world domination when investigating the wolf murders in the Umar Hills. Unlike the original, you must occasionally solve riddles to make important advances. Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn offers more than 300 hours of gameplay if you're a gamer who likes to complete every mini-quest, side task and explore every inch of terrain.
Somewhat lacking is the dearth of evil NPCs to play. Throughout the game, you only encounter two evil characters, Viconia and Korgan, and rounding out an evil party with neutral characters diminishes the effect. But, the main thrust of the game is positive in nature and it's easy to understand why less of an evil presence is necessary. In multiplayer, though, creation of an entire band of evil characters is possible.
The multiplayer aspect is easy to use and free of charge. Up to six players can participate via LAN or 56K-modem connection to the Internet.
Characters address you by specific gender and class during the game and even romance can bloom between certain protagonists. The difficulty settings make the game incredibly easy or nearly impossible to defeat and the new monsters are bigger and deadlier (Mind Flayers can mean instant death). Dragons are huge and extremely challenging and counterbalance the usual ogres, orcs and other standard creatures.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is a diversely beautiful and deadly environment filled with amazing characters and a myriad of possibilities. For any fan of the original, this is a must have -- it's just too good to pass up.
Graphics: The hand-drawn characters and scenery are beautiful and the artistic style immerses you in the fantasy world. Gamers with a 500MHz or faster PC can reap the benefits of new 3D rendering features. Running waterfalls look real and enemy characters can be incredibly large. Even some large statues have moving parts.
Sound: The atmospheric music shifts moods to accommodate the action in the game in a nice, unobtrusive fashion. Character dialogue is more plentiful with both friend and enemy interaction. The voiceovers are extremely well done and realistic and ambient sounds are superb.
Enjoyment: There's so much here, boredom isn't a factor. The many new character sets, fantastic scenery, immersive storyline and wide range of spells ensure long play sessions and untold hours of sleep deprivation. Action is intense at times, especially combat sequences when fighting fierce giant dragons and experienced Cowled Wizards.
Replay Value: Although the main quest doesn't change, playing with new characters or online ensures continued enjoyment. So much is hidden in the game, playing through just once is unlikely to uncover everything in the game and character diversity insures unique replays.
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