10 Things That Made the Baldur's Gate Series So Amazing

The splash screen for Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition
This 1998 RPG recently got a fresh update, and is as fun to play as ever

A Passion Project

Released by BioWare in 1998, the original Baldur's Gate revitalized computer role-playing games, selling over 2 million copies when it came out, and established the now well-known RPG conventions of shaping your character through stat-building, player choice, branching dialogue, and companion influence. After their first game, Shattered Steel, the developers at BioWare set out to bring their hobby of pen-and-paper tabletop roleplaying onto computers. Baldur's Gate is the result of that passion, and the game is undeniably one of the most influential PC games of all time.

It's also still incredibly fun and playable. With the new Enhanced Editions released on Steam, GoG, and many other digital platforms, if you've never experienced the series, now's the perfect time. If you played Mass Effect or Dragon Age and loved them, you owe it to yourself to see where Bioware got its RPG storytelling start. Here's 10 things that made the game the engrossing roleplaying experience it was.

 

10. Tactical, Important Combat

Combat
Combat involves a lot of moving parts, requiring planning and positioning

When creating the game, BioWare set out to recreate the experience of combat in Dungeons & Dragons. Looking from a top-down perspective, fights are carried out in a challenging and tactical pause-and-play style. You have to think through encounters, and prepare for big ones before hand. The game also allows you to pre-program some behavior for the characters in combat, such as healing themselves when their health gets too low, so that you have to do less pausing and managing.

The combat is all about progressing, not only as a character, but as a player. As your characters stats get better, you also learn the game better, eventually becoming able to size up a fight right at the start and know what everyone needs to do and where they need to go. You're not supernatural and overpowered, and every combat could be deadly, so it's really satisfying just to make it out of a dangerous situation.

9. Stats and the D&D Experience at Home

A character sheet
Baldur's Gate used a D&D style character sheet, teaching gamers about armor class, THAC0, and more

Along with Diablo (1996) and Fallout (1997), the original Baldur's Gate was one of the first games to introduce players to building a D&D-style stat sheet for their character and improving it incrementally through leveling up. Players had to crunch numbers and decide on what sort of “build” they wanted to pursue. All of these numbers played out in the background, determining success in failure of everything from a swing of the sword to attempts at bartering, all through behind-the-scenes dice rolls. Curious players could even see the dice rolls playing out in the text box along with tons of other information.

Away from the more static and text-focused interfaces of '80s RPGs like Bard's Tale and Dungeon Master, players could see all their items and armor in real time on their character, as well as watch new spells and abilities hit their enemies.

Before the 1990s, gamers who wanted to experience the epic roleplaying adventures of Dungeons & Dragons had to do so with a Dungeon Master, 3 other friends, and an available living room. Baldur's Gate is arguably the truest representation of the D&D experience you can play by yourself on your own computer. With rules, settings, races, and monsters all taken from The Forgotten Realms and the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons gameplay system, Baldur's Gate was a singular experience for fans of the then-niche tabletop, and its incredible sales boosted the popularity of D&D to a wider audience than ever before.

Character creation
The character creation screen is the first place you encounter the game's many dice rolls

The game was many players' first experience with the D&D staples of filling out a character sheet and learning what STR, DEX, and INT meant. It was their first experience of a morality system in a game, which could influence those around you and create real disagreements based on ethics and beliefs. Many gamers first learned the difference between Chaotic Good and Neutral Evil thanks to Baldur's Gate. So many of the RPG classes, races, and overall tropes we consider as standard for modern video games were created in Dungeons & Dragons, and brought to the realm of games by Baldur's Gate.

8. Mighty Impressive Magic

Magic spells
Spells are taken from the D&D rulebooks, and have a variety of effects

Baldur's Gate contained nearly 100 spells, ranging from Agannazar’s Scorcher to Vampiric Touch, each with 5 different levels of power. This made Wizards and Priests a powerful force in combat when used well. Balancing useful support spells like the movement-slowing Web with devastating destructive spells like Fireball, all while keeping your magic-users out of the way, is still as tense and fun as it was 20 years ago. All the effects play out in real time, and have unique appearances. Even better, all the graphics for the spells have been upgraded with the Enhanced Editions.

The spells fall into eight different schools of magic, all of which have different benefits, requirements, and progressions: alteration, which changes reality; abjuration, which protects or resists; conjuration, which summons armor and living creatures; divination, which identifies magical items and spots traps; enchantment, which manipulates minds; evocation, which brings damage and destruction; illusion, which alters appearances and grants invisiblity; and necromancy, which heals the living, or raises the dead.

7. Chatty, Creative Companions

Your party companions
A few of the colorful companions you meet between the two games

BioWare is well-known for its engaging companion characters, and one of the joys of any BioWare RPG is talking to and getting to know the people in your party. By the end of your story, they often feel like family, and the deeply three-dimensional writing leaves fans thinking about characters like Mass Effect's Garrus Vakarian, Dragon Age's Leliana, and Knights of the Old Republic's HK-47.

In Baldur's Gate, you have characters like Minsc, an overenthusiastic two-handed berserker with a miniature space hamster named Boo; a chaotic evil gnome thief who believes he's the Chosen One; and a half-orc constantly tempted by a lust for power. If you thought games like Mass Effect needed more party members, the 25 (29 for Enhanced Edition) offered in Baldur's Gate should satisfy. Their banter is entertaining, and fleshes out everyone's personality throughout your time playing. Have a listen for yourself.

These characters provide tons of comedy and drama, not only in conversations, but in how they react to your decisions and the things they say during combat, like Minsc's “Go for the eyes, Boo!” All have their own goals and reasons for joining your party, and will leave if they feel they have to. Because of this, it feels like the other characters aside from you are also making choices and living for themselves.

What's more, is you always have to consider which characters to take with you into combat, and how best to balance everyone's strengths and weaknesses, adding an additional layer to the already complex combat.

6. Complex, Memorable Villains and NPCs

Sarevok, the main villain
Don't let his demonic appearance fool you, there is a man under that armor

The depth and desires of the characters don't end with the companions in your party. The antagonists in Baldur's Gate are every bit as multifaceted and interesting as those fighting on your side. While there are a few “purely evil” villains who have little reason beyond causing destruction, the majority of them come from tragic backgrounds, or grasp for power out of fear of being powerless, some are even driven by love and loyalty. One of the main five villains is actually hoping to destroy the rest of them before killing himself, in order to create a better world. Even the primary Big Bad of the game, Sarevok, has a clear and understandable goal, as well as moments of weakness and doubt. One of the major antagonists, a seemingly evil mage who tortures the main character, has a history and backstory that make you almost pity them.

This makes the fights more than just a challenge to be overcome. You consider your goals and motivations, as well as those of your companions and the person you're fighting. When you combine that with the cerebral, deliberate nature of the combat, it all feels very close and personal. It has weight.

In a similar way, most NPCs in the game have thought put into their personalities and reason for being where they are, and they serve as more than just points on a map or a pickup and dropoff point for items. Everyone from the town's inn keeper to the city watch has a little bit of personality, and sometimes they have problems they need help with. No two people feel the same. Every person you encounter has a reason for being there beyond standing there waiting for you to bring them 10 phoenix feathers.

5. Writing Better Than Most Novels

Dialogue choices
A few of your many, many dialogue choices throughout the game
An example of the great, detailed dialogue choices you get while playing

They say that good writing is good forever, and that's certainly true of Baldur's Gate. While some of the graphic and presentation could feel dated to some, the writing is every bit as good as it was in 1998. Every city, every area is packed with details and small conversations. Every item has history, every character a biography. The world feels alive, and you're just a part of it.

Sword item description
This block of text is just for a simple sword--some items have history and stories around them

The main story of Baldur's Gate starts small, with your character merely hoping to survive in a rough world facing a severe iron shortage, and gets larger and larger as you uncover the wheels turning and plots unfolding along the Sword Coast. The story sees you sabotaging mercenary installations, uncovering assassination conspiracies, and exploring your character's true mysterious origins. Along the way, there's plenty of romance and engaging side quests, of course!

It's hard to talk about the writing of the game without spoiling too much, but if you're a fan of fantasy novels or the engrossing worlds of The Witcher or Lord of the Rings, you will undoubtedly be fascinated by the world created here, and the dialogue of all the characters.

4. Story and Adventure

Adventure
The stakes feel high, and there's a sense of wonder as you travel The Forgotten Realms

All of this, the companions, the writing, the details in the world, comes together to draw you into an epic adventure, just as the protagonist is drawn in. You start out fighting for your life with your master trying to protect you, and once you venture out into the larger world, you fight to find your place in it and make a difference.

Like many games that would come after it, Baldur's Gate gives players a chance to make choices that matter and change things. It gives you control over the fates of people, cities, and history. While you're playing, you feel kind of responsible. This sounds familiar, with tons of RPGs nowadays offering similarly weighty world-changing choices, but Baldur's Gate was one of the first to do it in a really believable and impactful way, where even when you booted down the game for the night, or watched the credits roll at the end, you found yourself thinking about what you had said and done, and the effects it had.

It's really an incredible adventure.

3. It Gave Us Some of the Best Co-Op RPGs Ever

Dark Alliance
Dark Alliance focused more on action-oriented hack-and-slash gameplay, but kept the setting and spells

The Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance series was a console spin-off set in the same world, released in the early 2000s for the PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube. Dark Alliance took the incredible setting and RPG elements of its PC predecessors and brought in two-player co-op action similar to Diablo and Gauntlet. For RPG fans on consoles who wanted to share the experience with friends, the Dark Alliance series was incredible, offering three distinct classes, gorgeous graphics, and addictively fun hack-and-slash gameplay. Its follow-up Dark Alliance 2, as well as the Everquest-based Champions of Norrath games, brought that D&D-style RPG experience even closer to the real deal, as you could now play alongside your friends.

2. Mountains of Mods

Mods
Some mods, like this Mad-Men-inspired graphics set, are purely visual, while others balance gameplay or add new content

Baldur's Gate inspired a massive community of modders, who brought in everything from small gameplay improvements to all-new dialogue. In the early days of the internet, these kinds of communities were just taking off and sharing with each other. Baldur's Gate, with it's massive world and solid rules, provided the perfect opportunity for this scene to flourish, and today, you can find a huge amount of great mods for both the original releases and the Enhanced Editions.

BioWare was so inspired by the passion of their fans for modding, that they included a toolset for making custom modules and adventures with their game Neverwinter Nights, their second D&D-based RPG series. In fact, aspiring writers looking to work with BioWare are still required to submit a scenario made using the toolset with their application.

1. Influence and Sequels

Pillars of Eternity
Pillars of Eternity, a Kickstarted spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate made in the same style with modern graphics and mechanics

It's a small thing, but if you're the sort of gamer that likes to see where your favorite games came from, Baldur's Gate is required playing. Without it, we wouldn't have Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Pillars of Eternity, or Fable. It raised the bar for interaction and storytelling, and directed the entire landscape of Western RPGs for years to come, combining Western fantasy with Japanese character interaction.

Pillars of Eternity gameplay

In addition to the remakes and all the many games its influenced, the world of Baldur's Gate is still going strong! The newest expansion, made for the Enhanced Edition of the original game, was released in March of 2016. Titled Siege of Dragonspear, the expansion brings all-new settings and stories to this beloved title. If you do get hooked on Baldur's Gate, you can be guaranteed hundreds of hours of wonderful entertainment. A full sequel is in talks, possibly to be funded by Kickstarter, and offering an entirely new saga for the series.

Want to play it?

You can find and play the enhanced edition of Baldur's Gate on your PC on many popular digital storefronts, including Steam, Good Old Games, and the developer's website.

Baldur's Gate can also be played on tablets and phones, available on iTunes and the Google Play Store

Take a look at the gameplay trailer for the first game here, or at the Let's Play below, and let us know what you think in the comments!

 

Teacher, writer and story-gamer in Japan
Gamer Since: 1994
Favorite Genre: RPG
Currently Playing: Overwatch
Top 3 Favorite Games:Mass Effect 2, Portal 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
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