Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II
The original Dark Alliance's success proved that Magic Missiles and +2 Girdles of Femininity aren't just for 20-sided-die-toting Dungeons & Dragons nerds anymore. Stuff hack-n-slash combat, awesome graphics, and two-player action into an RPG and you'll lure in videogame nerds as well. This sequel goes for the critical hit with 40 new levels, five playable characters, and an improved combat system.
As great as the first Alliance was, even fans agree that the never-ending hack-a-thon fighting got old. Not so this time, according to Lead Designer Dave Maldonado. "Different encounters will feel different from one another," he says, "not just be composed of different-looking monsters. The player must change tactics to succeed, providing a reprieve from constant button mashing." Thank Lolth, Demon Queen of Spiders. Or something.
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Stick a Roman numeral on the end of your new games title, and players start to expect certain things: better gameplay, fewer annoyances, and more entertainment value than the original. Thats why Im scratching my head on why Interplay broke out the II for its latest bash-em-up. It’s just as fun as the original Dark Alliance, but legitimate improvements are scarce. You can count all the original features here on one hand. Theres a new item-creation system (see sidebar), you can switch weapons quickly with the control pad, the cameras a bit less ornery...and thats it. The sense of deja vu here is undeniable, especially since the Gauntlet-like gameplay is repetitive by nature. And why are we still limited to two players? Thats a flaw in the previous game. Still, you can’t fault Interplay for not fixing what aint broken. Dark Alliance II is still an addictive spark of a game the storys much deeper now, and there are dozens upon dozens of new levels to explore. Plus, theres something inexplicably enjoyable about building a godlike warrior through the massacre of goblins by the thousands. If you played the first Dark Alliance to death, though, then it might be better to wait for the similar-yet-online-enabled Champions of Norrath on PS2.
The first Dark Alliance was a little bit of gaming sunshine, bringing Diablo-Wke hack-n-slash thrills from PC over to consoles. Too bad the original developers have since headed for the hills to work on Champions of Norrath for Sony, because theyve apparently taken the fun with them. The epitome of a sophomore slump, Dark Alliance is immediately boring, painted with dated graphics and rife with dull, uninspired level design. Remember how critics said that the original was a great start, but that wed expect more than just brainless action out of a sequel? Well, the first game is the pipe-smoking, monocle-twirling intellectual in this particular family. Youd get more entertainment by going back and beating the still pretty nifty original again than by playing this unpolished mess. If youve got a PS2, hold out for Norrath. If youve got an Xbox? Hold your breath.
If Dark Alliance were a creature in the D&D Monster Manual, itd be called the Yawnisian Mind Borer, and it would lure victims into repetitive dungeons, make them wander until they fell asleep, then swipe 50 gold from their wallets. So dont give this monster your cash unless your favorite part of the prequel or any Diablo-style dungeon hacker is building up your character. The lure of reaching that next experience level, earning a few new attacks, and donning niftier equipment was the only thing that kept me motivated (and then just barely) in this sequel. Dungeons are mostly dull mazes that sprawl too far and seem big just for the sake of being big, and you get stuck with too many fetch-the-mythical-gizmo quests. Face this monster of a game with a second player to increase your saving roll for fun.
Dungeon hacks are one of the few genres that haven't changed much over the years. Since the days of Gauntlet back in the 80's, dungeon hacks have always relied on this simple formula: hack your way through dungeons, plunder loot, level up, rinse and repeat. Yet even with this utterly simplistic formula, dungeon hacks are still as entertaining as ever, as shown by Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance when it was released in 2002. It refined the dungeon hack genre for a new generation, with sharp visuals and addictive gameplay, but with that same foundation that made dungeon hacks so fun to begin with. That's why Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, the sequel made under a different developer, had some big shoes to fill. Don't fret though, because the shoes fit nicely - they just might be a bit too snug for comfort.
Hacking and slashing is a lot of fun ' this has been established - but if you're looking for something new in Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, then you might be disappointed because it mirrors its predecessor in almost every way. The formula of hacking, plundering, and leveling is still in full effect here, but everything feels more refined this time around. Levels and dungeons feel a little more focused, though there is still plenty of exploring to do, and the fantasy experience flows along nicely. Plus, the characters you can play as are all varied tactics-wise, so BGDAII warrants playing through a few times to truly see (and unlock) everything. Just make sure one of those replays is with another person in the co-op mode, because this is where the game really shines.
Much like the gameplay, the visuals haven't had much of an overhaul, but BGDAII still looks great. Most of the game is played from a top down view, but the details still shine through - details such as the well animated models, the sharp textures, and the impressive lighting effects. The audio still sounds great as well, with strong voice acting and a sweeping music score.
Despite the fact that BGDAII is a fantastic title, there are still some issues. Dungeon hacks, by nature, are repetitive and BGDAII does little to alleviate that. If you can't fathom tapping the X button constantly to plow your way through dungeons, then be weary going into BGDAII. Also, the story is a convoluted mess. It picks up right where the first game left off, but it still isn't told well, nor is it too compelling.
If you were one of the many that said, 'Man, I wish there was more of this,'? after you finished Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, then the sequel certainly won't disappoint. It's highly polished in every way and offers a lot more content - it just doesn't offer many new features nor does it fix some of the game's original problems. Still, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II is a solid addition to the franchise and dungeon hack enthusiasts, hardcore or not, should do themselves a favor and check it out.