The rich history of the RPG genre has always been a case of one step forward two steps back, and over the course of its legacy, which can be traced back to Ultima in the early ‘80s, the genre has gone through substantial evolutions and trends. However, when we look at the grand scheme of things we wonder if RPGs as a video game have truly ever provided us with an authentic fantastical escape. Although there were seminal titles released during the ‘80s which moulded the modern RPG we know today, the primal origin of this genre is of course Dungeons & Dragons. This time-honoured tabletop tradition first officially published in the early 1970s, which literally provided the very design documents which games like Ultima, Dragon Quest, and countless others after have utilised, forming their gameplay design and narrative structure. To put it simply, we would not have an RPG genre in gaming today without Dungeons & Dragons.
While Dungeons & Dragons may have inspired and influenced virtually every RPG known to us, there have been a few officially licenced games bearing the D&D mark, and arguably the most revered of them all was the Baldur’s Gate series by BioWare (long before Anthem or EA), which was a video game adaptation of the seminal Forgotten Realms campaign. The original Baldur’s Gate was released at the tail end of 1998, which was followed by a sequel in the year 2000 – Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. And from there, both games received ample expansion pack support.
Each of these titles now land together as one on Xbox One as The Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack, coming fully loaded with all expansion packs and updates, and then some. This compilation arrives in time for the recently revived Baldur’s Gate III project, which has been on and off development for quite sometime now. While Baldur’s Gate III will likely follow a delayed path akin to Shenmue III, in the meantime Xbox gamers get to revisit two of the very best of the best RPGs in Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Editions.
Baldur’s Gate follows the journey of a protagonist of unknown origin, suddenly finding themselves thrust away from their adoptive family and into a cruel fantastical world filled with foes and circumstantial friends at best. Freedom and deep customisation are the emphasis here, and anyone who has ever stared at a blank character sheet when playing D&D will experience the same intricate depth and limitless possibilities. All the classes from the advanced tabletop classic are fully intact here, adapting the mechanics and systems from the second edition (we are currently on the fifth for those keeping score). Freewill is something few games have convincingly achieved, but these pair of BioWare classics achieve this feat almost too easily thanks to the alignment system of D&D.
As open ended and deeply customisable as everything is, there are enough streamlined options and pre-sets for players who find this sort of thing overwhelming. Then again, not all tabletop gamers have the energy or ambition to dream up a great deal of character stats and story material, which is where a good dungeon master comes in. Thankfully, in Baldur’s Gate you are guided by a virtual dungeon master who weaves together the narrative like a master storyteller, and the game contains enough prompts and guidance to streamline a process which normally involves flicking through a mountain of D&D tomes.
The story in Baldur’s Gate is structured and leads to a decisive finale, but the journey itself feels anything but linear. Fair warning to those who are exploring this compilation for the first time: booting up Baldur’s Gate II first will completely spoil the first game, and so it is absolutely crucial to play the games and their respective expansion packs in their intended order. Those who do so will experience an ingeniously scaffolded and immensely epic role-playing adventure, worth hundreds upon hundreds of hours of play time. The story alone is rich and layered, where players step into a world which truly feels larger than life, bringing the most lofty and imaginative aspects of Dungeons & Dragons to life.
There is no shortage of gameplay variety, whether it is the deep customisation options, the strategic battle system, or the layered quests and character interactions. All of these richly designed elements come together to weave a tale which unfolds organically before the player. Believe it or not, this is actually the very first time Baldur’s Gate has found its home on consoles, and for good reason too given the sheer number of menus and mechanics to navigate. Thankfully, the efforts of developer Beamdog has allowed this ambitious series to finally find a home on console, with the detailed controls mapped rather comfortably on the Xbox One pad. Of course, the keyboard and mouse combination will always remain the ideal, but for what it’s worth the Xbox One controller does the job well enough.
Graphically these are understandably dated looking games by now, but what it lacks in visual fidelity more than makes up for in artistic detail and ingenious design. The simple graphics end up becoming a blessing as the game design is better off, thanks to the detailed map designs which are presented in an efficient and practical manner. As stunning as the worlds of Skyrim or Witcher may be, exploring them isn’t nearly as effortless or smooth as what Baldur’s Gate is able to provide with its thoroughly detailed game world. The simple graphics also enable the game world to be staggeringly immense, not constrained by production budgets. Yet while the visuals may be on the simpler side, the sound design is anything but, as the soundtrack is among the most majestic gaming has ever seen. The voice acting is incredibly polished and authentic too, with all the little accents, tones, and mannerisms coming together to really immerse the player into their adventure.
It’s easy to view these games as being outdated compared to modern RPGs, but that couldn’t be any further from the truth because they already had nearly all of the quality of life features that modern RPGs almost take too much credit for. These new enhanced editions in The Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack come with a wealth of new features too, among them flexible difficulty modifiers, a cleaner user interface, and the now-standard HD visual enhancements. The more substantial improvements come in the form of new gameplay content such as new characters, classes, and a range of customisation options. To sweeten the package even more, there’s an online multiplayer mode to allow this to really turn into a virtual D&D session.
Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Editions restore two of the greatest role-playing video games to ever come out of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, all wrapped up in The Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack on Xbox One. The enhancements and optimisations help these juggernaut adventures to once again reaffirm the same dominance they had two decades earlier. As far as RPGs go, it’s a wonder how well BioWare’s seminal classics remain the standard-bearer even after so many big releases over the decades. These games are reminders that while we may have bigger multiplayer servers and fancy 4K polygons now, at the end of the day even the biggest of AAA RPGs today really haven’t explored any new territory that Baldur’s Gate didn’t already chart.