Reviewed: April 24, 2004
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: January 20, 2004
RPGís have been slow to get a foothold in the console market. Despite several attempts only a few like KOTOR and Morrowind have ever reached legendary status. Interplay is hoping to change that with the console release of Black Isleís, Baldurís Gate: Dark Alliance II, the sequel to the 2001 original hit that offers a unique hybrid of action and RPG gameplay.
Fans of the franchise will be pleased to see that everything you loved about the original is back and better than ever with more than a few improvements and new features. Dark Alliance II is definitely an RPG-lite title with just enough RPG elements to warrant the classification. With an abundance of real-time action and multiplayer cooperative gameplay on a single screen, this game is closer to Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes than your traditional RPG game.
Dark Alliance II features:
The characters offer an exciting variation in gameplay that will certainly give you reason to want to replay the game trying each. The magic user is certainly one of the most versatile classes with an ability to summon a skeleton ďbodyguardĒ to defend his position or at least distract the enemy while he unloads a bevy of gorgeous incantations from his spellbook.
Also new to the sequel is the Weapons Workshop where you can forge your own weapons and armor. You can also infuse your creations with additional powers by using gems. This allows you to customize each new item with very specific powers much like the upgrade system used for the lightsaber in KOTOR.
There are numerous gems that you can purchase or find during your adventures so the possibilities are endless. Each item has two slots and you can insert up to 15 gems or rune stones in each slot for an exponential increase in stats. If you decide you donít like your finished product you can always have the shopkeeper dismantle the item so you can reuse the components, but this can be a costly affair. Itís also not that cheap to actually build a new item, but youíll still have a blast experimenting with the possibilities for as long as your funds hold out.
There is a decent storyline in Dark Alliance II but it quickly dissolves to reveal the action-heavy, button-mashing gameplay. Not that this is a bad thing and those who played the previous game will expect nothing more and nothing less.
Gameplay will change ever so slightly depending on your chosen character class. The necromancer definitely offers the most original gameplay while the fighters will simply reduce you to a button mashing experience for countless hours. The rogue offers a few instances of stealth, but he too will ultimately succumb to the countless monsters that require bashing.
I was hoping for a bit more character definition, something that tailored the story to each character and allowed them to grow over the course of the game. As it is, the plot allows you to drop in any character with little or no effect on the story. To its credit, the story does offer several branching points so you can choose your path to the ultimate conclusion.
Dark Alliance II is massive, spanning more than 80 levels of varying size and length. There is a gradual progression of difficulty that levels off about halfway into the game then takes a steep rise into the insanely challenging near the very end. Itís actually a bit jarring and I would have rather seen a more gradual rise over a longer span of missions.
Control is surprisingly good for a console RPG. The sticks control movement and camera and the d-pad gives you instant access to spells or weapons. Admittedly, the spellbook can get a bit large and cycling through spells during a real-time combat scenario is a bit clumsy, but you soon learn to put some distance between you and the enemy when you need to switch spells.
Dark Alliance II looks just as good as the original game, which is no surprise since it uses the same engine. The levels are quite original and surprisingly diverse considering the sheer number of them. I found a few of the environments a bit dark, but Iím sure this was intentional to showcase the wonderful lighting effects and supernatural spells complete with particle effects and real-time lighting. The water effects are still as stunning as before.
The camera system is unchanged and does a good job of keeping all the ďinvolvedĒ characters in the current view so you donít take any cheap shots from off-camera enemies. There were times when I wished the view were a little tighter. Often the view is pulled out and characters and objects are just a bit too small to appreciate their detail.
As good as the graphics are, one can argue that the original Snowblind engine has seen its day and itís time for an overhaul. Itís just not quite up to Xbox standards this far into the systemís life, but it gets the job done nonetheless.
What the soundtrack lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Despite the epic medieval feel of the score, there just isnít enough variety and it will slowly grow stale long before the adventure is over.
The world of Dark Alliance II comes to life with rich environmental sound effects that are perfectly placed and totally in-tune with the visuals. The real-time effects of the various weapons and spells are equally as well done.
The voice acting is really good and there is a nice assortment of voices for both the heroes and the enemies. The script is well written and delivered with plenty of emotion and proper attitude. It really complements the presentation.
Experienced gamers can probably finish this game in 12-15 hours, and there is certainly more than enough incentive to replay the game at least a second time as another character class. Dedicated fans will probably play as all the classes so there is the potential for 50+ hours of gaming.
While there is no online support you can tackle this adventure with a friend in two-player cooperative play on the same screen. This is very much like Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes and comes with all of the camera and movement problems associated with the concept, but itís nothing a little cooperation canít resolve.
While not a huge RPG fan myself, I was surprised to find an enjoyable experience waiting for me with Baldurís Gate: Dark Alliance II. The branching storyline is really good, the characters diverse, and the new weapon workshop is a great way to open up the game for endless experimentation.
Best of all, Dark Alliance II is just a very accessible game; easy to get started and nearly impossible to stop, there is plenty of monster-bashing spread across some really great missions. Itís guaranteed to please action gamers and RPG fans alike whether you played the first one or not.