Baldur's Gate: Shadows of Amn, by MacPlay
Posted: 11-Jun-2004

3 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: MacPlay Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Diane Love Class: GAMES

Introduction
Since Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance 2 on Playstation 2 was such a hit with our family, we all eagerly looked forward to the opportunity to try out Baldur's Gate Shadows of Amn on the Mac. It turns out, though, that the Mac version is a very different experience from the PS2 games: both offer very different trade-offs between richness and complexity versus ease of learning and operation.

Review systems

iMac 1Ghz G4, 1GB memory


Installation and Setup
As the game files are dated between late 2000 and early 2002, I was somewhat concerned about installation on an OS X only Mac. I expected it to run in Classic only. As it turns out, the game contains instructions and versions for OS X and runs well in Panther without any issues.

The game tutorial starts with creating the character you will use in the main game. This turns out to be an extraordinarily long drawn out process; you choose gender from the usual two options, race (e.g. human, dwarf, elf, etc.), class (fighter, mage, cleric, etc.), orientation (lawful, neutral or chaotic and good, neutral or evil), and then skills, appearance and finally a name. This is a bewildering set of choices, but if you have played this type of game before you should have an idea of your preferences. For example, you may have more aptitude for melee combat versus ranged combat, for weapons or magic or a particular type of magic. All of these are fully represented in Shadows of Amn; whereas, in the PS2 games there are just 3 to 5 pre-made characters.

While all this is going on, it's worth mentioning that you will be listening to a haunting orchestral theme that is likely to stay with you for days afterwards.

The music changes to a harpsichord melody and the tutorial continues by running through weapons, magic, healing and thief skills. During all of this you discover that you are going to be working with multiple characters in the game and you are going to have access to all of their weapons and spells. Some of the instructions are hard to follow on the first attempt, but the instructor won't let you go on until you have done as asked. Other team members will grouse and complain if you don't get on with it.

The only compatibility problem emerged during the tutorial. I was using a single button Apple mouse and control-clicking for right click, but it was having no effect. When I tried a two-button mouse, the right mouse button had the desired result. Unfortunately for those who only have an Apple mouse or a trackpad, right mouse clicks appear to be the only way to access certain functionality, in particular to do with spells.

There's also a quirk in a multi-user OS X system. If you set the game up in one account and fast switch to another account, you will still hear the music playing and the characters complaining about having nothing to do.

Multiple characters
When the game proper starts, your character quickly builds a team of three other characters (not counting the pet hamster). Although each brings different skills to the team, it's an added burden to navigate them all around and avoid leaving one or more behind. You can select characters either by drawing a box around their sprites in the game window or by clicking on their icons in a palette. With one or more selected, clicking somewhere in the game window causes the characters to move towards the point you clicked. There are also quick access icons to make your characters line up in certain patterns.

Graphics
All the game characters end up being rather small sprites which are pretty hard to tell apart. The game locations are detailed, but again somehow small. There's a map, but it can't be superimposed on the action. Altogether Shadows of Amn, dating as it does to circa 2001, is less visually appealing than the PS2 versions.

Spells
The process for developing spell casting abilities seems inordinately complex. If you find a spell scroll, you must first learn the spell by writing it into the appropriate spell book, then you must "memorize" it and then rest for the memorization to take effect. Finally, to be able to use it in the heat of the moment, you have to assign the spell to a quick access button in the user interface. The point of all this is that you can only use a subset of the spells in your spell book; the size of that subset increases with experience.

Casting a given spell too many times makes it unavailable until you rest. Resting means going to sleep for 8 hours, and when the team wakes up they argue about whether it was a safe place to sleep. The alternative scheme used in other games is that spell casting uses up a resource called "mana" which gradually recovers or can be recovered by using up another resource, for example a potion. It's much easier to keep an eye on the mana lifeline than deal with spells disappearing just when you think you understand how to use them.

Conversations
The game is generally more verbose than the PS2 versions and this can also get tedious. When you encounter a character, and get into a conversation, you are offered a set of replies from which you may select one at a time. Depending what you select, the character replies, and so on, until the conversation has exhausted all available topics. It all goes on a bit too long often leaving you wanting to just cut to the chase.

Gameplay
The main difficulty in switching from the PS2 version where you fight by pounding the attack key or a spell key on the game controller is that it's just not that simple in the Mac version. You have four characters, and only the selected ones are going to attack, and meanwhile you have to watch all their icons to make sure none are getting injured too much. You can pause the game, give every team member an instruction to move or attack or cast a spell, and then resume game action. In a difficult situation, pausing repeatedly is necessary to stay alive. This is an essential change to the rhythm and makes the game more about chess-like strategy than reflexes. All told, the combat just doesn't seem to be very easy to use.

Summary
Like all the Baldur's Gate series, Shadows of Amn is based on Dungeons and Dragons rules. The implementation of these rules in Shadows of Amn is detailed and as a result, the player must learn a lot about different character classes and spells to be able to enjoy playing the game. By contrast, the Baldur's Gate games now available for PS2 cut the complexity to the bone and provide a less cerebral and more action-oriented entertainment experience.

For those who have some knowledge of the D&D rules or are willing to commit to a non-trivial amount of study, the Mac platform Baldur's Gate games are richer and will be more rewarding in the long run. On the other hand, for those who are too busy to read anything and want to kick back after a hard day at work, the simplified and more visually appealing PS2 versions are likely to be more accessible.

Pros

  • Haunting music
  • Detailed implementation of Dungeons and Dragons rules set
  • Generate your own character
  • Multiple characters

Cons

  • Lengthy time to get started
  • Awkward combat
  • Small sprites hard to tell apart
  • Long drawn out conversations and arguments.


Overall Rating

3 1/2 out of 5 Mice