Developer: Black Isle Studios / Snowblind Studios
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Platform: Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube (reviewed on PS2)
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)
With the overwhelming success of the Baldur's Gate franchise on the PC and Mac, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later, Black Isle would attempt to jump the fence into console gaming territory. The result of this endeavor, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is a visually stunning execution, with excellent sound, intuitive gameplay, and a better implementation of the Dungeons & Dragons rules set than any other recent attempt (Pool of Radiance 2, anyone?).
Dark Alliance starts innocuously enough - as a neophyte adventurer, you wander into the city of Baldur's Gate to seek your fortune, only to be mugged and left for nearly dead in the street. Your quest to exact retribution against those that robbed you uncovers a plot stemming from a decades-old conflict that threatens the very existence of the city and its inhabitants. Aided by various individuals within Baldur's Gate and without, your quest takes you to the sewers of the city, rugged mountain cliffs, murky swamps, and icy caves, all in an attempt to find the source of the threat to Baldur's Gate and put it to the sword (or axe, or spear, or what have you).
The story, while stock epic-fantasy fare, is actually quite good, and furthered by some remarkable voice talent. Every individual you interact with (except those that merely attempt to kill you on sight) is voiced, unlike so many other text-driven RPGs. The visuals in this game are unbelievable. Dark Alliance pushes the capabilities of the PS2 platform as high as I've seen. Of particular fascination are the water and explosion effects, both of which kept me entertained for quite some time by themselves. (Hint to prospective players: if you find yourself facing invisible foes, find some water and stand in the middle. Tracking them by the wake they leave makes it much simpler.)
Gameplay is quite simple, and makes good use of the controller to handle all major tasks without having to pop in and out of endless menus, which disrupts the flow of gameplay. The approach taken to the spell and feat systems of Dungeons & Dragons is a clever interpretation that suits the mechanics of console gaming very well.
The only hitches in the game (and the only thing keeping it from the prestigious 5-Cup Rating) are the limitations on character selection (you have your choice of three - Human Archer, Dwarven Fighter, or Elven Sorceress), and the relatively short time it takes to beat the game. At the Normal difficulty level (middle level of three available), I clocked in at 11 hours, 30 minutes to complete the entire scenario. That's a little slim, particularly since there didn't seem to be a large number of "side quests" or "easter eggs" to make replaying the game all that different from the first time through. The multi-player option might add a little depth to that, though it looked like it just added more monsters to each screen.
So, in short, I'd say rent it until the price comes down. If you're a true CRPG junkie, you might get more kicks out of playing through the game with each available character. If you ever spot a copy on the cheap, the graphics alone make this one worth owning. Black Isle has raised the bar for what the PS2 console is graphically capable, and I look forward to seeing other developers rise to that challenge.