Review by DeadTrees
"Hi, Black Isle? 1985 is on line one, it wants this game back."
Oh, it starts out promising. Chat with a barmaid with toned abs and silicone implants (good implants, mind you), and then take a giant-rat-killing job in the town sewers to get back at the thieves who robbed me of every last coin? Sign me up! And wow, Tolkien-land never looked this good! I've seen malls that weren't as clean as these sewers! And great Caesar's ghost! the water in this game flows and ripples and splishes and splashes just like the water in my bathtub does! PlayStation 2, you are my god now! And the controls are so intuitive - hold the left thumb button in one direction, and your archer/dwarf/sorceress will run that way! Hold the left thumb button in one direction, and the camera will turn that way! No Death By Camera in this game, baby! Somebody help me, I can't stop using exclamation points!
Sure, the dialogue and scenarios are pure Dial-A-D&D-Cliche...and that rat-killing job started getting a little, you know? Old? After ten minutes? But hey, I got this Rusty Long Sword +1! And what about that cool crypt on the back of the DVD case? Haven't seen that yet! Things are gonna get lots more funner, right?
(Please someone at Black Isle Studios say yes, I'm thirty minutes into a game with 8-10 hours of game time. Oh, and since this is a dungeon crawler, how come there's a button for jumping?)
Oh, that's for the BOTTOMLESS-PIT PLATFORM JUMPING you'll be doing, you wretched, sexless loser. BWAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH HA! HA! HAAAAAH!
Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a shameless Diablo clone, is essentially one long come-down from "cool!" to "seen it already" to "tedious" to "irritating" to "not worth continuing the game" to "not worth continuing to live." The game's sewers, catacombs, guilds, mountains, caves, swamps, castles, and towers are padded out to the screaming point, undoubtedly thanks to some sadist in the Black Isle marketing department ("We need at least ten hours out of this game - I don't care if they're licking the barroom floor clean! Fallout 3? Who cares about that?"). You mindlessly button-mash the same monsters, in the same situations, again, and again, and again. And because the monsters in this game don't ever respawn, your basic options are either run around and kill everything in a level, or risk losing the experience points for good.
Others have already commented on the half-assedness of the RPG mechanics - sure, you'll get the opportunity to acquire lots of spells or "feats" (like spells, but...different), but one of them is an order of magnitude deadlier than the others. For the rest, you use them once, say "neat!" and never use them again. You can also choose stat modifiers as you level up, but their effects are far too gradual for you to notice. Of course, none of it really matters, since the final level is (for no particular reason) positively filthy with arrows, healing and mana potions, and the best weapons in the game, rendering all your budgeting, skills, and item acquisition over the last few hours nearly irrelevant.
Seriously, if you can't get the whole kill monsters/get loot and XP/kill bigger monsters/rinse/repeat RPG cycle right, why even bother? You might as well have the players run around solving InstaDeath puzzles the whole game - there are plenty of those in the thieves guild level. There's probably more data, byte for byte, in one or two falling platforms in Dark Alliance than in the entire Mega Man ROM, and yet the platform-hopping in this game yields not a shred of additional entertainment.
Another game-killing issue: the AI. I'm not talking about the lack of adaptive neural-net based anticipation strategies. I'm talking about monsters that can't run through a doorway on the first try. I'm talking about monsters that randomly bounce of the walls like bumper cars when they're in pursuit of you. I'm talking about dark elves that stand there and pelt each other with acid arrows and iceballs until they drop dead. I'm talking about monsters (nearly all of them, here) easily killed with ring-around-the-rosie tactics because they have the turning radius of a Winnebago, monsters that don't change their tactics even after they're being repeatedly reamed. You'd think that a poor kobold, having been hit by, say, a meteor shower, would at some point think "Hey, maybe this whole 'join the Dark Alliance and take over the known world' gig isn't going too well, I think I'll go home and go back to Kobold Community College." Nope. The AI here is scarcely more developed than in Gauntlet Legends, or for that matter, Gauntlet. I'll give credit where it's due - some of the weaker NPC's, like the kobold mages, will run away from you if you get too close. (Oh, wait, the lobbers in Gauntlet could do that.)
The cutscenes here are hackneyed infodumps mated with Shatner-level overacting by the mocap artists. (I did enjoy the lizard-man Sleyvas, who seems to have been an interpretive dance major.) The voice talent is far too good for what this game deserves. I'm amazed by how John Rhys-Davies managed to get his B-movie lines sound reasonably human - can't we get this man a more respectable job for his talents, such as Iraqi Information Minister? Tony Jay is also here (as a giant multi-eyed floating head) but he's killed off at the end of the first act, which is the Big Bad equivalent of casting Olivier as Polonius. There's a half-hearted attempt at conversation trees during the cutscenes, but the optional branches are informationless fluff - there's an entire section devoted to whether a character speaks the "Common" language, but critical questions like "if you're the dark elf queen, how come you're dressed like you just pulled a double shift at Scores, and are you available for bachelor parties?" go unasked, and unanswered.
Maybe it's just the dragged-out levels, but the game seems to get duller as it goes along. Save for a swampland battle against what appear to be giant armadillos that burrow in and out of the muck (think Jaws in the bog), none of the situations you'll fight in are worth suffering through, not even the battles against The Walking Dead or their close friends, The Walking, Moss-Covered, Putrescent Dead. (The sight of a headless, armless zombie running around blindly is worth a giggle.) The "climactic" battle takes place after going through the water elemental plane, which looks like Donald Trump's summer home after heavy flooding. After ascending the dully pristine Onyx Tower, you'll face off against Eldrith, a heavily-armored chick who came back from the dead because of...um...I don't remember, really. I guess it takes a fantasy game to make life-after-death seem boring.
But even after this, the developers screw you over one last time: the game ends with a cliffhanger! Was there anything in this game that merited a sequel? Did Black Isle really believe that gamers were going to wait on pins and needles for another multi-hour round of Pee In Your Face?
Nothing renders an art form sterile faster than the expectation that nothing needs to be done differently - an expectation that Dark Alliance fully adheres to. It staggers in from the nineteen-eighties with a fresh coat of paint and real-time fluid mechanics, unaware of anything that's happened in the interim, and asks you to love it on its own brain-damaged terms. The graphics (along with the Foley and ambient effects) are outstanding, but given that they're in the service of a game so unimaginative and unentertaining, who cares? And with the way things are going, I'm sure I'll play this game again in another form twenty years from now, with fully integrated Smell-O-Vision (Think of the possibilities! Rotting zombie flesh! Kobold B.O.!), not to mention graphics so detailed, you'll be able to see the fleas jumping off a freshly-killed gnoll's cooling corpse - and with Sensesurround 2.0 you'll actually feel your ribs cracking as a dark elf buries a halberd into your chest!
Of course, the game's AI will still suck. To say nothing of the game itself.
Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 04/05/05
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