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Best Game Ever — Baldur’s Gate 2, Shadows of Amn

posted on January 16th, 2008 by shota

When Jay asked me to write a “Best Game Ever” entry for Baldur’s Gate 2, my first instinct was to refuse the offer. Why? Because I love the game too much and I feared that nothing I could write would do it justice. It would be like trying to write a review for New York City. I mean where would you even begin something like that? How would you dissect something so steeped in its own mythology? Would you even want to? And just because here I am writing, does not mean that sentiment has changed. Whatever ideas I might express here will ultimately fall short of accurately encompassing the experience of playing Baldur’s Gate 2. However strong my control over language might be, it will ultimately prove woefully inadequate in approximating for you, the reader, the overall feeling I had as a player of Baldur’s Gate 2. So, now that I have promised you a complete and total failure let me follow through on that promise.

Nothing screams sore winner like standing on your defeated enemy’s corpse.

I first played the game in 2001, my sophomore year of college; same year I met Jay. Since then I have also played Baldur’s Gate I, Icewind Dale I and II, and even a bit of Jay’s favorite game: Torment, multiple times (it insists on crashing on my PC). I group these all together because all of these games share the Infinity Engine and all of them are set in the D&D world. And yet, all of these games pale in comparison to BG2. (I have also played both Dark Alliance games, Arcanum and both Champion’s of Norath games; – just in case you doubt my contextual cred.)

Baldur’s Gate 2 is the richest and the deepest game I have ever played. It is the quintessential D&D based videogame. And yes, the D&D aspect has a lot to do with the games appeal. Before I played BG2 I knew nothing about D&D (I’m not from here, you see). I knew nothing about the social stigmas associated with it; I did not even get the Futurama joke about Gary Gygax until years later. But as I started playing BG 2, I enjoyed it so much that it actually led me to table-topping; as opposed to the other way around, I guess. I did not hide this fact from people, as some of my brothers in D20 awesomeness did. (You know who you are.) I had no shame. Perhaps this was the reason why I even continued to have sex with actual, tangible, women through this period of my life. I had discovered D&D at 21 and I was born again. Jesus had saved and taken half damage.

This game is so great even looking at the manual makes my nipples scream.

All of the above makes it sound like Baldur’s Gate 2 is a niche game and perhaps it even sold as one. But the truth is that the supreme quality of BG2 actually transcends D&D. As big a nerd as I am about Dungeons and Dragons, I know that what makes BG2 great ultimately has little to do with either dungeons or dragons. If it did, then the Icewind Dale games would be equally potent. And they are not. There is something going on with BG2 that those other games lack.

Here I could list a number of obviously outstanding qualities of the game, such as: a genuinely literary narrative; an intuitive and easy to use interface; great battle engine; amazing depth of character development; endlessly entertaining, complex and human side quests; rewarding tactical battles; scores of feats, spells and abilities; engrossing voice acting; amazing equipment selection; a fantastic, identifiable villain; a huge verity of truly memorable PC’s and NPC’s; complex and rewarding hidden quests and items; evocative hand-drawn environments; endless replayability; Minsc and Boo. These things all make Badur’s Gate 2 great, but, in some configuration or other, all of these things can be found in many other games, especially those that spawned from the BG series. But, what I think makes Baldur’s Gate – Shadows of Amn the greatest game ever, is the combination of all the above aspects with the tremendous sense of urbanism it exudes.

Amn is a real city. It has the size of a real city, the population dynamics of a real city, the problems of a real city and the people of a real city. Even when you venture outside of it, the city acts as a center around which everything else, the periphery, is organized. I love Baldur’s Gate because I love Amn, and I love Amn for the same reason I love New York City: it is diverse, it is vibrant and it is alive. Alive in the sense that Iowa and Icewind Dale are not. Why? Because, both Iowa and Icewind Dale lack a vital center. It’s all peripheral with nothing holding it together. They’re soft and spread out. Amn on the other hand, like New York, is hard and concentrated. It’s full of possibility. It draws you into itself and makes you simultaneously curious and happy to be there. It is an infectious place.

Amn has the same infestation problems as New York.

Tomas Wolfe said that “one belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” With complete sincerity, I would say: he may as well have been talking about Amn. You belong to it as much after the first play-through as after the twelfth one. And if you are thinking of talking to me about how there are other games that have other ‘real’ cities like Amn, you may as well tell me that there are other cities besides New York and show your true plebeian colors.

If all the videogames of the world were burning in a giant apocalyptic pyre and I could only pull out one, it would be Baldur’s Gate 2; because, just like New York City, it has given me more hours of pure pleasure then any other game. Ever! And as we know from W.H. Auden: “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.”


  1. pat said on January 17, 2008:

    ive done a decent amount of traveling in my life and i refuse to believe there are other cities on this planet besides new york. that said, i live in the equivalent of one-quarter of jay’s apartment for twice the rent.

    back on point, i feel like someone has mentioned this game’s greatness to me before…who could that have been?

  2. Shota said on January 17, 2008:

    Oh, oh… was it me? was it me? I hope it was me. Because this game IS great and the refusal of some gamers to acknowledge this makes me angrier than Richard Nixon at Woodstock.

    Also, tru dat on New York. Goon on you Pat for sticking with NYC. That said, I live in Chicago and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future mostly because of economic issues. But…just because i am too big of a pussy to suffer the character building hardships of New York does not mean its not the best place ever. Any problems in my relationship with New York, or Baldur’s Gate for that matter, are purely the fault of MY shortcomings.

  3. Stefan said on January 23, 2008:

    I do miss this game. I’m not sure I’m quite willing to say it’s as good as New York, but it was a fantastic game.

    I think I loaned my disks to a co-worker…time to track them back down.

  4. TrueTallus said on January 23, 2008:

    Perhaps it’s living in small town Michigan that dooms me to say this, but nowadays I like the no nonsense killing and breakneck pace of Icewind Dale 2 more than bustle and vastness of BG 2. I still remember adoring my romp around Amn both times I went through it and perhaps if I gave it another try I’d fall in love all over again, but the prohibitive hugeness of the game (I know I clocked in at over 100 hours each time) makes me wary to try it again. I’m also somewhat worried that going through it after some years have passed will somehow reveal flaws in the balance and narrative that I didn’t pick up on before in my wild eyed youth when companies could still get away with publishing manuals thicker than text books. Maybe Aerie’s inconsolability will seem trite instead of honest or perhaps the golems in Nahlia’s keep were actually a total pushover and the ten billion times I died trying to steal that awesome flail out from under their noses just meant I sucked at videogames. There’s a sense of security in playing a game like Icewind Dale 2 that is aimed sincerely at just being a blast to play.

    On an unrelated note, Shota, are you including the expansion as part of your BGE?

  5. jay said on January 23, 2008:

    God those golems were hard. I also died and reloaded four thousand times.

    Confession: While I played BG1 and most of Tales of the Sword Coast, I never finished BG2. I don’t know if I ever had the will to tell him this directly, but I had stupidly been playing and using the autosave slot as my save file and when Shota began the game on my PC in college he wiped out 10 hours of progress or so and I never got that far again. I think I had just begun island hopping. I remember an insane asylum and then pirates.

  6. TrueTallus said on January 23, 2008:

    You missed out! Shark people are after the pirates. Crazy shark people with the best monk equipment in the game.

    It sure was sad playing as a monk, I think that was the only good equipment that wasn’t a fruity ring or gaudy necklace. I always pictured Keldorn and Jaheria sniggering behind my back as they snatched up all the badass equipment and left me to color coordinate my trinkets of metro sexual protection. At least the most powerful spawn of the murder god always looked fresh and fabulous.

  7. Shota said on January 24, 2008:

    Stef, I did not say the game was better then New York. That would be like saying –insert noun/verb– is better then New York. And that’s lying. And lying is not nice. I said I liked it for the same reasons.

    Jay, I hate you for your revelation. Now make it up to me with buying an x box and playing countless hours of Culdcept with me. Also, the Golems were chumps compared to the Litch in the sewers, with the beggar guy outside of the tomb. That fucker killed me more times then you’ve had outbreaks of herpes.

    TT, I am not including Throne of Bhaal in my BGE. For two reasons. One, it is entirely self contained and unrelated to BG2 overall narrative. Two, I have only played the expansion three times all the way through and do not feel qualified to talk about it in the same way that I can about BG2, which I have played all the way through 6 times and partially about a dozen. Also, you know your post made me realize I’ve never played as a Monk. #7 here I come.

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