In the wake of its rather excellent prequel, Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance II was set to deliver more characters, more quests, and a whole lot more in the way of things to kill and stuff to take.
GameCube owners – who already had to stomach a subpar port of the first Dark Alliance – would get the shaft once again as Dark Alliance II was only released for Xbox and PlayStation 2 this time around. It would be of small consequence anyway though as the game turned out to be a disappointment that acted not only as a premature end for a promising new series, but also as an end to its celebrated development team; the newly appointed Black Isle Studios.
The first thing that becomes clear upon starting the game is the profound feeling of déjà vu. The same booming title theme from the first game makes it clear we’re in familiar territory, but it soon becomes apparent that a lot more of the first game’s soundtrack has been borrowed too and that’s rarely a good sign.
Also alarming is the overall reduction in graphical quality. Now, there will be conflicting opinions on just how different the graphics look in Dark Alliance II as there are signs of improvement, but there’s no mistaking the blander textures and low poly character models that populate the game’s first act. The non-player character models look especially rough-and-ready and the game doesn’t compare well to the high-resolution look of Dark Alliance 1.
In terms of playable characters though, this sequel is pretty stacked. There are five all-new heroes to choose from at the start (up from three) which greatly expands the game’s variety and replay value. The Elf Necromancer can summon undead monsters and launch over-powered spells, the Human Cleric can buff team mates in co-op, and the Dwarf Rogue has the fun ability to kick open treasure chests for bonus loot.
Drizzt Do’Urden also reprises his secret character status from the first Dark Alliance and joining him is another of author R.A. Salvatore’s creations; the ruthless assassin Artemis Entreri. These cameos are welcome inclusions to be sure, but they’re not particularly well thought-out considering their gear can’t be freely changed and their abilities are a bit naff compared to those of the main cast.
Whether you prefer to play as the Barbarian, Monk, or the angsty drow Ranger though, the superb 2 player cooperative mode is back and is still the best the way to experience the game. Any gold pickups are collected into a common pool this time (instead of being separate for each player) and it’s a welcome tweak assuming you’re not the sort of “team” that enjoys competing against itself for the loot! There are a few more changes too like the greater number of activated character abilities and their associated quick-select commands. Generally though, the game plays in much the same way as it did before.
Black Isle tried to bolster the RPG elements of Dark Alliance II by expanding the hub area within the Baldur’s Gate conurbation. Players now have more choice regarding where to go next (there’s a new world map) and can talk to NPCs for character and act-specific side quests. Several early quests also charge players with exterminating X number of creatures or locating X number of a particular item. This approach is quite different from the rather extreme linearity of the first game and it works fine for the most part.
One of the more infamous levels in this sense is the one that sees you traversing a mutant-infested mansion in search of sheet music. The circular design of this level is actually pretty good, but the requisite sheets of music are located behind hidden walls that are easy to miss at such an early point in the game. Thus it’s entirely possible that players will get stuck repeatedly wandering the hallways.
The biggest new feature in Dark Alliance II is that of crafting. Players can now use collectible runestones and magic gems to enhance their equipment with various new effects ranging from bonus elemental damage and regeneration to skill enhancers and damage resistance. The scope of the crafting system gets huge when playing at Extreme difficulty as the various ability caps are exponentially raised, allowing for some truly terrifying, not to mention colourful, endgame gear.
The big problem with all this is that you won’t really have the gold or gems to make full use of the crafting system before the second half of the game kicks in and this is around the time when Dark Alliance II goes off a cliff.
With the exception of any visual downgrade, you might not first think that Dark Alliance II is much worse off, but this is a game of two halves. Namely; a semi-decent ARPG adventure in part 1 and an Interplay-sanctioned rush job in part 2.
The level structure in the latter half becomes incredibly uninspired for one. Your quest takes you to several elemental planes of existence and are bookended with boss fights featuring antagonists who eluded you in previous acts. The idea had potential, but the execution is really lame as it features boring environments that are easily rushed through.
Another problem concerns the severe imbalance between the players and enemies. Dark Alliance had its dumb moments with regards to balance too – hell take that fight with the orb! – but on the whole the bosses like Eldrith and the iconic Beholder were sparingly used and pretty fun. The playable characters in Dark Alliance II have access to many more buffs and spells that quickly get out of control. For example: it doesn’t take that long for the Barbarian to become a figurative whirlwind of death able to solo an entire 2 player campaign on his own; such is the sheer amount of damage he can dish out. This isn’t helped by the fact that most boss encounters are far too easy.
The most severe change in Dark Alliance II though is the outright flattening of the XP curve. Black Isle got the idea that players love levelling up their characters (which is probably accurate), but they made the mistake of giving players too many level-ups. Your characters will be the same level as those from the end of Dark Alliance 1 within the space of a single evening’s play of Dark Alliance II. This makes the allocation of skill points feel far less important and it has to be said; a bit of a chore. Players can maximize their best skills too quickly and pretty soon they’ll be left with a ton of points they don’t know what to do with.
This is doubly disappointing because Dark Alliance II also introduces prestige classes; a cool concept plucked straight from Dungeons & Dragons. Your character can undertake a unique quest during Act III and gain brand new skills that could change their play style. By this point though you’ll be tired of levelling up altogether as it becomes quite clear that you’ll have all your skills maxed by the time you enter Extreme difficulty anyway. The system feels completely broken and to say that it ruins the experience is an understatement.
This leads back to the criticism about crafting as by the time you reach Act III you won’t need crafted equipment at all. You’ll be absurdly powerful by then already so a touch more defence or bonus damage won’t be of much interest.
The Onyx Tower is one of the many areas from the prequel that gets recycled and when you combine this with a hackneyed plot and one-note villain, the game begins to outstay its welcome. There are far too many cutscenes and too many poorly-realized caricatures (including an evil female aristocrat whose massive breasts are permanently smeared with blood for some reason) that just gum up the works and don’t add to anything.
Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance II ends on yet another cliffhanger which is sadly ironic considering it would soon be Black Isle Studios left hanging by their debt-ridden publisher, Interplay. The development team apparently had a near-complete demo ready for Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance III, but considering the tight constraints that were already in effect for Dark Alliance II, perhaps it’s for the best that the “new legacy” should end here.