January was a cold month in the northwest, but thankfully a dying orc dropped a "+1 sequel of gushing blood" video game for me to play: the newest entry into the action-RPG genre, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II.
The dark action-RPG was born with Diablo, and perfected with Diablo II. And until Blizzard makes another action-RPG, Diablo II is the final word on the PC. This is great for everyone who owns a PC, but what about console owners? Hmm. There was that PSone port of Diablo, and Midway was nice enough to port Gauntlet Legends to everything from the N64 to the Xbox. But an arcade hack-n-slash is hardly an action-RPG. In fact it wasn't until Interplay and Snowblind Studios brought the first Dark Alliance to the PS2 that console gamers were finally able to join in on all the fun.
And fun it was. The genre takes all the joy of fighting exotic fantasy beasts, searching for ever better armor and weapons, and epic saving-the-world stories but leaves behind the slow turn-based battles of traditional RPGs. Diablo set the pace with it's mix of kleptomaniacal item collection and fast-paced action gameplay, and Dark Alliance wasn't one to go against the grain. It was like the Mario Party debacle all over again: controller after controller being tossed into the trash because the X button had simply gone limp from heavy pressing.
Still, for all the fun there was to be found in killing not-so-innocent creatures in the first game, there was some concern that without Snowblind Studios at the helm, Dark Alliance II would be less than the epic sequel reviewers expected. At first glance it appears that Interplay has created what could be called a cookie-cutter sequel. But I bet if you asked anyone who played Devil May Cry 2 what kind of sequel they wanted to play they wouldn't have said, "One that radically departs from everything that made the first game fun." Sometimes it's enough that a sequel only offers up new items to be found, new skills to be purchased, and new creatures to kill.
That's not to say there haven't been some additions and shake-ups in Dark Alliance II. The three heroes of the first game are quickly disposed of in the opening cinematic, which means that you'll have to pick from five new characters. No worries because, playing as a moon-elf necromancer is a nice change from the D&D industry standard melee guy, magic user, and ranged-weapon elf. However, fans of the classic three character types will find something close enough to suit their tastes. Who would have guessed that Monks could kung-fu zombies back to the netherworld?
While Black Isle Studios was carefully avoiding any changes to the core gameplay or art style of Dark Alliance it did make one major addition for the sequel. Items of a high quality can be mixed with magical gems, rubies, and stones to create new items with special abilities. Sound familiar? Well it was done in Diablo II first, but I'm not one to hold a grudge against a developer willing to steal good ideas and treat them right. In many ways DA II goes Blizzard's gem-mod system one better by letting you break modified items back down into their original components. This encourages experimentation in a way Diablo wasn't ever able to.
The only problem with this experimentation is the astronomically high costs of building and breaking down gem-mod items. I mention this only because the game doesn't exactly hand out gold like Bill Gates on a bender. Factor in that during co-op games gold is shared, and you have the recipe for some heated arguments. ("Hey, that was my gold you just spent on your stupid +1 Boot of Suckage!") Yet, any complaints about the costs are quickly silenced the first time you watch a Sword of Bleeding begin to gush beautiful red blood as it nears soon-to-be-victims.
Oh, and do things bleed ever so beautifully! Even though the same 3D engine that powered Dark Alliance powers the sequel, things hold up to close inspection. Sure the developers didn't add in any new wiz-bang features, and the water effects might not seem as amazing as they did the first time around, but considering some of the stuff that passes as next-generation, it's not too shabby. In the action-RPG category Dark Alliance II is only graphically eclipsed by Snowblind Studios' upcoming contribution to the genre.
There are some problems with attack animations sometimes clipping through foes without harming them, but this seems to be a problem that affects every game of this type. What's important is that the frame rate remains rock solid, and the animation for the five characters remains smooth. It may not seem important at first, but by the time you've swung your giant axe the thousandth time it will be. Speaking of weapons, the gem-mod system really opens up a whole new realm of eye-candy for gamers to play with. Personally, I like to wear glowing gloves of death while swinging hammers that gush blood when foes are around.
Kicky cool customized weapons aside, the game moves along at a solid pace, never letting you stand around for too long without having something to kill. In my playtime I never ran across a quest that didn't involve something dying. But, in an interesting twist, certain NPCs will refuse to give you jobs unless you're the right race. Suddenly, playing co-op with a friend to back you up takes on a whole new light.
Time spent alone won't bore you, though, because the addition of feats and specialized skills adds a touch of depth to the game. These feats and skills range from things such as the Barbarian's ability to wield two-handed weapons in only one hand to the Monk's ability kung-fu kick foes into yesterday. While some aren't very exciting - +1 to critical attacks being one of them, anything that keeps repetitive motion syndrome to a minimum is a good thing.
These many abilities are cycled by way of the up and down buttons on the d-pad, a scheme that can be a bit on the slow and cumbersome side in the middle of fierce combat. So for characters like the Monk, who relies not on one basic sword attack but a range of martial arts moves, the quick map function is a lifesaver. This is done via the L1 button, and works in a similar fashion to Phantasy Star Online.
I do wish the descriptors for each special skill and feat were clearer. I was never sure if a skill or feat would use mana until after I'd put my upgrade point into it. And many times a feat I thought was passive actually required a button press to activate. Other times it wasn't clear what weapon or item type a special skill was referring to. Complaints aside, each character has a handful of well-designed and fun-to-use abilities that give Dark Alliance II a little more strategy than the first game.
Not that you'll be strategizing your way through a very long game. With allowances for play style, you'll probably complete DA II somewhere around the fifteen hour mark or less on Easy mode. This is a bit on the short side for a traditional RPG, but a good length for an action-RPG. Playing through with a friend is probably a good idea unless the thought of sharing even one gold coin with another person horrifies you.
On the subject of horrors, I want to ask: What happened to the force feedback? Going from Project Gotham Racing 2, which featured well-designed and subtle feedback, to a game that only uses force feedback to simulate a heartbeat when health is low was a major shock. I mention this because I often felt like the game wasn't giving me enough indication of when my sword was actually connecting with a target. I feel that this problem would have been lessened, if not eliminated, had the developers integrated force feedback into the gameplay.
Yet, these complaints are very minor and should only be taken as the thoughts of a lone reviewer. If I've struggled with anything while writing this review, it's trying to sum up Dark Alliance II. It's really much better than it deserves to be. After all, action-RPGs on consoles have proved to be a bit on the simplistic side and despite the developers' attempts to add depth, you're not going to find an experience too far removed from Final Fight.
Oddly, I found that even though I was playing the videogame equivalent of a Twinkie, it had me hooked like I was devouring a steak of a game. Perhaps it's the simple raw straightforward do-or-die combat in an era of ever realistic first-person shooters? Or maybe it was the window-shopping element of armor purchasing and upgrading? Either way Dark Alliance II is not one to miss just because it's a sequel to that game that wore thousands of X buttons out.
However, while I have found this to be a very enjoyable game, it appears that very shortly the new highwater mark for action-RPGs will be Snowblind Studios' own Champions of Norrath. Sadly, only gamers with a PS2 will get to enjoy that experience. So if you're packing an Xbox, Dark Alliance 2 is as good as it gets for now.