Pros: Excellent role-play experience, great visuals, not too hard to grasp the basics
Cons: Mastering the game could take YEARS of study and practice; some interface annoyances.
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is one of those games that makes me wish I were independently wealthy so that I could abandon all other interests for as long as it takes to fully explore it. Unfortunately, I can only give a few hours a week to it if I still intend to hold down a job and a marriage.
BG2 is based on Advanced Dungeon & Dragon rules, but if you've never played AD&D, don't feel discouraged - I've never played any form of Dungeons & Dragons and I get along just fine. The manual that comes with the game is very comprehensive, and if that isn't enough, you'll find great strategy guides, item lists, and walkthroughs on the internet.
There are two aspects to BG2: single-player and multiplayer. I've never played the multiplayer, so my comments are focused on the single-player aspect.
You begin with character creation. You choose gender, appearance, and other characteristics of the person who will be your representation in the game. The portraits available to choose from are unfortunately limited - I would very much like to see more of a choice of a face to put to your character. (However, if you happen to be skilled and/or interested in playing with graphics programs, you can create your own portraits and use those.) Your character's "alignment" is up to you - from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, his or her basic personality is set. This mostly determines how other characters in the game will react to you, your reputation and so forth. You choose what race you will be - Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, or Half-Orc. Some of the races have penalties or bonuses to their character stats, others are balanced. Then you choose your class - your profession. Here is where you will find many, many choices, each of which could have a great impact on your game. There are the basic class choices of Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief, and Paladin - each of which has three or more "kits" or subclasses which allow you to specialize. For example, one Fighter kit is called the Kensai - he has great attack bonuses, but this is balanced by an inability to wear armor. Then there are the specialty classes: Monk (a kind of martial arts expert - very fun to play!), Sorcerer, and Barbarian. The great variety in available classes allows for great latitude in role-playing.
Character statistics are determined by a computer "dice roll" - you can spend just a few minutes tweaking for a decent roll, or hours hunting for that perfect dice roll if you want a superman character!
Finally, you choose spells (if you're a wizard), weapon proficiencies, and the like, and then give your character a name - and now you're ready to launch into the game.
Within the game, you follow a main storyline as well as having the ability to follow numerous side quests, large and small. Along the way, you'll meet a variety of NPC's (non-player characters) who can join up with you and go adventuring. Many of the side quests relate to these characters, including the potential for a "romantic" subplot. While I am still exploring the earlier storylines (I have a tendency to start over a kajillion times just to see what will happen if I do this instead of that), thus far it is very engaging and contains a nice mix of puzzle-type quests and straight combat quests... and some you can solve either way, for differing amounts of experience.
The interface is a bit on the clunky side in my opinion, but not too difficult to use, nonetheless. I always long for more keyboard shortcuts - there are some, but I want more. The graphics are very well done, with richly colored and textured backgrounds. It's too bad the characters in the main screen are so small, but the alternative seems to be not being able to see what's going on around them, so I'm not complaining much about that. Voice acting is pretty decent, although some of the characters can grate on the nerves after a while. There is some tongue-in-cheek humor sprinkled through the game, nothing exactly side-splitting, but not to an annoying extent.
While some users have reported severe game-crashing bugs, I never had a problem (I played on a PII/450 with 3D accelerated Voodoo graphics card, 96MB RAM, 12x CD-ROM, and pretty tight on hard drive space). There is also a patch available on the official website.
Overall, this is an excellent, richly conceived and executed gaming experience that role-players and fantasy/adventure buffs should enjoy, even if their Sunday night isn't dedicated to D&D.
Pentium 200/MMX or higher
Win 95/98 with DirectX 7.0 or higher
400MB hard drive space
2MB SVGA graphics card
Pentium II/266 or higher
Win 95/98 with DirectX 7.0 or higher
600MB hard drive space
4MB SVGA graphics card