As a historical artefact, Baldur's Gate is important. As an RPG, it's huge and expressive. As a moment-to-moment experience, it can be a bit of a chore. Siege of Dragonspear is an expansion for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition. As an add-on—albeit one that takes the form of a lengthy, full campaign—it's forced me to reevaluate if Baldur's Gate is worth expanding.
Need to know
What is it: A meaty expansion for Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition.
Expect to pay: £15/$20
Reviewed on: Windows 10, 8GB RAM, i5-3570k, GeForce GTX 970
Multiplayer: 6-player co-op
The D&D ruleset feels awkward and restrictive. Melee combat involves watching sprites wave weapons at each other until invisible dice register a hit. Accurately detecting traps requires walking a few paces in a dungeon, stopping, and waiting to see if your Thief signals danger. If she doesn't, take a few more steps and repeat. If she does, disarm it. Then take a few more steps and repeat. Siege of Dragonspear has a lot of traps.
It seemed fine in 1998. It even worked in the Enhanced Edition, where, despite the frustrations, it felt important to hold true to the original experience. But as a new campaign, released in 2016, the rougher edges feel more pronounced. As much as I once loved the Infinity Engine, that style is being replicated more smoothly in games such as Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin. For those not desperate for more of a 15-year-old game, I'd recommend either of those over this.
Modern sensibilities aside, how does Siege of Dragonspear work as a new Baldur's Gate chapter? Pretty well, for the most part. The story fills in the gap between the first and second game, opening with a dungeon filled with Sarevok's remaining followers. That taken care of, a new threat rises: Caelar Argent, the Shining Lady, who's leading a crusade in the north. With the Flaming Fist in tow, you—the Hero of Baldur's Gate—set out to stop Argent on behalf of the city.
Hence the linearity. You're travelling with the Flaming Fist's camp, and, once they've packed up and moved on, there's no turning back. But the pace works within the scenario, and gives the campaign a feeling of building momentum.
While your path is somewhat restricted, Siege of Dragonspear works well as an RPG. I found numerous opportunities to talk my way out of fights, or engineer interesting solutions to quests. That said, the breadth of dialogue options feels more restrictive than I remember from Baldur's Gate proper. Many responses fit into three categories: good, neutral and evil, where evil really means being a bit of a dick.
Overall, though, the writing's good. There are some duff moments, like the time new companion Corwin mistook my few curt responses to her questions as romantic interest. There is, however, some great stuff. In particular, Caelar Argent. There's a great depth to her emotional range. She's not a pantomime villain, despite the damage she's wrought.
There's a greater sense of spectacle, too. This is the most populated Baldur's Gate has ever felt, with huge crowds gathering on the streets. That also manifests in combat. Individual encounters feature a greater number of enemies, and focus is more on crowd control than systematically clicking on enemies in order. At times, it can feel like a battle of attrition—especially in the dungeon—but I appreciate the chance to try new tactics.
If you'd rather not bother with combat, Beamdog's Story Mode – first seen in the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition—is now available, offering a significant strength boost and invulnerability. It's probably not the difficulty most people would pick, but is a nice option for those who want to experience the RPG elements without the repetition of the expansion's many encounters.
I haven't encountered many bugs – mostly the occasional performance issue – but reports suggest others haven't been so lucky. Aside from the unintended problems, though, the engine fails in other ways. The Enhanced Edition's reworked interface is barely fit for purpose. Simply navigating through the different menus is a pain, and the new journal seems less intuitive than the old one. And, while an effort has been made to pretty up the graphics—mostly by zooming the camera out to an absurd level—there's no hiding the fact that this is a 15-year-old engine. It looks a bit ugly at modern resolutions.
As a Baldur's Gate adventure, Siege of Dragonspear works well. While it's not entirely tonally consistent with the original series, it does a good job of inserting itself into the middle of the story without feeling like sacrilege. As a result, though, it requires that you still be invested in that story. The fact is, a decade and a half later, there are much smoother, more enjoyable RPG experiences available.