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Baldur’s Gate 2 is the most important game you shouldn’t play in 2023

Baldur’s Gate 3 is almost upon us, and naturally, this might make you wonder about Baldur’s Gate 2 and, to a lesser extent, the first Baldur’s Gate. After reading about these games on the internet (a mistake) you’ll probably come across phrases like “Baldur’s Gate 2 is the best RPG ever made” and you’ll think, Damn, maybe I should get in on that. I’m here to tell you no. You do not need to get in on that.

Do not misunderstand: Baldur’s Gate 2 lives up to its reputation. It’s an astonishingly dense and satisfying fantasy role-playing game and one of the first big games to make it feel like the player’s choices mattered and took place in the context of a sprawling, well-told story. That was cool when it was released in 2000, and it’s cool now. I’m just saying that you might not be aware of what you’re getting into — on a mechanical level — should you decide to play it 23 years later.

One of the funny things about Baldur’s Gate 2 is that, for many years, its reputation was so glowing that its origins became obscured. There was a solid decade when you could read hundreds of words on Baldur’s Gate 2 without ever learning something core to its identity: It was a Dungeons & Dragons game.

More specifically, it was an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition game, which means it was built to replicate an experience that, frankly, should serve as punishment for most misdemeanor offenses and a few felonies. It is hardcore, a game that expects you to understand the high-level statistics and probability parsing it is doing behind the scenes in order to navigate its many tricky encounters.

Unlike many liberal arts majors, I am not afraid of numbers. Math is fine. But no one should have to learn about THAC0, an abbreviation for one of the most annoying RPG rules I’ve ever had to internalize. For the uninitiated: THAC0 is an acronym for “To Hit Armor Class 0,” a statistic in Advanced D&D 2.0 that determines the minimum number you have to roll for an attack to hit an opponent with an armor class of 0. Since THAC0 is meant to be a baseline reference and enemies a player encounters have variable armor classes, it becomes another step in the order of operations, where players have to subtract the enemy armor class from their own in order to learn the minimum roll they need to score a hit. This means that, counter to almost all other D&D statistics, a lower THAC0 was better, because it meant a wider range of favorable outcomes when rolling a d20.

Decades of progress in both tabletop and video game RPGs has made the systems that prop up Baldur’s Gate 2 downright inelegant, and also disorienting, in hindsight. Coming to Baldur’s Gate 2 as a newborn babe can be a punishing experience, since it’s built as a continuation of the campaign begun in Baldur’s Gate. This means you can’t start the game at level 1, but at the previous game’s level cap (somewhere around 7, depending on class), ready to take on the sort of challenges characters at that level are built to handle. The skill curve, as they say, starts rather high.

Image: Beamdog

A brief aside about the first Baldur’s Gate: I’m mostly ignoring it here because, while it has a fine reputation, it is just not as celebrated as its sequel. Mostly, it is a Nice Role-Playing Game. For our purposes, however, it is also another hurdle to enjoying Baldur’s Gate 2 because, while roughly 90% of it isn’t necessary to enjoy its sequel, the 10% that is relevant is extremely important in contextualizing some things. It’s also the closest thing you can get to a good tutorial for how to play Baldur’s Gate 2.

My goal here is not just to gripe, or decry Baldur’s Gate 2 simply for being old and clunky. Instead, it’s to recontextualize. Baldur’s Gate 2 shouldn’t be approached like video game homework, but like archeology. The fascinating thing about Baldur’s Gate 2 is that all of that aforementioned math and story architecture it uses is on full display where later games — like BioWare’s other franchises, or series like The Witcher — would obscure them. And even when the modern rush of Infinity Engine revival games, like Pillars of Eternity or Larian’s prior Divinity: Original Sin, brought that crunchy tabletop feeling back to the forefront, they did so in knowing, playful ways that leaned into a self-aware video game experience, rather than replicating a tabletop one as faithfully as possible.

As difficult as it can be to actually get a handle on, the bones of Baldur’s Gate 2 are so rock-solid that BioWare would reuse them again and again as the foundation for its later franchises. Ever notice how most of that studios’ games present a huge problem and then give you a shopping list of things to do before finally confronting that problem? That’s chapter 2 of Baldur’s Gate 2, baby, asking you to amass the ungodly sum of 20,000 gold pieces before being able to confront the Big Bad who kidnapped your sorta-sister. Play Baldur’s Gate 2 without any context, though, and it is hard to appreciate this kind of thing, as the friction of 23 years of game design builds up before any of Baldur’s Gate 2’s strengths begin to emerge.

So I say: Don’t bother! We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and video games are no different. We are blessed to game in a time where RPGs of all flavors are flourishing; go find the one that speaks to you, which may very well be Baldur’s Gate 3.

But if you aren’t able to resist the urge to play Baldur’s Gate 2, take care. It’s easier than ever to play the Baldur’s Gate games, with enhanced editions available on an astonishing array of platforms (including some truly valiant but still kind of clunky console ports). These can be tweaked in ways that make the experience kinder — I truly recommend the “story” difficulty mode, at least if you’re playing on console — but coming to Baldur’s Gate 2 cold, like archeology, requires a delicate touch. Some patience is a must. Some research is also recommended — I like the podcast Mages & Murderdads, which takes a book club approach where hosts Cameron (a frequent Polygon contributor) and Danni convene after playing through a chunk of the game to talk about it and its wider Dungeons & Dragons context. And whatever you do, don’t feel like you have to play it to appreciate Baldur’s Gate 3 (the developers at Larian Studios have my back on this one).

You can, however, learn a lot from Baldur’s Gate 2, if you have the inclination to meet it on its own terms, and hopefully, this will help you figure out if that’s something you’re into doing. It makes for a different kind of fun. But it’s fun nonetheless.

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