Opinion

Revenge of THAC0 — Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition

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In spring 2003, four geeks sit in a sweltering attic room, playing on cobbled-together PCs and trying to get their heads around the intricacies of Icewind Dale. This task is more difficult than expected, thanks to the game using the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rules as its basis. Now, modern-day gamers can also have the experience of trying to decipher the 2nd Edition ruleset with the launch of the Icewind Dale, Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, and Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition.

All four games are presented with improved graphics, higher fidelity, and all DLC included. All four games run on the Infinity Engine, which has aged surprisingly well, all things considered. Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate both begin with the player selecting a race and class and assigning skill points before entering the world.

Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale are based on Dungeons & Dragons ‘default’ setting of Faerun, also known as the Forgotten Realms, unlike Planescape: Torment, which uses a different setting entirely. As a result, Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale share similar DNA, a feeling enhanced by the decision to import some equipment and classes from Baldur’s Gate into Icewind Dale, as well as restore some minor cut content.

The new HD graphics look pretty good, though the character models and animations seem a bit primitive by modern standards. Players will quickly notice that these games were very much designed for the PC, and playing on the PlayStation 4 presents some challenges. The radial menu is decent, but a bit clunky compared to the point-and-click functionality of the PC version.

Dungeons & Dragons as a tabletop game has changed quite a bit since the original games released. As mentioned previously, these CRPGs used the venerable D&D 2nd Edition rules, a system that was launched way back in 1989. Modern D&D players are more likely to be familiar with the 5th Edition rules and might be taken by surprise by some of the mechanics. The most prominent and vexatious for many players is the ‘THAC0’ system, an acronym that stands for ‘To Hit Armour Class Zero’, which, in essence, means that armour with a lower armour number is actually better for the character, which is completely backwards to what many players will be used to.

Also worth noting is the changes in design philosophy in D&D over the years. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, a trend existed for creating D&D adventure modules that were brutally difficult. Some of them, such as ‘Tomb of Horrors’, ascended into legends, becoming the archetypal ‘meat grinder’ dungeons designed to test every inch of the player’s intelligence, skill, and patience. This philosophy was reflected in the D&D-licensed games, and Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment can feel like a slog in some places. Players are encouraged to save early and often and to regularly upgrade equipment to face new challenges.

Despite the challenging gameplay, both Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment became the gold standard for interactive media for a reason. The dialogue is still top-notch and likely to coax a smile, particularly when dealing with Minsc and his ‘miniature giant space hamster’ Boo. Planescape: Torment, by contrast, deals with a lot of deep themes surrounding identity, morality, and redemption, but in an engaging way that never gets bogged down in pretentious philosophy.

Out of the four games in the collection, Icewind Dale probably suffers the most. Icewind Dale was always closer in feel to hack-and-slash titles like Diablo, but that clashes against the straight-laced D&D systems. The result leaves Icewind Dale lacking in comparison to modern games of that type, such as Torchlight, Grim Dawn, or Diablo III. Icewind Dale is also the most limited in terms of character interaction, which means it suffers compared to Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

One area that strongly differs in comparison to many modern WRPGs is how decisions have significant weight. Whether assigning skills and spells or choosing to support one faction over another, these choices matter and can mean the difference between success or failure on any given quest or lead to companions leaving the party. Pleasing everyone is not really possible, and as such, every move and response feels important.

Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate 2, and Planescape: Torment all hold up well, despite the old-school graphics. People who are already involved in D&D will be able to delve deep into the lore and history of these settings. They also serve as great entry points for anyone who wants to get a feel for tabletop gaming without having to join a gaming group. Icewind Dale suffers a bit by comparison, but still remains a solid example of its genre.

2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons has changed over the years, but much of the appeal of story and lore remains, and, for those who haven’t experienced these games before or those consumed by nostalgia, these remastered titles are quite a trip through gaming history.

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