After a twenty-year wait, fans of the 2001 isometric action RPG Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance will finally be able to enjoy this Black Isle classic on the PC.
PC Gamer reported this morning that Black Isle Studios released a tweet (because that’s how news breaks now, the revolution will not be televised, it will be…tweeted) that the “PC port of BG:DA is in the works and coming later this year. We’re also hoping to ensure it has online co-op using Steam’s remote play”.
While this is certainly good news for ARPG and Forgotten Realms fans in general, the timing of the release will no doubt cause marketing departments no small amount of headaches on account of that other action RPG coming out later this year – Forgotten Realms: Dark Alliance.
What could possibly go wrong, releasing two similarly-styled games with the exact same sub-title in the same year?
Diablo. Released in January 1997, this game kicked off a new style of genre: the action role-playing game (ARPG). Millions and millions of lines of text have been written about the phenomenon that was this game, and the sub-genre that it created within the larger umbrella of role-playing games.
It’s a game that’s hovered in the periphery of my life since I was a young teenager. It was one of the games we sold at CompUSA when I worked there. Several of my friends were completely enthralled and addicted to it. Several of my co-writers at 3DGaming.net absolutely loved the game’s dark and violent atmosphere. Even my DM at the time, in the midst of running an epic five-year campaign, found himself captivated by the sparse dark fantasy world created by Blizzard Entertainment.
Me? Not so much.
As is well-known, the late 90s saw something of a renaissance in the world of digital role-playing games, with the arrival of such titles as Final Fantasy VII, Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Wizardry VI and VII, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Pools of Radiance, Dungeon Siege, and more.
Many of these games featured party-based mechanics, a rich amount of lore and backstory, character interactions, dialogue choices, complex plots, and richly-imagined fantasy worlds. Diablo by comparison, had…one main world map. Tristram. And below Tristram? 16 levels divided across four areas: The Cathedral, The Catacombs, The Caves, and finally, Hell.
Compared to its contemporaries, by this writer’s estimation, Diablo failed to provide several key components necessary to keep me engaged as a fan of the cRPG genre: depth, story, lore, characterisation, and an interesting world map.
And just to add injury to insult: the game lacked a save game feature nor any meaningful item or inventory management system. And dying in game? That felt like the final slap in the face. Did you die in-game? Guess what? Now you need to go and fetch your body – much like you would in an MMO like Asheron’s Call, EverQuest, or Ultima Online.
All the gameplay and design decisions made by Blizzard resulted in a game that felt like a massively multiplayer online game wearing the skin of a single player game. Suffice to say, I was not a fan. The game simply did not speak to me as a gamer. And that’s perfectly fine.
Time goes by
In the years that followed, two sequels were released, and a fourth is scheduled to hit store shelves within the next year or two. And despite its age, the original Diablo still has an active and engaged fan base – including, of course, modders.
And oh boy have they kept themselves busy.
There have been numerous mods over the years, including (and in no particular order): Diablo+, Diablo HD, The Hell, Infernity, The Rebirth, Hell 2, and Torch.
Each project sought to bring something different to the game. Rebirth, for example, uses the original assets of Diablo to tell a story set in the aftermath of Diablo II. Diablo + is a quality-of-life mod that integrates features from more contemporary RPGs as well as from Diablo II. The Hell ramps up the challenges in the game to nigh-on nightmarish levels.
And then there’s Diablo HD, a single-player and multiplayer mod for Diablo. As with the other mods, it took the base game and sought to make changes, many of them technical in nature, but some, as with Diablo+, sought to make the game compatible with modern systems.
What the team at Diablo HD have pulled off is nothing short of miraculous. In updating the game, they’ve made a few gameplay tweaks, introduced dynamic levels, new (and randomly-generated) bosses, new locations, and so much more. Though called Diablo HD, it’s actually two separate projects: Project Belzebub and Project Tchernobog. The former is a singleplayer and the latter – a multiplayer mod.
Rather than summarise it for you, here, instead, is a list of just some of the changes made by Project Belzebub:
Increased resolution and support for panoramic screens
Fully integrated with new windows systems
Many user interface improvements
New hero classes Barbarian and Assassin
All quests which were missing from original game are now implemented
Four difficulty levels available in single player
New special and randomly generated bosses
New character skills
New item types and affixes
204 unique items
28 sets with 105 set items
170 crafting recipes
Great number of minor gameplay changes
And many more…
And when they say “many more”, they mean it. One brave gamer, in fact, has gone through and produced a fantastically comprehensive write-up of every change and modification they could identify within the game, which discusses graphics, storage, classes, skills, spells, gameplay, difficulty levels, and one of my favourite additions – crafting.
If you have even the slightest interest in Diablo, this write-up by Quasit is absolutely worth checking out. Quasit went to crazy lengths to discuss all identifiable changes in detail.
Conversations with the Past
Project Belzebub is one hell of a mod. Nearly every design feature that frustrated me 24 years ago has been either corrected or tweaked just enough to no longer bug the absolute hell out of me. And if that sounds like a slight against the original game – it’s not. Diablo is piece of art from a period of history where designers we were still figuring out what games could and could not do, and experimented with all sorts of choices that contemporary audiences would find completely baffling.
But that was gaming in the 90s. It was the wild west. Designers and artists didn’t know what they didn’t know. So it’s nice to see that two decades later, a group of talented modders could come together to take a classic and find a way to make it not just work for modern systems, but to also work for modern gamers. Or for gamers who felt it came short of meeting its potential all those years ago.
“Chaos and despair spread throughout the Kingdom of Isilmerald. Its desperate people cry out, praying to the gods for help. But the force they face is no mere plague of the undead, or demonic attack… Something far more sinister, far more primal is afoot. Avarice!
Law and order quickly collapses as everyday citizens turn outlaw, attacking anyone unfortunate to cross their path…all for a few more gold coins. From high-born to low, greed spreads. Infecting the land like some divinely inspired disease, intent on purging the world of men. And it comes for you next!
Will you yield to the dark tendrils of desire coiling around your heart? Become an agent of greed and usher the kingdom into chaos. Or rebuke its seductive advances? Vow to discover the truth of the madness and restore the kingdom to its rightful glory? The choice is yours.”
Welcome to Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness, which takes players on a journey through the fantasy world of Yerengal.
A Kickstarter-funded single-player game developed by Austrian and Hungarian videogame developer GrapeOcean Technologies, the isometric cRPG takes more than a few cues from the Black Isle and Bioware games that inspired it – including the title, which has the same initials as Baldur’s Gate. No doubt intentionally.
Featuring real-time with pause mechanics, an isometric camera angle, an original rules system, and a mix of conventional and original high fantasy races and factions, the game has been in development since early 2018 and is expected to be released to PCs, Linux, and MacOS operating systems on both Steam and GOG.
Having clearly taken a few cues from more recent isometric cRPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin II, the interface will no doubt seem a bit familiar to players of those games – which is arguably for the best, as both titles built took the ideas established by Bioware and Black Isle and enhanced them, by including features such as a party war chest and crafting skills and options. It’s not surprising then, that Black Geyser would do much the same.
Despite having been publicly backed by prominent industry figures such as Obsidian Entertainment CEO Feargus Urquhart and InXile CEO Brian Fargo, the game has maintained a strangely low profile the last few years. Despite having a dedicated website and a semi-active presence across their Facebook, Youtube, and Kickstarter pages, there’s been very little active marketing for the game–which is unusual, given GrapeOcean’s intention of releasing the game some time in 2021.
Hopefully this relative silence will change as the game approaches completionm, as this game deserves the biggest audience possible.
At present, beta demos have been issued to backers of the project, and the company itself has released several free-to-watch demo previews on their Youtube channel (see below). They’ve even released some music that will be heard in the final game.
Black Geyser: Couriers of Darkness is scheduled for release in 2021.
After 40 hours, and 13 levels, another box has been ticked, another accomplishment made, another goal achieved – I’ve finally finished The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Originally released on 1 May 2002, Morrowind is the third main entry in the Elder Scrolls series, and was preceded by The Elder Scrolls: Arena and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall – the latter of which is commonly cited as the biggest single-player game ever made.
Confession: I did not like Morrowind upon release. Terrific score by Jeremy Soule aside, the interface irked me, the lack of any guidance from the game as to where players ought to go or do frustrated me, and the excessively open-ended game design failed to captivate me as a player.
A very similar feeling was had with the fourth entry in the series, Oblivion.
It was not until I met my fiancee and was introduced to her favourite game – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, that I became hooked. On her recommendation, I purchased the Legendary Edition on Steam for $60AUD and was hooked instantly. Its cinematic opening, comforting wintry landscape (a familiar sight to this Russian-born New England native), majestic score courtesy of Jeremy Soule, satisfying marker system, and expansive modding community resulted in a gaming experience that consumed over 400 hours of my life.
And after some hemming and hawing, led me to return to the previous games in the series that had, earlier in my life, left me feeling indifferent.
So I’ve gone back to both Oblivion, and more recently Morrowind, and have completed the main stories in both games, as well as multiple side-quests. And I have already started making mental notes on the write-up that will eventually make its way here.
But for the moment, I’m happy to celebrate an achievement 19 years in the making.
It’s still a frustrating game, with a UI that lacks the kind of flexibility that I would prefer (wherefore art thou, sorting columns?). But it’s undeniably a gorgeously designed game, and one that famously saved Bethesda Games from closing shop. In 2021, it’s a game that absolutely requires a few basic quality of life mods to be enjoyed – primarily in the form of the OpenMW mod, which updates the graphics, resolution options, and fixes a few bugs as well. That, alongside the Real Sign Posts and Run Faster mods (all of which can be found at Nexus Mods), dramatically improves the game.
And now that I’ve finished Morrowind, it’s time to revisit and finish the biggest game of them all.