Modding Showcase: Sword Coast Stratagems, for Baldur’s Gate

I’ve always been a fan of modding communities. The ability to add onto and enhance the game in different ways can’t help but extend the life of that game. Communities like ZDoom, The Gibberlings Three and Hard-Light prove this. Some incredible mods have resulted from these communities, but I’ve often noticed a problem that when these mods come out, that only people within that particular community know about them. So I’ve decided to write showcases of some particularly well-designed mods that really add to the game in question.

One of the only very few things I didn’t like about Baldur’s Gate was how simplistic the AI could be, though don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my all-time favourite games. Most enemies ran up to you and tried to chop you up, attacking the first character they run across (usually your front-line fighter); mages and priests had generalized scripts and didn’t even have as many spells as they should have, and certainly didn’t use them well. With a little pre-battle preparation, most battles could be dealt with pretty easily.

This is where Sword Coast Stratagems by DavidW comes in. Recently, I’ve picked the original Baldur’s Gate back up (running the Tutu mod, which lets you run BG1 in BG2’s engine) running this mod, and I’m amazed as to how much trickier many encounters are. I even playtested this quite a while ago, but it’s been so long that I forgot how much more interesting it makes the game. In terms of general AI improvements, first, he gives most creatures the ability to alert nearby creatures, so you can no longer cheese and wipe out a group of hobgoblins one at a time. The entire group will bear down on you, at once. Second, their targeting is a lot better. Enemies in melee range will attack the most vulnerable target within range, and will only chase a short way before they switch to another target (so no playing merry-go-round, while you cut up the bad guy). Archers will shoot at your vulnerable mages, as well. Carrion Crawlers, after stunning one of your fighters, will start attacking another, to stun him as well. Finally, the game gives potions to quite a few humanoid enemies, like the groups of assassins you run into. They’ll drink healing potions when they’re low on health, thieves will drink invisibility potions and try to backstab you, fighters will drink potions of heroism and similar buffs. Many groups have some of the same capabilities and take advantage of the same things your party has.

Another major feature mostly applies to Baldur’s Gate 2 (yes, there’s a version of the mod for BG2 as well), but several monsters are reworked to better match pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons counterparts, and are given more abilities. Beholders, vampires, mind flayers and other creatures are enhanced and reworked so combat with them is even more dynamic and varied than it was before. For Baldur’s Gate 1, this is mostly an enhancement to a few particular areas. The Nashkel mines, for example, are now swarming with kobolds. Combined with their ability to call for help from nearby groups, be prepared to be bogged down with a few waves. Baldur’s Gate 2 has some enhanced areas, namely the de’Arnise Keep, for example. It also has enhancements to several end-chapter areas, if you find those to be too easy, with some added minions, or an added ability on a key boss, for example.

The greatest feature of Sword Coast Stratagems, however, is the Smarter Mage and Smarter Priest components. Once you figured out the generalized scripts in Baldur’s Gate 2, for example, they were very easy to interrupt and just wipe out without many problems. With smarter mages, be prepared to get your ass handed to you in a way that mages are supposed to hand it. There is a component added for enemies to detect spell effects active on the players, so they won’t bother flinging spells you’re immune to. Most mages are given spells the player himself would find quite useful, and many have more defensive options than you would think. They also have several spells from Baldur’s Gate 2, if you choose to add them in.

For example, the fight in the Firewine ruins underneath Gullykin, you face off against an Ogre Mage and a mage named Lendarn, with a decent group of ogrillons nearby. This fight is what encouraged me to write this showcase, because it took me ten tries to finally beat with Smarter Mages with Baldur’s Gate 2 spells. Right off the bat, they both cast Stoneskin and Mirror Image (both very standard that you would expect from anything). The ogre then casts Haste and wades into combat, while Lendarn casts Melf’s Minute Meteors and Minor Globe of Invulnerability. After exhausting those, he then pelts you with Lightning Bolts, which is quite capable of wiping out half your party. If you try to silence them, they both have Vocalize memorized (something that would be common sense to have, of course). On those occasions I brought the ogre down to low health, he fired a minor spell sequencer on himself with mirror image and invisibility. One time, I summoned a group of monsters on Lendarn to distract him, and he cast Teleport Field centered on himself (a rare spell that randomly teleports everyone every round in the 30-foot radius) so they couldn’t surround him. At one point, I got really lucky and interrupted Lendarn as he was casting Vocalize, after I silenced him, and he immediately fired a spell sequencer with a pair of Chromatic Orbs, petrifying and immediately killing one of my party members. I finally won the fight at one point when I got lucky and blinded him. He immediately cast invisibility and ran away to wait out the duration. I used the time to kill the ogre, retreat, rest and come back to finish him off, though when I came back, he had all of his spells again (as though he rested too).

Mages aren’t the only thing improved, either. Clerics and druids get smarter, too! When I fought Osmadi the druid, he constantly shifted between bear form and human form; bear form for combat, and human form whenever he tried to cast something. This made him much tougher than he would be in the unmodded game because he could take and deal more damage in melee than he could before, with an ability druids have already. Other prominent examples include Neira, the assassin in Nashkel’s inn, who makes an effort to stun your fighters with Hold Person before nuking with Unholy Blight and similar spells. The Smarter Mage and Smarter Priest components are by far the most fulfilling part of the mod. It doesn’t make them harder by giving them high health, immunities or other stats. It just gives them spells they really should have already, allows them to pick and choose targets more effectively, and lets them use abilities they already have. It’s as close as you can get to fighting another player, in this game.

As I’ve alluded to, as well, the mod is packaged into components that you can pick-and-choose from. You can install Smarter Priests, but not Smarter Mages; you could install Smarter Mages, but not allow Baldur’s Gate 2 spells or allow them to pre-cast protection spells. You could install the general AI enhancements and nothing else; you could install the component to improve the fights at the end of chapter 2 and chapter 3, but not chapter 4. You really can customize the mod how you want, to suit exactly how much more challenging you want the game to be.

I cannot recommend this mod enough, if you’re a fan of the Baldur’s Gate series. I’m one of those bizarre people who finds more difficult situations more fun, especially when you finally get the upper hand. It’s difficult but it is fair, and most of the difficulty is because of things that should be in the game anyway, and I haven’t even given the full list of features and fixes! You can find it on The Gibberlings Three, and here are the readmes for SCS 1 , and SCS 2 for more information.

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Analysis of a Moment: Halo – The End of Two Betrayals

Every once in a while, we run into moments in games that are just incredibly well-designed all around. We might not realize it exactly or why it’s well-designed, but we know these moments are really, really fun. Those of us interested in game-design can look at moments like these as examples; not to copy, but as inspiration. They have elements that make them so great, and we can pick apart these elements to see what makes these moments so fun.

The first I can think of is my all-time favourite part of Halo: Combat Evolved (the first one). At the end of the map Two Betrayals, in order to get to a platform high off the ground, we need to grab a Covenant Banshee (the flying vehicle, for those who have never played the game). We continue through this frozen canyon to find one and run into a battle between a decent-sized Flood force and the largest Covenant defensive position we’ve seen so far. We can clearly see a pair of Banshees at the back, but have to somehow get through this massive enemy force to get it. It’s incredibly tricky to pull off, and I’ll be talking about this as though playing on the highest difficulty setting, Legendary (mostly because I just recently beat this on Legendary myself and haven’t touched it on any other setting in years). To describe the Covenant position, you have a firing line of Jackals and Grunts with a single Shade turret up front, some Elite Majors behind them, and a Wraith mortar tank on each side flanking the main body of the force. At some point, some Elite Ossoona (Stealth Elites. Yes, that’s what they’re called) move out to harass you as you begin your attack. When you’ve either destroyed enough or gotten close enough (it seemed to vary, when I played), a pair of Hunters, some more Grunts and a pair of Elite Zealots run from the back to reinforce.

From the start of the encounter, we are given a great introduction as to what we’re up against. We have a wave of Flood attacking this position we have to assault, and it gets wiped out in about a minute under a rain of needler and plasma mortar fire. At several points in this map before this, we see waves of Flood wiping out Covenant defensive positions without much contest, so we immediately see the potential challenge of this. We can also clearly see fire from a fixed turret and two Wraith mortar tanks among other small(er) arms fire, so we have useful test-dummies to show what we’re actually up against. One of the big problems with giving the player a challenge like this is that he often has to run in and die at least once before he knows exactly what it is, but here they found a nice way around that issue.

Related to the Flood attacking the position, we are also given necessary tools for the attack, mostly dropped by Flood Combat Forms but there’s a weapons cache not too far away. We have a sniper rifle with four full clips, about twenty rockets for a rocket launcher, a Ghost light strike vehicle (yes, it’s possible to get it up that short ledge), and as many frag grenades, plasma grenades, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun rounds as we can carry. Before this, Flood Combat Forms carrying rocket launchers are the most annoying things in the game (it was a very luck-based instant-loss, before this. See why I don’t like glass-cannons?), but now we can appreciate them as a source of ammo. Without them, we wouldn’t have nearly enough rockets to destroy the Wraith tanks. It’s a good way of repurposing an extremely-annoying enemy into something useful.

My favourite part of this encounter is that the game doesn’t actually care what we do anyway. The game makes sure we can’t bring a Banshee from a previous area (which is good, because I don’t think anyone would want to skip this) but otherwise it leaves us free to attack this section however we want. We could try to make a stealthy beeline for one of the Banshees to get in and out without a fight (it has worked for me once, years ago, I swear to God). We could actually try wiping out the entire position before trying to get the Banshee. We could destroy the Wraiths first, or ignore them and kill the Elites. We could use the rocket launcher for that, or the sniper rifle or anything else we wanted, as long as it worked. This section is what Crysis really tried to be; it gives you an objective, a challenge and the tools to work and lets you loose to complete it how you want.

As I’ve said before, it’s very difficult to actually beat this section. Even having a great plan for what to do, it still took me four tries to complete. For example, while I was trying to snipe the Wraith tanks with rockets, the Ossoona surprised and killed me before I could get back to cover. It’s very honest and up-front about why it’s difficult; you always know exactly why you died, and how you might get past it the next time. The only possible exception to this is when the reinforcements appear, they simply weren’t there before and could easily take you by surprise, but it’s balanced by the fact that the Hunters and Zealots are very easily spotted anyway.

More than anything else, though, it’s satisfying! You went up against a massive enemy force and got out with what you needed! More than that, you completed it yourself! While I would hate to get on a soapbox and talk about the crippling issues with the games of kids today, a lot of games today don’t have this sense of accomplishment because of a lack of some of these factors. Either it gives you a very obvious way to beat the encounter, or it’s not challenging enough or something else. This section of the game lets you, the player deal with it yourself. Even better, you can easily tell what your objective is, without any hand-holding objective displays or non-player characters telling you what to do.

While I wouldn’t like if anything outright copied this part of the game, I really hope to see more sections like this used. Too often, these days, games give you a moment that is supposed to be really fun and epic, but they expect you to do this or that specific thing to get through it. In games like this that give you the freedom to do something yourself, it’s always far more satisfying from the player’s perspective to give them the tools to accomplish what they need to and let them do it themselves.