I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the city of Baldur’s Gate feels like an afterthought in its own game, but it’s close. That game, as I’ve said, is so wilderness-focused and you only make it to the city in its closing acts, while Baldur’s Gate 2’s Athkatla is front-and-center. Athkatla has better quests, and comes at a time when you’re fresh for them: Everything you do in Baldur’s Gate comes, for me, at a time when I’m ready to end the thing.
But Athkatla has a much better layout, at least in videogame terms. It’s entirely down to Bioware getting better at its own engine–in general, BG2 has finer dungeon design and benefits from a couple years of Infinity Engine games. Both cities are too large to fit on one screen–not counting underground areas and buildings, Baldur’s Gate needs 9 maps, Athkatla 7. But those 2 extra screens don’t seem to add much–Athkatla does a lot more in terms of structure and density.
Here’s an image of Baldur’s Gate I’m stealing from a walkthrough that’ll help me make my point:
You start your explorations of the city in the middle right. When you leave a section, you’re tossed back to the world map and the districts slowly unlock–so if you go north, you’ve unlocked the upper-right, if you go left, you get the one in the middle, etc. You can travel to any unlocked district. Makes sense. But the problem is, the districts aren’t really differentiated by anything other than their physical position, and that isn’t even related to the physical layout of the city–it’s arbitrary.
Take that upper-right section. You’ll see a wall dividing it into two parts. One is not accessible from the other. To get to the left section, you’ve got to go into the top-middle district and travel east, go to the world map, and click on the upper-right district. To get to the right section, you’ve got to travel north from the middle-right district. This is one of the most egregious bits of the city, but it speaks to one of the general issues with it–namely, that they’re trying to fit a sprawling city into a grid.
Athkatla, meanwhile, is much simpler–all of the seven sections have a name (Temple District, Government District, Slums, Bridge, etc), and each is a complete map unto itself. You’re funnelled into the slums after Irenicus’s Dungeon in order to get a plot event to kick off Chapter 2, but once that’s done, the city is open to you–all you need to do to go into another district is just leave by any exit, and you’ll be given the opportunity to select any section. It’s a much more elegant way of displaying the city, and one which makes traveling it a lot easier.
Now you’re looking at the Athkatla map and you’re noticing that a lot of it is not visitable–the parts you can go to seem to make up maybe half of the map of the whole, while you’re allowed to visit the entirety of Baldur’s Gate. The problem is, most of the Baldur’s Gate you get to visit is utterly irrelevant. There are weapon shops, houses, inns, all of which have absolutely nothing to do with your quest and which are very generic–you can maybe steal a couple of gold from houses, you can buy a couple arrows from a weapon shop, you can rest in the inn–but you don’t need to and it adds nothing. All you get is a couple of lines of generic dialogue–and, of course, by this point, gold means nothing, you’re not doing much weapon shopping, and there are some nicer inns with greater plot relevance in the city. It’s that design philosophy that would reach full flower in the Elder Scrolls series–a “real” city would have a lot of inns and shops, so let’s put them all in, even if they don’t benefit or interest the player in any way.
Athkatla strips it down to the essentials and manages to create a much denser, more vibrant city. There are some unnotable houses, some random weapon stores you won’t visit twice, but there’s far fewer, and the percentage of important locations is a lot higher.
And there’s also the fact that I can count the houses in Baldur’s Gate and get an exact size of the city. By restricting our movements to the only districts of Athkatla that there’s action in, the city feels much, much larger–I know I’m skipping over the sleepy residential parts and the office buildings and the areas that my party has no interest in, and I can imagine a lot of that. Baldur’s Gate depicts a small city; Athkatla suggests a very large one.
This is one thing that Siege of Dragonspear does very right–you spend some time in Baldur’s Gate in an early chapter, and it’s reduced to a couple of notable locations and their immediate surroundings. You only see the sections you need to see, only the important or interesting stuff is available, and the city is much more pleasant to navigate and spend time in. This is one lesson that the team learned that I appreciate.
I’ve currently got about 4k of the 20k I need to finish Chapter 2, but I need 5k to purchase a license in order to use magic in the city because I keep getting into combats, throwing off a magic missile, and then getting attacked by magic cops. Athkatla runs on coin, everybody tells me; this is definitely the case. I’ve explored half the city, unlocked a couple of wilderness locations, and done a couple of quests, but I’ve pretty much just scratched the surface of what’s available. We are in this for the long haul.