So, I just wrapped up my first play through of SoD last night. Just to set the tone, let me say that I now hate holding off on buying the game for as long as I did because I thoroughly enjoyed it. In the slight off-chance that anyone cares, these are my thoughts on it.
First, the positives.
I was extremely pleased with the graphics. When I saw the atmospheric effects in the prologue crypt, I was genuinely impressed, and I continued to be impressed. I have never seen that level of detail, particularly to lava. Real lava is, well, hot - and when I saw the heated air effect over it, I was overjoyed. I never really noticed it missing in ToB, but seeing it in SoD was outstanding. I continued to be impressed with this level of detail for the whole game. Kudos to the art team on that one.
I also thought that the music and voice acting was outstanding. Like BG and BG2, the sound never "got in the way". It was atmospheric, set the mood, but stayed in the background. Again, I'm impressed. It's hard to understate just how important good music and sound effects are to maintaining that suspension of disbelief and mentally keeping you in the game world. The same applies to the voice acting. Other than a few very, very mild nits with existing characters (Jaheira), I heard none that sounded out of place.
The *only* complaint I have here is with Safana, and then only because she was so unlike the Safana I was used to that it was almost jarring. I got used to her, but I definitely noticed.
I was also impressed by the wider degree of choices and greater ambiguity. The original games make it VERY easy to choose the "good", "neutral", and "evil" path. The only way they could make it any easier would have been to put (<alignment>) by every dialogue choice. Beyond that, it was possible to make choices through actions as well as dialogue. The switch in the old Bhaal temple, for example - that was brilliant. I honestly wish there had been more of that "act in character" sort of thing in the original. There were plenty of times where I really had to stop and ask which action or response my PC would choose, and I loved that.
I also loved the fact that the romances weren't so strict about gender. I have long thought that Jaheira should have been romanceable by either gender in SoA. I have actually romanced her with a female PC using cheats, and it is almost 100% fine. (I believe you can count on one hand the number of times she says something that implies the PC is male). I believe she would have been had the game been released later.
I ended up with Shael Corwin, and I thought her romance was brilliant. She really felt like a single mom who has to put her daughter ahead of herself. My only complaint is that she doesn't have very many love talks, repeats the one hint over and over again with little or no variability, and it's location based, not time based. I would have improved that by allowing the romance to complete earlier, and then offering the option to "go someplace private" upon resting, but that's a minor nit.
Next, and I can't understate this, I loved
the "You have been waylaid" areas. Unlike the generic battles in the first games, these felt like you had stumbled across something important. They really added to the game rather than simply serving as a random encounter. Using them to add additional color was brilliant, especially the note about the exile. I really wish this was available in SoA.
M'Khiin. Right up to the very end, I loved her character. I picked her up to replace Viconia, knowing Viccy would leave when I got a high enough rep anyway. However, she was a joy to have in the party. Dour, but she got the job done. I was a little disappointed that, after everything that happened, but particularly after the goblin party, that she behaves the way she does at the end. That was definitely bittersweet, but from an RP perspective, brilliant. It is a positive from that perspective - I really didn't see that one coming. THIS is the sort of thing that keeps you on your toes, so to speak.
Finally, I love how consequences build up throughout the game and impact the story in meaningful ways. This is another aspect that I felt was missing from the earlier games. Other than getting a discount (or paying a premium), it almost didn't matter what you did in the original games. Everything was purely a function of your preset alignment. That, to me, was a mistake, as it is made abundantly clear that things aren't that simple. (Viconia and Anomen, if you romance them, are good examples)
I did get spoiled a bit by learning that there were multiple endings, but it wasn't immediately obvious which choices got you each ending or how. Instead, I just RPed it the way I imagined my PC would. Freeing a tortured soul, refusing a dishonorable action, etc. - those came naturally to her. That those choices actually altered the ending was amazing and welcome.
As a brief interlude - the things which bothered everyone else, but not me.
Imoen. While I might disagree, I understand the reasoning behind it. If she got killed, it would make SoA awkward. On the flip side, I can't count how many times I had to have M'khiin raise Safana from the dead (because she was the chief scout). In a game where ordinary death is recoverable, I feel this could have been fixed by making her "unchunkable" and letting you keep her. However, it actually turned out to be a fun change taking Safana.
Also, with this reasoning, it makes equally no sense to let you take Minsc, Jaheira, or even Khalid. At some point, if they die in SoD, there is going to need to be an explanation later. I realize it's not quite the same, given how much the plot revolves around Imoen, but still. If you are going to take away one character for continuity reasons, at least be consistent.
The linearity. This game felt like the BG equivalent of ToB, and that's fine. (for the more educated; BG:SoD::SoA:ToB) This didn't bother me because the story makes it clear you are marching to war early on. You aren't going to have a whole lot of time to stop and sniff the roses along the way. You also can't go back to a camp that has been torn down and moved. While I love the open-world aspect of BG and SoA as much as anyone else, it's clear that each main area is a tent encampment, which means there isn't much of a reason to backtrack. Even if you could, what are you going to find? Slightly depressed grass? All the vendors, healers, etc. have moved on to the next camp.
Mizhena. Maybe this was fixed, but she didn't say a word about being transgender until after you bring her a lost item. I can certainly imagine that her merely being present caused a lot of people to clutch their pearls, but nothing about her was offensive to me. In fact, I thought the resolution to her quest at the castle was quite good. Given how little that aspect of her backstory factored into the game, I have no idea why it was so controversial when Corwin's bisexuality didn't even move the needle. I guess the outrage over orientation as worn out after Dorn?
The ending. I knew going in, having played both BG and SoA, where this was going. It's a bit like watching Titanic and being shocked when the ship goes down. Oops, sorry - didn't mean to spoil that for anyone!
Seriously, what did people think was going to happen? Instead, I thought Beamdog did a brilliant job of fleshing out the events here and definitely making you more emotionally invested in SoA later. I know when I start my next play through of SoA, I will be sitting on pins and needles waiting on the opportunity to kick some evil butt.
If you can get over the shock of going from a reputation of 20 and being called the "Hero of the Sword Coast" to zero overnight, you will see that ending makes perfect sense. It isn't just about separating the hero from the people, it's also the opening salvo in separating the hero from their own sense of self. That is, the hooded man really started the process of breaking down your PC in Dragonspear Castle, not Amn. When you look at the ending from that perspective, it's not nearly as objectionable.
However, from a practical standpoint, it also divorces your character from Baldur's Gate, and additionally explains why so few people in Amn know who the heck you are. Regardless of ending, most people in BG probably believe you are either exiled, or more likely, dead. (Given Entar's reaction, both the PC's fans and haters likely believe that (s)he was quietly taken out behind the woodshed.) Thus, your PC is, for all intents and purposes, a complete nobody at the beginning of SoA.
I actually liked the ending, but it does have some issues, hence my putting it here and not in positives.
Now, the not so positives.
Let's face it, Caelar wasn't well written, and it's a shame, because she had such great potential. I didn't have an issue with her arrogance being her downfall - that's a common trope in these sorts of tales. I didn't even have a real issue with her being of divine origin. What I did have a problem with is that she is never developed. While I was pleased that you can "redeem" her in the end, so to speak, she never leapt up from the page and felt truly three-dimensional. Hephernaan had more punch than Caelar, and I definitely had a stronger emotional reaction to him than her.
That then expands to her whole motivation. Raise an army and wipe out the whole Sword Coast just to rescue one dude? Oh, and she has divine origins? Mr. I was right to choose you over her - she's a complete dumbass. It's not like it would have been all that difficult to find some obscure bhaalspawn working on a farm in the middle of nowhere, completely unaware of his or her heritage, and kidnap them in the middle of the night. A reasonably sized mercenary force, lead by Caelar, could've gotten the job done with a lot less drama. Drama that nearly cost her the whole plan, as she ends up with a far smaller force than she would have had by merely not being a dumbass.
You argue that Hephernaan was behind that dumbassery? Sure, he most definitely was. Which makes him a dumbass too. Knowing what he did, you would think he would want a smaller force, since he knows what is in store. His master's goal is pretty simple - open the freaking door. Encouraging Caelar to build up a whole army right over the portal is... dumb. We do know that his thoughts were that this army would be destroyed and raised again as a zombie/undead army, but that's an awfully big risk to take. It took a serious amount of chutzpah for him to talk about her arrogance bringing about a downfall. Of course, if villains ever did the smart thing every single time, these games wouldn't be nearly so fun.
I could deal with that, except that not every villain in BG or BG2 is a complete dumbass. Sarevok's only real "misstep" was in dropping the Iron Throne like a hot potato as soon as he got the job of Duke lined up. That was the opening that allowed your PC to get the hard evidence needed to sink his coronation. A much stronger Iron Throne would have left you watching from the balcony while he took power. Otherwise, with the exception of that knuckledragging moron in the Nashkell mines, his execution and strategy were quite sound once you get the full picture.
And then there is Irenicus, who lived up to his claim of being a genius mage. He made no significant errors with only one glaring (and necessary) exception - trusting Bohdi with a certain item. Seriously, had he not left that one item with her, it would have been game over. You toss back a few beers, kick back, and watch the world go to crap. Oh, and this event happens while you are in the Underdark, so odds are good that you climb out and wonder why it's still dark.
Comparatively speaking, Hephernaan and Caelar are complete idiots in comparison. Still, that didn't keep me from enjoying the story. It was a superb romp, even if I did roll my eyes at the main villains several times.
BTW, this isn't a nostalgia driven observation. There was a lot of contrived BS in the first games as well. Imoen's arrest, for example. I get that, from a plot perspective, that had to happen, but that should have been handled better. The only reason PC didn't get sent along with them was that the cutscene didn't allow you to act. There were also a few other railroaded situations that you, the player, can see a mile away but have no control over. When it comes to stupid plot devices, SoD has no monopoly in the series. My complaint is just how ill-conceived the bad guy's entire plan is from stem to stern.
Then there is the scale. I know, no one wants to play "The Empire Strikes Back" - which is essentially what SoD represents in the series. It's a bridge between an epic BG1 and an even more epic BG2. Unfortunately, the writers got carried away and made an epic mid-quel. Far, far too epic. However, worse than that, it was a very public epic. Had the events been handled in such a way that most people in Faerun would have no idea that they had occurred, such as the events of Durlag's Tower, I could buy it. As it is, Beamdog created a massive disturbance in the force, as it were. It would take a crap ton of retconning screen doors to fit something as wide-scale as Caelar's crusades from being well known in Athkatla.
Now, that said, it was extremely fun to play the actual siege. The events in the camp were amazingly well done. I love how you are given a choice as to who your backup will be, and enjoyed the crap out of that. The castle battle was also great, though I felt a bit let down, as I felt (somewhat ironically) that it should have been harder. As it was, the hardest part of that battle was avoiding killing your own allies with friendly fire while still pounding the crusaders.
There really aren't enough of these kinds of battles in the series. The closest thing to it was Amkethran towards the end. Now THAT was an enjoyable romp.
Overall, I really enjoyed it. I would love to see a new story, unconnected to the BG series, written where the writers can go as big as they want without being tied to an existing story. It's clear the team has the chops, they just need to hone a few areas here and there and work on writing more believable villains.