Impressions

Beyond every expectation — Baldur’s Gate III hands-on preview

It’s been just over 20 years since Baldur’s Gate II came out. Jon Irenicus, the game’s primary antagonist, served as one of the best bad guys in CRPG history, driving the player to hell (literally) and back to foil his grand bid to gain immortality. The game consistently finds itself in good company at or near the top of any Best RPG of All Time lists, and with good reason. Imagine my surprise when I found the soul of Baldur’s Gate II in the upcoming Early Access version of Baldur’s Gate III, being built by a completely different company. Immortality indeed.

I’ll be as spoiler-free as I can be for this article, though some things will get a rough overview to set the tone. I want you to experience this as I did, so I’ll be mindful of spoilers wherever possible.

First and foremost, Baldur’s Gate III has one of the most impressive and inclusive character creation systems in any game, regardless of genre. Frankly, it puts Korean MMOs to shame. You’ll select your character’s name, sex, and background which serves as a basis for future decisions and motivations. As an example, I chose to be an Acolyte, having spent my life in service to a temple. This provides me proficiency in Insight and Religion. With that out of the way, I was free to choose my race. I could play as an Elf, Tiefling, Drow, Human, Githyanki, Dwarf, Half-Elf, or Halfling. Within these several of these races lie Subraces such as Wood Elves, Asmodeus Tieflings, and Lolth Drow. These provide subrace stats such as additional speed, intelligence, charisma, darkvision, and more. With my race selected I was greeted by a fantastic appearance menu. Half a dozen voices are available, as are a dozen or more head shapes. Most races also have a secondary racial trait to modify such as choosing from a metric ton of horn styles for a Tiefling. Dozens of skin, hair, and eye colors are available, as are dozens of hair styles and facial hair, tattoos, and makeup styles. If this is the Early Access version, I can only imagine what the final will look like.

With my look all figured out, I now had to choose a class. At present you can be a Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, or Wizard, with subclasses and Deity being secondary choices. If you want to worship Tempus, but also be a Life Domain Cleric, go nuts, you contradictory crazy person. With your choice of class made, you’ll also pick up any spells or cantrips your class will allow. Next up are skills, and there are many. Each character can pick up a series of skills to gain proficiency which again drive conversation, opportunity, and knowledge. If you would like to reallocate your ability points and dump-stat anything, you’ll have that opportunity, though the pre-selected values are well balanced already. Your character complete, you’ll also be asked one other question that could serve as a portend of things to come — “Who do you dream of? Who attracts you?”. You’ll answer this question by creating another character and then press the ever-beckoning “Venture Forth” button.

Baldur’s Gate III starts with a fantastic cinematic that immediately sets the tone for what comes afterwards. Illithids (colloquially known as Mind Flayers) have attacked the titular city of Baldur’s Gate aboard a flying nautiloid, its tentacles striking the fleeing denizens and teleporting them within where they will be imprisoned, befouled, and ultimately transformed into mind flayers themselves. Unfortunately, you are one of these poor imprisoned individuals. As Githyanki dragon riders assault the nautiloid, forcing it to teleport and flee to protect its precious stolen humanoid cargo, you awaken. An Illithid guides a wriggling monstrosity to nestle behind your eye and into your brain, but shortly thereafter a dragon’s fire finds purchase, searing your captor and freeing you. Wandering through the cartilaginous cavern of the creature you find others like you, and thus your adventure begins. You can see everything I’ve described in this first 35 minutes of the game right here:

Finally escaping the nautiloid you’ll find yourself on the beach, not unlike Divinity: Original Sin II (what’s the deal with beaches, Larian Studios?). There’s little point in spoiling any of this as the world is yours to explore. You can go find the five named characters mentioned (but currently inaccessible) in the character creator, each with their own backstories, motivations, and frequent prejudices. You can even go it alone, though I doubt you’d get nearly as far. Me? I needed as much help as I could get to pry this horrible creature out of my skull. Without ruining any more of the story, let’s move onto why this game is already so compelling. I’ll use some examples, but again I’ll try to keep potential spoilers as light as possible.

I picked up a rogue character, full of pomp and arrogance, but with the skills to crack the lock on a nearby old ruin. During one playthrough he cranked the door open without so much as a thought and we strolled inside to deal with what lay in the darkness. In another playthrough he failed and we had to find another way in. In my first run, my character was a Tiefling and a cleric character who was also trying to get into this door was happy to see me and joined almost immediately. My second run I played a Githyanki and this cleric clearly harbored some ill-will towards my race. I appealed to her good sense and a red 20-sided die popped on the screen for my skill check. As Baldur’s Gate III is built on 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, everything you do is based on dice rolls, but the game is very good about keeping those in the background except when the outcome is literally a roll of the dice. Nowhere is this more true than when you are in conversation.

One of the biggest changes in the move to a modern (arguably next-gen!) engine is that the team can push in on faces for conversations. And boy do they, frequently. As every character in the game (including animals, hello “Speak with Animals” spell) is voiced, the Larian team moves the camera in to take advantage of the fantastic visual fidelity present on the characters themselves. I’ll use a brief but hilarious interaction with a young Tiefling in camp as an example. Walking up with my wizard, the little guy offered to sell me a magical ring that gives me a boost to my luck. He demonstrates this with a coin toss that happens to land on whatever selection I’ve made. Suspicious to be sure. My rogue having this same conversation immediately noticed the grift. I could roll against my dexterity stat and manipulate the ring to make it disappear, signaling the little hustler that I was onto his game. All of this is done at a distance we’ve never seen in a Baldur’s Gate game, evoking games like Dragon Age: Inquisition instead. It makes you care about these interactions more, and it makes them far more satisfying. The vocap on each character is also very well done for the most part, though there is still work to be done here. Not a surprise, given that Larian has said it’ll be at least a year before they’ll be ready for release.

Dice rolls exist out in the world in the most unlikely of places, too. On more than one occasion, an area I’d previously passed without notice suddenly had my rogue’s interest. A quick dice roll over his head and he revealed a hidden passageway that I’d have never otherwise seen. Similarly, racial and class traits will pop up frequently. In Baldur’s Gate III, the hero of a situation isn’t always the hero you created — swapping team members in and out to match the scenario at hand is key.

One of the best aspects of Baldur’s Gate III is that Larian has somehow made failure a natural part of the game. I’ve busted a dice roll and failed to carry my point across in a conversation. These moments clue you in that you could have had a different outcome, but they happen so frequently that it’s completely illogical or at least impractical to quicksave/quickload your way to a perfect outcome every time. It makes failure feel consequential, but not punitive. As is often the case in D&D, there’s always another solution right around the corner anyway, so embracing failure becomes the norm.

Combat in Baldur’s Gate III is a purely turn-based affair, and it works remarkably well. Dice rolls in the background determine initiative, and the combat sequence continues one at a time. Movement is determined by stats, and terrain matters a great deal to your effectiveness — it’s hard to swing a sword while your fighter is slipping on grease. Similarly, firing a bow from an elevated position grants additional advantage. The aforementioned line of sight requirement gets turned on its head when you can fire a spell and have it splash past a nearby column to still douse the target. Like other Larian titles, status effects like being wet makes a simple electrical cantrip suddenly a lot more painful. It seems like an overwhelming amount of things to keep track of, but it works shockingly well in practice. You can simply sling spells and engage at various ranges, but keeping an eye out for additional opportunities might just make you shout “YES!” when you pull off something particularly cool — I know I did, more than once.

The team has focused hard on translating skills and spells of 5th Edition to their game, while keeping it rooted in the fun. Surprisingly, the minor changes to the rules are so few and far between that it feels like a near 1:1 translation. As such, cantrips, spells, and skills often require line of sight, can manipulate the environment, and otherwise change the battlefield in the blink of an eye. Bursting into a room, my team of four found themselves face to face with six well-armed thieves. Imagine their surprise when my rogue used his dash skill to rush over to an oil barrel, lobbing it into the middle of the room. My fighter pulled a single candle from his pack and tossed it onto the rapidly spreading oil, exploding and cutting down all of their archers in one blow. A quick cast of a Grease spell put a slick and also flammable surface between those that remained and my team, creating a dangerous and nearly impassable space that allowed me to finish them off at range. This same fight could go 100 different ways, and it’s awesome to discover these.

One of the surprising translations of 5E to this game was the addition of small movements like shoving and jumping. Jumping can let your character use their acrobatic abilities to leap clear of danger or over obstacles, but it’s shoving that led to some of the most surprising outcomes. During one scenario I was flanked on both sides by a wizard and an archer. My rogue made light work of the archer with a lucky natural 20 dice roll, but my cleric simply shoved the mage off the second story to come crashing down in a heap below. Shove has gotten me out of trouble more than once, and I’m still discovering all the ways it can be applied.

If there is a defining trait of Larian’s RPGs, it’s that choices matter, and not always right away. During one sequence I met up with a character who asked me a simple philosophical question. Content with my answer, he ominously stated that he’d see me again when the time was right. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I’m eager to find out.

For fans of the originals, there are plenty of little nods to be uncovered. One area in a Druid’s grove mentions the legend of a space hamster, for instance. From what we’ve seen thus far, however, all mention of Bhaal or the previous player character are not included. It’s for the best as it frees the team to forge their own stories, but it’s a nice touch to at least see these small nods to the game’s predecessors.

This Early Access first chapter is over 20 hours, and you absolutely cannot see everything in the first run. The number of permutations of character combinations is insane, as are the possible outcomes of choice. I can see playing this first chapter four to five times and still not seeing everything.

For a game that is more than a year off, Baldur’s Gate III is already a visual and auditory feast. The game’s characters all look incredible, full of life and expression. They are then brought to life with fantastic voice acting. In point of fact, there are 80 combat scenarios, 45,980 lines of dialogue from 596 characters, and 146 spells and skill actions. These are numbers you’d expect out of an entire game, not just the first chapter of one. It’s clear Larian Studios is pulling out all the stops to make this game phenomenal in every way.

Saving the best for last, I’m happy to say that multiplayer already works remarkably well. My wife controlling two characters (and a pet), while I directed the other two, made the game really engaging and fun for both of us. The game supports up to four people playing either online, or surprisingly via LAN connection. We tried both and they worked equally well — I’m looking forward to taking a full team out into the field.

With this much on offer, what could the team possibly add? Additional classes like Paladins, Druids, Barbarians, Monks, Artificers, or Bards could be great, as would half-Orcs, Gnomes, and Dragonborn if they feel even more ambitious than they already clearly are. We don’t know enough about what the next chapters could look like to know if strongholds from Baldur’s Gate II could make a return. Playing a game with this much going on makes me wonder just how far Larian can push the envelope. I know one thing for certain, though — Baldur’s Gate III exceeds every single expectation I had for this game, and I look forward to walking this long road to launch.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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