Mention “Baldur’s Gate” to gamers and it’s spoken about in hushed and awed tones. BioWare’s PC classic helped usher in the modern computer role-playing game by adapting the Dungeons and Dragons rules to video games. In essence, the games did the dice rolling and math in the background while players fought adversaries and explored the areas around the Forgotten Realms most famous city.
Unfortunately since the 1998 release, the franchise and genre stayed static, but that began to change as developers took a renewed interest in that type of game in the past decade. At the heart of this renaissance is Larian Studios, which helped revolutionize the CRPG by adding a new layer of interactivity to their fantasy world.
With its “Divinity: Original Sin” series, the developers brought players a level of granularity that hasn’t been seen before. If boxes blocked players’ way, they could destroy them. If poison drifted through a room via a vent, they could toss boxes to cover them and move safely through. With a higher level of environmental interaction, players could come up with novel paths in dungeon dives and every encounter had several solutions for those who could think outside the box.
That move along with a cleverly designed turn-based combat made Larian’s titles a revelation. The studio seemed like a natural fit to helm “Baldur’s Gate 3,” the next chapter in the fabled franchise.
I checked out a hands-off demo of the project. With Larian Studios founder and director Swen Vincke driving, the team showed off a game that looks gorgeous but maintains the top-down perspective of the genre. Although it has a familiar look, the camera can be moved around and it shows off the intricate detail and geometry that the developers put into the world.
BUILD YOUR CHARACTER
“Baldur’s Gate 3” itself follows a character that players create. They pick out the origin, race, class, abilities, skills, body type and background. The origin story is a layer of narrative that’s built on top of the main plot of the game. It determines a character’s default alignment and history. As for classes, the ones available include: wizard, cleric, fighter, ranger, rogue and warlock. Altogether the game will feature 15 D&D races and subraces and eight classes with more expected to be announced.
After building their character, players find themselves as unwitting passengers on a mind flayer’s nautiloid. For those unfamiliar, the mind flayer are one of the big evils in D&D lore. It’s also what the kids nicknamed the big bad in the second season of “Stranger Things.” In “Baldur’s Gate 3,” the Illith implants a tadpole inside the player’s avatar.
Meanwhile, dragons are flying and attack the Nautiloid and as it scoops up other unsuspecting adventurers. Eventually, the ship crashes and tosses its captives all over region. As a survivor, players discover that the tadpole gives them a link to others on the ship. They can tap into each other’s memories in what Larian Studios calls a mind-meld. The Illithid spawn also grants the users unusual powers, but it can all be for naught.
As Shadowheart, a half-elf cleric, tells the player: The tadpole will eventually turn the infected into mind flayers themselves in a process called ceremorphosis. That’s not the best outcome for anybody. Players will join up with Shadowheart; Gale, a human wizard, Lae’zel, a Githyanki fighter, as they all search for a cure for the infection.
Borrowing heavily from the “Divinity: Original Sin” gameplay, “Baldur’s Gate 3” continues to give players a wide array of ways to interact with the environment. In one of the cooler new mechanics, players can jump around the map. They can see a little enclave at the bottom of a cliff and they can hop over several rocks to get there. Of course, the game will check behind the scenes if the character lands safely (They often do.) but the move introduces a verticality that hasn’t been seen in the genre.
Along with jumping, players have perception checks with more eagle-eyed characters finding rocks covering up treasure or switches that open secret rooms hidden behind a wall. Players can even move around boxes and barrels to create makeshift stairs that players can clamber on top of so they can reach a new floor or blocked room.
It makes “Baldur’s Gate 3” feel more like a tabletop game. The number of options at hand seem limited by a player’s imagination. It creates moments that reward clever thinking to avoid traps after they were triggered. Players can eke out a win during dangerous skirmishes after didn’t turn out how one would expect.
As for the combat, it mirrors a lot of what Larian has done with combat in “Divinity: Original Sin.” It’s done in turns and players have action points that must be spent in each character’s phase. Players can use action points to rush forward and attack or cast a spell with a mage ally and move away from enemies. The system makes spacing and tactics important. If players don’t spend action points, it can be carried over to the next turn.
Smart players will create ambush opportunities by splitting up their party and using a rogue to sneak behind enemy lines to kill snipers and rain their own arrows from above. The verticality in the world matters as players can do things like shove an archer from a tower and heavily injury him. In another scenario, they can beat a boss by weakening it and pushing it into a pit of giant spiders below.
THE SMART PLAY
“Baldur’s Gate 3” is a game where terrain matters. The high ground affects how much arrows impact their target and hazards such as oil spilled on the ground hampers enemy movement by making them slip. Smart players will create fire arrows via a nearby torch and ignite the oil enemies are standing on. In another scenario, Gale, the wizard, can hurl a fireball at a precarious rock formation so that it plunges down on enemies and creates a hole that can be used as a shortcut inside a cathedral that needs to be explored. The environment matters in “Baldur’s Gate” and using that is almost as important as the +1 long sword a character has in hand.
Lastly, Larian Studios mixes its gameplay with the D&D rules set when it comes to story progression and narrative options. Whenever the protagonist talks or mulls a story-changing action, they have to roll a D20, or twenty-sided die, to see if the action succeeds. This can be anything from persuading a Tiefling gatekeeper to let you in a refuge or nudging a bear to move off an elevator. The success is weighted depending on a character’s stats and skills. For example, an ally with a Speak with Animals skill has a higher chance of getting that sleep bear to move vs. someone who doesn’t.
In the demo I saw, Astarion, the vampire spawn, that Vincke was using had the urge to feed on his companions as they slept at camp. He had to choose the victim ally to be his prey. If caught, Astarion would have a lot of explaining to do and it could mean a fight in the party or even a member ditching the group. Vincke had to roll a D20 to see if the move succeeded and it eventually did. A lot didn’t go right in his playthrough but like a champ, Vincke powered through and escaped some iffy situations. Anyway, while gorging on the half-elf blood of Shadowheart, players have to again roll to make sure that they didn’t feed too much and kill a party member or there would have to be a lot to answer for. Vincke was successful at drinking in moderation. The next day Astarion was happy with bonuses to all his stats meanwhile Shadowheart was feeling tired and had her stats knocked down a peg.
“Baldur’s Gate 3” appears to have plenty of choice- and chance-driven plot points like that. It will lead to to some unexpected scenarios and ones where players will discover that their story will be vastly different from their friends’s experiences. That variance and the ability to find something more meaningful in mistakes and failure could be a big reason why this chapter of the series could be one of the better CRPGs to come out in ages.
Players will get to check out that experience later this year as “Baldur’s Gate 3” is expected to go to Early Access on PC and Stadia in the future.
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