Three hours with Baldur's Gate III: No Infinity Engine, no problem

The challenge with Baldur’s Gate III is getting over your preconceived notions of Baldur’s Gate III. If you played the Infinity Engine games, you probably have some idea of what the long-awaited sequel “should” look like. Chances are this hypothetical dream-game resembles Pillars of Eternity.

Larian’s Baldur’s Gate III does not. It resembles Divinity: Original Sin II, albeit based on the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. And for about ten minutes that’s uncomfortable, a cognitive dissonance where you think “This isn’t how I imagined Baldur’s Gate III.” And then you realize you don’t care, because…well, Divinity; Original Sin II kicked ass. Who could possibly complain?

Not me, that’s for sure.

A long, long time ago

Where to even begin though? Last week I met up with Larian for a three-hour hands-off demo of Baldur’s Gate III, which means there’s a lot to cover. Perhaps we should start precisely where our demo started, with this opening cinematic:

We’ve come a long way from the Baldur’s Gate opening, that’s for sure.

By now it should be clear the Mind Flayers are the primary antagonists of Baldur’s Gate III. If you didn’t get that from the reveal trailer last year, this latest video makes no secret of it. Set 100 years after the events of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II, Larian is telling its own story, separate from the Bhaalspawn Saga…sort of.

“It’s in living memory for some people, but most of the people who lived through it, who were very specifically attached to Baldur’s Gate and the Bhaalspawn Saga, most of them are dead,” says Adam Smith, a writer on Baldur’s Gate III.

[Disclosure: Adam is also a friend and former colleague of mine, thanks to his tenure at Rock Paper Shotgun. I don’t think it’s affected my impression of Baldur’s Gate III, as evidenced by both Original Sin and Original Sin II (which released before he was at Larian) showing up on our Game of the Year lists. Still, best to be transparent.]

Emphasis on most. “Everything in Baldur’s Gate I and II becomes more and more present as the story goes on. It’s not gone away. It’s not forgotten, and we’re not doing a story which doesn’t account for that,” Smith continues. “Even before you reach Baldur’s Gate, certain characters and certain threads will start to intertwine.”

And you will reach Baldur’s Gate and see what a hundred years has done to the fabled city…eventually.

Remember where you came from

We started from the very beginning though, with character creation. Not five minutes into the presentation, I was excited to see Larian founder Swen Vincke cycle through multiple Origin Stories.

One of my favorite features from Original Sin II, Origin Stories give the player an alternative to the usual blank-slate RPG character, instead casting them as a key player in the events to come. In Original Sin II I fell in love with Fane’s skeletal redemption arc, especially once his backstory was revealed.

Baldur’s Gate III looks to have even more Origin Stories, and we browsed by a fair few before settling. One of the most promising is Lae’zel, who we saw in the cinematic. She’s a Githyanki—former slaves of the Mind Flayers, now some of their fiercest foes. That background certainly seems like it will give her a unique perspective on the story here.

Vincke ultimately chose to play as Astarion though, a young elven noble who also happens to be a vampire-in-hiding. It’s more than flavor, and more than simply a way to foment dissent by forcing Astarion to feed on his companions. Larian demonstrated that Astarion cannot, for instance, step in running water. Your party comes upon a river? The rest of the party can simply wade through, while Astarion needs to leap over it. Vincke also said Astarion can’t enter domiciles without an invitation, though this didn’t come up during our demo.

I love Origin Stories because they gently steer the player towards actual roleplaying. A blank slate character can be great, but most people fall back on simply playing themselves—or at least an idealized version of themselves. Nudge the player out of that comfort zone though and you get more interesting results.

Gather your party

Like Original Sin II, the Baldur’s Gate III Origin Stories you don’t choose fill out the party as companions. We quickly added Shadowheart, Wyll, and the aforementioned Lae’zel to the party—all former prisoners of the Mind Flayers, freed during the tutorial (which we didn’t see) wherein you crash the ship from the opening sequence.

We were 200 miles southeast of Baldur’s Gate. We were infected with “tadpoles,” the leech-like creature that crawls into Lae’zel’s eye in the opening. And that, in turn, meant we had seven days to find a cure—or else turn into Mind Flayers ourselves.

“Thematically, there’s a huge similarity in that Baldur’s Gate III is a story about having a darkness growing inside you and choosing to embrace it or fight against it,” said Smith.

Tadpoles typically weaken the host, but one of the central mysteries in Baldur’s Gate III is that your crew is actually thriving. Hell, it even seems like the tadpole is helping. Our vampire protagonist Astarion was particularly delighted to realize he could brave the light of day without dying, allowing him to pass (mostly) unnoticed. Tadpoles also hook into a proto-hivemind, allowing hosts to read the thoughts or emotions of other infected beings.

There’s more to come. Vincke told us the player can lean into these aspects during the story, gaining new powers as a result—but at what cost? We didn’t find out during the demo, instead opting to try and cure our tadpoles. Foolish, perhaps.

The long and winding road

That quest sent us tromping through the wilderness though, trying to find a healer in this remote part of the Forgotten Realms. We took our first steps in Faerun. Then we took more steps, and more, and more. And here’s the part where I say, Baldur’s Gate III isn’t one giant map spanning hundreds of miles from the crash site to the titular city—but nor is it a series of discrete locations like the old Infinity Engine games.

Our demo took us around, above, and through a crumbling church. It wound through multiple towns and encampments. We journeyed through caves and across bridges and even into dungeons. In three hours we never left what appeared to be one small corner of one enormous landmass. That was my impression anyway, though it’s admittedly hard to gauge when you’re not actively guiding the characters.

In any case, it felt like Divinity.

And that’s my main takeaway from three hours of Baldur’s Gate III: It feels a lot like Divinity disguised as Dungeons & Dragons, especially at the outset. Years ago, I wrote that Original Sin was what you’d get “if, instead of dying in the early 2000s, the isometric CRPG genre had kept evolving that whole time.” Larian working on Baldur’s Gate III is an ouroboros I never anticipated.

First impressions can be deceiving though, and the surface-level resemblance between Divinity and Baldur’s Gate III faded the more time we spent with the latter. Not fully, but the changes are subtler and more pervasive than any screenshots could convey.

“We looked for features that made sense within any world and kept them,” said Smith. “The environmental interactions and the elemental stuff, it didn’t make sense to lose any of that.” Baldur’s Gate III keeps the bones of Divinity’s turn-based combat (farewell real-time-with-pause) and the tactical depth that comes with it. Want to put out a fire? Throw water on it. Want an explosion? Throw a fireball at a barrel of gunpowder.

Familiar, yeah? But dig into the underlying rules and you start spotting differences. “It’s fundamentally Dungeons & Dragons,” says Smith—and he’s right. To keep using combat as an example, Baldur’s Gate III ditches Divinity’s Action Points for a proper D&D system of movement, actions, and bonus actions. The latter are particularly flexible, allowing characters to throw inventory items at enemies (and do damage) or jump to a new vantage point.

To this end, Baldur’s Gate III is also a more vertical experience. Larian told me that Original Sin II was fundamentally a 2D game in a 3D engine, whereas Baldur’s Gate III is true 3D. This was demonstrated in our final boss encounter with one Dror Razglin, wherein Astarion climbed into the rafters and pelted the enemies below with arrows. You can even shove enemies off cliffs.

And all that traversal means plenty of room to hide secrets. They’re everywhere if you stray from the beaten path, and this time there’s a lot more straying to be done.

Roll for shoes

Most of these secrets are also gated behind dice rolls, which are far more prominent in Baldur’s Gate III—or at least far more visible. Luck is a major factor in Baldur’s Gate III, and the dice are not always kind. During our demo, Vincke failed at least three or four rolls that seemed near-impossible to fail. This can be especially devastating during conversations, when you get a critical failure on what seems like an easy skill check. My first instinct? I hate to admit it, but save scum.

Smith cautioned me though. “If you succeed all the way through the game then you’ll have a less interesting experience.”

“Some quests you get from failure. They won’t be available if you succeed on a roll. Or you’ll have relationships that develop because of successful rolls or failed rolls,” he continued. “Even if you fail something there’s usually a chance to repair it and fix it. It might be more difficult. It might take you to a different place. It might take you to a different set of dialogues or a different combat. But we don’t want to say well your entire sense of your character is broken by a bad roll.”

Still, it’s tough when you see a locked chest and your character fails what should be a sure-thing strength check to open it. Tougher still when you don’t know what roll you failed. Baldur’s Gate III is constantly running passive checks, signified by a little D20 symbol above your head. Success? Maybe you spot the secret door. Failure? …Again, the temptation to save scum is there—though given how many checks there are and the typical length of Larian’s games, reloading too often might mean never, ever finishing.

Regale me, Dungeon Master

There’s plenty more I could discuss. Multiplayer returns, for those who want to hate their friends. The “Rest” system seems robust, with plenty of character interactions hidden behind needing to refresh spell slots and regain health. You can even get camp followers later in the game.

But mostly I want to talk about an aspect that I think will go mostly unremarked upon, but which made me feel like Larian gets it. Early on, I noticed that all of the dialogue in Baldur’s Gate III is written in the abstract. Where Original Sin II might say “Where did you come from?” Baldur’s Gate III instead says “I asked where he had just appeared from” or “I said I was owed for my help at the gate.” Sometimes it even mixes dialogue with actions, like “I didn’t trust this man. I drew my weapon.”

I had my suspicions about this stylistic choice, and Smith confirmed them when I asked. “We wanted it to be like talking with a DM [dungeon master],” he said.

It’s a small change, and listen, Baldur’s Gate III probably wouldn’t have suffered even if it stuck to a more traditional dialogue system where you saw every line laid out in plain text beforehand. Smith mentioned the DM though and I thought “Okay, yeah, they’ve got this.”

To have worked the dialogue around an aspect of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as abstract as the interplay between dungeon master and player, and to have it work? Only a developer with confidence in their own team and a deep love of the source material could pull off a choice like that. Most wouldn’t even attempt it.

Bottom line

When Larian announced Baldur’s Gate III last year, I said that they were one of the only companies I could imagine handling such a sacrosanct project. Part of me is still wary, because it doesn’t resemble my own vision of Baldur’s Gate III for the last 15 to 20 years, but…well, I trust Larian. Certain companies earn that confidence, and Larian worked to earn mine with Original Sin and (especially) its sequel. If not them, then who?

“I think some people will naturally want Baldur’s Gate III to be a certain way,” said Smith. “We know what we want it to be, and what I would say to anyone who has doubts about it is…try it, and have a look at it, and see how deep we’ve gone with it.”

I think that’s fair, and I wish we had tried it. Three hours is a long time, but it’s always hard to get a feel for a game with a hands-off demo. Then again, it’s hard to get a feel for Larian’s games with anything less than 10 hours. Maybe more. I’m looking forward to Baldur’s Gate III hitting Early Access later in 2020 and taking my time with it, prodding every corner and trying my best not to save scum that much.

For now? I’m watching that opening cinematic at least a dozen more times. Did you see the part where the tadpole climbed into Lae’zel’s eye? Wow.

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