The first time we rolled for a sneak check, I remember audibly giggling when the modeled D20 popped up on screen, prompting the player to literally roll the die. It was a nice touch, hearkening back to the Dungeons & Dragons roots of the Baldur’s Gate series that Larian is building upon with the latest entry of the towering franchise. Baldur’s Gate 3, which the acclaimed Divinity: Original Sin developers are hard at work on, was shown to the media last week at an event in San Francisco. And while we didn’t get the chance to actually play the upcoming RPG, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about.
Creating the next entry in such a storied franchise isn’t an easy task. Larian knows the pressure they are under, especially as every member of the development team working on BG3 has, or is currently, playing the originals from yesteryear. The franchise is an important benchmark in PC RPGs, its influences stretching to almost every major role-playing game on the platform since their release.“We always knew from the beginning that when we started Baldur’s Gate 3 that it was either win or lose, right?,” Baldur’s Gate 3 Senior Producer David Walgrave told me at the preview event in San Francisco.
The demo started with an incredibly impressive CGI trailer, showing off a little bit of the story to come. You’re trapped aboard a Nautiloid, captive of a Mind Flayer intent on, well, having you join their ranks. The Mind Flayer inserts what’s affectionately referred to as a “tadpole”, which slithers through your eyes, latching onto your brain. You, too, will become a Mind Flayer if this isn’t dealt with, and fast.
Not everything goes as planned, however, as the Mind Flayers are assailed by Dragon Riders pursuing you through Hell, eventually crashing in the realm of Faerûn. You find yourself waking on a beach on the Sword Coast, a familiar location both Baldur’s Gate and Dungeons & Dragons fans. It’s here we started our journey to figure out if there is a way to get this tadpole out of our heads.
We started our playthrough - and by we, I mean Swen Vincke, the founder of Larian Studios - by choosing between multiple pre-made origin story characters. As with Divinity, players can pick and choose whether to create their own adventurers or play as one of the established characters and experience the Baldur’s Gate story through their eyes.
Swen chose Astarion, a Vampire Spawn, with the rogue base class. Baldur’s Gate 3 will allow for full character customization, choosing between 15 different classes and subclasses, as well as 8 separate races, such as Elf, Human, Half-Elf, Drow and others that Larian hasn’t announced yet. Astarion’s story is an interesting one - he’s spent countless years serving the Vampires who enslave him, never allowed to taste the fresh blood of one who can think, constantly subservient to his master’s will.
Each character you play will have different dialogue options as well, specifically the Origin characters will have their own story-driven responses, but like Divinity, you can also choose options to role-play your character the way you want. And of course you can—it’s D&D after all. Astarion is Chaotic Evil, so more often than not, we found ourselves making dastardly dialogue decisions, such as allowing a captive to die in front of our eyes or making the choice to feed on a companion.
Visually, Baldur’s Gate 3 expands upon the beautiful visuals Larian games have become known for. Using the Divinity 4.0 engine, the RPG looks a lot like the studio’s last title, Divinity: Original Sin 2. And that’s not a bad thing - D:OS2 is a beautiful game and its UI is beautifully laid out on PC to maximize every inch of your screen. Baldur’s Gate 3 looks like it’s very much in that same vein, and the whole time it felt like I was watching Divinity gameplay with a 5 Edition Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. In fact, that was one of the major undertakings of the team, rewriting the engine to accommodate the ruleset, according to David.
“To be able to implement the rule set, the D&D rules we basically had to start all over again, because it’s so completely different from what we had, we couldn’t just plug it in. We took a lot of the systemics. So you can move anything, everything adheres to a certain law that we put in. This is just a simulation and it creates so much gameplay almost for free. Stuff like the surfaces is something we’re keeping, because that was also basically inspired by a lot of the stuff that goes on in D&D. Turn based combat - we think that we’re starting to get really good at it, thanks to Original Sin 1 and 2. We always wanted to make them turn based, so we’re keeping that.”
Like Dungeons & Dragons, you won’t be traveling in your adventure alone. As we moved through the Sword Coast getting our bearings, we came upon multiple characters who could help - characters who also are dealing with their own tadpole nightmares.
Thanks to the tadpole though, players have access to an ability called “mind melding,” allowing you to read the thoughts of other tadpole-invested characters. These dialogue options aren’t always going to turn out great either, especially if you miss your die roll (we seemed to be plagued with a defective die during our demo - Swen seemed to miss every check we did). Depending on your actions in game, either via dialogue or otherwise, your reputation among your party goes up or down. You can build rapport with your party members like the Cleric Shadowheart, whom we first met along our journey while camping after a long adventure.
Camping isn’t anything new to the Baldur’s Gate series. Indeed, Baldur’s Gate 3 even keeps up the cutscenes you would sometimes encounter during camping in Baldur’s Gate before - but Baldur’s Gate 3 takes it a step further. You can move around the camping ground, interacting with your party and learning more about them, their stories, as well as what they feel about the current situation. It’s a cool way to learn more about the party you travel with - and if you’re playing with friends it can present some very awesome RP moments lost in other RPGs on the market.
Combat in Baldur’s Gate 3 looks a lot like combat in Divinity, with a major difference. Unlike Divinity, where you would typically have enemy and team turns intermingled together, Baldur’s Gate 3 will group your team together in one turn, and then the enemies will all take their turn. This fits as well with the D&D mindset, as typically the player characters make their moves (depending on your initiative rolls of course) and then the DM moves the NPCs around for their turn.
The combat itself is still fully turn based, and while Divinity used action points to determine everything you could do on a turn, BG3 limits you to movement and an action. Positioning also matters, and oftentimes Swen was moving Astarion above the fray, giving him a height advantage with his bow. Characters can also perform special actions, such as jumping out of the way if an enemy gets too close (thus preventing them an attack of opportunity as well), or throw items such as an oil pot to cover the ground, giving you a chance to light it on fire dealing damage to those caught in the blaze.
Verticality, positioning - it’s all incredibly important and it makes for some interesting fights. In the final encounter of the demo, we found ourselves fighting in what looked like a run-down tavern. Astarion spent most of the fight in the rafters above the battle, like a Medieval Overwatch keeping tabs on enemies and pelting them with arrows. It made me think of the different ways I could approach the fight when I eventually have the chance to check out the game for myself.
Additionally, Larian wants this to feel like you’re playing a traditional D&D game. The mindset was that anything you could ask a DM to do, you should be able to do in Baldur’s Gate 3. In fact, everything about the presentation screams table-top as well: For example, critical hits splash a D20 on the screen and you’ll see the passive checks a DM would typically do behind the scenes flash as you explore the world around you.
It really makes Baldur’s Gate 3 feel like it’s rooted in the source material - something the team at Larian strove for from the get-go.
“We wanted to have it in there from the beginning, so that you really feel the link between not just Fifth Edition and the game, but also your character and how you’re building it. And because in a D&D game there are so many passive checks going on, like the Dungeon Master is rolling behind their little board, and you go ‘What is he rolling for?’ We want it to have that feeling.’”
Baldur’s Gate 3 allows you to also play the game differently than previous entries. There is both the traditional isometric camera we’re used to from games past, but you can also move the camera into a third-person mode if you want to be closer to the action. Additionally, dialogue is fully voice acted and presented in a cutscene-like format, making the conversations feel more intimate and animated than even Divinity prior.
One feature I really found interesting and cannot wait to try for myself is the pause system - or turn-based mode. Pausing the game allows you to plan your moves - this isn’t anything new to Baldur’s Gate, but it’s made more intriguing when you realize you can actually move your character while paused. You have 6 seconds of movement before the rest of the world reacts with their own 6 second timer. This allows you to sneak effectively, position yourself in a room before engaging in battle, and more. Swen used this mode to great effect, essentially roaming Astarion alone through a fully guarded area, uncovering secrets without being seen. He was also able to use this mode to position Astarion before a fight, giving him a sound height advantage the whole encounter.
Baldur’s Gate 3 looks like you’re playing a standard D&D campaign. From the presentation on screen with the die rolls being shown (and performed by the player) to the branching storylines and intricate relationships between both the player characters and NPCs, I felt like I was watching a D&D campaign by my favorite streamer play out before my eyes. Streamers will benefit from this too, as Swen tells us that while streaming you can have your audience decide dialogue for you and even roll the dice for you - giving new meaning to audience participation on Twitch.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is a behemoth of a franchise, and whoever took on the next installment of the legendary series was going to be under pressure to “do it right.” Some might think this means the team at Larian Studios is afraid of changing it up in a meaningful way for fear of upsetting series “purists.” But David tells me that it’s, in fact, the exact opposite approach.
“We’re trying not to shy away from doing [something], because we think that you need to dare make certain big choices to be able to make a change. For instance, there are choices that we’re making that the audience might not immediately understand. But hopefully when they play the game they will see, ‘Okay, this was actually the correct choice.’ We are also a very iterative company. We try to think like, ‘Oh, this might be fun.’ And then after a year or two years, that doesn’t really work. So we’re not afraid of that.”
Baldur’s Gate 3 will be released in Early Access as well, much like Larian’s past projects. David mentions this is invaluable as it will allow the team to get real-time feedback from players as to how the game truly is to them.
“We’re going to early access to get a lot of feedback from players that might tell us this doesn’t really work. We’re not afraid of changing stuff or trying out stuff - which I think is a huge advantage.”
At the end of the more than three-hour demo, I was still struck by how much even simply watching felt like playing Dungeons & Dragons with your friends. The whole group around me laughed whenever we failed a die roll, the battles unfolded in unpredictable ways - even to the surprise of Swen and the rest of the developers in the room. Baldur’s Gate 3 looks to be on-track to be a memorable entry in the towering franchise. And Larian, with their experience in PC RPGs and willingness to innovate even on established IPs, might be the best studio for the job.
“We believe that making hard choices and going for something that is more innovative or that people don’t expect is the only way that you will grow as a company. If you keep doing the safe stuff, I don’t think you’re gonna be around for very long.”
Full Disclosure: Travel to and from the event provided by Larian Studios