Baldur’s Gate 3 early access hands-on preview – return of the king

Baldur’s Gate 3 – an epic in the making (pic: Larian Studios)The creators of Divinity: Original Sin 2 are making a new Baldur’s Gate game and it looks like they might have another 10/10 classic on their hands.

Expectations have been running high ever since Larian Studios touted Baldur’s Gate 3 as its ‘most ambitious role-playing game yet’. Baldur’s Gate 3 will be in early access for a year and Larian have stressed that you shouldn’t buy the game yet if you want a polished experience, although we’re happy to be first in line to gather our party and return to Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms.

As you’d imagine, Baldur’s Gate 3 bears a striking similarity to the Divinity: Original Sin franchise, maybe more than to the previous Baldur’s Gate games. But it is an official Dungeons & Dragons game, based on the latest 5e rules, and so features all the official races, monsters, and characters. Although there are obvious similarities, the gameplay mechanics for Divinity: Original Sin 2 and the previous Baldur’s Gate were often very different, with Baldur’s Gate concentrating on combat but Original Sin allowing players to incorporate environmental interactions into their strategy.

In Baldur’s Gate 3 dice rolls really matter and having the requisite points in an attribute is not enough on its own, as dice rolls decide your fate as much as your decisions. That’s why the dice roll is displayed so prominently in the centre of the screen, but while you’d think that might be annoying it’s actually quite exciting.

You’re welcomed to the character customisation screen by a booming voice demanding to know ‘Who are you?’ The customisation options are impressive, inclusive, and extensive, and enough to keep you fiddling around with your character for hours, an attention to detail that’s necessary to make the cinematic dialogue as immersive as possible.

Despite all that, after getting to level 3 we realised our character was lacking in charisma and decided to go back and start another. Your initial character choice will have immediate consequences on how others react to you, so it’s a vitally important decision. In early access there are only eight of the 16 planned races to pick from, although there are additional choices of sub-races within those. Being able to access the other races as they become available should give Baldur’s Gate 3 great replayability and depth.

After adjusting the assigned abilities to be more balanced we chose mage amour, which ranks up well and we knew would be useful later, and then summoned a familiar which can call forth an animal that distracts enemies. At level 2 we chose a sub-class, picking evocation for powerful attacks and damage over abjuration for summoning and banishing.

The plot starts with a stunning cut scene, showing your characters being kidnapped and infected by the mindflayers (think less Stranger Things and more the Brainsuckers from Bloodborne) but with the help of a female githyanki you’re able to make a quick escape. This lands you on a beach that’s very reminiscent of the island of Fortjoy, where the Original Sin 2 early access took place.

The first real narrative choice is early on, where you’re asked whether you want to hurt a Brain Buddy (Intellect Devourer) monster or be nice to him, we opted for the latter but it turns out he’s only being nice and helping kill demons in the realms of Hell because he thinks we’re a thrall.

All the non-player characters so far have real complexity and depth and how you react to them (often at your party’s disapproval) is sure to have a far-reaching impact on the narrative. For example, assisting Sazza the female goblin means you can travel into her goblin tribe’s stronghold with impunity.

As the game progresses you quickly build up to a party of four, in our case a cleric from the Trickery domain (who turns out to be a follower of Shar, The Mistress of The Night), a narcissistic wizard who spends too much time looking at himself in a magic mirror (‘I’m a handsome devil aren’t I?’) and the githyanki female warrior who we freed from her captors with high charisma and persuasion rolls and then levelled up as a Battle Master – since we already had two wizards in our party.

Character interaction and impressive voice-acting gives every conversation depth and we found the squabbling on whether to help others or help ourselves very engaging. Resting brings you to a little campsite where you can chat to your party and, through dialogue choices, win or lose their favour. None of our party wanted to spare the baby owlbear we came across but we did, making us particularly unpopular.

Baldur’s Gate 3 – character customisation is very thorough (pic: Larian Studios)The turn-based combat is deep, tactical, and highly addictive but it’s also very easy to lose when you’re lower level, so it’s always worth trying to kill the leader and rout the rest of the enemies afterwards. Combat has a definite sense of progression and a much more user-friendly learning curve than Original Sin 2. The difficulty feels right though, as you should never be able to wipe the floor with your foes at the beginning of the game.

Early on we found ourselves very chuffed at a favourable turn of events when our cleric turned undead, causing entombed foes to flee in the Dank Crypt. Using elements and environments such as water to electrocute several foes is a mechanic familiar from Orignal Sin 2 but you can also freeze puddles of blood to trip up enemies and this gives the game a flexibility and internal consistency that any good dungeon master would appreciate.

Everything in Baldur’s Gate 3 has a great clarity even in this early access version, for what some might consider a complicated game. So it’s always very clear what’s going on and why something is happening. Once you enter combat every combatant rolls initiative, in any order you want, and you get one combat action and then a movement action, and then a free action such as jump or take a potion. Wizards only get to hold a certain number of spell slots in their head a day but when they rest they can change those spells around and refresh them.

It’s hard to judge graphics in early access builds but so far Baldur’s Gate 3 looks vibrant and enchanting, especially during the cut scenes and character creation. The dynamic pillars and high arches cast beautiful looking light and shadow, giving the game an increasingly vertical aesthetic. Additional ambient sound effects and interactive objects also add an AAA quality level of immersion.

The soundtrack is fittingly epic, with booming multi-layered vocalising and the music also weaves itself into the narrative, as you become an unwitting audience to a non-player character’s full-length composition. But it’s the voice-acting that really stands out and lives up to the standard of the original Baldur’s Gate.

Baldur’s Gate 3 early access is everything we hoped for. It offers an advanced level of role-playing and integration with the Baldur’s Gate legacy, while avoiding being just Divinity: Original Sin 3 by another name. Larian Studios has created an impressive middle ground, capturing the feeling of its old school role-playing ancestors without ever feeling old-fashioned. With the developer’s lauded mix of character choice and gameplay depth this is already well on the way to being another role-playing classic.

By Lucy Orr

Formats: PC (previewed) and StadiaPublisher: Larian StudiosDeveloper: Larian StudiosRelease Date: 6th October 2020 (early access)Age Rating: 18

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