Opinion: The good and questionable about Baldur’s Gate 3
Last week we saw a very promising demo for the new Baldur’s Gate 3, developed by Larian Studios and the first entry in the series since 2000. No franchise that slumbers for two decades will emerge unchanged, and fans had strong reactions. I played Baldur’s Gate when it was new, and have been playing D&D for 25 years. Here are some cool things about the return of the franchise and some things that are questionable.
Core characters vs your story
Developer Larian Studios should be applauded for Divinity: Original Sin 2’s unique take on high fantasy. They gave gamers things they expected (elves) in ways they didn’t expect (they’re cannibal slaves who eat people to obtain their memories). Do you want to play a noble lizardman with a serious attitude problem? Cool. How about an immortal undead being with lockpicks for fingers? Sweet.
I like this a lot. However, I often felt like I was playing someone else’s game and not my own. I never felt ownership over the story the way I did in Mass Effect or Pillars of Eternity. I know I can create a character of my own in DOS2, but it felt like I would be missing out on a lot of core story. You’re only allowed to have a party of four, and so playing your own character meant seeing 25 percent less story. But then that story didn’t feel like yours. It’s a bit of a catch-22.
For BG3, I’m hoping to see something similar to Dragon Age: Origins’ titular character intro mechanics. For those of you who haven’t played DA:O, you build your own character, and in the process of doing so, you choose a background that you play through, making critical choices that will shape encounters throughout the game. On my first, unforgettable playthrough of DA:O, I chose to play as a city elf on the strength of Bioware’s intro for this background.
“I have nothing to lose, but you still possess your other eye.” That is the kind of desperate badass that I want to play as. The intro also gave you choices that shape what kind of person you are. Spoilers for an 11-year old game: you can choose how you react to your elven elders, your feelings about your heritage, how excited (or not) you are about this arranged marriage, and whether to abandon your elvish cousin to a savage pack of human rapists in exchange for a large sum of money or save your cousin and fight back.
This intro also showed me how racism worked in this world, which made the entire setting visceral and real for me in a way that a text-based explanation about Sourcerers just didn’t.
Every origin story ends with your character getting recruited into the Grey Wardens, but by the time that intro ended, I was absolutely committed to my character. I knew who they were, how they reacted to injustice, and how much they had lost in order to end up there. The dwarvish, human, and mage intros were also intense and exciting. Your character had suffered and bled to get this far. They, and this story, were yours.
I may have felt more emotional commitment to DOS2 if I could’ve played as a core character in the two weeks or so before they end up on the prison ship. Don’t get me wrong - the core characters’ stories are awesome. But I wish I could’ve learned more about them before having to walk a mile in their shoes.
That being said, I am so down to play as Lae’zel. Including the githyanki in a story about mind flayers tells me that Larian went deep into D&D lore. For those of you who dated in high school, the githyanki (and their cousins, the githzerai) are humanoids who were enslaved by the mind flayers for generations, fought for their freedom, and now seek their fate across multiple dimensions, even the Astral Plane. Say what you want about Larian, they’re a company that does its homework.
Baldur’s Gate 3 has the advantage of taking place in The Forgotten Realms, a D&D setting I’ve been visiting for more than 20 years. I can tell you about the fall of Daggerdale and its reclamation by its rightful ruler, Randall Morn. I can give you the lowdown on the Tuigan Horde and how it was turned back by Cormyr and Sembia. You wanna know about the lost elven city of Myth Drannor? Of course you do, you beautiful nerd, and I can tell you all about it! Larian doesn’t need to sell me on The Forgotten Realms; I’ve already bought into this setting in every conceivable way.
Larian makes long games, and I am old. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where it’s hard to commit a huge amount of time to an RPG, especially a plot-dense one that requires me to remember who’s who and what’s going on. I fell out of Pillars of Eternity 2 midway, and was baffled as to what was going on when I returned to it a year later. That sort of situation requires a full restart, obviating dozen hours of progress.
These days, my gaming sessions are often pretty short - an hour or two at most. Life has a tendency to interrupt at the most inopportune times. And gaming is one of the things I do for a living; I can’t imagine how much harder game completion would be if I couldn’t say, “Honey, I’m working right now. Can I do the laundry later?”
Last year’s excellent Disco Elysium and The Outer Worlds stuck around just long enough to feel complete. I didn’t do everything or see every branching plotline, but after about 30-40 hours, I felt like I had a satisfying experience. I want to play Baldur’s Gate 3, but I wonder if I’ll have the ability to commit to it all the way to the end, which leads me to my next problem.
And now for the elephant in the room.
I’m torn about the lack of “real time with pause” gameplay that came to define the Black Isle era of D&D CRPGs. While at the time it felt like a concession to the popularity of RTS games, it’s become a beloved system in its own right, and Obsidian’s work on the Pillars of Eternity series proves that it can work in modern games.
Larian is a great company, and I understand why people like their flavor of methodical turn-based combat. That being said, their turn-based fights can feel interminable. Or, worse, you can end up in a situation where you frown at the screen, powerless, while the enemy wipes the floor with you due to a single tactical mistake. When playing DOS2, combat sometimes felt like a chore that I had to handle to return to the story that I was enjoying. Or worse, like a gate stopping me from doing so.
I worry about difficulty curves and game balance. Swen Vincke, Larian’s own representative, endured a total party kill at the BG3 pre-alpha launch last week. Granted, it’s only a pre-alpha and he promised better balancing in the future, but holy smokes.
Larian tends to build encounters that work best when you engage in them multiple times. You go in, you die, and then you try again, with an understanding of where everyone will be and more or less what’s going to happen. Then you triumph. For someone with limited time, that’s a big ask.
In the demo, Vincke uses Astarion to stealth up to a bowman with the high ground and Sparta kick him off of the ledge at the beginning of a fight. While that’s amusing to watch, I have no idea how a player is supposed to know that that bowman was there ahead of time if they hadn’t designed the encounter themselves. And given that you only have three squishy characters by this point in the game, a bowman with the high ground is a big threat.
Later on, Vincke survives a skeleton ambush by disarming the skeletons ahead of time. But he also knew exactly what was going to cause them to resurrect. While it’s neat that you can think through encounters this way, I don’t always want to enter every new area assuming that death lurks around every corner. I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate playstyle - it absolutely is. But I don’t want to make every decision with optimal advantage in mind.
During the demo, Vincke said that the game will reward exploration. But if death is lurking behind every corner, I won’t explore much. I’ll run to the exit and never look back.
On the other hand, you always know what killed you and why in Larian games. Maybe your tank got caught up in an oil spill and then got lit on fire. Perhaps your opponent froze a key backline damage character. Maybe you just had the misfortune of playing as a rogue.
I can’t say the same thing for PoE and other RTwP games. I’ve gotten into fights in PoE wherein enemies vaporize everyone but my tank, and I had no idea why it happened. If I do it a few more times, I can figure it out, but the times that I didn’t were rough. I usually won those fights through pure luck.
In the Divinity games, the ability to use and modify your environment to your advantage made combat feel more creative and closer to the TTRPG experience. There is a real joy to creating an icy patch to knock over your enemies or enveloping them in steam to destroy their accuracy with ranged weapons. I think that could be done in a RTwP system, but it would be harder to implement.
Also, Larian’s turn based approach to traps is great. There’s a reason why “I check for traps every five feet” is an inside joke at many gaming tables. Traps are often a binary “you caught it or you didn’t” situation wherein you find it and avoid it entirely or take damage. They’re an antiquated way to tax inattentive players for resources when D&D was more of an extension of a war game than a collective storytelling experience. IMHO they aren’t very interesting.
The turn-based approach we saw in the demo means that you can think through traps in a way that wasn’t previously possible in a CRPG. I dislike traps in TTRPGs, but I may end up enjoying Larian’s approach to them.
I’ve done a lot of kvetching and worrying, but I’ll still give Baldur’s Gate 3 a try. Even when I disagree with Larian’s design decisions, I understand and appreciate why they were made. I think the Baldur’s Gate franchise is in good hands, but I hope that Obsidian eventually gets a shot at making an adventure that will look a little more familiar to my old eyes.