Baldur's Gate III Early Access Impressions

You must gather your thoughts before venturing forth

“Evil round’ every corner. Careful not to step in any.”

After several delays, the hotly-anticipated Baldur’s Gate III finally became available to the public on October 6, 2020. As soon as the project was announced, there was a palpable excitement surrounding it. A team of Larian’s prestige, tasked with reviving a franchise of this calibre, was bound to set the gaming world alight and it did so in style. I have admittedly not spent much time with the Divinity series, I do however have many close friends and loved ones who adore the work that Larian Studios has done with those games. Irrespective of my familiarity with their previous output, I recognise the Baldur’s Gate series as my favourite in perhaps all of media, and have been an avid Dungeons & Dragons player the vast majority of my (nearly) 30 years.

Before jumping into my impressions, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my brother Martin. Without him, I would not be the gamer and person I am today. With the release of Baldur’s Gate III, I can’t help but think back to when I was a kid and badgered him to try out numerous different characters in the original games. To think we can now play this together, at locations hundreds of kilometres away from each other, is a blessing the magnitude of which is not lost on me.

Speaking of playing together while apart...

***SPOILERS for BALDUR’S GATE III Early Access***

Descent into (and out of) Avernus

In an unusual step for me and my regular tastes, my first experience with the game was through multiplayer.

Right from the start, it proved to be immensely fun and an incredibly faithful rendition of D&D 5th Edition. The ruleset is adapted very closely, and if you have even a passing knowledge of it you’re off to a head start. You begin on a crashing ship, flying into the realm of Avernus, one of the circles of hell. You have been held captive by mind flayers. These are telepathic, tentacled creatures who you do not want to trifle with at this early stage. Their sinister plot for you involves implanting a tadpole in your brain, which will eventually turn you into one of the aforementioned squid-like horrors. A very D&D setup to a campaign if there ever was one!

Starting in Avernus is a respectful nod to the new Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus campaign for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. Larian proves their respect and understanding of the source material in an overt manner with this introduction, and with it, a knowing smile from many table top gamers out there. The turn-based gameplay is very intuitive and I had no difficulty in understanding the systems at play, due to my wealth of experience with RPGs on the tops of tables, and virtually. With that said, it’s very system-heavy and for someone who is new to games of this nature, and the often rule-intensive tabletop mechanics. There is ought to be a learning curve for a large portion of prospective players out there.

As soon as the combat started, the fun really began.

With a full party of 4 players, our team immediately leaned into our respective roles. The cleric was healing and buffing, the wizard was blasting everything in sight. I, the fighter, jumped directly into the fray and our rogue was backstabbing everything that moved. Like any good group, we were working together.

There is a rush unlike anything I have experienced in a long time when playing as part of a group like this. I would recommend this route to anyone for their first exposure to the game.

When push comes to shove, shove some more

There is wonderful depth to the combat. If you replayed the same battle over and over, it’s unlikely it would flow in the exact same way. There is a wealth of options at your disposal. The beauty of the encounters shines through in every character’s in-built versatility.

An hour or so into my first playthrough with my brother and the team, we came across an interesting environment for battle. Two large platforms, cut in the middle by a path leading to a door into some kind of sinister thieves’ hideout. Sounds fairly run of the mill for a fantasy RPG, right?

Well, not so much in Baldur’s Gate III.

Outside of your usual array of attacks and spells, there are utility actions available to all characters. You can use bonus actions to move farther and dip your sword in fire with the hope of dealing some extra damage. Most importantly, you can shove your opponents.

In the heat of combat, an enemy wizard put several of our party members to sleep. I ran up to the platform the mage was on, used my shove action and never looked back. The opponent went flying, landing on the ground and died. The job was done with exceptional efficiency. This was the exact moment I knew I was going to fall in love with this game. D&D isn’t just about attacking the enemy until they die, it’s about having options in how you deal with situations. This one, small action made me realise that Larian Studios know exactly what they’re doing.

The sheer verticality of fights and the tools you’re given to solve them are many. There is an emphasis on experimentation, and it can be greatly rewarding when something goes right.

Inglorious b******s

There are a few companions available in the current version of the game. The warlock Wyll, the rogue Astarion, the fighter Lae’zel, the curiously-named cleric Shadowheart and the wizard Gale.

There is an obvious level of care that has been taken in crafting these characters, so it does pain me to say I don’t find any of them particularly interesting.

For the most part they’re rather unlikeable. I understand that this is likely part of their writing process and done on purpose, but for me it crosses beyond that and veers into them just being s**t people and who I don’t want to interact with. Lae’zel is the biggest example of this. Her race, the Githyanki, are known to be curt and not the most accommodating of people, and she is no better than that. In my 20 hours or so of playing the game, I couldn’t describe her as anything other than a typical member of her race and that is a bad thing. It’s early days and obviously there is a significant portion of character development to come, but this in my estimation is not a good start for creating interesting characters who you want to use, much less speak to.

I will say that their unifying story beat is interesting. Your main character and companions all have the tadpole in their brain, everyone needs to be healed and each individual has a different idea of how to go about it. They’re with each other out of necessity, and may end liking each other some day and I can’t wait to see how that plays out.

The only other major gripe I have is with the voice acting, and it’s more of a stylistic thing than anything else. The performances are great for the most part, but the actual voices themselves all sound extremely similar. Some characters are hard to distinguish because of this and I’m not personally a fan of the Fable brand of everyone having a English accent, I tend to look for and favour more variety. There is the odd Irish and Welsh accent, but to me these characters largely only stand out because they’re something different on a big, English canvas. It’s really, really difficult to take major plot points seriously, when most of the voices sound like Jeremy from Peep Show.

Once again, it’s early days and there is so much subject to change. But hey, first impressions count.

The unfinished article

It’s an early access release, and there are a multitude of issues naturally enough. It took me 2 hours to get the game up and running, there are combat bugs that require reloads, animations and cutscenes that don’t work fully. You get the picture. That aside, Larian has done a remarkable job. It’s way more polished than you may think, and they have been pushing out updates daily, yielding noticeable improvements and more stability.

There is so much to discuss, yet there is so much more to come. We can expect more content in the next few weeks and months, and in concert with that, I don’t want to unleash my full thoughts as of yet. There is so much pending and a lot that will change. What I dislike now I may end up loving, and vice versa.

From the visualisation of dice rolls, dungeon master-like narration, and clear love for the Forgotten Realms, I know we are in for a whirlwind early access period, and I couldn’t be happier to be along for the ride.

All images taken from the Baldur’s Gate III press kit here

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