GameCentral takes a first look at the new fantasy epic from the makers of Divinity: Original Sin 2 and what is a new classic in the making.
Considering it’s likely to be regarded as one of the best computer role-playing games of all-time, Baldur’s Gate has made a real hash of the final furlong before its release. Despite having been in early access for almost three years (albeit only the first act) review copies were sent out just four days before launch, which is madness considering it’ll probably take 100 hours or so to play through the game. Plus, it’ll take the same again to get a proper sample of the side content, alternative routes, and characters, which means we won’t be able to offer a scored review for at least another week.
Then there were all the problems with refusing to allow pre-loads, which had a predictable effect on the Steam servers, and suddenly revealing that early access users had to delete their saves. It was all strangely rushed for a game so long in gestation, and for many it immediately raised concerns about bugs and performance. That cynicism is entirely justified given the state of PC gaming in the last couple of years and, sadly, even with two patches, there are problems.
The issues are far from disastrous though – this is not a Cyberpunk 2077 style situation – and, really, the main problem at the moment is that we’ve not been able to play an awful lot more than was available during early access. Even that is over two dozen hours of gameplay though and if that was the entirety of the game we’d still be saying it was one of the best role-playing games ever made.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s quality is not surprising, considering it’s the follow-up to developer Larian Studio’s superb (except for its terrible name) Divinity: Original Sin 2. That game got a rare 10/10 from us and although this is a licensed sequel first and foremost it’s also clearly informed by everything Larian has done with their previous games.
The original Baldur’s Gate games were the first projects (except for a long forgotten mech sim) by Dragon Age creators BioWare, which took place in the Dungeons & Dragons setting of the Forgotten Realms. That fact may be off-putting to some, but it’s been a popular venue for video games since the late 80s, starting with the likes of Pool Of Radiance and Eye Of The Beholder.
It features all the usual Tolkien-esque races, such as elves and dwarves, but also much stranger ones, with Baldur’s Gate 3’s plot revolving around an invasion of mind flayers – parasitic, brain-eating Cthulhu-type monsters that, at the beginning of the game, infect you with their spawn and inadvertently bring you into contact with many of your initial party members.
What makes Larian’s role-players special is that rather than just being action games with stats, or mindless dungeon crawlers, they try to replicate the actual experience of playing a tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons. Whether you’ve ever done that is not important, as what that means in practice is that instead of every obstacle being how hard you can punch a monster, you’re free to use all your skills at any time.
This can be as simple as charming or bribing your way out of trouble, stealthily creeping your way past a fight, or focusing on magic over melee combat. It’s usually much more nuanced than that, though, and while the game can’t actually respond to your every suggestion, the way a human dungeon master (effectively the referee/narrator of a tabletop game) would, it certainly tries its best.
As long as it’s relevant to your character, then almost every dialogue option imaginable is available at every moment, while the game world features a level of realism that is only matched by Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom. Everything is governed by consistent rules of physics; there are no invisible walls anywhere; and anything that should be destructible is, including wood that burns, water and oil that seeps everywhere, and electricity that conducts with different materials exactly as it should.
The original two games had real-time combat, that could be paused at any time to issue commands, but Baldur’s Gate 3 ignores that and sticks with the turn-based system from Original Sin 2 (the game is also set over 100 years after the originals, which makes it feel like it’s a sequel purely for the sake of name recognition, but we’re not Dungeons & Dragons experts so maybe there’s something we’re missing).
The combat in Original Sin 2 is excellent, so we’re glad to see it back and expanded upon. Although it does seem oddly balanced at first, with many early enemies appearing to be overpowered but the ability to resurrect dead party members being very cheap to access – which comes across as an awkward mix.
Baldur’s Gate 3 follows the exact same Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition rules as the tabletop game, which is something games often do, and we’ve always considered an unnecessary contrivance. Or at least we assume that’s the reason why it takes so long to level up. The level cap appears to be just 12, which is incredibly low for such a massive game and means that the experience point rewards you get for completing quests, let alone just wining a random fight, are pretty miniscule.
These are issues that may well disappear as the game goes on though, and we become more familiar with the systems and work out a preferred play style, but since things have changed quite a bit since early access began, we’re not quite there yet.
On the flip side, the benefits of using the proper rules are all the weird spells and abilities you don’t usually see in a role-player, whether it’s licensed or not. Turning into a cloud of gas is, as you can imagine, incredibly useful, while you can talk to any animal and not only will they have spoken dialogue but some of it can actually be useful in providing a hint as to how to proceed.
If Tears Of The Kingdom seemed astonishing for the level of detail it possessed at least you could say that Nintendo has decades worth of experience, and money, they could put behind it, but how a, until recently, obscure Belgian studio managed to do all this we have no idea.
In particular, the mountains of dialogue are an incredible achievement and, unlike Zelda, it’s all spoken. The script is not quite as good as the best narrative driven games but it’s a notable step up from Original Sin 2, and its ability to react to seemingly every eventuality is amazing. The main party members are all interestingly well-rounded too, with hints at complex backstories and personalities that aren’t just blunt extensions of their class type or species.
So far, Baldur’s Gate 3 seems less weird and funny than Original Sin 2, which appears to be a side effect of being an official Dungeons & Dragons game, and that’s a shame. But we suspect the side content will be where the game lets its hair down more, and we haven’t really dabbled in much of that yet.
As for the bugs, there’s no consistent problem and while the lighting can suddenly flick on and off or characters glitch out it’s not that common and usually not that serious. The camera can often get stuck in one place or a line of dialogue or set piece prompt fails to trigger when it should, but while there are definitely issues it’s nothing outrageous.
The game could clearly have used a month or two more in the oven, but no more than that and hopefully everything will be fixed in at least that amount of time.
It’s not just that we haven’t played through to the end which prevents us from giving the game a score but that we’re still not sure whether we prefer this to Original Sin 2 or not. Some of the elements imposed by being an official Dungeons & Dragons product seem less interesting, but the improved interactivity of the game world, the increased range of abilities, and the quality of dialogue are all better in Baldur’s Gate 3.
It’ll be a close run thing, and we also haven’t decided whether Badlur’s Gate is deserving of a 10/10 score, but the fact that it’s even a question should give you an indication of just how good this game is.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5
Publisher: Larian Studios
Developer: Larian Studios
Release Date: 3rd August 2023*
Age Rating: 18
*PlayStation 5 on September 6, Xbox Series X/S is TBA
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