The developers at Larian Studios remain true to their tradition and are also sending their prestige project Baldur's Gate 3 into Early Access. The team from Belgium has had very good experiences with Divinity: Original Sin 2 and its predecessor. In this way, enthusiastic RPG fans can try out the game in advance and provide valuable feedback for the developers. Larian boss Swen Vincke emphasizes time and again that working with the community is essential to further improve a game on the way to perfection. In the end, Divinity: Original Sin 2 only became the outstanding role-playing game thanks to the valuable player input during Early Access, which made it the best-rated PC game of 2017 according to Metacritic.
The expectations of Baldur's Gate 3 are of course correspondingly high, and the great name of the legendary role-playing masterpieces by Bioware only intensifies them. The Early Access version therefore already starts with a lot of content that should give the players a comprehensive picture. The trial version includes the first act of the game with 46,000 lines of dialogue, 600 different characters, 146 spells and actions, and up to 80 battles. In the course of the early access phase, the existing content and the range of features will even be expanded. But first to the current status.
Baldur's Gate 3 is based on the universe of Dungeons and Dragons as well as on the rules of version 5e of the pen & paper role-playing game. Character creation at the beginning of the game is designed accordingly. In addition to the ready-made so-called Origin characters, which are among the companions in the game, you can of course also play a completely self-made main character. There are eight different races to choose from in the Early Access version. Some of these are divided into further sub-races, which ultimately leads to 16 playable races. These include visually very different species such as githyanki, tieflings and halflings.
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These can still be optically adjusted individually – and here the character editor really surprised us positively. Although we can basically only choose from a handful of faces per race, a few color settings, two dozen hairstyles as well as tattoos and make-up, we can build amazingly versatile and, above all, pretty characters. This is where the effort of Larian Studios pays off, digitizing well over a hundred faces of actors and models in advance and converting them into face options for the individual races. Incidentally, voice and facial hair can also be set regardless of gender. A female dwarf with a deep voice and a full beard is therefore no problem at all.
Before we start, however, the character naturally needs some playful depth. The six basic classes cleric, fighter, ranger, villain, sorcerer and wizard are initially available. As the level rises, these classes can be further developed into different subclasses in the course of the game. For the beginning, we only define a few starting skills and the distribution of skill points. Anyone who is familiar with D&D should find their way around here immediately; for everyone else, the individual elements are explained with informative tooltips.
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For the start of the game, the developers used a proven pattern. We wake up again on a ship from which we have to escape while we are taught the game mechanics bit by bit. Only this time it is not an ordinary ship, but a flying nautiloid of the Mind Flayer. Badly damaged, this one races through Avernus, the first level of hell. While we meanwhile make our way to the bridge to steer the vehicle back into the material plane of Faerun. The prelude is already very exciting and makes it clear that Baldur's Gate 3 will probably not just be about our fight against the Mind Flayer.
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Anyway, we ended up stranded on the Sword Coast in a rural area a few hundred miles east of Baldur's Gate. Since the Mind Flayer have infected us with a so-called Tadpole, which lodges in the brain and inevitably leads to us transforming ourselves into a Mind Flayer, our first and foremost goal is of course to find a way to get rid of this parasite . So we begin to explore the area in the best role-play manner in order to orientate ourselves. Baldur's Gate 3 is played as usual in the classic iso perspective by giving our character movement commands with a click of the mouse or having containers searched for useful objects.
But of course we still have chic 3D graphics in front of us, into which we can zoom in quite a bit to admire all the beautiful details of the game world. For the display, the developers at Larian Studios use their in-house Divinity engine, which is used in the brand new version 4.0. This is particularly evident in dialogues and cutscenes. Here the game has now reached a production quality that does not need to hide from well-known triple A titles. All dialogues were recorded with a complex performance capture. The linguistic and animated presentation of the conversations is therefore at the most modern level. Baldur's Gate 3 shows in an impressive way that classic role-playing gameplay and modern staging do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Every corner makes it clear that we are dealing with a profound role-play through and through. This already begins in the dialogues already mentioned. Here we have a wide variety of possible answers, each of which steers the conversation in completely different directions. Again and again, specific options emerge, depending on the race, class or background of our hero. Furthermore
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Many answers also require a skill check again and again. If we want to convince someone, there is a persuasion check based on our charisma value. As befits D&D, a D20 cube is of course used. However, it is not thrown somewhere in the background, but actively triggered by the player in the UI. As in a real round of pen & paper, the player is always the active element in everything that happens.
Of course, this also has its consequences. For example, if we fail with an attempt to convince the person we are speaking to, the conversation partner will not be able to take it so well and the conversation will develop in a direction that is not at all useful to us. This is exactly where Baldur's Gate 3 draws a large part of its fascination. The incredibly complex permutations of what can happen lead to interesting and always different stories. This is reinforced by the general freedom of play, which is even higher than in the original Sin 2.
Let's decide to go left instead of right at a fork in the road. This simple consideration alone can lead to changed situations in the further course of the game. The possibilities to go different ways are manifold and are not limited to the question of which direction we take at an intersection. Our characters can now climb or climb smaller differences in altitude
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Jump over obstacles. The developers also took these possibilities of movement into account throughout the intelligent level design. If you think outside the box or just try a little, you will find hidden areas or a new way to surprise enemies. Or you can find a hidden entrance underground. Because the game world of the Early Access area not only extends over the already enormous surface world. There are different cave systems to explore, some of which connect entire areas. Last but not least, attentive explorers will find underground access to the so-called Underdark, where a completely new, additional world opens up.
With all the decisions, be it in dialogues or when exploring the game world, you as a player are well advised to discipline yourself a little and not to make permanent use of savegames just because a situation does not develop as desired. Instead, there is much more tension in living with your mistakes and letting the story unfold, like in the pen and paper template. Who knows what possible positive effect a rather negative experience will later have or what adventures the wrongly chosen path will lead to. This depth of content also results in a tremendously high replay value, with which there are still many new corners and stories to discover with great certainty even with the second or third play through. For example, on our second run we would like to find out what the vampire Astarion is all about. This potential companion did not survive our first meeting because of unfortunate decisions.
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Pen & paper in digital format
The fighting is also potentially fatal. Whether for our heroes or our opponents, of course, we have it in our own hands. Unlike the classic predecessors, the battles do not take place in real time, but rather turn-based. The developers do not necessarily orientate themselves on the original Sin 2, but much more on the pen & paper template. With their system, the makers wanted to implement the 5e rules as well as possible. The makers pursue an interesting hybrid approach consisting of an initiative system and the alternating train of enemies and allies. At the beginning of the fight an initiative is rolled that determines the starting order. If two or more characters of your own hero group are placed directly one after the other, then they operate as a common block, where we have more freedom in combining their actions.
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Each character has a certain quota of movement range, one action and one bonus action available per turn. These can be combined with one another in any way. While actions include most attacks and spells, bonus actions include actions such as using a potion, jumping to another location, or some support skills specifically designated as a bonus action. When using magic it is also important to pay attention to the number of available spell slots. These are consumed by spells and can only be refreshed by resting in the camp. If the spellslots run out in the middle of a fight, characters specially designed for magic will be weakened. It's good to have a few more scrolls in reserve to spare.
Whenever possible, all advantages should be used in combat. Because life points are scarce and valuable. Here again the increased verticality of the landscape comes into play. For example, if we place an archer in an elevated position, he receives a significant bonus and is at the same time more difficult to hit by the enemy. Surface effects can also be used again, albeit no longer as excessively as in Original Sin 2. For this purpose, surrounding objects can be included. For example, if a torch is burning nearby, we can hold our arrow clean for a moment and thus receive a fire arrow. If we haven't equipped a ranged weapon, but don't get close enough to the enemy, we grab an item from inventory or within reach and throw it at the enemy in the hope of causing at least some damage. So here too, freedom of action is at the top of the agenda and it works extremely well.
With all these great impressions we must not forget that this is an Early Access game. You can clearly see that in the title in many places. So you shouldn't expect a round and polished gaming experience yet. Instead
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you have to reckon with unclean movements of characters during dialogues, for example. Also, some staging moments seem not to be fully animated and therefore seem a bit awkward. During battles we have occasionally observed glitches in the animation of characters who have died, their bodies tumbling around in wild and mostly grotesquely consumed ways.
Not everything is running smoothly in the menu either. In our experience, dividing up stacked objects reacted somewhat unruly. Changing the active character by clicking on his portrait still has dropouts. In the character overview, the display for the relationship between our companions and the main character often disappeared. In combat, the opponent's AI occasionally suffered total dropouts. For example, if an enemy couldn't reach any of our characters, you can see the AI thinking about the next step for a few seconds, only to take no further action. Once stuck in such a situation, the NPCs in question were no longer able to free themselves from their rigidity, even if opponents are now within action range again.
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But that's all whining on a very high level. At the beginning of the early access phase, probably a year away from the final release, it would be utopian to expect that everything would already run smoothly. The developers still have plenty of time to work on these things. Hopefully, they will also address the two or three small comfort defects that we noticed. For example, we missed a function to hide the helmet, which should actually be a matter of course in every role play. It would also be nice if you could move the whole group to a remote location at once using a jump command. Selecting each character individually and performing the jump function then became a bit tedious at times.
Apart from that, Baldur's Gate 3 is already making a fantastic impression. The game could succeed in what many genre representatives failed to do in the transformation from the 2D ISO age to the 3D third-person RPGs: to deliver a top modern presentation and gripping staging with strong characters and exciting story moments without neglecting the profound role-play substructure. The two Original Sins already showed that classic ISO play and 3D graphics do not have to be mutually exclusive. Baldur's Gate 3 takes this one step further with its cinematic staging.
As is so often the case with games like this, in the end everything depends on the story and its characters. The beginnings of the first act promise a lot of exciting potential. Different factions seem to be at work here and it is not certain who is on our side and who is not. Especially since we do not yet know exactly what kind of side we are on. It will be exciting to see how our currently only medical emergency entangles us in the bigger machinations that seem to be at work on the Sword Coast. And of course we can hardly wait to finally see and enter Baldur's Gate itself in its modern splendor. But for that, and for a few other things, we have to wait until the hopefully final release next year. Until then, we will carefully monitor how Early Access will develop in the coming months.
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"A fantastic experience even in an unpolished condition."
Whenever I've seen pictures and moving material from Baldur’s Gate 3 in the last few months, my fingers itched to finally lend a hand myself. It just looks so damn good. The production quality more than lives up to the big name. I especially like the characters who just look so incredibly good. I can't remember the last time I was able to create such pretty characters in a character editor. And the editor doesn't even have a lot of options, the design is simply excellent from the ground up. In any case, it is made much more attractive to me here to play with my own character instead of the Origin characters. Well, I already had the criticism of Original Sin 2 that as a player of your own hero you are not as well involved in the plot as with the ready-made characters with their personal stories. As far as I could see in Early Access so far, the developers have made a very good step forward here. I was also really fascinated by the incredible depth of the game world. My actions evoke various reactions in NPCs and my dialogues often went in completely unpredictable directions. How stories develop organically here is more than amazing. I'm curious to see what the developers will get out of the already incredibly promising game by the end of Early Access.
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