In February, Den of Geek descended into a dungeon-like underground bar in Paris to take part in a preview event for Baldur’s Gate 3. Journalists sat on pews in a chapel-like room to watch Larian studio head Swen Vincke play through a few hours of the highly anticipated RPG. We didn’t get a chance to go hands-on with the game ourselves, but a lot of fun was had in watching the new game at work (especially when Vincke got stuck in situations that he couldn’t immediately solve and everyone started roasting him).
The first thing we saw was the game’s truly epic opening cutscene, which is presented in a similarly CG-heavy visual style of that eye-catching reveal trailer from E3 2019. The scene introduces the main villain, a member of Mind Flayer race (the tentacle-faced foes that will be familiar to fans of the franchise), fleeing from dragons aboard a massive squid-like ship and inserting a tadpole into the eye of a terrified new character. People with knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons lore will know that these tadpoles convert ordinary folk into Mind Flayers, a process which is right at the heart of Baldur’s Gate 3’s main story.
What makes the Mind Flayers a strong villainous choice for this game? As senior writer Adam Smith told us in an interview after the presentation:
I love horror, like my favorite genre is horror and weird fiction, so [the Mind Flayers] tickle my fancy. And what I love about a fantastical setting is going into it and saying, ‘let’s treat these people like this is just their world.’ The fundamental thing I always think is, if I live in a world where dragons exist and the possibility of seeing a dragon existed, then I probably wouldn’t be scared of dragons. I’d be scared of meeting a dragon, but dragons are thing. But Mind Flayers aren’t a thing – they’re like, a really fucking weird thing. You don’t know what it wants, and you don’t know why it wants it. Well, you kind of know what it wants – it wants to eat your brain – but you don’t know why. There’s something about them that’s just incredibly creepy and evocative.
Smith suggests paying close attention to the very first shot of Baldur’s Gate 3 if you want to learn lots of lore about the Mind Flayers.
Despite the fact that Baldur’s Gate is in the title, the game doesn’t open in the iconic city that gives this series its name. After the Mind Flayer ship in the opening scene crashes, the player character (you can choose from several pre-made ones or create your own from scratch) will wake up 200 miles from Baldur’s Gate. A long time has passed since Baldur’s Gate II, and the events of that game have become history and legend for the characters of today. With all of this scene-setting out of the way, the game proper can begin.
Although the graphics in this work-in-progress build of the game don’t look as polished as the visuals that we saw in that cutscene, the world still looks grand and epic, and it’s populated by fully-voiced and mo-cap-acted characters. And as soon as your character wakes up in the playable world, they’ll begin to notice that things are changing about them.
Vincke played as a Vampire Spawn. This character soon discovers that the Mind Flayer tadpole in his head has granted him a new ability: the power to walk in daylight. And he’s also gained the ability to mind-meld with other characters, a sort of mind-reading skill that can come in very handy in certain conversations. Your main quest at the start is to find a healer and get the Mind Flayer tadpole removed, but soon you start to wonder whether your character might actually want to keep it instead. Can the transformation into a Mind Flayer be resisted? Perhaps we’ll find out here.
Whether you select one of the pre-made “origin characters” at the start or create your own from a wide array of options (you can specify your species, gender, background, and much more), your character will discover that the tadpole has given them the mind-meld ability and something else that they want (their own equivalent of walking in daylight). You will also pick up companion characters along the way, but they can die permanently if you muck up a battle particularly badly. We asked Smith whether it’s difficult to write a game where players can create such vastly different characters, and you can’t even guarantee which companions they’ll have at any particular time, and his answer was a passionate one that speaks to the level of thought that Larian is putting in behind the scenes.
“Everything about writing for an RPG with this much relativity is incredibly complicated. I don’t think difficult is the right word because it’s fun – it’s like solving a puzzle, so it’s actually really enjoyable. There are points when you just go, ‘Is this too complicated?’ But on the whole, it’s just really good fun,” Smith says. “I was writing dialogue maybe two weeks ago, and I was looking at it, and I was like, ‘This only happens if you’ve done this and that, and also you are this person. I think four people are gonna see this!’ And that’s why it’s cool, because those people are gonna put it on Reddit or Twitter, and they’re gonna be like, ‘Look at this thing now!’ And then everyone’s gonna be like, ‘How?! I do not remember that at all!’ And there’s a hell of a lot of that.”
And this is before you factor in the fact that players will be able to choose between a single-player experience or four-player co-op, which must make it even more complicated for Larian to put Baldur’s Gate 3 together.
As we watched Vincke play, one of the first things he did was work his way toward a castle-like building with a locked door. Here he met a female character named Shadowheart, and there was an admirable amount of options to choose from during the resultant conversation. Vincke soon learned that Shadowheart has been affected by the Mind Flayer attack as well. She joins the party as a companion, bolstering Vincke’s battling capabilities, which gave him the confidence to show off the game’s combat systems.
Fans of the previous games in the franchise will be pleased to learn that they’ll be getting another turn-based combat experience here, and one that has a huge amount of options. You’re able to approach situations stealthily if you wish, or there are weapons new and old to choose from if you’d rather go in all-guns-blazing (the return of the Magic Missile is back). AI enemies seem pretty smart, and it was entertaining to watch Vincke struggle through his first few clashes because of his low-level playable characters.
It looks like you’ll really have to think about your every move, which is arguably a good thing, or you’ll end up in some very tricky situations. At one point, Vincke threw his character’s boots at an enemy for want of anything better to do – and they actually did some damage! You’re also able to plan for upcoming skirmishes in advance – you can stack crates to create a high-ground, for example, which could give you a better position to attack from and increase your chances of victory.
Speaking of playing the odds, it’s worth noting that chance is one of the core elements you’ll be battling against in the game. Much like in a real-life evening of D&D, a lot of things you want to do will require a roll of the dice. If you want to convince a character to do something for you, for instance, you’ll have to roll for it and hope that you score a high-enough number on the dice. Watching Vincke struggle against chance itself was also quite amusing as a spectator, and these rolls make it very unlikely that any two playthroughs of Baldur’s Gate 3 will be the same.
Vincke also took us through a number of different dungeons in the game, each of which had its own little quirks. One had a tomb-like area where you have to use careful timing to dodge big bursts of fire, which Vincke approached using a special gameplay mode that allows you to tackle any task you want in a turn-based way. You can, alternatively, wander around freely if you’d rather – the fire bursts are timed by seconds rather than turns if you play it that way.
Another dungeon had heaps of verticality, and Vincke was climbing up ladders and sneaking along beams to get the drop on his enemies in that one. He also showed us how hilarious it can be to stealth up behind an enemy and then send them flying off a ledge. You can even have one character sneaking up on someone while another character is locked in a dialogue exchange. There seem to be loads of ways that you can approach any combat situation, and the Larian staff assured us that each playthrough they’ve attempted has thrown up different challenges and outcomes.
Another thing we’re looking forward to is the decisions you’ll be able to make throughout the story. We saw one scene around a campfire where Vincke’s Vampire Spawn character was debating whether or not to suck the blood of Shadowheart in her sleep – there was an option to kill the female companion there and then, which again speaks to the sheer number of options that players will be given here. Smith teased during our interview that there are sometimes 200 dialogue options that could come up in a conversation, but the game whittles its offering down based on your species, where you are in the story, the current state of the world, and a bunch of other factors.
All in all, Baldur’s Gate 3 looks great. The combat looks entertaining, the scope of the writing is impressive, and the element of chance adds a nice sense of randomness to proceedings. It seems safe enough to say that Baldur’s Gate 3 is coming together quite nicely. The graphics do look quite unfinished here (the mo-cap actors and the digital characters didn’t seem to be meshing together fully at some points) and there were a few bugs in the code that Vincke had to work around (at one point, the ability to pick locks went completely haywire), but those are the kinds of things you’d expect from a game that is midway through production. We look forward to jumping into the game, gradually working our way towards the city of Baldur’s Gate, which does appear later on, and making a lot of important choices along the way.
We’ll have to be careful with those choices, though. Because, as Smith tantalizingly teased, “even in the first act of the game, there’s a huge amount of what I would call memory built into the game – the things that you’ve done that the game remembers and will recall and bring back to you. And the later we get, the more those things are gonna come back and bite you in the ass.”
According to Smith, you’ll carry the weight of the choices you make all the way to the end of the game:
There will be very, very, very different end states. And then the beautiful, terrible and horrible thing is that you may, at that point, whether you’re in single-player or multiplayer, you might have companions with you who are like, ‘I completely go along with your idea,’ or they might say, ‘We’ve come to the point where you’re gonna have to kill me if you want to do what you want to do.’ And that’s really good fun. I mean, like, having the sense of, this is your party, you’ve lived with them, you’ve fought with them, you’ve died with them, you’ve been resurrected by them, and now you’re at a point where they’re relying on you, and are you gonna turn your back on them? Are you going to make a choice that’s going to screw up so much of what they’ve tried to build? That’s really awesome.
Here’s hoping that the whole game will be.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is coming to PC and Google Stadia, with a period on Steam Early Access kicking off in 2020. We’ll be sure to let you know the dates when we hear them…