As someone who counts Baldur's Gate 1 and 2 among their all-time favourite games, but who never really got on with the Divinity series (despite really trying to), I had mixed feelings about Baldur's Gate 3. But how could I resist another trip back to Faerûn? And so I spent today playing the newly released Early Access version of Larian's take on the series, largely out of curiosity about how it compares to Black Isle and BioWare's legendary CRPGs.
BG3 is set a hundred years after the events of the first two games, so the saga of Bhaal and his mortal offspring is, as far as I know, over. But I'm fine with that. The end of BG2 expansion Throne of Bhaal wrapped that story up pretty neatly as far as I'm concerned, and I'm ready for a new tale to be told in this world. I don't play tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, so videogames are my only entry into the Forgotten Realms, and I can't wait to dive back in.
Of course, Bhaal could appear in later chapters of Baldur's Gate 3. And depending on which Throne of Bhaal ending the new game considers canon, we could well meet the hero of the first two games again. But that's all speculation at this point. I'm sure Larian has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve for longtime fans of the series. At least I hope it does.
So story-wise, Baldur's Gate 3 immediately feels quite different. Mind Flayers made several appearances in the second game, including in notoriously tricky dungeon Watcher's Keep and the sewers under Athkatla. But here they're central to the narrative, because thanks to a gross parasite lodged in his or her brain, our hero is in danger of turning into one.
Baldur's Gate 3 tells its story differently too. Those atmospheric chapter introductions, where the narrator sets the scene, are sadly gone. Dialogue is short and to the point, with no great walls of descriptive text drawing you into the world. And honestly, that's something I miss. I love the sheer wordiness of the old games, and how a flurry of prose would bring those pre-rendered backgrounds to life.
But it seems Larian has committed to having voice acting for every line of dialogue, so that rules that out. No one wants to have to stop and listen to an audiobook's worth of descriptive exposition every ten minutes. I understand the change, and I suppose there's always Pillars of Eternity, which continues the verby traditions of the old games in fine style.
That said, the dramatically increased visual fidelity of Baldur's Gate 3 means that Larian can tell stories with its environment design in a way BioWare never could with the technical limitations of the era. That, in part, makes up for the sparser writing. It's a very handsome game, with a dense, layered world that is, in places, overwhelmingly packed with detail.
There's been a lot of heated debate about Larian's decision to opt for turn-based over real-time with pause combat. I've made peace with that, and I don't think it's worth dwelling on. But it does mean Baldur's Gate 3, as a direct result, has a very different rhythm to the old games. Namely, there's now a sharper separation between exploration and fighting.
When you encounter a hostile enemy, your freedom of movement is suddenly taken away, forcing you into a turn-based battle. This is fine in the context of Baldur's Gate 3 and its particular flavour of tactical combat. But it's a pretty big change for the series, significantly widening the gulf between the new game and its predecessors. Ultimately, Larian is really good at turn-based combat, so the change makes sense. It just feels different.
I do like that the fog of war is back. Exploring the world and gradually revealing a mist-shrouded map as you go is very Baldur's Gate. And I appreciate the difficulty level, which is every bit as brutal as it was in the originals. Battles in Baldur's Gate 3 can really catch you off guard, even in the early hours, which recalls the first two games. After being spoiled by PoE and its relatively tough spellcasters, playing as a squishy mage took some getting used to.
One thing I'm a little disappointed by is the atmosphere. There's no denying Larian are skilled world-builders, but there's a cosiness to old Baldur's Gate that I find lacking here. In the old games, the feeling of adventuring across a wild, rain-battered wilderness then escaping into a warm tavern to drink mead by a crackling fire was pure fantasy escapism. There are no towns like Beregost or Trademeet in this build, nor any innkeepers proudly proclaiming that their hotel is as clean as an elven arse. Maybe in future updates.
This kind of dusty, bearded fantasy is old-fashioned now, I'll admit that, but in terms of mood and tone, the new game doesn't really bring back fond memories of the originals for me. But hey, it doesn't have to. Baldur's Gate 3 is a continuation of the series, sure, but a lot has changed in the 20 long years since Baldur's Gate 2 was first released on PC.
Games are different, gamers are different, and Larian is doing its own thing. There are plenty of CRPGs out there that mimic the specific style of the classics. This is a new game for a new generation of role-players, and despite some shaky tech in this early build, it's shaping up very nicely indeed.
I probably won't play Baldur's Gate 3 again until it's finished, because I'm kinda burned out on Early Access games. But when that time comes, I'll be ready and waiting, sword in hand. It isn't classic Baldur's Gate, but I admire Larian for making its own bold mark on such a beloved series.