On October 25, 2019, a clever, funny game developed by the veterans behind some of the PC's best-ever RPGs arrived to much anticipation and positive reviews. In most other months or years, we might've been smitten with it. But The Outer Worlds had the bad luck of launching exactly 10 days after Disco Elysium, a game that fundamentally reshaped our expectations for RPGs overnight.
"The Outer Worlds is a fun romp around a solar system infested with capitalism and space cowboys," Fraser wrote at the time in an editorial about how Disco Elysium ruined The Outer Worlds for him. "It lets me shoot stuff with my laser pistol and also loudly tell people that corporations are shit. Sometimes I do this while wearing a stetson that makes me good at dodging. This is all good stuff, but my heart isn't in it. It's been stolen by an alcoholic detective."
I don't know if there are any alcoholic detectives in Baldur's Gate 3, but I wonder if its new release date—moved up to August 3, from its initially planned August 31—might end up giving some players flashbacks to the great Disco coup of 2019. With a full month's lead ahead of Bethesda's Starfield, is there any world, any galaxy, in which Baldur's Gate 3 kinda eats Starfield's lunch? I think there might be.
If you're looking forward to Starfield enough to consider putting yourself in a deep freezer for the next two months, please don't take the mere suggestion of this idea as a personal attack. If you're psyched for both: Great! It'll be an absolutely blessed RPG harvest. But in thinking about the kinds of RPGs Larian and Bethesda have made over the last few years, I'm already getting whiffs of 2019's Disco vs Outer Wilds comparison..
Take this line from Fraser's editorial:
"The Outer Worlds is a known quantity. If you've played Fallout and watched Firefly, you're going to feel right at home. Everything from the broad structure of the story to character progression is safe. Disco Elysium, meanwhile, turns empathy and substance abuse into attributes and will gladly murder you with a ceiling fan in the first minute."
Starfield's has a similar air of familiarity. Its pitch, as an RPG, is not "doing things you've never done before in a game." The pitch is that you've never done things before on this scale—in an RPG containing this much stuff. It's certainly possible the sheer size of this game and the options it contains imbues it with a certain majestic je ne sais quoi, but I keep chuckling about how, three minutes into Bethesda's recent gameplay deep dive, the first thing they showed a player doing was… blasting a rock to collect resources.
Todd Howard talked up "that feeling of unlimited possibilities" in Bethesda's games, but I wonder if every new planet I touch down on will actually deliver the feeling of very limited possibilities: bash some rocks for resources, jump over a few procedurally placed rocks, look at a few plants that look a lot like the plants I've seen on a dozen other worlds, but in different shades. It's still entirely possible Starfield delivers a killer sense of exploration and discovery, but I could also see that experience feeling pretty "been there, done that" after a month of immersion in Larian's Baldur's Gate 3.
I know that might sound absurd considering this is a sequel to a 23-year-old game, in an RPG setting that dates back to the 1970s—how could Baldur's Gate 3 possibly feel as revolutionary as Disco Elysium did? Or more gripping than Starfield? With as seriously as Starfield seems to be taking itself, I'm immediately more interested in an epic RPG you can choose to play as a giant badger. And Baldur's Gate 3 may not give you a whole galaxy like Starfield, but it actually has scale on its side, too:
- Baldur's Gate 3 is keeping the sandboxy complexity of Divinity but adding far higher production value cutscenes, bringing the storytelling presentation more in line with triple-A RPGs
- No one else is making RPGs of this level of sophistication and making them work in four-player co-op
- Like Disco Elysium, Baldur's Gate 3 is going to great lengths to make die rolls interesting—especially when you fail
- Quests and exploration are super open-ended: For instance, you can get to the Underdark by finding a secret elevator hidden behind an illusory wall, using a hag's magic portal, or working your way down through a temple. Or, if you have the featherfall spell to slow your descent, you can just jump down a big hole.
- Spells and abilities can completely change scenes: If you've got the detect thoughts spell, you can cast it in the middle of dialogue to manipulate people's minds. If you get caught though, NPCs turn hostile. And the druid's ability to wild shape into different animal forms opens up as many options as being able to talk to animals in Divinity: Original Sin 2 did.
And then there's writing. Perhaps Starfield will represent a giant leap for Bethesda, but in our 2015 game of the year awards, we praised Fallout 4 for its setting, but not its storytelling—that honor went to The Witcher 3. Two years later, Larian's Divinity: Original Sin 2 took game of the year because it was overflowing with great stories of its own—ones crafted by Larian, and ones we created ourselves through the absurd flexibility the game encouraged. Bethesda's written some great quests in its day, but none I remember as vividly as Lohse's journey to rid herself of a demon in Divinity: Original Sin 2, which can result in your playable character's permanent death. And she was just one of several fantastic protagonists with personal stories that weaved in and out of 80 hours of strong quests.
While the Starfield Direct tried to engineer a viral moment with a joke about hoarding space sandwiches, Divinity players know barrelmancy and a hundred other exploits make the Divinity games incredibly rewarding to mess around in. If Baldur's Gate 3 manages to keep Divinity's balance between player choice and strong narrative, it could be the true RPG of "unlimited possibilities" this fall.
And it seems like Larian is pretty damn confident after three years of early access development. While the PC release date has been bumped up a month, the PS5 release of Baldur's Gate 3 was delayed a week to September 6, the exact same day Starfield arrives. That's quite a game of chicken—and I'm pretty sure only Baldur's Gate 3 has an animal friendship spell.