“This is a DC 5,” said Swen Vincke, the charismatic CEO of Larian Studios, during a recent press event for his company’s newest game, Baldur’s Gate 3. In Dungeons & Dragons parlance, “DC” stands for difficulty class, and it represents some sort of obstacle, like climbing a mountain or deceiving a stranger. You roll a 20-sided die, add or subtract the relevant modifiers from the outcome, and then win if your final number equals or exceeds the difficulty class. A DC 5 is considered one of the easier checks in D&D.
“I should be able to get that,” Vincke said, then promptly rolled a 3.
It was one of many disasters Vincke faced during a three-hour demonstration of Baldur’s Gate 3, a game that attempts to recreate the beautiful chaos that is playing D&D with your buddies. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a fantasy role-playing game made by Larian in conjunction with Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D, and like in any good tabletop game, failure can be very entertaining. Vincke’s characters died to critical hits, failed to kill a guard before he could alert the rest of his patrol, got stuck in a fireball trap, and got a game over on the final encounter thanks to an inconvenient bug that made enemies appear where they shouldn’t have been. Through failure after failure, Vincke kept cheerfully playing, thrilled to finally show off his game—bad dice rolls and all.
Baldur’s Gate 3, which will enter early access later this year (and will likely be out for real in 2021), bears very little resemblance to the first two Baldur’s Gate games, which came out in 1998 and 2000. This third and much-anticipated Baldur’s Gate eschews the complicated rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (cya, THAC0) in favor of the more accessible D&D Fifth Edition. It’s also an evolution on Larian’s last game, the stellar Divinity: Original Sin 2, with a dash of cinematic flair from a BioWare RPG or, say, The Witcher 3.
The biggest difference between Baldur’s Gate 3 and its predecessors is that this latest sequel wants very badly to feel like a tabletop game. Whereas the first two games were meaty RPGs full of quests and combat and dungeon crawling, they didn’t offer too much in the way of creative decision-making. Baldur’s Gate 3, on the other hand, is full of systems to manipulate and rules to break.
It looks fantastic. Here are the key things you should know from the three hours I watched Vincke play Baldur’s Gate 3:
The most urgent question Baldur’s Gate fans have been asking about this game is whether it will use a turn-based combat system, like Larian’s previous games, or return to the “real time with pauses” combat that was such an integral part of the original Baldur’s Gate games. Sorry, Infinity Engine purists—the combat in Baldur’s Gate 3 is entirely turn-based.
Battles in Baldur’s Gate 3 feel a lot like those of Divinity: Original Sin 2. They unfold like a strategy game, placing a great deal of value on positioning and environmental obstacles. But rather than follow a character-by-character turn order, Baldur’s Gate 3 alternates between groups.
At the beginning of each battle, your party and the enemy’s party will both roll Initiative. Whichever party gets the higher number gets to go first. From there, you can assign commands to your entire party in any order you choose, alternating your characters’ moves based on what makes the most strategic sense. You can also do more than just move and attack. This is Dungeons & Dragons, after all.
One of the most interesting new features in Baldur’s Gate 3 is a set of bonus actions, located on the bottom of the screen, that allow for some cool possibilities. There’s Shove, which lets you push enemies off ledges or into pits, and Jump, which lets you leap into the air as if you’re some sort of magical frog. You can Dip your weapon into nearby materials, like a candle to set your arrows on fire or a pool of supernatural energy to enhance your sword. You can Help allies who have been knocked unconscious. And presumably, there are a whole lot of other ways to manipulate battles and do things beyond attacking and defending.
“What we try to do for combats is give you a situation and a million different ways to solve that problem,” said combat designer Matt Holland. “There are always some extra ways to turn the odds in your favor.”
Whereas conversations in Divinity: Original Sin 2 unfolded through text, with an invisible narrator describing each scene as it happened, Baldur’s Gate 3 takes a bigger-budget approach. (Larian has expanded a whole lot over the past two years.) Whenever you start a conversation, the camera will zoom in on the character talking, allowing for straight-up cinematics as if you’re playing a BioWare game or The Witcher 3.
While these cinematics look great, they’re also one-sided. You won’t see your character talking to NPCs. Your protagonist will remain silent during all of these conversations, whether you’ve made your own hero or picked one of the Origin characters—pre-determined personalities with their own branching stories, such as Astarion, a dashing vampire thrall who Vincke played in our demo.. The other person will talk, then it’ll cut to you for a dialogue option (presented in past tense, as if you’re a player talking to a D&D Dungeon Master), and then it’ll cut back to the other person without showing your character speaking.
It can be disconcerting at first, but I got used to it over the course of the demo.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is all about mind flayers—cephalopodan creatures who can control people’s brains using their psionic abilities. At the beginning of the game, a mind flayer sticks a tiny creature (the game calls it a tadpole!) inside of your character’s eye, where it crawls into your brain and infests your head. You soon learn that you’ve got seven days to find a healer before it turns you into a mind flayer.
Or do you? The answer to that question is left vague, as it becomes clear that you’re not suffering the negative effects that one might expect to suffer from the transformation process. The story will evolve from there.
Say you’re approaching a camp full of goblins and you know you want to position your party for a fight. Maybe you’ll send your archer to the high ground and sneak your rogue to the back so she’s in good position to backstab some of those nasty little creatures. In Baldur’s Gate 3, you can do all this using a special turn-based mode that you can activate outside of combat.
Here’s how it works: Whenever you enter turn-based mode, you’ll pause the world for six seconds of game time while you act (taking your turn), and then you’ll have to wait another six seconds while everyone else acts. You can use your turn to sneak around, position your party, and manipulate the environment in creative ways that will feel familiar to anyone who’s played the Divinity: Original Sin games. One of Vincke’s favorite moves is to drag a bunch of crates together to make a set of stairs that allowed him to get to places he wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach.
The number-one rule in Dungeons & Dragons is: Don’t split the party. The number one rule in Baldur’s Gate 3 is: It’s cool to split the party. Vincke did this a bunch during our demo. Maybe that’s why he did so poorly? TBD. But it’s useful to know that one of your characters could be in a battle, another could be buying stuff in a town several hundred feet away, and the other two could just be standing in the wilderness, waiting for something interesting to happen. In multiplayer, different players can control different characters and go off on their own in this way.
In other words, you don’t need to have in-depth knowledge of Baldur’s Gate to appreciate it. In our three-hour demo, there were no references to the first two games, although Larian made it clear that a large part of the game will take place in the city of Baldur’s Gate. There’s no doubt that whenever we get there, we’ll see plenty of references to the Bhaalspawn—the original games’ hero, who just happened to be the child of the god of murder.
“It’s 100 years later,” said writer Adam Smith, “but that’s not a very long time for some species. There are a lot of people who remember this, things who remember this. There are factions and places that were deeply affected.”
“Baldur’s Gate 3 is a game that rewards exploration tremendously—much more than you’d expect,” said Swen Vincke while he played. Right on cue, he ducked around the corner of an otherwise mundane section of the goblin village and passed a passive Perception check, discovering a hidden door that would lead to, he said, a secret area that you wouldn’t be able to find otherwise.
There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the game, the developer promises. One of the keys will be exploring vertical spaces using that handy Jump command, and otherwise poking around in areas that might seem inaccessible.
At one point, Vincke snuck one of his characters into an underground tomb and found an ornate sarcophagus that he knew would contain a valuable piece of treasure—jewelry that lets you speak to the dead. (Yes, you can speak to the dead in Baldur’s Gate 3. It’s a whole thing.) He also knew that there was a trap attached to the tomb.
When he opened it, flammable grease spewed all across the floor surrounding his character, and fireballs began shooting from the walls. Stepping onto the grease would lead to a fiery death, so Vincke used the spell Mage Hand to conjure a spectral set of fingers that could grab a nearby crate and move it close to his character. He could stand on the crate and use it to escape to safety.
This did not go well. Some poor timing led Vincke to accidentally set his character on fire, which led to a hilarious sequence in which he had to bring the rest of his party into the tomb to try to resurrect their friend. It was far more entertaining than an easy victory might have been.
“We always want to make failure as interesting as it possibly can,” said Adam Smith. “We don’t put everything that’s cool and interesting behind success.”
There’s Volo, the foppish poet who’s a legendary part of D&D canon. There’s Raphael, a sketchy dude who turns out to be a devil with vague, mysterious teases about what he can do to help and/or hurt you. (“Am I a friend? Potentially. An adversary? Conceivably. But a savior? That’s for certain.”) And then there are the party members, like the nasty githyanki Lae’zel and the arrogant wizard Gale. If you liked the characters in Divinity: Original Sin 2 (and how could you not?), I think Baldur’s Gate 3 will very much deliver.
Whenever you have to make a skill check, you’ll have to roll a 20-sided die, as Swen Vincke did against that oh-so-unfortunate DC 5. There’s a cool little dice-spinning animation that pops up every time you do, which seems satisfying, albeit not as tactile as actually rolling a die.
You see this animation a lot, whether you’re trying to con a guard into thinking that you’re his buddy (who you just killed) or you’re trying to sneak around a druid enclave. You won’t see the dice roll during combat—that’d take too long—but whenever you get a critical hit, you’ll see an exciting little animation tied to the 20.
Resting in Baldur’s Gate 3 allows you to set up camp, where you can talk to your party members and hang out for a while. Then, when you go to sleep, you’ll have dreams. In the vampire Astarion’s case, those dreams involve his master, Cazador, who will no doubt be a pivotal part of his Origin story. Sometimes he’ll wake up in the middle of the night, super hungry for blood. And then, if you’re playing like Swen Vincke, you’ll succumb to the urge and take a nice, healthy bite out of one of your party members’ necks.
Vincke could have killed his party member Shadowheart, but chose to back off after just a few sucks. In the morning, Astarion woke up sated and refreshed, with a Happy modifier and a bonus to all of his stats. Shadowheart, meanwhile, was woozy and disoriented, suffering from -1 to all of her own modifiers. This was all entirely optional and situational—the type of thing that most players won’t actually see—but Vincke promised that even this will have wide-ranging and lasting effects. After all, Shadowheart will almost certainly find out one day that Astarion took a bite out of her, because...
It’s a promise that’s been made by oh-so-many RPGs over the years—that all of those tough moral decisions have real consequences. This game remembers everything! It has so many branches it feels like a forest! Some games have been more successful than others at it, but few pulled it off as well as Larian’s own Divinity: Original Sin 2, in which the choices you made in Act 1 might come back to haunt you 40 hours later.
The makers of Baldur’s Gate 3 say they want to make this one even more elaborate. “We often talk about trying to make this feel like a proper roleplaying game,” Adam Smith said. “If Baldur’s Gate 3 is a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the whole of Larian is your DM. We get all these people with all these different ideas, and we try to be reactive as we can. That’s a lot of building memory of the game—it remembers what you’ve done.”
Killing a goblin prisoner might serve you well in the druid grove, but screw you over when you get to the goblins’ fortress. Finding a cache of Harper treasure might lead you down a quest that most players will never even start. And draining the blood of one of your party members could have all sorts of repercussions later. That’s Baldur’s Gate 3—an ambitious new attempt to translate tabletop to video games. I can’t wait to play it.