Friday, July 05, 2024

First Play Review - Baldur's Gate 3 [2023]

 When Baldur's Gate 3 was announced in 2019, I regarded the news with some trepidation. Larian were an unknown quantity, a AA developer not really on my radar and it had then been 18 years since Bioware developed Baldur's Gate 2's expansion before progressing the genre with both Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age. I felt it was a bit late for a sequel and even when Larian confirmed it would not be a continuation of the Bhaalspawn saga of the original games it seemingly looked like they were just cashing in on the brand name with a flashy trailer. As a result of this I was just a little intrigued but largely ignored it until the game entered early access in late 2020.

Reports after the early access release, and all the way through its development were reassuringly positive. Of particular note were the glowing reports of Dungeons & Dragons tabletop players who were finding a very faithful representation of the pen & paper game meticulously converted into video game mechanics as well as a compelling narrative, fully voiced (with the exception of the avatar) and with state of the art graphics to boot. When the game was launched three years later in 2023, not only did I get it, I got it the week it was released, once I checked that there were none of the issues that plagued modern releases of course.

It quickly became apparent to me how special this experience was, never had I played a D&D character in a video game that was as perfectly translated from the core rules as my Half-Elf Paladin here enabling me to concentrate on the narrative, actions and consequences as I was already all too familiar with the mechanics and rules to have them be either an obstacle or a distraction. For that reason alone I allowed myself the time to play at a slow pace, savouring every interaction, combat encounter and cutscene as if imbibing an aged Scotch. My journey with the game began on August 4th 2023 and continued for a few hours a week until 22nd June 2024.

Graphically, the game is astonishingly beautiful, the environments, character designs, animations, spell effects are all above what I'd expect from what is effectively an AA studio. The sound is just as good from the effects associated with spells and combat to the sublime musical score from Crysis sequels composer Borislav Slavov and in particular the top notch voice acting with characters played by Critical Role's Matt Mercer as well as Hollywood actors J.K. Simmons and Jason Isaacs among a cast of almost 250 voice actors which leant motion capture to each NPC to create an astoundingly diverse and realistic fantasy world.

One aspect that can make a single-player RPG more noteworthy is the companions your character shares their adventure with. Bioware once held the crown for the most memorable companions that truly mattered to your own character's story, some providing needed RP skills or tactical combat effectiveness, some could be antagonistic if they disagreed with your actions while others became enamoured with your character to the point where it ended up on Fox News. Larian took everything up a notch and crafted an adventuring party of truly believable companions each with their own desires and motivations (with entire associated sprawling quest-lines) and portrayed by actors who embodied their characters to a degree that few main protagonists of other games ever will. You're never 'forced' to care about any of them, you do because you 'want' to, and some in turn care about you enough for the game to be slapped with an 18+ rating. The only drawback to your companions is that you can only take three along with you as any one time.

The main draw of an RPG to me after the overall narrative is choice and seeing meaningful consequences of your actions. Many games obfuscate the fact that most choices are simply binary - you either do a thing or you do not, or an obvious "good" or "evil" choice. Bioware, Obsidian and CD Projekt have done great work in introducing shades of grey choices to their RPGs over the past 25 years to make the narrative more compelling or to establish replay value but often you don't get more then two or three possible outcomes. The choices in Baldur's Gate 3 however, are genuinely one of the game's greatest strengths. Minor choices that change the outcome of a quest have been done for years but the sheer amount of branching decisions on offer here and seeing actual quantifiable consequences affect the quest, NPC interactions and sometimes even the overall story so meaningfully and fluidly was mind-blowing. 

Knowing that so many game experiences are hidden behind the choice you didn't pick is the type of thing that could keep you awake at night. Entire days worth of content is locked away from you depending on your actions, and there's no guarantee you'd even experience it in additional playthroughs either as a choice you make at an earlier point could result in you taking an entirely different path or perhaps you would not even meet a character that gave you the quest in the first place! Most game designers want you to experience everything they've worked hard on from all the locations, NPCs, spells and abilities. Larien on the other hand are fully aware that most players won't ever see a significant amount of their game because the amount of replays required to see it all would be prohibitive. Of course I say most because we all know that somewhere out there, someone will eventually do it.

Final Verdict: Baldur's Gate 3 is a masterpiece. It is one of, if not the greatest RPG video game of all time. It is certainly the most flawless in terms of story, choice and technology. My only regret is that I can never play it again for the first time. However for this game it doesn't matter as much as most of its predecessors because I know when do play it again, while it will have the same plot to a certain extent, it will nonetheless be a vastly different experience and one I look forward to in due time.

Technicals: 221hrs playtime though Steam in 3440x1440 @ 60 on RTX4070Ti in Windows 11.

Bugs: Some stuttering early in game. Syncing to 60FPS fixed this behaviour. Two instances of characters becoming highlighted for unknown reason, restarting the game fixed. Two instances of the avatar's model disappearing during combat. One crash for unknown reason.

Availability: Baldur's Gate 3 is available from Steam or GOG for €59.99. Review copy was purchased at full price from Steam on Aug 4th 2023.

Baldur's Gate franchise:

  • Baldur's Gate (1998)
  • - Baldur's Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast (1999)
  • Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
  • - Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (2001)
  • Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (2001)
  • Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II (2004)
  • Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition (2012)
  • Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition (2013)
  • - Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear (2016)
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance (2021)
  • Baldur's Gate 3 (2023)

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