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Baldur’s Gate 3 gameplay reveal: A huge leap past THAC0, early access in 2020

Do it from behind — So far, BG3 looks like a perfect blend of Bioware’s original, Larian’s modern touches. Sam Machkovech – Feb 28, 2020 12:19 am UTC Dragon versus nautiloid, round one. The nautiloid begins laying waste to a major town in the Forgotten Realms universe. Larian Studios Thankfully, said nautiloid is interrupted by…

Do it from behind —

So far, BG3 looks like a perfect blend of Bioware’s original, Larian’s modern touches.


  • Dragon versus nautiloid, round one.

  • The nautiloid begins laying waste to a major town in the Forgotten Realms universe.


    Larian Studios

  • Thankfully, said nautiloid is interrupted by dragons emerging from a portal.


    Larian Studios

  • The nautiloid derives its power from a few major heroes, who’ve been affected by having insects burrow into their eyeballs.


    Larian Studios

  • A dragon-riding githyanki comes to save his githyanki friend.


    Larian Studios

  • Said dragon gets its head inside of the nautiloid’s controller and does some dragon-y stuff in there.


    Larian Studios

Larian Studios, the game maker behind the Divinity: Original Sin series, kicked off this weekend’s PAX East expo with an eagerly awaited look at their next massive RPG: Baldur’s Gate 3. This sequel to the acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons video game series, which was created by BioWare and left idle for over a decade, is already in a fully playable pre-alpha state, and an hour-long gameplay demo revealed what we can expect when the new game’s “early access” version launches on PCs “in a couple of months.”

In short: the Baldur’s Gate games you know and love appear to have been delicately treated in their handover to Larian, with upgrades befitting the span of time since BG2 launched in 2001. This is a modern game, in terms of 3D environments, dialogue, motion capture, and quality-of-life tweaks, but it’s also built on top of existing tabletop rulesets—and hearkens back to the era just before D&D 5E, when miniatures and tactical movement still reigned supreme.

The PAX East reveal event included footage of the game’s epic, pre-rendered opening movie. As a jaded games critic in 2020, I rarely type that kind of sentence in earnest, but the footage’s visual storytelling—about an evil force inflicting creepy eyeball-sucking worms onto a series of heroes to power a town-destroying Nautiloid, which is then chased off by heroes riding fire-breathing dragons through a portal into an icy tundra—is some of the most killer stuff I’ve seen attached to an RPG since, honestly, 2007’s Lost Odyssey. After this opening cinematic, players learn that they’ve successfully captured and killed said Nautiloid, all while teleporting it (and ourselves) to a region roughly 200 miles east of the Baldur’s Gate location in D&D’s Forgotten Realms universe.

  • This lengthy gallery is entirely about the classes available in Baldur’s Gate 3‘s early-access build. More will be added later. Let’s start with a halfling. (This gallery ends with a look at all five of the pre-made “origin story” characters.)


    Larian Studios

  • Tiefling. (We didn’t get to see the custom character creation system yet.)


    Larian Studios

  • Drow.


    Larian Studios

  • Human.


    Larian Studios

  • Githyanki.


    Larian Studios

  • Elf. (We weren’t yet told how the “sub-race” category works in BG3.)


    Larian Studios

  • Half-elf.


    Larian Studios

  • Half-drow.


    Larian Studios

  • The first “origin story” character, a githyanki named Lae’zel.


    Larian Studios

  • The human wizard Gale.


    Larian Studios

  • A half-elf cleric named Shadowheart.


    Larian Studios

  • A human warlock named Wyll.


    Larian Studios

  • The high-elf rogue named Astarion. He previously served as a vampire spawn, only to have his vampiric weaknesses altered by having one of those creepy worms shoved into its face. Meaning, he can walk in daylight. He still thirsts for blood, however.


    Larian Studios

The game’s cast of “origin stories” characters seem to revolve around this opening sequence, and Larian says it will have five such characters, with pre-selected stats, classes, and backstories, available when the game’s early-access period begins. Or if you’d rather roll your own hero, you can do so with six classes (wizard, cleric, fighter, ranger, rogue, and warlock) and eight races (tiefling, drow, human, githyanki, elf, half-elf, half-drow, halfling) at your disposal; more races and classes will be added when the game leaves early access, Larian says.

If you’re unfamiliar with Baldur’s Gate as a video game series, the short version is that it simply feels more like a true video game translation of the D&D tabletop ruleset, as compared to RPG series like Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy. To that end, Larian has reportedly built BG3 on top of 2014’s D&D 5E ruleset, which affects exactly when and how dice rolls take place behind the scenes to determine various RPG-action successes (everything from saving throws to charisma checks). But in action, the gameplay reveal’s emphasis on character movement looks more like the World of Warcraft-like systems that D&D handlers Wizards of the Coast implemented when they rolled out the D&D 4E ruleset in 2008. However you slice it, the systems are far more streamlined for single-player RPG action than we got from the THAC0-derived AD&D systems in the original Baldur’s Gate games.

Yet even when we compare to existing D&D games, BG3‘s gameplay thus far breaks free from the board games’ shackles in a key way: ditching the hard grid of a typical board game session. When moving your party members around in a time-frozen, turn-based battle, distance meters appear for whichever direction you might want to move, as if you’re equipped with a retractable ruler a la Warhammer and other classic war tabletop games. Even more tantalizing is the PAX East demo’s first battle, which includes a series of criss-crossing bridges and, thus, an opportunity for true, free verticality in combat. This gooey battle against oversized insects looks like something a mad D&D dungeon master might build with hundreds of dollars of clay and putty, and yet Larian’s demo session made it look easy for characters to leap and climb up and down these structures of differing heights and even aim attacks above and below… so long as each action passed its D&D “difficulty check” (DC) of a dice roll.

Larian producers hinted at future battles and levels emphasizing verticality in pretty severe fashion, especially when characters’ special abilities, particularly the “safely fall from great distances” power of feather fall, come into play. Jump onto roofs, drop into “very, very deep holes,” and do all kinds of other stuff, Larian says.

Something that actually feels like playing a role

  • Combat from afar, seen in traditional camera perspective.


    Larian Studios

  • Melee combat, seen from the game’s new, optional close-up perspective.


    Larian Studios

  • Explore in a behind-the-back, third-person perspective…


    Larian Studios

  • …or stick with an old-school, top-down view. It’s up to you.


    Larian Studios

  • The PAX East demo revolved around a vampire spawn who’d found himself cured of certain vampiric weaknesses, particularly sunlight. Zoomed-in dialogue sequences emphasize him making sense of these changes.


    Larian Studios

  • Here, we have the option of admitting that we’re partially OK with a worm creature being attached to our eyeball.


    Larian Studios

  • When in doubt, take the [ELF] option, I always say.


    Larian Studios

  • More dialogue options.


    Larian Studios

  • When outside of combat, you’ll see a more elaborate dice-roll system.


    Larian Studios

  • Inside of combat, dice roll sequences are skipped to speed things up. You instead see a probability estimate based on the roll of your chosen weapon or attack versus the target’s relevant defense stat.


    Larian Studios

  • If you ever really want to know what’s being rolled against, mouse over a bottom-right menu for a clearer answer.


    Larian Studios

  • Check your equipment and character sheet at will.


    Larian Studios

  • Casting a fireball outside of combat, just because.


    Larian Studios

  • In this moment of the demo, the player carefully sneaked through visible shadows, then got his character into position to attack once combat began.


    Larian Studios

  • Another example of how sneaking looks in action.


    Larian Studios

  • Initiative is determined for your entire party, not individual characters.


    Larian Studios

  • Even if they’d lost initiative in this encounter, the character here had successfully hidden and could thus get a 100% success change on shoving his foe.


    Larian Studios

  • We’re probably not going to get along with these two.


    Larian Studios

  • A tease of another combat encounter not shown during today’s demo.


    Larian Studios

  • Thunderwave in the house.


    Larian Studios

Otherwise, BG3 looks like a dreamy translation of modern D&D action into a single-player adventure. Players can elect to leave the camera in a top-down perspective or shift it to a more modern, behind-the-back view; either way, the angle is distant and floaty enough to guarantee solid tracking of your whole party while also revealing epic draw distances and beautiful views of the game’s handsomely rendered worlds. The game switches to a turn-based system as soon as something resembling combat begins, but during the default “free movement” mode, players can tap a “freeze time” button at any time to engage in turn-based action, should they see an opportunity to split the party and have one hero carefully sneak up behind a new NPC while the others engage them in conversation.

Once time freezes, players get six seconds per turn to choose a variety of moves within the official D&D ruleset, including powers that only work once per encounter, moves that require specific DC dice rolls, and so on. Want to sneak? Crouch and walk through shadows (or even use your abilities to create shadows). Want to throw a box? Should your dice roll succeed, you will. Want to use a D&D-styled action point during a crucial moment? If you haven’t blown that action point yet, you’re in luck.

When presented with dialogue, players are able to respond in D&D-style fashion. The original Baldur’s Gate video games had players respond mostly with scripted dialogue, but now players pick phrases that sound like what you might say to your Dungeon Master at a game table: “I said that it was my business, not his” or, “I suggested there might be another way in.” Your chosen hero will occasionally speak out loud in clear fashion, but more often, the game lets you imagine your exact word choice as a role player. It’s one of the most clever dialogue systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG, and I applaud Larian for trying it.

The hour-long look at the adventure, and at how it lets players engage in an epic, dice-filled adaptation of D&D’s rulesets, has us convinced that Larian is on the right track for this game’s 2020 early access launch; though the show included a vague promise of a launch “in a couple of months,” we won’t hold our breath until we hear about a firmer launch window.

Baldur’s Gate 3 gameplay reveal

Listing image by Larian Studios

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