Larian Studios showcased Baldur’s Gate III with a playthrough of an early alpha build to a rabid throng of fans at Pax East. The audience was warned from the start that “there may still be a few bugs.” And Larian was not kidding: the early alpha build is as incomplete and unstable as one would expect. But the promising gameplay was more than enough to stoke the fires of excitement for fans of Dungeons & Dragons and action RPGs alike.
The game started with an opening cinematic. Well, the first third of one, anyway. At one point, the (spoilers incoming!) prerendered video of Illithids administering tadpoles to captured humanoids crashed to the character selection screen. However, the audio from the cutscene continued. So the audience was treated to dramatic music swells and increasingly urgent dialog as the presenter awkwardly shrugged and selected his race and class. And there look to be a large variety of both: in the short demo, the audience was treated to choices between a human, elf, or half-elf, and the more uncommon races like tiefling, drow, or even githyanki. Backgrounds included everything from a dark cleric to a vampire spawn. The choices for customization in the final game are shaping up to look quite impressive.
The gameplay looks familiar to those who have played previous Larian games: the combat is turn-based and members of the player’s party and the enemies each take their turn according to their stats – and a bit of luck of the dice. Just as with Divinity II: Original Sin, combat options are limited only by the imagination. The first encounter with a group of intellect devourers resulted in a game over thanks to multiple player critical misses and multiple monster critical hits, but the second attempt was met with success thanks to a myriad of cool new tricks. One player character dealt a backhand slap from a mage hand spell, and another delivered a bonus action in which a spare boot that was removed from his inventory and thrown at the enemy like a projectile. It landed with a satisfying thud and the intellect devourer collapsed, defeated.
Another example of intuitive thinking: the equipped bow was placed into a nearby fire, setting it alight. Arrows that were fired from it were now also set ablaze. When they struck their targets, they also went up in flames, taking additional fire damage.
Boxes and other objects can be stacked to create rudimentary staircases. The presenter quickly and effortlessly built a staircase to reach treasure atop a cliff. Unfortunately, he also accidentally clicked on a friendly target, causing one of his party members to immediately attack the other with a knife, dropping their health precipitously. The audience laughed and gasped when he showed us the damage in the character stats screen.
The traditional stats from Dungeons & Dragons are here: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Larian has faithfully translated how they affect the player’s actions in the PC game, much as they do in the tabletop version. In one interaction with a friendly NPC, dialogue options were not available because the player character did not have a high enough score to succeed on a persuasion, deception, or intimidation check.
Each new feature throughout the presentation was met with excitement, and then immediately followed by another bug. The presenter rolled a six on a persuasion check, and the NPC engaged him in combat. The presenter tried climbing a ladder to engage his foe, but the pathfinding is not yet finalized, so the audience was treated to the party using all of its movement speed to climb up a ladder, turn around and climb back down it, then ascend and descend it again two more times. The enemy was not reached, and a party member was killed off permanently. While such a turn of events would be devastating to experience in a final version of a game, here during the alpha demo it was another welcome moment of unintentional hilarity.
There were more opportunities for the game to showcase its brilliance despite its current flaws. First, the presenter targeted a giant statue’s head. It toppled from its shoulders and crashed through the floor below, revealing an abandoned crypt beneath. When the presenter explored its depths, he looted the weapons from each skeleton he passed. When the skeletons did inevitably arise to attack the presenter, they all did so unarmed, having just been picked clean.
The presenter ended the demo with a tantalizing “I want to show you one last thing.” Then the game promptly froze, and the interface began rapidly toggling and untoggling, and a loud thunk thunk thunk replaced all ambient noise and music. The presenter closed the game, thanked the audience for their time, and answered about five minutes of questions before PAX enforcers turned up the music to end his presentation and clear the room for the next presenter.
Thanks to a failed opening cinematic, multiple game crashes and restarts, and a forced, abrupt end, the Baldur’s Gate III presentation was without a doubt the worst presentation I have ever seen, especially for a AAA title. But, thanks to the numerous features and tantalizing gameplay in between each spasm of chaos, I walked away more excited than ever to return to the Sword Coast and once again walk the streets of Badur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate III has a long way to go, but it could arrive as early as 2020 on PC to the Epic Game Store, Google Stadia, and Steam.