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Well, I think I took the advice to "focus on the main questline" a bit too literally and now at a mere 20 hours in I have seen the credits roll. I do think this has given me a good taste of everything in the game, but I certainly feel that I missed the point and yet I'm not entirely sure I'm bothered too much by that.
| I'm one of those people, just to set expectations here |
If you've been in gaming circles long, you've probably met one of us. A jacka— a firmly-opinionated-person who insists Morrowind was in fact the best game Bethesda put out and every release since has been on a decline design-wise. Now… I actually enjoyed Fallout 4 for the 100+ hours I put into it and will readily admit it. So, I'm not the worst of these types. But, after 15ish years of playing every BGS release, modding them to hell and back, then resetting for a few vanilla sessions before getting frustrated and modding them to hell again—
I got some opinions.
| This could be their best game since Morrowind |
See, to me the biggest marker of the difference between Morrowind and everything before and after it in BGS's library was that: in Morrowind, you could play for first 5+ hours of the game without leaving any of the towns or cities and for the next 20 you could get away with only a handful of quick stops at the local caves/tombs. You could just fast travel hop around the population centers and explore for random quests and faction storylines. It made the world interesting because you actually engage with its people in a way that wasn't necessarily measured in quarts of blood.
Starfield brings that back. I spent a good 3-4 hours near the start letting myself get pulled adrift by the random questlines you discover just by walking through the byzantine settlements and future-cities. And everytime I was just gleefully enjoying the game it was usually from such an encounter or a moment where the major questlines took some time to breath and dwell on a nicely crafted environment for you to explore and which actually took some thought to do so.
At its best the game spectacularly captures that sense of wonder and adventurous optimism that many of us feel towards Space and humanity's long history speculating on it—and our short history of exploring it.
The dialogue here is also a significant step up from their previous titles and you can really tell they were "trying" to reach a new level of narrative presentation here.
| Unfortunately its broke and it ain't in a fun way |
There's a limit to how much I can care about what an NPC is saying to me when they're chronically turning away or in the process of phasing into the next plane of existence. Dramatic moments like a character's death don't hit as hard when the one holding their corpse in lament is teleporting back and forth to seemingly act out two roles in the play simultaneously. And I don't really feel the gravitas of a great discovery if every NPC in the room interupts every other line to say "WHEN YOU HAVE A MOMENT LET'S TALK."
GREAT. LET'S TALK NOW. OH. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SAY. COOL.
It only hurts more because of how much potential the game shows at times. There are some quests in this game that had me more engaged than the whole of Skyrim's main storyline. I would get a nice little cozy tingle of SPACE ADVENTURE!™ and a smile would spread across my fat mug.
But then the next hour of gameplay would shove an icecube down my shirt.
| The primary point of pain |
I could go on about combat at length, but it's better to just summarize with an explanation of how Stealth currently works in the game. It seems to operate on a system where upon each time you load the game each NPC rolls a dice to determine if they are a bloodhound or a rock:
"Bloodhounds" will notice the scent of the paint of your armor as you stand on the other side of a wall and can spot your invisible companion with ease. And once a bloodhound becomes even the slightest bit suspcicious you exist, the entire dungeon will be alerted to you and stare at you through those walls until you move somewhere they can finally trace a bullet path to you.
"Rocks," meanwhile will let you land sneak attack criticals on them as they shoot in your direction because you're kinda far away and they need to update their prescription. They honestly think they're simply in the middle of target practice and they're very confused by how their bullets keep bouncing right back at them.
And, as mentioned, if you happen to reload a save all roles will be shuffled. Good luck.
Stealth is usually my preferred build in a game and it has existed in every BGS game since at least Daggerfall.
| There are other points I could make but I'm not sure I care |
For instance, I could probably double the length of this review just commenting about how this game tries to balance scripted and player directed content and how well that does and doesn't work. But quite frankly I think the game just made me too darn upset with its UI jank, physics issues, animation misfires, and obscene balance flaws to care.
I will reiterate again: there is cool stuff here. But you have to have a higher tolerance and better luck than me to walk away feeling good about it.
Although, there is one other point I want to touch on.
| Final aside on the main plot |
I'll avoid the specifics for spoilers but—contrary to what I see as a common opinion—the main story doesn't really have the weight people say it does unless you've invested some time into the world and characters. So learn from my mistake and don't mainline the whole thing.
There's a point with a pretty obviously significant gameplay unlock. From that point I would suggest setting the main quest on the back burner and doing side quests until you're just about sick of the game (which, hopefully for you, will be many hours later than it was for me).
Personally, I didn't really find the main plot all that interesting. However, there were two surprisingly fantastic segments in the last third that I quite enjoyed for their own merits.
| The average player will probably enjoy this game just fine |
I'm too familiar with this studio. The lingering pain points are too glaring to me. I was hoping it would be a new start for the studio but they snuck an overstuffed suitcase onto the flight. They are at least in a new city, but we still have some work to do.
If you move your frame of reference a few years forward, however, things are looking amazing and I hope many people have fun exploring the Cosmos.
I wasn't old enough to go on a bender with my mates in the late 90's, but I feel like this game captures that experience.
It starts as dumb fun; communication is done mostly in movie references; bodily fluids get everywhere; and if you're the first to sober up you're in for a rough end to the night.
| An aside on self-sabotage |
I played this game on the Project N64 emulator, which was the second N64 emu on Windows that I've tried. Given the behavior of the simulation here, I'm now convinced all three of my attempts to play through Rare's N64 titles this year have been marred by subtle emulator problems.
From aiming, to climbing ropes, to the "pissing mechanic" everything was just a bit wrong for me—sometimes just crossing over into breaking the game logic entirely—even after applying hex-code config injections for "lag" and "FPS" fixes. So I'm going to withold most of my judgement on the game controls and mechanics.
If I play a game on a 2009 LCD with every picture processing feature on, then it's on me when a game feels "mushy." Maybe one day I'll try some of these games again on the Rare Replay or something and see what the actual game feel is like.
| I can still critique everything else |
And perhaps unsurprisingly there isn't much to say.
Conker is a 10 hour gauntlet of every joke the developers thought to cram into it. It's high on effort, surprisingly, but very uneven on quality. It's the kind of experience where one minute an entire boss fight is orchestrated to an opera song with some fairly impressive vocal range on the performance, and the next you're running into slow moving blades underwater because you can't judge distance with the flat rendering and tight FOV.
Sometimes you'll giggle to a cheeky Terminator reference in a boss fight. Sometimes they're just doing a drawn out remake of the bank lobby scene from the Matrix with no actual punchline. Sometimes its such dumb fun its charming. Sometimes you feel like you need to sit in confessional just for playing the game.
It's very... NewGrounds-esque. Whichever came first.
| You can never accuse it of a lack of variety |
For those who value novelty in experience above all else, this game can definitely deliver on that. It's 30 different tech demos jammed together, each made special for a joke and thrown away after the telling whether it landed or not. It's very uneven, but I actually enjoyed that part about it (when my emulator wasn't sabotaging me).
It has that sense of dream logic lunacy that made text and point-n-click adventures so charming.
I frankly don't think I'd recommend this game to anyone—as I don't want to be associated with it—but it was a fascinating little bit of gaming history to witness.
Baldur's Gate III is the most ambitious, high-production Computer Roleplaying Game since Dragon Age Origins. The degree to which they realize that ambition is astounding, but its scale also amplifies the effect of the many footguns in its design.
Footguns I can talk about with confidence because I put well over 100 hours into the game. That said, the fact I put that much time into it in a month should be seen as a glowing endorsement for the game.
In terms of core gameplay, technical depth, the presentation of the story, and visual aesthetic I can't call BG3 anything less than a superb evolution on what Larian has been building since Divinty Original Sin. It's pretty, it's flashy, it's deep, and it's densely packed with handcrafted encounters for you to discover in ways that will be unique to each player and playthrough.
Almost everything has narrative context. Every character is voice acted and most are motion captured. The writing has many great moments: rich layers of character, surprising plot developments, capturing moments of drama, excitement, intrigue, levity, and—more often than I expected—some rather dark turns.
| The meat of it |
Exploration is immensely rewarding and varied. Talking to every NPC can lead to unexpected quests and opportunities and sometimes even open new paths on the central narrative. The nooks and cranies of the map hide unique treasures that often have the potential to completely change or enhance your playstyle. And the various fights you'll end up in are almost never repetitive and allow for a great deal of tactical approaches while still being quite challenging.
Compared to its Computer RPG peers—Pillars of Eternity, Dragon Age, and of course its own predecessor the original Baldurs Gate—the game is borderline an "immersive sim" with its mechanics, level design, and quest progression. My greastest point of evidence being how much I relied on my characters being built to abuse stealth and really high jumps.
Locked gate? Jump over it. Blocked Bridge? Jump past it. Running enemy? Jump on it.
Too many enemies? Hide, jump up to a high place, and pick them apart with arrows.
But I've played with alternate builds enough to know that you could have a party of physically inept nerds and still have a rip roaring good time with combat and adventuring.
Its hard for me to say how approachable it is, given my many hours of experience in the Original Sin games carrying over almost completely, but given how many CRPG newcomers I've seen enjoying the game, I wager it does well enough.
Overall, it really is a beautiful digitalization of the tabletop experience it intends to emulate, just as its predecessors were in their time, but perhaps even more dramatically so now. From the on-screen dice rolls to the sense of humor and adventure, its an almost 1:1 emulation of D&D 5e.
What then are these issues I speak of?
| Inherited flaws |
Firstly—and most cheekily—that tabletop game it's emulating is D&D 5th Edition. 5e has some longstanding design problems as a tabletop ruleset and a few new problems in the context of a video game where there is no human Dungeon Master to fill the holes on the fly. (I'll still take it over 4th Edition every time, though)
For one, class design and scaling is erratic. Some classes, like the Ranger and Barbarian, get left in the dust after a certain point while others (Paladin) rocket up to the moon with all of their damage and utility. A lot of this Larian thankfully smoothed over with some reworking of class progressions and changes to specific class ability rules, but some of its is in the core designs which didn't get changed very dramatically.
| Illusory viability |
I would even say that 5e is generally not very flexible or experessive in terms of play styles. Or at least not flexible and expressive in the ways it thinks it is. Take for instance Shadowheart's starting class as a "Trickster" subclass Cleric that focuses on Stealth.
If you try to play into that concept, you either lock yourself out of a Cleric's secondary role as a tank by picking armor that doesn't negate your bonuses to stealth, or you're locked to very particular sets of armor that you may or may not find, and to add insult to injury there's not a single useful action a Cleric can do that either maintains or benefits from stealth. Half of their spells are giant glowing AoEs for crying out loud.
Ah, but they could buff your actual stealth character to make them more effective... which is fine until your Rogue gets a few pieces of gear that give the same bonuses with less hassle, and by then their skill is more than high enough for every scenario where stealth is even a viable option in this game.
Oh, and their unique decoy ability takes a full action for a mere 1 HP on it and uses your "concentration," blocking you out of any of your other actually useful spells. By the start of Act 2, enemies will delete it from existence by sneezing in its general direction then proceed to pummel you anyway.
Then on the other end of the spectrum is the "Light" Cleric who gets free explosions on every short rest and the ability to "nope" an arbitrary enemy's attack every round.
If you're playing on Exploration or Balanced modes, none of these class design issues will likely ever matter to you, as they are balanced well enough for casual play. But it's one of the more frustrating parts of the system in how it promises certain combat archetypes and playstyles but doesn't actually support them either through poor decisions on the classes or just by flaws in the fundamental rules.
| "You notice that you can't see the treasure. Sucks to suck." |
Speaking of: pass/fail dice rolls still don't translate well to computer games. They work on tabletop because tabletop is casual and abstract. A fully realized virtual environment is not so much the latter. Especially one where I can just rewind time with a reload if I can't make it (You call it save scumming; I call it "respawning after a failed attempt."). And this is ultimately just a clumsy attempt to replace the narrative smoothing a good Dungeon Master would be able to do in tabletop.
Sure, all is well in good when your Charisma 8 fighter fails a DC18 Persuasion check to convince the guard to let you off scott free. That's just getting what you paid for and hoping for a rare exception. But try and tell me you won't reload when your master thief character fails a narrative sleight of hand check that you need to save an NPC you like.
If this was a 10 or even 20 hour game, I'd say sure: maybe you will let the dice roll as they do.
This is a 100 hour game and there are hundreds of significant dice rolls with many ways for things to go wrong. Not just a little wrong, like ruin-your-story wrong. Lose-your-spec'd-out-Cleric wrong. You aren't going to wait until a replay you never actually do just to get the sequence of events you actually wanted.
You are going to reload to redo dice rolls.
So why does the game waste so much time on them?
This is why almost every other series in the genre threw out dice rolling for pass/fail conditions. Larian found ways to do it better than its been done before: inspiration, active bonus selections, a cool interface, and plentiful alternate methods if one fails (in most cases). But that doesn't fix the problem, it just makes it more tolerable. The fact that Larian dropped the "Honour Mode" option that both Original Sin games had—limiting you to one save and erasing it on death—is very telling to this fact.
I will say, though, it was refreshing in some ways for a game to try this method again so wholeheartedly. The little dice noises are very satisfying.
| Fickle People |
Another long standing issue for Western RPGs in general is diplomacy in its many forms. The wider genre is pretty infamous for "No u" style dialogue options to talk your way through "tricky situations." Ideals dismantled, higher reason found, passions cooled (or maybe ignited?) all because a pretty guy said "have you tried X instead?"
That isn't actually that unrealistic on its own (human history is full of a lot of hard to explain decision making) and Baldur's Gate III does a much better job avoiding this tendency than a lot of games. A certain pivotal moment in Shadowheart's storyline stands out to me, as the skill marked options actually made things worse when I tried them. But, despite Larian's immense effort on the writing and motion capture, there's still a few too many important moments where characters change their minds way too quickly and for far too little.
Act 3 in particular suffered this in my experience, with Gale's storyline there being one of the prime examples of that kind of emotional whiplash. One minute he's venting pent up frustrations and resolving to go one way on a decision, then the time comes to choose and he talks like he had always intended to go the other after you say one line of your opinion on the matter.
| Almost too chaotic for tactics (almost) |
A good amount of my core issues with combat are downstream of the dice rolling problem as well. It's hard to feel tactical and clever in the moment to moment when the deciding factor between your plan handing you a quick victory or a miserable defeat is a mostly arbitrary 30% chance for a spell to either work completely or not at all.
This kind of chaos is fine for a casual tabletop session with the boys where the DM is probably fudging the roles for the most exciting outcome anyway. Or even a faster paced game where the individual chances aggregate more. It's less fine for a game that offers you a "tactical" difficulty, tunes things relatively decisively, and hits you with some pretty insidious encounter designs.
Is it an unmanageable tactical experience then? No. The tools at your disposal are just well enough designed and plentiful enough that there's almost always some way to recover and wrest out a victory. But those recovery options burn a limited pool of resources.
| Resource management and risk mitigation (the HR way) |
There is almost no item farming in this game: once an area has been looted, it's empty. So, if you rely on chugging potions and burning scrolls on every fight, you will only make future fights more difficult by exhausting most of what's available. Not to mention the rest and recovery mechanics require a steady supply of food and can advance certain time sensitive quests so you have to be mindful there as well.
There are shops that replinish some consumables every day, but that requires gold which you also can't farm. (Those willing to pickpocket, however, bypass this issue entirely)
Where this led me was the practice of intense pre-fight risk mitigation and stingy consumable usage. Most fights ended in 2-3 rounds for me because I had already scoped out the field and used stealth to position myself for the greatest advantage I could, leveraging my power-gamed character builds.
That might sound very enticing to many of you, and it is, in fact, a lot of fun for a while.
But I'm a bit too familiar with Larian's mechanical design at this point and know a lot of really nasty, tension deflating exploits that have ironically been reintroduced from Original Sin 1. Yes, I could just not use them, and I try not to. But when the first two fights of a potentially expansive dungeon drain most of your resources playing the normal way and you don't know what's next, you tend to stop pulling punches.
And the main set piece fights really hammer in the long term immersion issue with this risk averse playstyle as I often ended up reloading after a failed first attempt only for "divine inspiration" to tell my characters exactly where to stand and what pre-fight buffs to use before triggering the cutscene. All because the alternative is risking another 15 minute failed attempt because some bad dice rolls foiled my most important plays of the fight.
Which brings us to another inherited issue.
| D&D 5e does not scale gracefully |
Both up and out.
As mentioned Larian did tamp down on the worst of the power scaling. They limited player levels to 12 as opposed to the tabletop game's max of 20 and smoothed out some of the class designs. But what I'm actually focusing on here is the "action economy" of the game (how many actions per round each side of a fight has available) and the time scaling of combat.
The further the game goes the more health everything has, the more actions they have, the more effects get layered into fights, and the more enemies there are. In Act 3 especially the combat tracker is frequently overflowed because of how many combatants are actively fighting, and that's before everyone starts summoning more. None of this scaling comes free from a real-time standpoint. The bigger the fight, the slower it goes as a rule. The variables at play, the more you and the AI have to figure out to make good decisions.
Larian did introduce a nice mechanic allowing allied characters with adjacent turns to act together, but that's another thing that gets mangled by dice rolls and class balance. Eventually characters' "initiative" values vary too much even on the same side, causing allies and enemies to get evenly distributed in the order and forcing everything back to one-at-a-time.
By the late game it wasn't uncommon for a single round of combat to last 10-15 minutes. The finale getting the absolute worst of this and unfortunately deflating the rest of any emotional momentum I had at that point.
| There's no "oil field" moment for me |
Ultimately, I walk away from the combat of Baldur's Gate III a bit disappointed as a fan of Larian's last two games. 5e has some fun stuff, but its ultimately not as interesting of a tactical sandbox compared to Original Sin. Abilties and effects have relatively unintuitive, restrained interactions in general and have to rely too much on special cases and rule exceptions. And the ruleset's general lack of determinism only multiplies that effect.
Most people won't engage in the game to a level where what I've been talking about matters, and there's still plenty of fun to be had even if you do.
I was just hoping the game would eventually give me another moment like I had in Original Sin 2, where a seemingly non-descript fight next to an oil drill organically evolved into a desperate fight for survival on a smoke filled tower amidst a sea of flames—and that was after multiple attempts. But everything in BG3 felt rather tame in comparison. Often creative, surely... but tame.
| That's enough about 5e |
It feels unfair to critique problems with a ruleset Larian didn't actually design and which the majority of the gaming sphere has determined they are fine with. So I'll focus now on what they are actually responsible for.
| Scope |
If this was 10 years ago, I would have nothing but praise for their ambitions and be perfectly willing to overlook every rough edge, disappearing player model, out of sequence dialogue, and Vulkan rendering crash. But now we're in a world where Final Fantasy games are considered "shorter" compared to the average AAA release.
The first two acts of Baldur's Gate III were fantastic. Act 2 definitely a bit rougher, but constrained enough that most of the polish of Act 1 still carried through.
Then Act 3 arrives and is both larger and much messier than both. The hard part for me analyzing it, is that it doesn't have any less heart. There's a lot of cool things going on in the Act and clearly the team at Larian was excited to do it all. And a lot of it is good. Like 80%.
But that other 20% is cripplingly problematic: screwed up quest progression; rushed dialogue; pacing sinkholes; immersion killing glitches. The works. I was fortunate enough that none of it broke my solo playthrough entirely, but my co-op partner was not as lucky with his solo games and had two of his playthroughs borked by glitches.
| Plot juggling |
And by Act 3 there are just too many active plot threads going on in general for me as a player to follow meaningfully. As an example, there was a major companion questline that I let end with the companion's (permanent) death in an unrelated event because I just couldn't spare any more brainpower to figure out how to reconcile it with all of the other threads I was trying to resolve.
In this game, quests do not just automatically resolve because you follow a marker and they often spill into each other in both symbiotic and conflicting ways. That is special and I love that.
But that also limits how many you can actually handle dealing with in a single playthrough.
If this was a 20 hour game like Obsidian's Tyranny, that would be fine. But this is very much not that short and the overwhelming majority of players will not be seeing Act 3 a second time. So it's pretty frustrating when a plotline you were interested in gets borked because of a decision you made 10 hours ago without quite realizing it (sorry, Lae'zel).
Again, that would be exciting in a short game. This is not a short game. So instead I experienced snowballing apathy for the last 20-30 hours of the narrative.
| Faerun's babysitter |
This apathy I think also really colored my experience with the companion characters and a lot of the supporting cast. I'm not sure if the apathy was the start or the result, but by the end of Act 2 I began to feel less like my character was a "budding hero with his band of troubled but ultimately dependable allies," and more like I was "the designated driver after a particularly bad bender and we have a group assignment due tomorrow."
That example is maybe a bit too hyperbolic. The character storylines are quite interesting in their own rights. The issue is that once you mix in the rest of the supporting cast failing miserably to resolve their own issues without killing someone, themselves, or selling their souls to the devil (literally) you start to have flashbacks to your college days. Or at least my college days.
I did not get any sense of reward or accomplishment when the other characters showered mine with praise as a hero. All I heard were the desperate pleas of my fellow back row sitters looking for someone to tell them what to do.
In one sense, that made one particular villain character's offer very compelling near the end, but I can't abide ends-above-the-means logic so I had to refuse it and trudge on as the reluctant babysitter.
I would perhaps recommend to other to pick one of the origin characters instead of a custom. The story might work better when your character is also damaged. My great weapon fighter and his pristine moustache were simply too untainted, reliable, and self-sufficient for what the story was trying to do, I think.
Off the top of my head, the only characters I can think of that got by fine without your handholding were an 8-year-old orphan, a strange ox, the literal devil, and the final boss. The last two of which I killed, so...
I understand that it being an RPG means the story is geared to give the player as many important things to help with as possible, but there's a point where you compromise the believability of the world. The investigators are incompetent. The guards are useless. The freedom fighters are outmatched. The gods are impotent. Their champions are failures. The "good guys" are all wearing red shirts under their armor. The defenseless civilians emulate deer on the road. The villains are self destructive. And even the thieves guild is outdone.
Your character is not just a "factor" to tip the scales of the conflicts in the story, they are the single, final brick holding up an entire collapsing building.
| The exploration really is quite excellent, though |
Despite all of the critiquing (or perhaps complaining) prior to this paragraph, I still hold this game in rather high regard. That's because as an immersive sim experience it's so intricate, varied, and reactive that my disappointments about the narrative couldn't spoil my whole experience. Even if I no longer really had much emotional investment in the proceedings, I was still really curious to see what routes and outcomes were possible.
| What about co-op? |
I had fun with it, but this is going to be so heavily dependent on who you're playing with that I can't comment much, other than to say that it's the most properly accomodating co-op CRPG I've played, just as Original Sin was before it.
Actually, it shouldn't be understated how well it works. You can even properly quick save and load safely while one player is mid conversation and the other is in combat on the other side of the map.
Any other game I've played, that scenario would be unthinkable. But it's effortless here. So major props to Larian on that.
That might sound small, but multiplayer in CRPGs is usually tacked on at best so everytime its good I'll celebrate.
| Not the crowning achievement I thought it'd be, but an achievement nonetheless |
Between great art direction, a rich world to traipse through, plentiful moments of genuinely entertaining dialogue and action, and a wide array of possible playstyles, Baldur's Gate III is a very impressive game and Larian should be proud of their work so far and enjoy its great opening sales and acclaim. But it's a shame that so many of the fibers of the game are left loose at the end and easily frayed.
I recommend anyone interested in RPGs and especially D&D to give it a go, but I also think most people could probably wait a bit longer for the first few big post-launch patches before they get deep enough to hit Act 3. My reaction actually seems to be a minority view on the story as well, so maybe you'll fare much better than me.
In any case. Cool game but glad to be done. I will probably not finish my co-op games anytime soon.