Highly anticipated: PAX East is in full swing, and despite a few prominent companies like Sony and CD Projekt Red pulling out, there's still plenty to look forward to. For starters, Baldur's Gate 3 got its first, lengthy gameplay demo today, played live on stage by Larian Studios' own Swen Vincke.
Because the demo was so long (over an hour), it would be difficult for us to cover every little detail here. However, we'll do our best to include the most essential information, and give you an idea of what you can expect from Baldur's Gate 3 when it launches on Steam Early Access in a "couple of months."
Before starting the live gameplay portion of the demo, we see Baldur's Gate 3's opening cinematic, which depicts an Illithid (a Mindflayer) overlord placing "tadpoles" into the eyes of several people. For those who aren't familiar with Dungeons & Dragons lore, this is how Mindflayers reproduce. This tadpole slowly devours its host's brain over time, and eventually overtakes his or her body entirely, converting them into a full-fledged Illithid.
We got a first-hand glimpse of this process last year when Larian dropped the first cinematic trailer for Baldur's Gate 3. This time, our (or Swen's) player character was infected with one of these tadpoles in a gruesome first-person scene, after which the character creation screen pops up. Within this interface, you can choose from one of five origin characters (with more to come later), just like you could in Divinity: Original Sin 2.
Each of these characters is voice-acted, and they have their own pre-set backstories. Upon picking one of them, your dialogue choices will be flavored to fit their personality -- if you play as the vampire spawn Astarion, for example, you'll often have the opportunity to give in to (or resist) your bestial urge to feed.
Of course, you needn't play a pre-set character if you don't want to. Custom protagonists are fully supported. In this regard, Baldur's Gate 3 is heavily inspired by Dungeons & Dragons' Fifth Edition, so your class and race options (As well as their unique abilities) are copied straight from the source material.
For now, the available races are Tieflings, Drow, Humans, Dwarves, Elves, Half-Elves, Half-Drow, Halflings, and Githyanki. Your class options will include Wizard, Cleric, Fighter, Ranger, Rogue, and Warlock, but more will arrive later. There are no alignments to choose from, but you can make in-game decisions to affect how good or evil your character is perceived to be.
Unlike Divinity: Original Sin 2, your class is set in stone once selected. As such, the abilities you have access to throughout the game will be heavily influenced by this choice. If you pick a Rogue, you'll get access to Sneak Attack, but you won't be able to cast Wizard spells, for example (unless you select the appropriate subclass).
After picking a pre-written Origin character, Swen went on to show off some of Baldur's Gate 3's actual gameplay. Somewhat unexpectedly, the game is turn-based in combat (Baldur's Gate 1 & 2 featured real-time-with-pause fights), but real-time during ordinary gameplay (you can optionally switch on turn-based mode to sneak past enemies or interact with objects). On the surface, the animations, movement, and targeting systems are all almost directly copied from DOS2, but there's plenty of D&D 5E influence thrown in: you have actions, bonus actions, spell slots, persuasion checks, and dice rolls galore.
You might think this influence would be more limiting given how free-form the RPG system-agnostic Divinity games were, but you'd be wrong. Indeed, your options are greatly expanded -- like in D&D, you can throw objects and enemies, knock people over, use the hide or jump actions, and much more. There are also attacks of opportunity and death saving throws; terms D&D faithfuls will undoubtedly recognize. All of these mechanics seem to make the combat more strategic than ever.
Another interesting feature in Baldur's Gate 3 is its unique, Bioware-like dialogue camera. Instead of watching your characters stand stiff during dialogue as you did in the Divinity games, Baldur's Gate 3 pulls the camera in close, allowing NPCs to show off a full range of motion. They can interact with their environment mid-dialogue and display complex facial animations (including full lip-syncing).
This is quite the change from what Larian has produced in the past, but it does make the game feel more dynamic and immersive. That's especially impressive due to the sheer number of dialogue options available -- during any given conversation, the player seems to have between four and six choices. As we said before, some are influenced by your Origin character (if you chose one), but there are several "generic" and class-based options as well.
Unfortunately, since this demo was played live, there were some hiccups. Swen clearly knows how to play the game, but in true D&D fashion, sometimes the dice rolls did not work out in his favor.
In his first combat encounter (against several four-legged creatures with brains for bodies), Swen and his NPC companion died pretty quickly after his character bungled multiple bow shots. This gaffe forced Swen to restart the demo entirely, as the game's save system was broken. The good news is, things went better the second time. Swen approached more slowly and methodically, opting to dip his arrows in fire and shoot at a nearby explosive crate to deal substantial damage.
Sadly, aside from some poor dice rolls and a buggy save system, the demo suffered from some other problems. For example, Swen was forced to end things a bit early after the game locked itself into a strange, jittery turn-based mode that couldn't be escaped.
At another point, an enemy continuously climbed up and down the same ladder instead of turning to fight. These issues slowed down the demonstration and prevented Swen from showing off a few epic final moments that he otherwise hoped to.
Nonetheless, bugs aside, we got to see plenty of exploration, skill-based puzzle-solving, looting, and sneaking (stealth is based on character skill and how dark an area is). Again, we can't cover it all here, but you can check it out yourself in the time-stamped recording published by IGN up above.
Overall, Baldur's Gate 3 looks like a fantastic game. It's absolutely gorgeous, with greatly-enhanced graphics, lighting, and animations (compared to Original Sin 2), and Larian is clearly doing its best to stay true to the D&D source material. Of course, there have been some polarizing design decisions as well.
Some long-time Baldur's Gate fans are concerned that the game will feel too similar to Larian's past work: the Divinity: Original Sin 2-inspired turn-based combat system and interface are two of the bigger points of contention. However, we hope some of these fears can be soothed as the game becomes more polished over time.