Monday, November 02, 2020

Baldur's Gate 3: Everyone Is Evil

I think I'm at a good pausing point now with my early access BG3 run. I've finished the first major quest chain, reached Level 4, and struck out with my intended love interest. I may push on to the end of the current content, but right now I'm leaning towards calling it done for this run and waiting for a major future update, or the actual final release; I'm trying not to get too invested in this particular character since I know they'll be wiping the saves at some point.

So, my overall impressions? It's definitely an Early Access experience and not as polished as the post-release Larian games I've played before, but I knew that early on. It has some bones that are really exciting, and it seems like it will scratch an itch for me. If you imagine a cross between Dragon Age: Origins and Divinity Original Sin 2, you'll have a really good idea of what this game plays like.

A lot of my current complaints are things that I'm 100% sure will get fixed in future patches. The inventory system is, uh, pretty bare-bones, without the ability to sort items; they've had that in other games, so I'm sure sorting is on its way. Rogues can't disarm traps, making the "trap disarming kits" you find useless. Most cinematics are pretty janky, but the ones in the opening sequence are great, so hopefully the rest will be updated to that quality.

Other complaints are things I'm resigned to. The looting system, the bane of my existence in nearly every RPG, is bigger and more bloated and more time-consuming than ever. Also, it's 2020, and we still don't have a way to highlight lootable containers. Both of those have been true in the other Larian games I've played so I think they're deliberate choices, just not choices I like.

And there's the stuff that's been inherent to D&D for ages, like Vancian magic. Particularly as low-level characters, your wizard can easily spend all of his spell slots in a single combat encounter, and then need to hit things with a stick for the rest of the day, or else you'll need to run back to camp and sleep to get the spells back. I actually avoided sleeping for quite a long time, since story-wise it sounded like I was on a pretty severe timer, but that turned out to not quite be the case, and I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd indulged in camp visits more often. (There are also some critical plot events and companion conversations that can only be triggered in your camp, giving another reason for more-frequent visits.)  I do like how they've added a Short Rest option that gives some HP and recharges a few martial abilities. And the number of spell scrolls you loot are pretty generous, so I need to remind myself to make use of those when I'm out of magic for the day.

A few technical things: After dropping my graphics quality setting and disabling the Steam overlay, the game has been running much more smoothly for me. Every once in a while it will freeze for a couple of seconds, but it always recovers. Losing the Steam overlay does mean far fewer screenshots to share, sorry about that. The game looks fine at the lower setting but I do see the difference. There's a decent chance I'll upgrade my PC in the not too distant future to run Cyberpunk, and if so I'll be interested to see what BG3 looks like in all its ultra-quality, stutter-free glory.

I think that's it for complaints! On to the good stuff:

I really dig the combat. I'm not totally looped into the fan community, but the main complaint I've heard from old-school BG fans is the loss of Real-Time With Pause for a turn-based combat system. The main argument for RTWP is "it helps trash fights go so much quicker!" The main counter-argument is "It's better to just not have trash fights to begin with!" I'm solidly in the second camp, and this mostly delivers. Compared to BG1/BG2, fights are generally more challenging, unique, have distinct mechanics and goals. It isn't as finely tuned as DOS2, and it isn't quite as hard; again, some of that may be due to this being in EA, but even where it is now I'm highly enjoying the combat.

The most unique thing about combat in DOS 1/2 was environmental effects, where, like, you could fire a lightning bolt into a puddle of water and zap all the enemies inside it, or freeze it to make a slippery surface that would cause them to trip and fall, or ignite a barrel of oil to create a huge fireball, and so on. Those same mechanics are present in BG3, but it seems to be a lesser focus; fights rarely seem to be built around environmental mechanics the way they were in the DOS games. But there are a bunch of new elements that I really love. Going back to environmental things, you can dip a weapon into an effect to apply that effect; the most common example is dipping a weapon (like an arrow) into a flame source (torch, candle, firepit, etc.) to turn it into a flaming arrow that deals an extra 1D6 Fire damage. You can also damage objects in the environment; I was thrilled during one underground fight what I realized that I could shoot the stalactite high up above the cavern, causing it to crash down and deal damage to all enemies below me. The single most satisfying thing, though, is kicking enemies. Doing this pushes them back a short distance; if they're near a ledge, then they will fall down, taking fall damage based on the height they fell. You can one-shot some foes this way, as a Bonus Action! It's insanely fun.

I'll also call out exploration as a real highlight. The maps are extremely well-done, and particularly in the outside areas it's a blast to find hidden nooks and crannies, which often contain some rewarding loot. The ability to jump and climb is new to Baldur's Gate, and adds a great new dimension to the exploration aspect of the game.

MINI SPOILERS

The dialogues can feel a little weird sometimes. Your protagonist is mostly voiceless, which is fine; unlike other similar games, where your PC is always the main speaker in dialogues, here it is whatever character you had selected. The other person's dialogue is usually identical no matter who they're speaking to, but sometimes you'll unlock unique response lines based on your selected character's class or background. It seems like this shouldn't work, but, as you eventually realize, all of your party members share the same salient characteristic, so the dialogue generally does make sense even when it isn't delivered to "you".

One concept that I really love is the skill checks, which most often come in dialogues: instead of being a flat requirements, you roll a D20 based on the challenge rating and modified by your skill to try and pass it. So, you might need to pass a Deception check to trick a guard, or an Animal Handling check to calm a bear, or an Acrobatics check to show off your moves. The UI for this is really nice. Unfortunately, I personally am allergic to "failing" in conversations, so I almost always reload if I miss a roll, unless it's clearly a trivial flavor thing. 

I do wish that you could swap in party members for specific skill checks. Especially since, like, I can see Shadowheart standing right there next to me, so it seems like I should be able to ask her to handle that bear instead of trying it myself. Sometimes you can exit a conversation, switch to another character, start the conversation again, and then use the character who's actually suited for it; but other times you only have one shot, and if I don't like the outcome? You'd better believe that's a reload, baby.

There are also some behind-the-scenes GM rolls to see if your character noticed something. These can be Lore checks that provides you additional information during a conversation, or Perception checks while exploring that can reveal hidden objects or traps. Those are nice.

 

Going back to the title of this post: After playing the game for many hours, the single most striking thing to me is how pretty much everyone in your party seems to be evil. There doesn't seem to be a traditional alignment chart in this game so it isn't necessarily canonical, but that's the main thing I'm taking away from it. I'm really curious why that is. It could be a deliberate reaction to the alignments of vanilla BG2, which famously was tilted in favor of a Good-aligned party. It might be that evil characters are more interesting, or more fun to write. Or it might have been a way to pursue a more "dark" tone for this game.

Breaking it down: You have Lae'zel, who is a Gith; she may not technically be Evil since she's from the planes, but her whole thing is denying compassion to anyone, swiftly and mercilessly killing your enemies, and showing no patience for any weakness, so it's de-facto evil. Shadowheart is a cleric of Shar, which, yeah, that's pretty evil; she's less in-your-face aggressive than Lae'zel, but will strongly disapprove of any altruistic actions on your part. Astarion is a bloodsucking vampire, and an aristrocrat who despises the common people. Wyll seems like a good guy, but based on the cover art and his permanent buff status I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he consorts with demons. Gale is the one guy who doesn't seem to mind when you do good things, and the only person who I really got along with; even there, he's #mysterious and travels with mephits, and I wouldn't be slightly shocked to learn that he's tied up in something untoward.

Basically, I've really been missing Mazzy, Keldorn, Imoen, Aerie, or any of the other companions who liked helping people.


It does seem like BG3 is giving a lot of options for an evil playthrough; the major quest chain I just finished seems to have an entire alternate solution where you side with The Bad Guys and wipe out The Good Guys. I'm not usually tempted by that stuff in games, but I am impressed when developers include that much variety. It is less tempting when, as here, it's such a black-and-white good-or-evil choice; for me, it's a lot more compelling to choose between two shades of gray, or between pragmatists and idealists or some other thing. But, yeah.

I am increasingly thinking that in my next playthrough, I might just bite the bullet and roll an evil character. I've been talking about doing that for decades in Baldur's Gate and never have been able to do it. One strong incentive to do it in this game is to be able to pursue the romances. As noted above, the two lady love interests both despised me for my do-gooding ways, and I was locked out of romance options for both. Which is its own whole separate interesting thing; I've thought a lot (too much!) about romance in video games, and have written a lot about how characters should have more agency, and should respond to the actions of the player instead of automatically falling in love with them; I'm now experiencing what it's like when those characters don't approve of my actions. (Of course, it's entirely possible that there's a more long-term arc here, like Viconia in BG2; again, Early Access!)

After realizing I'd whiffed the romances, I hopped onto the wiki to see what it would have taken to pursue them, and was flummoxed to discover that there was another romance option... who will only join you if you take the evillest path of wiping out The Good Guys! It's a choice. 

One last final nag: I was pretty pleased with myself with how I handled the end of this quest chain, with some sneaking and trickery and stuff to assassinate bad-guy leaders without alerting the whole area. But, as soon as the last leader was dead, the entire area turned hostile to me. Which was annoying, since it's specifically the opposite of what everyone said would happen when the leaders had died, and the opposite of what I'd observed happen in previous fights. Fortunately, Quick Travel is available everywhere, so I was able to skip back to where I wanted.

END SPOILERS

Overall, I'm having a lot of fun. I think I'll wait a bit for the next major update and maybe try my hand at a bard or something.

I'd mentioned in my first post that BG3 doesn't really feel much like BG1 or BG2, and I still feel that way. There are occasional flashes: the music, particularly over the title menu, is nicely evocative of the franchise's sound. Of course, we aren't actually in Baldur's Gate yet, and there might be more familiar touches still to come. Even if this ends up being DOS3, though, that would still be a very good thing.

2 comments:

  1. Chris - it has been a while since I played DoS or DoS2, but I could have sworn that they *did* have a button that highlighted objects on the 'ground' along with containers (and whether opening them would count as stealing)?

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    1. That's what's always been perplexing to me: they do highlight loose objects on the ground, and they highlight corpses. They do *not* highlight chests, vases, boxes, crates, cabinets, sarcophagi, or any other container. It's been that way in every game of theirs that I've played, so I'm sure that it's intentional, but cannot fathom the reason why.

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