This is a monumental achievement: PETER HOSKIN reviews Baldur’s Gate III
Baldur’s Gate III (PC, £49.99)
Verdict: Game of the year (so far)
In this land of dungeons and dragons, it’s the squirrels that impress me most. There I am, leading my party of weirdo adventurers – a sulky cleric, a smarmy vampire, an extravagant wizard and a confrontational cat-gremlin thing – through a druidic grove, when I notice one of the bushy-tailed rodents on the ground.
My mouse pointer hovers over it for a second, when I notice that it’s possible to communicate with the thing. So I do.
The view zooms in; the squirrel fixes on me with its adorable eyes; and then… it pounces on one of my feet, which it proceeds to scratch and bite. Ow!
At which point, I’m presented with options: try to kick the damn thing, or observe it for a while longer, or simply walk away. I choose the middle one. More options present themselves.
After a bit more clicking, and some on-screen dice rolls to check whether my character is up to the job of communing with squirrels, the creature and I reach a respectful sort of détente. Time to move on.
Game of the year: Squirrels aren’t all there is to Baldur’s Gate III — they’re just a tiny, furry part of what is a huge, intricate, complicated game
To where? Across the way, a bard is doing something that approximates singing, with a pair of squirrels at her feet. A little warier this time, with my foot still stinging, I decide to click again. The squirrels don’t attack. Instead, they’re covering their ears against the bard’s caterwauling. Ha!
Squirrels aren’t all there is to Baldur’s Gate III – they’re just a tiny, furry part of what is a huge, intricate, complicated game – but, in a way, the squirrels sum up what’s so great about the whole experience. And, believe me, this game truly is great; certainly one of the standout releases in a standout year for the medium, and perhaps one of the best I’ve played – ever.
Because the squirrels show just how much effort has been put into everything. There is barely anything that can’t be clicked, that doesn’t reveal a secret, that doesn’t amaze and delight. And that’s across dozens of hours of narrative and gameplay.
This is, in the fullest sense of the word, a monumental achievement by the creators of Baldur’s Gate III, the Belgian developers Larian Studios. And it’s drawn appropriately large crowds: on the biggest PC gaming platform, Steam, earlier this week, it registered a high of almost 815,000 people enjoying their own separate playthroughs at the same time – one of the biggest totals ever recorded.
READ MORE: Baldur-dash? No! This game really will blow your mind… PETER HOSKIN reviews Baldur’s Gate III
In a way, this oughtn’t be surprising. Although the official, proper release of Baldur’s Gate III was last week, it’s been out in the wild for much longer – almost three years longer, in fact, in a playable-but-unfinished form known as ‘early access’.
Many thousands of players tried out this constantly improving version, no doubt inspired by the fact that Larian had previously made, in Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel, two of the finest fantasy role-playing games of the past decade. Presumably, they knew all along that it would turn out great.
I say ‘presumably’ because I didn’t join those early-access gamers. I paid for that access, I even downloaded Baldur’s Gate III to my computer, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to play it in anything other than its final version. I waited until I had to review it – for the first time – for the paper last week.
The reason for this pusillanimous behaviour is that Baldur’s Gates I and II, which came out as long ago as 1998 and 2000 (and weren’t, incidentally, made by Larian), were two of my most cherished games when growing up. Nerdy teenage me loved spending time in their fantasy setting, a place known as the Forgotten Realms, which was originally created for tabletop sessions of Dungeons & Dragons.
And so the success – artistically and commercially – of Baldur’s Gate III has been something of a surprise for me. Not only did I refuse to watch it develop in real-time, I also thought there could only be so much excitement for a belated sequel to a couple of dusty classics from the turn of the millennium. Shows what I know.
Now, though, having completed a full playthrough, I’m much better informed. And I’m also able to see just how skilfully Larian has managed to merge the expectations of old-time Baldurians, like me, with the expectations of modern gamers, also like me.
Fundamentally, Baldur’s Gate III is much the same as its predecessors: it still involves you gathering a party of adventurers, clicking them across a sort-of-bird’s-eye-view landscape, and occasionally engaging goblins and bandits and owlbears in combat. You still have to read quite a lot, not least the words of many of the characters you’re conversing with.
And you still have to unravel a world-ending plot, this time involving the insidious threat of the brain-meddling Mind Flayers, who also happen to have infected you with one of their larvae.
Fun: Baldur’s Gate III is much the same as its predecessors: it still involves you gathering a party of adventurers, clicking them across a sort-of-bird’s-eye-view landscape, and occasionally engaging goblins and bandits and owlbears in combat
But, gosh, the ambition of the thing! Instead of the cleverly drawn 2D landscapes of old, the world of Baldur’s Gate is now a more-or-less continuous 3D space. You can literally go over hill, over dale, through bush, and all that – as well as zooming in and out.
Practically every building contains secret levers, which open up hidden passages, which take you to new, beautifully lit areas to explore and conquer. It’s precisely what I day-dreamt adventuring would be like, when I was that young nerd.
And the combat has expanded in scope, too. Perhaps the most controversial change, at least among the die-hards, is the replacement of the original games’ then-innovative fighting system – whereby you could pause proceedings, issue commands to your band of misfits, and then watch the sword-swinging, flame-hurling action continue afresh – with a more methodical, turn-based system that’s closer to, say, the XCOM games.
But I love it. Precisely because it plays out in a more methodical way, the new version adds an extra layer of tactical trickiness to each fight. You really need to think about the placement of your little digital buddies, and how their strengths and weaknesses overlap with each other.
In fact, I can’t wait to try it out with real-life buddies in Baldur Gate III’s cooperative multiplayer mode. So far, I’ve been single-player – that is, me – only.
Besides, if you don’t like it, you’ve got options – lots of them. 2023 is, like I said, turning into vintage year for gaming, but perhaps especially for role-playing games. We’ve already had the mechanically dense masterpiece that is The Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom. In just a few weeks, on September 6, Starfield will be released, the new game from the makers of Skyrim.
In fact, Starfield is likely to offer an interesting counterpoint to Baldur’s Gate III; being, as it is, a spacefaring adventure that will offer more by way of simulation – of the feel of planets underfoot and of weaponry in your hands – than it does of storytelling. Next to its wonders, Baldur’s Gate III might even feel old-fashioned. In a good way. A real authored experience.
As for me? I’m excited about it all. But I’m conscious, too, of those squirrels. What if I’d decided to kick that belligerent little one? What if I’d done a thousand other things differently? What if… what if… what if? There’s only one answer for it: I’ll have to go in again — and again and again – to see everything that Baldur’s Gate III has to offer.
Good job the RSPCA doesn’t seem to operate in the Forgotten Realms.
Atlas Fallen (PlayStation, Xbox, PC, £49.99)
Verdict: Sinking sands
‘I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere.’
There’s a quote – an Anakin Skywalker classic – for the Star Wars nerds.
But it’s also how I feel after playing Atlas Fallen over the past week. This is a game set in a fantasy world that’s very… desert-y. You gaze on sand, glide across sand, startle at beasties that erupt from the sand. I’m done with it.
It’s not just – or even mainly – the sand. Atlas Fallen comes across, to a fault, as 2023’s archetypal game. It sets you, an enslaved person with a fancy new magical glove, on a mission to save humanity from corrupt gods.
Fantasy: Atlas Fallen is a game set in a fantasy world that’s very… desert-y, writes Peter Hoskin
You have explore a fairly open map, embark on quests, and get through some half-demanding, action-heavy scraps. In fact, now I come to think of it, it’s like a lower-budget version of this summer’s Final Fantasy XVI.
And lower-achieving, too. Although most of my problems with Atlas Fallen are to do with how standard it is, it does commit some outright sins, too. The storytelling and dialogue – particularly during the opening hours, when you’re meant to be getting to know your character and others – are terrifyingly clunky. While the actual character designs are, as it happens, terrifyingly chunky.
Admittedly, there are parts where Atlas Fallen impresses – and threatens almost to distinguish itself. Its dune-surfing traversal is a blast, from the first time you do it to the hundredth.
But, overall, I’d surf clear of this one – at least until it turns up cheap somewhere. Remember: poor ol’ Anakin spent too much time around sand. And we all know what happened to him.
The Expanse: A Telltale Series (PlayStation, Xbox, PC, £32.99)
Verdict: Episodic excellence
There was a time, about a decade ago, when, despite actually being quite small, the developers Telltale Games felt like the biggest thing in gaming. Their Walking Dead series, based on the popular comic books that in turn became a popular teevee show, was a very special kind of choose-your-own-adventure, er, adventure – with clever stories, nuanced characters, and horribly meaningful decisions.
Then Telltale versions of everything swiftly followed: Game of Thrones, Batman, Minecraft, Guardians of the Galaxy… even the Borderlands video games got their own Telltale video game. Perhaps the studio overreached, but, in any case, something clearly went wrong. In 2018, Telltale filed for bankruptcy.
The reason I mention all of this is that now, five years later, Telltale – or at least, after some behind-the-scenes financial manoeuvrings, the trading name that is ‘Telltale’ – is back. The first playable episode of the first new Telltale series in years came out a couple of weeks ago. The second is out this week. Three more will follow by September 21, to complete the story.
I’ve played the first three episodes – and in some ways, it’s as though Telltale never went away. This new series is, again, based on an existing universe: The Expanse sci-fi books, which have also been adapted for telly. It offers the same old choose-your-own-adventure dynamics: do you clock the senior officer of your starship across his jaw, or do you not? And the characters remain just that: actual characters, worth spending time with.
And yet I’m still surprised, pleasantly so. In the years since Telltale went away, it started to feel as though others – such as the Life is Strange series, or last year’s underrated As Dusk Falls – were doing similar things better. Or they were certainly adding new elements to the interactive story experience.
But while The Expanse isn’t necessarily better than those games, it offers its own innovations. There’s an extended space-walking sequence in the first episode that has you controlling your character, Camina Drummer (the name, I’m told, will mean something to fans of the books and TV show), through a dark and derelict warship to find the story’s central McGuffin. What could have been random and superfluous – what’s this doing in a game that’s mostly about making conversational choices? – is instead a wonderful change of pace. And beautiful, too.
All I can say, for now, is that it gets better from there. So welcome back, Telltale – whether it’s really you or just some shell operation that simply looks like you. The suits have chosen to let your adventure continue.
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