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Baldur's Gate 3 Hands-On preview: An early Natural 20

I owe a lot to Dungeons and Dragons. Without it, I'd never have known about my peanut brain's utter lack of self-preservation. Too often, snarky quips courtesy of yours truly about giving an orc a wedgie would result in my buddy, the dungeon master, slapping me with a skill check. Suddenly, I was getting hoisted up the proverbial flag pole by my wool briefs, and rolling a natural 20 was the only way down.

Baldur's Gate 3 was similarly eager to keep my would-be adventuring ass in line. 

From the coy narrator poking fun at my failed dice rolls to turn-based combat with an emphasis on verticality, there's a lot to love about Larian Studios' latest fantasy epic. Sure, awkward texture pop-in and bizarre physics glitches are common in this early access build, but I can easily forgive any minor blemishes on an otherwise alluring visage. Even only being 10 hours in, Baldur's Gate 3 is already one of the best western RPGs I've played in years.

The adventure began with a toothy-slug squirming its way through my eye-socket. Shackled aboard a floating eldritch fortress, I was a prisoner of the mind flayers - squid-like humanoids that are particularly fond of plopping the aforementioned slugs into people to control their minds. Before they could strip me of any free will, though, a fleet of dragons began tearing the place asunder. It seems like mind flayers aren't short on enemies.

Baldur's Gate 3 begins with a prison break, and I was the one hatching the escape plan. My character's name was Gwyn, a handsome tiefling devil-man with extravagant tattoos covering his face. It took me over an hour to come up with his look, and I'm not one to get lost during the character creation process - it's just packed to the brim with options in the game. 

While poking around for an exit, I came across a curious bubbling pool. Upon reaching out to it - the narration kicked in, chronicling my actions from thereon out. "This is the pool that thing came from," the narrator playfully said. "The parasite now writhing behind your eye." When I tried to investigate further, an intelligence check thwarted my progress. This mechanic functions just as rolling the dice in a pen-and-paper RPG does. I needed a number above ten but rolled a seven instead - failing the investigation skill check. So there was nothing to be found in the pool, unfortunately for me. 

Baldur's Gate 3 is rife with these traditional dice rolls acting as the determining factor between success and failure, be it in dialogue choices, combat actions, or just looking around the world. Initially, I was apprehensive of allowing RNG to be guiding the hand of fate, but in many ways think it works. In so many RPGs of this ilk, extra dialogue options are just locked behind stats. But here, rather than just being greyed-out until enough stat points are allocated into the necessary stat pool, you can gamble on a dice roll instead. If you roll higher than the target number, then you're treated to an option you might not have had otherwise. While class and stat allocation can still shift the odds of meeting a successful roll threshold, your choices are not purely bound to these decisions. This game fully embraces its D&D heritage, for better or worse.

Amidst the chaotic battle between the dragons and mind flayers, other prisoners aboard had the same escapee-ambitions as me. One of them was Lae'zel, a spunky githyanki warrior who's often short on patience. "We carry mind flayer parasites," Lae'zel shouted. "Unless we escape, our bodies and minds will be tainted and twisted." Far be from me to question a potential ally, so we partied up and immediately got into a brawl with some gangly imps.

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It was here where some blemishes of early access came into view as well. While the dialogue and voice acting even just in this brief chat were phenomenal, the texture pop-in was quite distracting. Conversations play-out in a shot-reverse-shot manner in this game, sometimes yielding unintentional hilarity. When the camera swapped to Lae'zel's profile, she had almost no texture on her face. It was like staring into the creepy, gaping maw of a mannequin. I imagine an issue like this won't plague the final release, but it's a surefire way to taint the otherwise brilliant mood.

If you've played Divinity: Original Sin 2, Larian's previous RPG, then you'll be right at home with combat in Baldur's Gate 3. Every fight begins with a bird's-eye view of the battlefield, with each combatant's turns intrinsically tied to how full their ability meter is. The big difference from the Divinity games is a character's movement depletes the meter, while combat skills and actions get independent uses - they're no longer tied to the meter. Combat feels a bit free-flowing in this game while retaining all the tactful decision making from Divinity.

Each fight got a good chin scratch out of me because Baldur's Gate 3 is fucking hard. Being the all-brawn-and-no-brains fighter that I am, my first strategy involved barreling toward the imps, expecting easy, one-shot kills. But that didn't happen. Instead, Gwyn missed his sword swing, while the imp I was attacking rolled a natural 20 - landing a critical hit that shaved off 3/4's of my health. His buddy then shoved a knife in my back - they had downed me already. With Lae'zel being my only party member left upright on the field, I opted for a more thoughtful attack plan. I took the high ground on a nearby platform with the jump movement action, and sniped down the beast from afar with a bow. When they got close, I'd use the Pin-down action, which fires an arrow through a foes’ Achilles heel, preventing them from moving for a turn. I kept this rhythm up until there was an opening where I could send Lae'zel towards Gwyn and get him back on his feet.

After dispensing with the imps, Lae'zel insisted we headed for the control room to steer the fortress onto some solid ground. But by the time we got there, the hull split open, and Gwyn flew out. Welcome to Baldur's Gate 3.

Even with a few technical warts, Baldur's Gate 3 has to be the most confident western RPG I've played in ages. There's a depth brought about by the dice and skill-check system that makes it so interesting to tinker with, and the combat is flexible enough that I imagine it'll be a blast hundreds of hours after the first sword slash. It might be a while before the 1.0 release it out, but given how brimming with quality the early access build already is - it'll be well worth the wait.

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