Baldur’s Gate 3 is less than a month away for PC players now that developer Larian Studios has pushed its release date up a few weeks. On August 3, players will head to the fantasy world of the Forgotten Realms (or Faerûn) where they’ll face their imminent demise at the hands of a mind-controlling parasite. But what makes this game such a big deal? Sure, it’s an incredibly ambitious, story-driven, choice-based RPG on a scale we haven’t gotten in a while. But what is it about the Baldur’s Gate name that makes Larian Studios’ first game in six years so exciting? Let’s dive in.
What is the Baldur’s Gate series?
The original Baldur’s Gate game was made by BioWare in 1998. Though the studio is better known for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series these days, the developer cut its teeth in the RPG space with its first game after 1996’s Shattered Steel, which was a mech game unlike pretty much everything the studio would go on to make. Both Baldur’s Gate and its sequel, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, take place in the Dungeons & Dragons universe of the Forgotten Realms, which is why there’s a shared mythology, lore, and world between these games and plenty of other tabletop and video games.
BioWare hasn’t made a new game with the Baldur’s Gate name since 2000 (though Neverwinter Nights does take place in the Forgotten Realms), but the series’ name has been used in multiple spin-offs from a wide spread of studios since. The Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance spin-offs were action games by Snowblind Studios and Black Isle Studios, and BioWare’s original game was expanded on by Beamdog with the Siege of Dragonspear add-on for the Enhanced Edition in 2016. So while BioWare went on to do other things, the Baldur’s Gate name has been tended to in one way or another for a while. However, we haven’t gotten a numbered entry in the series proper in over two decades, and that alone is pretty exciting to old-school RPG fans.
Do I need to go back and play all those other Baldur’s Gate games to understand BG3?
Nah. I mean, if you want to experience a significant moment in CRPG history, as well as one of the defining moments in BioWare’s evolution, they’re certainly worth playing and are readily playable on modern systems through the Enhanced Edition remakes. But if you’re worried about not understanding the story of Baldur’s Gate 3 because you haven’t played 20-year-old games, Larian’s RPG is pretty well removed from BioWare’s older games. It takes place over a century after the second game and follows its own original cast of characters. There might be some references to old history, but it’s a separate story by design.
But BioWare’s not making Baldur’s Gate 3, right?
No, that studio’s working on Dragon Age: Dreadwolf and the next Mass Effect game. However, Larian Studios is exactly who you’d want making a follow-up to a classic BioWare RPG. The developer is best known for its work on the Divinity franchise, a fantasy RPG series dating back almost as far as the original Baldur’s Gate games. It started as an action RPG with Divine Divinity in 2002, but expanded to other subgenres like real-time strategy and turn-based combat with Commander Dragon and the Original Sin subseries. 2017’s Divinity: Original Sin II in particular was celebrated by fans of classic CRPGs as perhaps the best game of its kind in ages, and although it’s not, strictly speaking, a Dungeons & Dragons game, in it you can see much of what Larian is clearly building on with Baldur’s Gate 3.
Larian has worked almost exclusively on the Divinity series since it was founded in 1996 (with the exception of some educational games, a strategy game called LED Wars, and a canceled project called The Lady, the Mage and the Knight). This studio is well-versed in fantasy RPGs and, if Baldur’s Gate 3’s Early Access phase is any indication, it’s doing the series proud.
Why is Baldur’s Gate 3 significant in this moment?
There are a handful of reasons Larian’s take on Baldur’s Gate is popping off right now. Of course, that the game seems to just be a really robust RPG experience in a vacuum is part of it, but it’s also hitting at just the right time for people to be hungry for a game like it.
Baldur’s Gate 3 comes at a time where interest in tabletop-inspired RPGs is at an all-time high. From cultural phenomena like Critical Role to just a general rise in popularity in your average friend group, people love rolling dice and derailing a DM’s carefully crafted plan right now. Larian’s latest is striking when the iron is hot as a big-budget RPG inspired by tabletop games. Even scenes as wild as the druid bear sex scene are evocative of the chaos of a tabletop session where the players and DM are in conversation with each other, riffing on each other’s ideas and taking them to their most ridiculous conclusion.
But even without the whole D&D craze happening right now, Baldur’s Gate 3 fills a current void in big-budget RPGs as BioWare sorts itself out. It’s been a minute since we got a meaty RPG that is truly character- and choice-driven, full of big decisions and consequences and relationship-building, and involving player expression on this level. Hell, Baldur’s Gate 3 seems even more expansive on these fronts than BioWare games have been as of late.
Mass Effect was (and, since no one’s yet been able to replicate it, still is) one of the most ambitious RPG projects of its time, allowing you to create a character who would carry over through three games and see the ripples of their decisions spread throughout the galaxy. While some choices and storylines paid off exceptionally well by Mass Effect 3, a lot of others didn’t. Baldur’s Gate 3, meanwhile, seems to have a lot more variety in its outcomes based on your decisions. This goes beyond simple dialogue or choosing whether or not to enact violence on someone, and extends to things like your class, race, and other variables. Dragon Age certainly had more of these elements, but as it and Mass Effect continued to bounce off each other, it felt like, by Dragon Age II, BioWare’s fantasy series fell into the more streamlined dialogue and decision-making of the Mass Effect games. It did find a sort of middle ground in Dragon Age: Inquisition by factoring your character’s identity into more choices, but it wasn’t quite as expansive as Baldur’s Gate 3 appears to be.
Make no mistake, there are still a lot of great choice-based RPGs that have considerable depth. Disco Elysium and the Pillars of Eternity series are prime examples of games that carry that same spirit. But in terms of a game on this scale, with this budget, RPG fans are hungry for something like Baldur’s Gate 3. The fact that we’ve gone so long without a game like this shows just how unwieldy AAA video game development has become.
Baldur’s Gate 3 only exists as it does because everything that’s happened with Larian, the Baldur’s Gate name, and the Dungeons & Dragons brand has led to this point. As Strange Scaffold’s Xalavier Nelson Jr. lays out in a Twitter thread, Baldur’s Gate 3 is an anomaly in a business that rarely allows for a game to cook for this long and with this many resources behind it, and therefore, while we can and should enjoy and appreciate it for what it is, we also shouldn’t hold all other games to the same standard. Games like the buggy (but underappreciated, in my opinion) Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t happen because the people at BioWare aren’t talented enough to make a better game. They happen because of mismanagement and the expectations put behind AAA game development. Baldur’s Gate 3, should all turn out well, is happening because of the talented people at Larian, but it’s also circumstance. Lightning is striking more than twice to make this happen.
I don’t envy the folks at Larian Studios for the level of expectation being thrust upon Baldur’s Gate 3 as we head into launch next month. But if all the time and work they’ve poured into the game pay off, it could be something really special.