2 April 2013

Dragon Age: Origins

I just finished my playthrough of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. So yeah.

It's an epic fantasy RPG. The lands are plagued with monsters called Darkspawn. Every so often they rise and overwhelm the lands in what is called a Blight. But there is an old order of soldiers known as the Grey Wardens whose duty it is to stop them... Originality? No chance... The setting is highly conventional medieval high fantasy, with its elves and dwarves and wizards and dragons and lost heirs to the throne and etc. and etc... Oh, there may be a few twists, like the main religion being a monotheist faith modelled after Christianity instead of the typical high fantasy pantheons, but it still feels like a highly typical western RPG setting...

The story follows the exploits of a fledgling Grey Warden striving to unite warring lands and save the world from the Blight. Indeed, utterly original again... ahem. There's enough story and dialogue, though, to keep you occupied, even if it is a mite clichéd. The game's also geared towards a fairly mature audience, with plenty of blood, dark humour and dialogue touching on... shall we say 'adult' topics.

While the trappings may lack in originality, the gameplay was actually a little different from most RPG's I've played. You can have a party of up to four characters. Battles proceed in real time, with you controlling one character, while your companions are controlled by AI. You can, however, at any time pause the game to view the situation around you, select powers or items to use, switch characters etc. To play really effectively you need to both know the skills of each character and tweak the tactics used by the AI (neither of which I was any good at), plus keep a constant eye on what's happening on the battlefield. It's pretty fun and interesting, but also challenging, which I'll return to in just a moment.

You have a fair amount of freedom with the main character, choosing gender, class and one of six different backgrounds (each with their own prologue portion of the game). Throughout the game you're required to make both ethical and practical decisions about how to handle particular situations, which has an effect on how the story proceeds (I assume, though I've only played through the game once, so I can't say how much variation there is). The other controllable characters are more story driven, and often react to your decisions in accordance to their values and personalities.

Well, onwards to the Issues. Yes, I had Issues. My main Issues were with the difficulty. I started out playing on normal setting. For a while it was fine, until I ran into some really tough fights where I was greatly outnumbered. In end I became frustrated enough to grudgingly switch to the easier setting (called 'casual'). Only to be faced with a new problem: the game now felt too easy. So after amassing some more experience and gear I eventually switched back to normal and soldiered on through the second half of the game. Until the final boss, which again ended up frustrating me and I just wanted to wrap up the game...

Yeah, I'm sure this was largely a problem with my playing style. Micromanaging four characters in the midst of chaotic battles clearly isn't my talent. And I probably should have levelled up a little more, but to be honest, most sidequests in the game just seemed... rather boring. However, when one setting is frequently frustrating and one too easy, I think I'm entitled to ask whether there might actually be a real problem with the game's design... At the very least there could have been an intermediary setting between normal and casual...

On the technical side, I encountered a couple glitches, but rarely anything very major (once or twice I had to restart the game, though). Visually the game... consistently failed to impress me. Not that that's a real issue for me, I value story and smooth gameplay far more than eye candy. But still, I couldn't help thinking it looked kinda plain, even for 2009.

Oh, and speaking of issues, limited inventories? When did those have any other function than to greatly annoy players?

I can has EA bashing? There were a few annoyances that weren't directly related to the game itself. I don't actually know how much of this was from the developer BioWare itself and how much from the publisher EA, but whatever. Firstly, every time you start the game it tries to connect to a server and update a list of available DLC. Which takes up an annoying amount of time and is, of course, utterly unnecessary. You really think I'm not capable of looking up available DLC myself? The other issue also relates to DLC. In a couple of places in the game I ran into NPC's offering quests, but with a catch. First you'd have to get the DLC! The existence of DLC is one thing. It serves a function. But rubbing additional expenses in a player's face within the game itself like this is just... tacky and annoying.

One is of course tempted to make comparisons to the other major RPG franchise of recent years, The Elder Scrolls series. But honestly, in terms of gameplay the games are so different there wouldn't be much point. Dragon Age is a much more story and character driven game than the sandbox worlds of The Elder Scrolls. There is, probably unsurprisingly, much more similarity to BioWare's other major series, Mass Effect, particularly in the way you interact with the world and how dialogue is presented, though the combat system is fairly different.

So, bottom line, it was a mostly enjoyable 50-60 hours of my life, although, with the issues with difficulty, somewhat clichéd setting and story, and lacklustre sidequests, I'm not unhappy to finally be able to move on.

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