Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MiniReview - Dragon Age: Origins

I really did want to go on a bit about Dragon Age: Origins. Over the years, I've found that I've gotten pretty tired of computer RPGs. The single-player ones only rarely have any surprises, and MMORPGs only want to eat my life. And yet, I found Dragon Age to be entirely enchanting. Bioware is very, very good at what they do.

The plot, at its best, has this epic Lord of the Ringsy feel, in a good way. The voice acting and the writing are marvelous, and the game is frequently hilarious. The side chatter from your group when you take all of the evil characters out with you is worth the price of admission.

But the thing that struck me most is the role-playing aspect. (I'll have some very gentle spoilers in this bit.)

Attempts at having role-playing in computer games are frequently and justifiably mocked for giving facile choices between "Angelically Good" and "Absolutely Evil". When you find a hungry puppy, you can either crush it with a cinderblock or buy it a house of its own. There is no middle ground. And yes, Dragon Age has some of that.

But what impressed me is the number of situations where there are a lot of options, none of them are very good, and you just have to muddle through. For example, in one part of Dragon Age, a young, magically skilled boy has been taken over by a demon. He's been merrily trashing the countryside. It's a crappy situation, and you have to help them out of it. You can off the boy. Or let the mother sacrifice herself to enable you to challenge the demon. Or travel to the wizards' tower to maybe get a way to expel the demon, losing valuable time. And, should you challenge the demon, you can kill it or, in return for one of several lavish rewards, let it stay in the kid, hidden.

When I reached this point, I didn't see a perfect option. I had my own, "OhgodohgodwhatdoIdo?" moment. And my choice was, in retrospect, not a great one. But there is little I love more in an RPG then when I'm forced to stop, gobsmacked, and go, "Wow. I'm really on my own here. I'd better think about this ..."

Similarly, late in the game, the country is without a leader and you have to figure out who will end up king (or queen). This leads to a brief, marvelous series of conversations, full of power politics, ugly compromises, and the constant awareness that there is no "right" choice. That you can maneuver things so that you end up on the throne only adds to the awesomeness.

And, just before the endgame, when it seems that horrible sacrifices will happen, one of the characters approaches you and makes an offer that ... well ... I wish I had the audacity to put something so spectacularly bizarre and twisted into one of my games. (I really don't want to spoil it. And yes, I did take her offer.)

I tried to play the game as a goody-two-shoes. But Dragon Age has a way of making sure no good deed goes unpunished. By the end of the game, I was acting a whole lot more evil. Sometimes, evil just works better. And I think, more than anything, the way the game got me to smoothly and naturally make a shift like that says a lot about how subtle the "good" and "evil" choices within can be.

So I recommend it very strongly to anyone who likes computer RPGs. Just one warning. Normal difficulty can be pretty darn tricky, especially on a console. I love my XBox, but it's not really made for precisely controlling a group of four characters.

29 comments:

  1. I haven't finished the game yet. I'm in Redcliffe now and so far I had a damn hard time keeping me interested in playing that game! I find the story extremely bland so far. The party characters are mostly ok but most of the NPCs in the world have been utterly boring and completely lacking charisma.
    It also annoys me to the extreme if I find one single more NPC who tells me their family problems. NPC dialogue is also hit and miss. Mainly miss I'd rather say because it's quite obvious that these are not voices of professional voice actors. They try hard but they fail. The voices lack power and charisma.
    Sorry but I don't share the general excitement about this game. It's a lot like NWM but with better graphics and a bit more adult content.
    Maybe there are more interesting things ahead but so far the story and lame characters really try hard to bore me away from the game.

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  2. The X-Box version would have been fine, except for one major oversight:


    You cannot command a team member to go to an empty location without manually moving them there.


    This is unforgivable. BioWare got this right for Mass Effect on the X-Box. What this means for Dragon Age is that I spend a lot of time moving party members about while hoping that the other party members do not get themselves killed while they are being ignored. Once the enemies get area of effect spells, you are screwed.

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  3. Sascha,

    Finish the Circle of Mages before casting judgement on the game.

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  4. Mainly miss I'd rather say because it's quite obvious that these are not voices of professional voice actors.

    Actually, this was so comically bad it was hilarious. The guy who played Jowan in the mage origin is the voice actor for literally dozens of male characters in the game. And it was not like they tried to hide it. This killed the immersiveness for me more than anything else.

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  5. [blockquote]When I reached this point, I didn't see a perfect option. I had my own, "OhgodohgodwhatdoIdo?" moment.[/blockquote]

    There actually is a perfect option. Traveling to the Wizards to get them to expel the boy is fine because time is, in fact, not valuable at all. :) When you're into the game, as I was the first time, you think you are. But later you realize that boy is fine until you make your decision.

    As for the demon, you can defeat her and intimidate her into leaving the boy and giving you the reward. I like games that give me tough decisions but when I press and they relent, it's disappointing.

    I think the best, most surprising choice was in the dwarven kingdom, as a result of your choice of leader between, ah... Behlen and Harrowmont, I think were the names. I really appreciated the way it went down, as per the epilogue. :)

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  6. I do have have to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the fact that it's nice for once to have some middle ground in the morality of the game, although the at times absolute lack of an obvious good choice started to get to me a little. But it is more realistic, certainly in this setting, and depending on how you play through, will either show you a lot about yourself (if you get really into your RPGs) or at least give you a chance to be the completely evil maniac hero you've always wished Tolkien had written into LOTR at some point. It still doesn't quite have the addictive quality that NWN did, though, and I'm not certain why...

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  7. @bobismo: Afterward, I read a walkthrough and found that those things were true, but they were far from clear to me at the time. Going into it cold, I was perplexed, which is what made it so fun for me.

    @Everyone else: Bland characters? Bad voice acting? Sheesh, it is possible to be too hard to please. If you think Morrigan and Sten are bland or poorly voiced, well, I'm not sure what you want, but I don't think you're gonna get it.

    My only real problem with the main party is that Zevran's accent is a bit much. I'll give you that one.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  8. @Jeff: Well as I said the party characters aren't that bad ... mainly (Morrigan's the only one I can sympathize with in my current party). It's the lackluster NPCs standing around in areas that lack any sense of depth. Compare the voice acting with Mass Effect or Oblivion and you hear the difference.
    I'm not hard to please. It's just that this game seems to be soo overrated! People hear it's from Bioware and go into a knee-jerk reaction that it must be great. Realistically: How does this game's story and characters quality compare with some of older and well-known RPGs?! If you remove all the fluff from the game, what's left (and I admit the presentation of DAO is very well done)? IMHO there is only a boring story left after that. ... my 2 cents of course.

    I did enjoy the female city elf origin quest tho. ;)

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  9. ...or Oblivion? *Really*? I think this is the second best consistently well voice-acted RPG I've ever seen (Vampire: Bloodlines for #1, just for interest). It's also an excellent story - the best work Bio has done since BG2 (and better in some ways, though worse in others). I think it readily competes - story and character wise - with RPGs of yore.

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  10. @Dhruin Yes, Oblivion! Need a direct comparison?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtA6j9iMIwg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMgE2YypuQY

    DAO voices just sound all like your modern day next door Americans. Oblivion ones sound like an excellent selection to represent the races in that game.

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  11. Sorry but you are just completely wrong about the voice acting. There are children that actually sound like children, city elves cower, people have fear in their voice. As to the story being boring, if you take the story to be get an army fight darkspawn, well sure but its the twists that occur while gaining the army thats important.

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  12. I have to disagree with the part praising the choices and consequences. Actually, Dragon Age lacked something that Avernum or Geneforge had - real consequences. In Geneforge, if you chose one faction, suddenly a large section of the world could be closed off to you. People that you talked to and traded were no longer friendly, even more - they'd attack you on sight. In DA:O... the endgame switch is interesting, but it's just that - endgame. It has no real consequences besides a note during the ending, you do not get to feel it. As for the boy-demon situation - the problem is, you do get to make the "correct" choice after all. (spoiler warning) Okay, going to the Mages Tower for help makes you "lose time" - but there is no real consequence of losing time! Imagine you made a following option in one of the Geneforge games - you can side with the Shapers, the Rebels, or you can have both sides at peace with you provided you "lose time" to travel to some location and speak with some character. That's exactly how this "hard dilemma" looked for me. And this was one of the most advertised "difficult moral choices" in the game! Actually, my lack of anxiety over the choices I was making and the overwhelming feeling that with the proper metagame thinking, I could make the "optimal" choices was one of my biggest problems with the otherwise fine game.

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  13. Wow. I don't believe I've heard Oblivion referenced as a game highlighting quality VO! Interesting.

    I guess you're right. There are some good lines in there. And some good diversity that makes the races of the Elder Scrolls feel more separate.

    But my personal problem with Oblivion's VO is that sometimes the voice actor changes during a conversation, and many times I talk to different people and hear the same voice. I understand resources are limited and why waste them on generic NPCs, but Oblivion felt like it had a dozen voice actors and hundreds of NPCs. It didn't pair well with the generally simplistic writing.

    Fortunately, talking to people was secondary in Oblivion or I think the flaws would have been more grating.

    As for choice & consequence, I think many RPGers are always hoping for more from games, but few games, especially in the mainstream market, ever provide satisfaction. Developers don't want to make any content that goes to waste or is otherwise blocked. I guess in that sense we should be thrilled that DA:O provided us with unique origin stories that contained unique quest lines threaded into the overall story.

    But dilemmas? No. Then again, the Witcher was touted as the best as that in a long while, and I never felt like it offered up any tough choices. I mean, siding with the hateful elves or the racist humans was tough, but not in the ways I was hoping for.

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  14. Great review! I had a hard time in Redcliff as well, I actually was trying to woo Alistair and he got very, very upset when I didn't make the most...sensible choice. So I had to re-start. Clever, clever game.

    This game was like getting back to the old Baldur's Gate line of consequences for your actions, which I loved. The only thing that made me sad was the complete distrust of mages. Poor mages....haha ;D

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  15. "How does this game's story and characters quality compare with some of older and well-known RPGs?! If you remove all the fluff from the game, what's left"

    It compares just fine IMO. What games are you holding up as some sort of holy standard against which DAO compares so badly?

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  16. Sadly I think any choice tree in an RPG is going to be 'cracked' if you have save and arbitrary load. For an RPG it's hard to encourage a quick play through where 'time' matters.

    However it is probably worth trying. In one Indie strategy game(can't remember the title) there was an 'IronMan' mode that only allowed a single destructive save (e.g. you can stop and restart, but never go back.) It didn't force the mode on you .. but you could choose it, and your score etc was tracked separately for that type of game.

    When I played with IronMan mode the feel of the game changed radically. My incredible need to explore ever option wasn't possible anymore so I didn't need to feed it. The game was incredibly fun in both ways, but felt different just because I couldn't do my intense save every turn dance.

    I found Dragon Age Enjoyable. I played it on the pc rather than the xbox. I liked Mass Effect (360 version) more, and Morrowind (both xbox and PC) is still my all time favorite. I finished it twice on the xbox and bought it again for the pc when the expansions came out there first.

    I could leave Obvilion ... I think they messed up the morrowind experience. It lacked a sense of place for me because the enemies scaled to your level. You never got the "I'm a badass now feel."

    Also (this may seem trivial ... but it bugged me) I followed an NPC labouriously through the countryside on their journey from a far flung town to the main city ... allowing me to know where exactly they went. Yet (from my point of view) the game stole that potentially cool experience from me. I was forced to go back to the original town and trigger something that told me exactly where to go before the specific quest progresed, despite the fact that I simply needed to talk to the guy. It couldn't handle the case where I could find the guy without being told where he was. Bah! to you Oblivion! :-)

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  17. By the way, the "you have little time!" thing is a lose-lose situation. Remember the 100 days limit in Fallout 1? Many people despised that and complained about it endlessly. The alternative where time doesn't matter is despised by others.

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  18. I loved this game. I've played it through twice, making different choices each time and it is interesting (to me, anyway) how the outcomes differ. I was so "invested" in some characters that I became very sad when things did not have a happy ending. I'm not the most die-hard gamer but when something can completely occupy my monkey-sphere for 30 straight days, the devs have done something right.

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  19. You know what this reminds me of? Realmz.

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  20. The Alistair and Morrigan deals did get me thinking and going back and forth until I decided (yup, I choose the same deal you did Jeff). Indeed, what to do with the possessed child was a tiny bit dicey until I explored all the conversation options and realized time really wasn't a factor in any one resolution. Had it been a "Choose ONE. NOW." deal with some sort of clock running the minute you chose the Mage's Tower option, this sequence would have felt a lot stronger in the end.

    And yes, that Tower is quite a wild ride, as is all of Orzammar.

    Interestingly enough, trying to cover all the bases in DA:O can lead to trouble. There's actually a nasty bug should you choose to align with BOTH sides in Orzammar.

    If you complete one side of the quest, the first mission of the other choice remains open no matter what you do. Take a trip to the enemy's home base and an important character from that faction will attack you (unless you ignore them entirely, you have no choice here). Even after that character is dead, the quest will remain open until the endgame.

    I actually had MORE thinking to do with the whole gifting system on my first playthrough. I foolishly didn't read more of the bio information on some party members until late in the game (well, Sten's love for certain items isn't clear for quite a long time and Wynne's favorite items took me a while to figure out), so some gifts went to the wrong people.

    I think where a LOT of criticism against any RPG goes wrong is when the person commenting forgets he or she is supposed to be enjoying the game world presented to them, NOT stacking every second in the game point for point against every other RPG or other genre game they've played.

    After 38 years of gaming, I've learned to take more enjoyment from my games by throwing myself fully into each game world to the point that I don't have the time nor thought to say "well, Oblivion did THIS better and Geneforge did THAT better" and so forth and so on.

    This has been a constant thing in my play style I wish more gamers would adopt, particularly those reviewers who drone on and on about games needing INNOVATION when in fact, IMMERSION is something even more required! FUN helps as well, naturally (unless it's a pure sort of horror experience where "fun" isn't part of what the developer wants you to feel as you play half under the sofa.

    Again, appreciating games by enjoying the worlds each developer wants you to experience, not whether it's like some other favorite title is absolutely recommended, especially if you're feeling jaded (and it does indeed happen to all gamers at some point)...

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  21. Just twenty minutes ago I finished this game - the credits are *still* rolling!

    It was very enjoyable, it took me back to Baldur's Gate I and II more than anything. For the first time I actually enjoyed the romance aspect, mainly because Alistair was such an attractive character.

    Originally I started as a Dalish Elven Warrior, but got annoyed when I found out that (a) it would limit my ultimate romance ending (b) I had to drag the useless Leilana around to open chests. I restarted as a Noble Human Rogue - a new experience for me - and kind of annoying since backstabs and stealth aren't my thing. But not having to switch characters to sort out chests and traps was superb.

    So I think the whole rogues-only-chest thing was a drawback. I also got bored with the final battle, I tried it twice, then put it down to Casual.

    I still haven't decided if I'll get the Expansion pack or the DLC, since Mass Effect II (and Alan Wake?) may be taking up my time by then. We'll see ;)

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  22. Jeff on the whole I'm going to have to agree with you. Bioware makes some pretty good games. BUT the one thing that I continue to despise about their games is how they couldn't have all of these amazing things in more of a sandbox world. I hate the huge map overview which allows you travel to parts of the world. Games like Elder Scrolls, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 have spoiled me. I want to experience the whole world, not just the parts that are relevant to story.

    Bioware does that and it's a win win.

    This problem I speak of is the same reason why I'm very cautious about my hopes for Old Republic (The MMO)I really hate how linear Bioware games can feel, even when they aren't intended to be.

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