Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday Randomness: Dragon Age

Like most of the rest of the world, I am totally freaking hooked on Dragon Age: Origins. My one line summary is that it feels like a campaign GM’d by Fred Hicks. Fred is a mean bastard of a GM, so this is high praise indeed. That sense of a GM’d game is one of the hallmarks of a Bioware game, creating a world that responds to the actions of play, and Dragon Age really turns this up to 11 - the technology for the graphics and stuff is nice, but the real benefit of the tech can be seen in just how many choices the game can now support.

So, with about 40-50 hours of play under my belt, split between a few characters, I feel like it’s time for a list of 10 things to know about Dragon Age:Origins.

1. Fighter’s are the simplest class to play, and there’s a lot to be said for starting with a fighter to try out a starting background and to get familiar with the rules and controls (especially if you’re on X-Box because the manual pretty much exists to convince you to buy a strat guide). Once you have that familiarity, you can try a rogue or mage. So far my sense is that Mage is probably the most interesting to play.

2. This is a Bioware game, so get the intimidation/persuasion skill. Lacking it will greatly diminish your options in play. Also, as a Bioware game, do not buy into the idea that there is some “right” decision the game is expecting you to make. There isn’t. There are rails, certainly, but they are very wide, and your leeway within them is much more than you might expect.

3. There is no way I won't be trying all the backgrounds, and I expect this game will probably get 2 or 3 playthroughs out of me at a minimum. I've tried 3 so far (Male-Human-Fighter-Noble, Male-Human-Mage-Circle and Male-Elf-Rogue-City, my primary) and every now and again something from one of the other backgrounds shows up in play, and it really makes the world feel more organic

4. Oh, God, Backpacks. I have bought every backpack I could afford and I am still short on inventory space. This gets really annoying because I tend to be deep in a dungeon when I’m running out of space. The soldier’s peak expansion helps with this, but it’s still pretty maddening.

5. The resolution of one of the big plot knots involved a lot of watching two NPCs talk to each other. As it turns out, this is not much more fun on the console than it is on the tabletop. It's well written and interesting, but it comes off as a bit of a sour note. I don't mind watching cut scenes of events taking place elsewhere in the game - that's part of the genre - but watching my character watch a scene makes me wonder why I'm there.

6. It’s the small choices that kill you. I have yet to have any huge, sweeping choices that were particularly hard (or even terribly moving), but I have had innumerable small choices that left me staring at the screen, paralyzed, totally invested in the result. Bioware's always been good at this, but this takes it to a whole new level.

7. The game combines of a lot of voice acting talent, quality writing, and an engine that allows them quickly generate visually distinctive characters. That’s all well and good for the heroes, but it’s much more important for the support characters. It is far harder to play “Spot the named character” by looking for the one with better graphics or voice acting, and that’s fantastic, because it really drives home the sense that things can change at the drop of a hat.

8. The downloadable content has been worth the price (though I got some of it free for pre-ordering). Soldier's Peak adds an extra dungeon that has a solid story to it, which also serves as a base once you've cleared it out. Sadly, I have not been able to recruit people to come work there, so my dreams of this being Dark Suikoden have not yet come to fruit. The more expensive pack, which adds the golem, Shale, is possibly even more worth it. First and foremost, it's not a Bioware game until you throw in a killing machine with a dry wit. He's fun to have in the party, and he's incredibly useful. I have so far had at least two boss fights that I'm pretty sure I would have lost if he had not been tanking for me.

9. I am pretty sure I'm missing a lot by not reading every codex update, but honestly there's just too much, and the console is not ideal for it, especially since when I get a codex update I need to go track it down deep in the menus. In theory, this is helped by new things being highlighted, but the way navigation works, if I have to scroll down to something new, I un-highlight it without realizing it. This is a pain, and while I recognize that there are limitations to the interface that come from playing on the console, this (and some inventory management) are close to genuine frustrations. This is exacerbated by the gameplay being so fun that I already resent needing to drop out into the land of menus, so having that be a kind of rough experience is unfun.

10. I'm pretty happy with the graphics. I can niggle about things like the palette or compare it to other games that do this or that better, but the simple truth is that the graphics are good enough to convey a strong sense of place without impeding on the gameplay, and they are capable of generating the occasional moment of wow from a surprising vista or a unique animation. Sound is similarly impressive, though I find I greatly miss hearing my hero speak, a la Mass Effect.

I've been sick for days, so I've had plenty of opportunity to marathon this game and I am hooked enough that my wife has started developing a deep loathing for it. Likely I'll have to drop to less frequent play now that I'm starting to recover, but I look forward to working through it. So far I'm really excited - I'm a console RPG nut, and so far this has blown a lot of previous contenders out of the water in terms of play experience. But I am also well aware that I'm not done yet, and it's entirely possible that it could all come crashing down, or end with a whimper rather than a bang, but for the time being I will hold out hope.


  1. It's talk like this that is going to force me to either get an Xbox or upgrade my PC.

  2. Apparently the PC reqs are surprisingly light, or so I have been told. Might not even require an upgrade!

  3. Sadly, my PC is definitely not tall enough to ride that ride. But the various trailers and reviews have me interested enough to see if I can scrape together the fundage to do something about it.

  4. I really wish I could get deep into solo computer RPGs, but they always end up petering out for me. Without real social interaction, I just don't stay motivated.

    Not that you aren't tempting with this. :)

  5. I'm playing on the PC, and it runs very nicely.

    Playing a female elf mage. I was taken aback when one of the NPCs mentioned how rare it was to have a female Gray Warden. It wasn't a plot point, just a bit of color, and there is stuff like that everywhere, which makes the whole experience incredibly immersive.

    Mage is indeed fun, if for nothing else than the splashy effects and trying to hunt down the 10 spell combos.

    The bit about choices is dead on. Very quickly in the mage intro, I was torn about helping an NPC do something that was clearly wrong under the teachings of the circle but seemed morally acceptable. What it forces you to do is really think about what your character is like and try to act accordingly. My mage is an idealist, eager, confident, and even a little naive.

    Definitely going dwarven rogue next.

  6. Just can't afford the buy-in at the moment. Maybe in March or so when it's cheaper.

  7. This definitely sounds like a PC title for me. Just because you *can* play it on a console doesn't mean the PC experience won't be better, or at least more manageable.

    I would appreciate further unpacking of #6 (small choices).

    I haven't considered buying a new-new PC game in forever, so I'm a little excited. I think finding the time will be harder than finding the money. Thanks!

  8. In fact, by all reports, the PC experience is probably better. The interface is a bit sweeter, and the graphics are more tunable.

  9. @semioticity - Re: #6, See my prior post. The example I gave about helping the NPC. I say I was torn, but ultimately it was a fairly easy decision. Now, during that quest, I got a nifty staff. When we finished, the head mage asked for it back as ill-gotten gains. The dialogue choice was to just give it back or ask why I couldn't keep it. I thought about that one for a few minutes. I wanted that damn staff, but I didn't want to piss off the head mage who was very likeable and seemed very disappointed in my actions. In the end, I just gave it back, but I still think about it.

  10. I was really hoping that Bioware would bring back the multiplayer world building kits for this game. Maybe they still will, the lack of it isn't a deal breaker for me but definitely puts it lower on the list of must-get games.

    I happen to remember games like Neverwinter Nights and Vampire: Redemption having amazing GM kits and it makes me sad that this model is used less and less. Bethesda has incorporated nice features, but their potential is somewhat blunted by the lack of multiplayer in their games.

    Anyhow it's probably on my list for play this Christmas when i get some time off.


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