Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins

            After beating Dragon Age: Origins, I’ve been trying to collect my feelings on it.  Did I love it?  Did I hate it?  Well, neither of those.  In a way, the game’s far too over my head to have me make an educated decision of my own opinion.  I remember when I preordered it simply based on it being Bioware’s next original IP, started playing, and…I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, constantly getting tossed around and destroyed in combat.  It was a pretty defeated feeling.  This time around, I went in with a guide from GameFAQs on character creation and a more educated feeling of what I was doing.  But what follows is still going to be my second not-review.  In this case, while I have finished the game, I don’t feel like I can fully give my opinions on it in a way that’s actually constructive.  So this is a collection of my thoughts on things, the community’s (or, at least, TV Tropes’) thoughts on things, and reasonings as to why this game may be excellent, but not for me.
            The game takes place in a fantasy setting, with a story you’d expect.  There’s an orc-like threat called the Darkspawn, and the only people that can stop it are the Grey Wardens.  After various events, you and one other character are left as the only Grey Wardens, and you have to collect the city of Redcliffe, the elves, the dwarves, and the mages to help fight against the Darkspawn.  The story is a bit too standard fantasy, but it works.  Part of it is some of the political parts of the game, when it becomes less about fighting the demons and more about fighting the other human factions.  The other part is the real strength of the writing.  It really shows that you can take a plot that could’ve been scribbled out by anyone who’s read Lord of the Rings, and take it to a more powerful level.  The characters are all unique, and the voice acting on them carries it through.  Your party members alone don’t feel like they’ve been pulled out of some other fantasy game and given clichés to spout.  You have the dark magic girl and the warrior dwarf, but they’re both given backstory and snarky lines that make you fall in love with them.
The big initial draw of the game for me, and the reason for the title, are the origins.  There are six different origins, which are playable prologues.  I don’t know if it’s justified enough in-game for people to go through the game six times, especially since there’s only 3 classes, although each of those classes can go in different directions.  While the origins do have you meeting characters that may become important later, it’s not quite enough to completely change your experience.  Being a mage, it’s just the difference between people at the Mage’s Tower saying “Hey, I remember you” and them not saying it.  It’s kind of cool, but not cool enough that I wanted to go back in and see what I could’ve done different.
The other interesting part of the game is the approval system.  I’m really not sure how I feel about this.  I outright feel like I’m going to be contradictory after I gushed about Fallout New Vegas’ faction system, but sometimes that’s just the way it goes.  While most Bioware games have a karma meter that shifts between good and bad, this game ditched that.  Instead, each of your party members (besides the dog) has an approval bar.  You can affect their approval by giving them gifts, by talking to them in camp, or in certain conversations throughout the game.  For instance, you have the choice to release an evil mage from jail, and each of 3 your party members will chime in on how they feel about you doing so.  It’s a good idea for a system, and it avoids the standard “Help the old lady or kick her and rob her” karmic choices.  On the other hand, some party members are just too high maintenance.  Morrigan in particular has become infamous since it’s very easy for her to become mad at you.  I even had to kill a potential party member just because Morrigan was with me, and my choices were either “Sorry, you die” or “You shut the hell up, Morrigan”.  There was no negotiating choice, I had to do one or the other.  There’s several difficult decisions like this in the game, yet it came down to “Hold on, I need to see if anybody’s going to leave me if I do this”.  I had my party set so early on that, when it came down to the tough choices, it was less about them as characters and more about making sure my perfect combat party didn’t get screwed up.  That’s just not how it should be.  There’s also the fact that there’s still obvious karmic choices in the dialogue tree, and yet they’re completely useless.  At one point, I accidentally killed an innocent shopkeeper, and my party members didn’t even bat an eye.  They mainly just seem to speak up when there’s a necessary choice, not in any of the optional spots.  So you can completely switch between being a cutthroat maniac and the nicest person ever in some spots, and the game just won’t care.
I have now spent two and a half pages of this review without talking about the combat.  I guess that’s a testament of the story and writing of Bioware that I can spend much more time caring about that than I do writing about, y’know, the actual gameplay.  The other reason I’ve been putting it off is that, again, I’m not the right person to do this.  I used GameFAQs to create my characters and develop the skills of my party members, putting them into the right roles.  I had my party members set on Auto-AI the entire time, not even using the system that lets you set things like “If this happens, use this skill”.  I played the game on Easy, where you have to use pretty much no tactics, in a game where a lot of the richness apparently comes from setting up your party members just right.  Putting the rogue in the shadows, making sure your mage stays out of the line of fire.  It’s been well-complained about, though, that for a game that has this focus on stuff like that, there’s too many spots where you enter a room and are suddenly teleported to a conversation, screwing up any tactics you might’ve had.  So from my standpoint, I did like how my character got developed.  I was a mage, and the FAQ I used for this character called it a spell-flinger build.  I could lock down enemies with paralysis, throw hexes on them to make it so that they couldn’t hit my party, and heal my party members.  The progression meant that it was a little difficult early on before I got some of the more important spells in my repertoire, but generally, the game’s difficulty didn’t spike or lower too much.  It stayed steady throughout, besides throwing a few “Holy (*$# what was THAT?” moments at me.  I was perfectly able to make it through the combat to get back to the dialogue, but I wasn’t in love with it nor did I hate it.  I just did it and accepted it.  I certainly didn’t get the most out of it.  I’d say if playing around with tactics and character builds sounds like your thing, you are going to be in heaven here.
            So in the end, I really did like Dragon Age Origins.  The characters and the writing really got me in, and the combat...well, I made it through it and dealt with it.  It’s a good game that I’d recommend to anyone who likes dark fantasy settings, high quality writing, or tactical combat.  It took 30 hours to get through the game, which I consider to be a fairly good time since I was avoiding sidequests near the end, and it has a good bit of DLC, not to mention an expansion.  Which I am interested in playing sometime, if only to go back to the world.

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