Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Dragon Age: Origins

Post-Launch Review
Dragon Age: Origins
Developer: BioWare Edmonton
Released: November 2009

Note: I didn't actually finish this game, though I did play 30 hours' worth. 
For those who know the game, I stopped after saving the possessed kid and recruiting the elves, dwarves, and mages, as well as the Stone Prisoner and Soldier's Peak DLCs.


Dragon Age: Origins is a third-person fantasy RPG. You are one of the last Grey Wardens, an order dedicated to fighting the demonic darkspawn. The Wardens face persecution and betrayal as the nation of Ferelden witnesses power struggles for the human and dwarven thrones, and werewolf attacks against the elves. In the midst of all this conflict, no one believes that the darkspawn blight is real, or that it is a priority. You must call on old debts and raise an army to save the kingdom from a threat which most have dismissed as insignificant.

At Launch

Dragon Age was very well received by critics, with the PC version scoring an average of 90% in reviews (the console versions scored slightly lower due to a slightly less manageable interface). Critics loved the "classic" PC RPG feel and the sheer amount of content, customization, and choice, but cautioned that more casual players might be frustrated by the amount of micro-management involved. 

Post Launch

Tons of DLC, along with several patches and fixes to bugs and issues. All DLC and updates are included in Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition.
The Stone Prisoner adds a golem party member with a full backstory, skill tree, voice acting, and new items.
Warden's Keep adds new story content in a new location - Soldier's Peak - which fills out backstory on the Grey Wardens and can be used as a base with merchants, crafters, and storage.
Blood Dragon Armor adds a new set of massive armour.
Return to Ostagar allows the player to revisit the fortress battlefield, learn more about the agendas of major characters, and obtain a new set of gear.
Feastday Gifts and Pranks adds unique items that will improve or worsen party members' attitudes towards you.
The Darkspawn Chronicles is an alternate-reality mission that allows you to play the final battle as the darkspawn army, assuming the player did not survive initiation into the Wardens.
Leliana's Song is a standalone campaign that fills out the backstory of the rogue/bard party member.
The Golems of Amgarrak is a campaign that sends the Warden after a lost expedition to find the secret of crafting golems (not to be confused with the story mission that sends the Warden after a lost expedition to find the secret of crafting golems).
Witch Hunt is a post-story mission that concludes the story of Morrigan, one of your party members.

The Good

Each and every one of your potential party members is complex and interesting, and their voice acting is consistently strong (though I don't like Leliana). This is one of the few games where I've been really conflicted as to who to bring with me for any given mission. Even in Mass Effect I tended to pick a couple of characters and go with them for the entire game, but in Dragon Age there are too many awesome options. I'm torn between building a mechanically optimized party or bringing my favourite characters. Alistair is often hilariously dumb and naive but genuinely nice and caring, and has great interactions with some specific party members. I don't have much interest in Wynne or Leliana, but their skills are invaluable to my play style. Morrigan has a bit of a unique perspective and is cuttingly sarcastic and efficient. The dog is very intelligent and has its own personality, but is still a dog. And the list goes on.
Furthermore, each character has interesting and complex interactions with each other character. You'll have all kinds of different dialogues between party members when you're exploring. Morrigan makes fun of Alistair about his intelligence, Wynne teases Alistair about sex and his socks... well generally everyone makes fun of Alistair for some reason.

The graphics are a little muddy in places. Some secondary characters have poor animation and textures, and some environment textures are not great. But the game's big open environments, whether indoors or out, are generally great. Facial animation, while not top-notch, has some nice details like foreheads that actually wrinkle when eyebrows are raised. Nice.

Approval System
Dragon Age doesn't have a proper morality system. That's good. You can choose "good" or "evil" options but they don't shift you left/right on the good/evil scale. Instead, the approval rating of each of your companions is tracked. When you do something that companion approves of they like you more; if you do something they disagree with, they like you less. Interestingly this only applies when the character is in your party. So if you want to make a quest choice that Alistair violently disagrees with, you can leave him at camp and he won't be there to judge you. The system is at its best when you have party members with very different viewpoints, and invariably one of them likes and one dislikes almost every action you choose (a hilarious combination is Alistair and Morrigan). And this does actually have a game effect - when a character is inspired and trusting they get a bonus to their primary stat.

Creeping Blight
As you progress through story missions, the blight spreads, rendering areas inaccessible as the darkspawn horde advances into Ferelden. It's a cool way to show you that yes, the blight really is dangerous, it's taking towns and blocking travel. Many RPGs allow you to access any area at any time, which tends to make the threat seem less dangerous as you wander around looking for cool gear.
Tactics Menu
Dragon Age's tactics menu allows you to customize your party's automatic actions to an absurd degree. It's very simple to understand and use but offers a massive amount of control. Basically, you choose a trigger, and an action for the character to take when that trigger occurs. So you can use tactics to have your party focus-fire on the enemy with the lowest health, or automatically drink potions when their HP gets too low. That's the simple stuff. The more advanced options are where things really get interesting. You can set up combos between allies - for example, have a mage freeze an enemy, and then have a warrior shatter it with a shield bash. You can coordinate your rogue to flank and backstab targets you attack. You can have your entire party shift combat tactics when your healer drops.

The Stone Prisoner
One of the DLC packs allows you to find and recruit a golem named Shale. Shale has a unique and really cool skill set, allowing him (it?) to swap between four different modes that confer different bonuses and attack abilities. He can turn into a powerful melee bruiser, a defensive attention-grabber, a strong ranged attacker, or an immobile party buffer at your command. Also he's snarky and hilarious, with full voice lines and random conversations.

The Neutral

Dragon Age's combat is very reliant on tactical micro-management of characters, resources, and abilities. The tactics menu is good at automating certain actions, but it's not powerful enough to let you control only your main character during combat. Your party is far from optimal unless you're constantly pausing combat and picking abilities and targets. This might be good or bad, depending on how you reel about RPG combat.

DLC Transferrable Rewards
Some of the DLC packs are standalone missions or campaigns that take place separately from the main story, and include rewards that can be applied to the main game. That sounds good, right? Well, the Witch Hunt DLC takes place post-story and includes spoilers for the end of the game. I don't want to play it until I've finished the game, but if I've finished the game, then what's the point of awarding me items I can use in the main story?

The Bad

I experienced occasional poor framerate, hanging, and crashes while playing. The worst crash was immediately after defeating a tough boss.
I didn't have much trouble relative to the time I spent playing the game, but it was annoying.

Wild Difficulty Variance
Some fights are so easy that you can handily win them by letting your three other party members fight automatically. On the other hand, some are so hard that it feels like they'll kick your ass no matter what you do. It's realistic in the sense that you're not necessarily strong enough to overcome every battle or enemy right off the bat, but it's frustrating when you're used to games either scaling to your level or giving you an idea of how difficult a given fight will be. And it's especially frustrating when one particular segment of a quest is much harder than the others for no apparent reason. There are a couple of segments where you enter a room and you're told to reselect your party. I think "that's odd" and pick some guys. Then all of a sudden I'm locked in with no way out, no way to replenish resources, and no party swapping, and told to fight this very difficult boss battle. If you're relying on autosaves and you're caught unprepared, you might be screwed.
Pathfinding is pretty awful most of the time. Occasionally there's a chest I can't open because my character can't figure out how to get there. Much more frequently, though, my party wastes far too much time maneuvering in combat between attacks. It's odd because you can move through enemies and allies, but you need some undefinedly large amount of free space to actually attack. And of course the whole time I'm awkwardly shuffling around an enemy waiting to attack with my sword, I'm being hit with arrows and fireballs.

Gaining Tactics Slots
The only thing I don't like about tactics is that the number of tactics slots available to you is dependent on both a character's level and where they invest their skill points. The issue is that tactics are a convenience and not a power or utility boost. Everything that can be done with tactics can be done manually, and some types of actions are more useful or powerful when used manually (like ground-targeted attacks better optimizing the number of enemies). For example, when I'm choosing between opening stronger locks, crafting better potions, improving my ability to detect traps, or gaining another tactics slot, I'm not going to choose the tactics slot. I'm going to choose something that improves an ability or grants me a new one, rather than pouring resources into automating something I can very easily do myself.
If you couldn't pause combat at any time to look over the battlefield and issue commands, tactics slots would be much more useful.
DLC Plot Brakes
The weakness of the blight's spread, is that it only progresses at certain set points in the story. This means that if you have all the DLC packs, you can play through those and the blight will patiently wait for you to finish exploring the remote mountain outposts that has nothing to do with the war. Odd that the game's story gets weaker as you add DLC.

No Default Storage + Storage Quirks
By default, Dragon Age doesn't include any way to store items. So if I find crafting materials or gear that I can't use yet but might be handy later, I'm forced to either sell them or waste inventory space. I can't believe there's no storage chest at your campsite.
The Warden's Keep DLC adds a storage chest, but from what I've read it has a weird quirk of occasionally modifying stored items to your level. This can be a benefit if you put early items in and they get boosted later, but you can also power down items you store that you're saving for later because their requirements are too high. Careful what you store!
Doesn't Go Far Enough
This might seem like a weird criticism, but here it is: Dragon Age wants to make its fantasy world different and unique, but it doesn't try hard enough, and everything ends up feeling like "standard with a twist", rather than really different and interesting. The Grey Wardens are an order of monster hunters with a deadly initiation ritual - except some people don't like them! Dwarves are short and stocky people who live underground and don't like magic, but their civilization is in decline! Elves are a long-lived race with strong ties to nature... except nobody likes them! Mages harness powerful forces but face huge risks doing so, and as a result, nobody likes them! It's all pretty underwhelming and feels lazy, especially given how often the "nobody likes them" card comes up. Instead of creating new and interesting fantasy elements, Dragon Age simply takes existing stuff and slaps on a minor and inconsequential twist.
The Fade, on the other hand, is the world of dreams, which lies parallel to the waking world. This has been done before, sure, but the twists here are actually interesting. Humans and elves go there when they sleep, and that's where dreams come from, but dwarves can't access the Fade without exceptional circumstances, which means they don't dream and can't use magic. Powerful mages can actually visit the Fade while awake. Demons or spirits residing in the Fade can occasionally cross over and/or possess people. Unfortunately, the Fade isn't really explored very much and is mostly just mentioned here and there.

The Verdict

Recommendation: maybe.
As I said at the start of the review, I didn't make it all the way through the game. Partly this is because I ran up against my Wednesday deadline, but it's also because I was getting kind of bored and frustrated. This is not to say that Dragon Age is a bad game; it's just that I don't really like it. It has a lot of quirks and oddities that I see as problems and can't overlook, though you might not feel the same way. While not having the most original of stories, its characters and their interactions are fantastic in every way, and it's definitely a game with a lot of options. I'd say try it if you're a fan of some older RPGs like BioWare's Neverwinter Nights or Baldur's Gate.

1 comment:

  1. As you know, I'm a big fan of this game, but I have to agree that it does have a number of minor flaws which add up in the end.

    The only thing I strongly disagree with in your review is your treatment of The Fade: "Unfortunately, the Fade isn't really explored very much and is mostly just mentioned here and there." There is a significant dungeon crawl/story mission which takes place entirely in the Fade which starts shortly after the point at which you stopped playing. Also, you can enter the fade while dealing with the Arl of Redcliffe's possessed son (either yourself if you're a Mage, or by sending Morrigan and playing through her), and go through a fairly lengthy segment there.

    It may seem nit-picky, but you singled out the Fade as one of the few unique elements of DA:O's fantasy world-building, and I thought it may be useful to point out that it can and does get fleshed out in the game.