Friday, April 9, 2010

Adventures in Dragon Age: Origins

Forward: I'm not going to preface my blog with an introductory post. No one wants to read those.

My relationship with Dragon Age has been an unusual one. Visiting a game store on boxing day, I discovered the game on sale for 40$. This being a relatively cheap price for the typically 65~70$ game, I picked it up without hesitation. This, of course, devalued it: I didn't touch the thing for months because it had been acquired so easily.

For months I didn't touch it. I started it one night but couldn't get into it. The structure of the game was unusual to me. Understand the most recent wRPGs I have played have been Bethesda titles: it was only after playing Final Fantasy XIII (and thoroughly enjoying it, take from that what you will) that I replayed Dragon Age, and realized how similar it was to the jRPGs I'd enjoyed as a child that I actually was able to stick with it. The idea of Dragon Age being similar to Final Fantasy is probably something I'll have to justify in a future post, but for now let's leave it at that.

Anyway, Dragon Age has, unsurprisingly, taken my free time hostage. I cannot stop playing the game. There is something viral in its mechanics, in its design. This probably owes a lot to its story: having the opportunity to genuinely roleplay something that is at least reasonably different from Good Guy, Bad Guy, Ambivalent Bastard is deeply engaging. My character can best be described as a medieval version of James Bond who is coniderably more willing to settle down as long as "settling down" entails casual sex while romping through the countryside slaying things with entirely too many warts. The game offers a fair degree of freedom, which is wonderful. But at the same time I feel as if I am being cut off from playing the game simply as I wish. One of my biggest complaints is that flying in the face of videogaming tradition, instead of there being endless grunts to kill and a hard level cap to prevent one from becoming a godly titan, there are a limited number of enemies in the game which offer experience. Furthermore, characters do not gain experience as a party, but as individuals: whoever gets the kill, gets the experience.

I understand the intent of the idea: this is to be a gripping, realistic mid fantasy adventure, so the realistic thing to do is have there only be a certain number of enemies. The problem is that this is not a book, it's a videogame. Not to say I don't love videogames pretending to be books, but were one to compare Dragon Age to a book the frank conclusion would have to be a "chose your own adventure" book. Not exactly a flattering comparison. The point is, it's a game, and it should behave like one. Give me things to kill. Further compounding the problem is that in limits the way the game can be played: depending on how many sidequests one does or does not take, one can finish the game with characters ranging from level 17 to 25. This hampers the roleplaying experience because the player cannot simply play as they would choose: they must make sure to select the correct quests, weapons, et cetera, to ensure a maximized game or be nerfed when fighting what I imagine is the fiendishly difficult endgame period. There are people who claim that the game is easy: I am not one of them, perhaps because I'd rather not play in some GameFAQs recommended "Best strategy" style.

The fact that there is a limited amount of experience in the game is made more forehead-slappingly painful because of the frankly outdated and irritatingly difficult system wherein the character who lands the killing blow gains all the experience. In this I think Bioware aught to take a page from the books of Valve (Team Fortress 2) and Zipper Interactive (MAG) and diversify how experience is gained. Give my mage some exp for buffing the party and keeping them from making the Darkspawn dinner table. (NOTE: The game does offer minor experience for disarming traps, disabling locks, and reading books, but this is essentially available only to the main character and the party rogue, who may or may not be the main character in the first place).

Finally, one of Dragon Age's biggest failings is once classic to RPGs. In attempting to give the player multiple options, there are periods of the game where certain character types are desperately shafted, for want of a better word. My character, for example, is a dual-wielding berserker maniac who is frankly not that good against mages (Ideally, the party Templar, Alistair, would make up for such a failing, but his sword has a hard time against little wizard bastards throwing ice spells from a hundred feet away). Permit me to present, linearly, the events leading up to and surrounding my party's quandry.

We visit a reclusive village named Haven. We suspect craziness.
Unsurprisingly, we discover a mad shopkeeper who has killed a knight. We slay him.
We then discover a circle of craziness, spear-headed by a cultist leader. We slay them with minor difficulty.
We enter a mountain, to discover a second, deeper circle of craziness.
It is quickly learned that these circles surround a dragon.

Option 1: Fight the second circle of craziness. This is deeply challenging for my party.

Option 2: Comply with the second circle so as not to die. This leads to intense dislike from my character's love interest (Who, remember, he gave up his philandering ways for: the man had an elf maid within about five minutes of the game starting up) and his wise-cracking best friend. I suppose this sort of problem is to be expected in a game like this, but it's still frustrating.

Of course, all these issues are relatively meaningless, I suppose. I still play the thing as if it's hooked up to an IV drip keeping a baby kitten alive.

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