Monday, 16 November 2009


So I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins pretty much every minute that wasn't filled with thesis work, birthday celebrations, or raiding. It grabbed me right at the start, I'm immersed into the story and I care for some of the characters.
That's huge for a game that I had relatively low expectations for. Sure, it isn't perfect, but who is?
Imagine my surprise when I find (with the help of Spinks and Google Reader) A barrage of blog posts damning the game into the ground.

Not a revolution
Evizaer and others complain about the game not being revolutionary enough. Well, it isn't and it is. Just like in World of Warcraft back at launch there isn't an individual new feature one could call "new". Just like in WoW, the combination of features makes it a very good game still. I don't know why people expected any form of revolution from the game - it's made by Bioware and published by EA. The history of Bioware games is a good one, but I'd hardly call anything in it revolutionary. The progression from Baldur's Gate to Baldur's Gate II to Neverwinter Nights to KotOR to Mass Effect to Dragon Age: Origins (never played Jade Empire for some reason) was very linear and obvious.

Unlike evil franchises like the EA sports games, enough changed in these iterations to make them all interesting even though they represent very linear evolution instead of revolution. Perhaps the biggest part here is the change in setting and scenery - these games are about experiencing a story. In many games, the story is only a nice bit of fluff around the game. I know nobody who played Diablo who cared about the story and hardly anyone reads quest texts in WoW. The Bioware RPGs are more like interactive movies than games with some story tagged on. Obviously one cannot forget gameplay during the design process or one will end up with another Voyeur, Phantasmagoria, or Rebel Assault. The main goal of these RPGs remains to immerse the player deep into a story, to make her feel like she's a deciding part of it. It doesn't take a Gyro Gearloose to create such an experience. Good craftsmanship is completely fine - and Dragon Age: Origins is good craftsmanship indeed.

No more Dungeons and Dragons
Alright, there are lots of dungeons and even a few Dragons in the game (ooh, spoiler!) I'm obviously referring to the Wizards of the Coast / Hasbro owned pen and paper role-playing franchise. D&D might be a fine RPG system (though I hear the fourth edition is quite bad) but the D6 has nothing to do in a CRPG. D&D's forceful constraints were one of my biggest issues with the Baldur's Gate series. Having to set up camp all the time because that's the only way you could replenish the spells your mages had available and having to choose the spells you'd need beforehand made for a terrible game mechanic for example. There were all these neat niche spells in the game - but one couldn't really afford to learn those instead of, say, arcane missiles. If you were in a region in which you couldn't rest, using a spell to kill something faster was out of the question - have your warriors whack away on it till it dies so you have the spell for the next fight. Not a lot of fun.

In Dragon Age: Origins, all this has gone away. Mana and health (and stamina) are finite resources during combat, but replenish quickly outside of it. This way you still have to make meaningful choices for mana consumption during combat, but you're not afraid to actually use spells because you know once the combat is over your mana will be back. Unlike, say, Torchlight, mana and health potions are in rather limited supply, adding further meaningful decisions to combat.

Losing D&D rules also means losing all the baggage that those rules brought. Weird armor class calculations? Gone. The huge array of useless spells (Chill Touch and Know Alignment anyone?) Gone. Instead we get a simple array of skill trees and 5 simple enough stats to puts points in on level up. The skills still provide quite some flexibility, though more so for some classes than others. Mitch complains about the system being too complicated for him, a notion I cannot follow. This is a very standard RPG diet. Frost freezes, fire hurts, sword & board is for tanking, and rogues do it from behind. If you've never played a fantasy RPG before, understanding the combat system might take a bit of thinking - but not more so than in other games of the genre. If you've never played an FPS before, you'll also have to learn to aim and switch weapons. In Dragon Age: Origins you even get a pause key to consider your options as long as you'd like.

Combat in Bioware games tends to be a weird beast, being in real time but always pauseable for tactical decisions. The player can give every character individual commands (either in a top-down RTS kind of way or taking direct control of the character) or rely on the AI to make decisions for the party members.
Evizaer hates the combat system apparently, mainly because of unprecise controls and "tactically dull" battles. I can't really agree on either of these. If you wish, you have all the precision you want through the ability to directly control each member of your party (even the dog) and the pause key. Pathing may be suboptimal in some cases, but generally precise positioning only matters for one or two characters. One example here would be the area of effect cone spells - like the incredibly powerful cone of cold. The cone freezes everything in a cone-shaped (duh) area in front of the caster, including friends if they are in the way. In order to get the most out of the spell you will want to position your mage to the side of a line (or clump) of enemies without another party member in the line of fire. This is easily enough achieved by having a tank character run in, engage the enemies, pull him back a little to for a line of enemies run your mage to the side using WASD. I fail to see what is unprecise about this.

Of course you can leave control of your party members to the AI as well and only directly control one of your characters. Unlike many other games you have a pretty sophisticated tactics system to "program" the behaviour of those NPCs, allowing you to set up conditions for their actions. A common example is "cast Heal when an ally is below 50% health" or "cast Crushing Prison when the target is very strong." The game comes with pre-sets for these tactics that in my experience are good enough for playing the game on normal difficulty. My warrior-golem Shale, for example, can be set to defensive, melee damage, or ranged damage mode.
Obviously these are not as clever as manual control of your party members, but I'm getting through the game fine by having three party members on automatic (giving individual orders in key moments) and my main character purely manual.

Why evizaer would call the battles tactically dumb I do not know. There have been many battles that I lost and had to try again with different tactics to succeed. Luring enemies into ambushes, dealing with enemy ambushes, disabling key opponents, sacrificing party members to protect others, combining abilities of different characters for maximum effect - it's all in the game. Rarely were my fights just a matter of healing the tank and focusing the enemies down one by one, and never about twitch or positioning in minute detail. It's all about the tactics and your party composition - I don't know how one can call that dull.

The uncanny valley and other plausibility issues
The uncanny valley is that little part of the realism/plausibility curve that comes right before full realism. Things that look real but are just a little bit off seem a lot more implausible to us than things that don't look real in the first place. Graphics like those of WoW require a certain willing suspension of disbelief to be accepted anyway, and things looking not quite right are covered by that. If a game tries to look realistic on the other hand, a suspension of disbelief is not in place and little details can throw you off.
Dragon Age: Origins suffers from this problem just like pretty much any game that tries to achieve realism - but personally I find it much less disturbing there than in other games (say, Oblivion.) There are so many neat details in the world that make it seem alive that I can just about forget about the almost-but-not-quite animations. (Though I must say that using the same animations for the lesbian sex scene and the male/female one is a bit off-putting.)

Michael is disturbed by the "it's an RPG thing" attitude shown in parts of the game - and I have to agree with him in some parts. Spinks mentions this as well - why can I just pick up everything that's lying around without anyone caring? Why does no one else? In a camp full of starving refugees, why are there crates with supplies in them and why does nobody care if I take them with me? Or the opposite - if I'm saving your village, why do I still have to pay full price (or anything at all) for supplies at the shop?
Obviously the game can't be fully realistic (that wouldn't be much fun) but some of these things could indeed be handled in a way that's less immersion breaking. The Elder Scrolls series handled stealing things much better for example. You could take anything you wanted, but if the owner saw you do it, you would be in trouble. There is one special story chest in Dragon Age: Origins that actually has this mechanic, but otherwise no-one cares - not even if I take things from the dwarven prince's quarters or the family heirloom armour of a lord.

This is a point I have to give to the critics - though it doesn't feel as bad to me as some make it seem.

Dragon Age: Origins is not an action game. If you get it and play it you should be expecting lengthy conversations and tough moral decisions. In fact, the characterisation of the NPCs is probably the strongest point the game has going for it. There are various interesting paths through conversations with actual effects on the game world, in some cases surprising me very much in how far the game would let me go. Especially with subtitles turned off, the conversations are very interesting and rewarding. If you really don't care, turn subtitles on and skim/escape your way through it - but that'll come at a huge cost for your immersion. If you have the attention span of a mayfly, maybe this isn't the game for you. I can't see why else evizaer would have an issue with the conversations at all.

In conclusion, not everything is brilliant about Dragon Age: Origins and I might just post about a few flaws myself on another date - but it's a really, really good game and as immersive as a bathtub. I would say it's the best game I've played since Mass Effect - and that's saying something about Bioware, isn't it?
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