Some time ago, in Samson’s post on the subject, I noted that “that was really great. That ending rocked. I have some quibbles, but I’ll save them for my own review later.”
That was after my first playthrough. We’re now a second playthrough, the expansion, and all of the DLC later. I’m pretty late to the party here, but as you might imagine, I have a few more things to say about it now. Let us begin.
Writing and Plot:
I’m going to be pretty enthusiastic about a lot of this game, but let me start by gushing over how great the writing is for this game.
On the face of it, this is pretty generic worldbuilding – I mean, name me another fantasy RPG where you fight demonic hordes to save civilization, said civilization including the remnants of a collapsed dwarven empire and some forest-dwelling elves who got bushwhacked by humans. It won’t take you all that long, so I’ll wait here for you.
Oh, you came up with one already? Well ok then.
Any seeming deficiencies in the worldbuilding, and I actually don’t mind the worldbuilding because it works, are more than made up for by the plot. There’s so much going on here I don’t really know how to begin.
Obviously there are the titular origin stories, five of them. I’ve been through the Magi one (my first) and the Dwarf noble one (my second), and both were of excellent quality, and really gave some great backstory to my character and the world. People generally single out the Dwarf noble story as being the best of the bunch, involving as it does political intrigue, fighting, and danger, and it really rounds out the Orzammar storyline. For myself, I thought the Mage story was just as good, and I really got a lot out of the interplay between the Circle, the Templars, the Chantry, and the Fade. I can only hope the others are just as good.
Without going into a lot of detail on the rest of things, let me just say that the main plot is suitably epic, and branches out well in ways I don’t think anybody’s ever really accomplished before. Grand betrayals, redemption, political intrigue, and regret are all here. The choice you make at the end is actually hard, and I really had to think twice before making it – in both of my playthroughs. That’s hard to do in a game, and I salute Bioware for pulling it off as well as they have here.
I also want to put in a plug for the characters here. I like some of them more than others, but there aren’t any of them that actively annoy me. I might not like them as people, but as characters they’re uniformly well done. So far I’ve had Alistair (twice), Oghren (twice), Leliana, Shale, and Wynne in my party, and enjoyed my time with all of them. I’m not as unabashedly a fan of the romance plotlines as I was in BG2, but they’re well done enough here, and any lack is made up for by the interparty banter. Oghren and Shale are worth it just for their banters, as are the Allistair/Morrigan duo.
What I’m really trying to say here is that this game is worth it just for the story experience alone, and despite what I’m about to talk about, this is some of the best writing video gaming has ever seen, and you should experience this game just to see it.
Gameplay and Interface:
Where do I start here. I hate to be negative about anything in this game, but the gameplay is a mess.
Let’s start with the interface, because it’s less of a trainwreck than the rest. Since Neverwinter Nights, Bioware has ridden the isometric 3D train pretty hard. They’re finally getting pretty good at it. Unlike Samson, who wants the camera to die in a fire, I’ve spent enough time with Bioware games to recognize that this is a camera that you can mostly use. Unlike the bad old days, there’s no ridiculous camera spinning bullshit, and you only get caught behind scenery sometimes. Zoomed out, the only thing I wish is that you could zoom out a bit MORE to be able to see the entire battlefield. While I think it’s fairly clear that for party-centric games top down is the way to go, what we’ve got works far better than any of its predecessors.
Beyond the camera, the rest of the interface is more or less intuitive if you’ve ever played an RPG. Journal, quest markers, pretty good map, quickslots, it’s all here. Of note is the codex, which stores non-plot critical information about creatures, characters, the world, and other things. I don’t know that I think minor sidequests should be stored here, but it’s fine enough, and hunting down codex entries makes for a fun little sidequest during the game.
Now, as to the gameplay. I just wrote a big post discussing Valve’s level design, and playing Dragon Age: Origins in light of what was discussed there is pretty disheartening. At the root of things is the fact that the combat model in this game stinks, which in turn boils down to the fact that balance pretty much doesn’t exist. Not all classes and powers are created equal. With a mage, you can practically solo the game. If you’ve got the right powers, you definitely can. Two-handed warriors are basically inferior to twin weapon anything and mages, and essentially the entire slate of sword and shield warrior powers is useless, which was intensely frustrating to my dwarven noble. Meanwhile, enemy powers range from the I-didn’t-even-notice-what-that-did to the colossally overpowered Overwhelm and Grab powers, which boil down to you watching helplessly over the course of 30 seconds while your character is brutally killed while you can do absolutely nothing about it.
It’s fairly difficult for me to see how anyone believed this was a good idea, but the combined effect is that it makes combat boring as all hell unless you take some of the fun powers. My mage was a whole lot more fun to play than my mace and shield dwarf mostly because, as a mage, he actually had things to do in every fight rather than just stand there and swing.
If that wasn’t bad enough, you might remember me talking in that level design post about varying things up between combat and puzzles, or combat and anything else at all. In Dragon Age, combat is broken up mostly by more combat and occasionally by story elements. When the story elements are in play, things are a lot better, because at least you feel like you’re fighting for the destiny of your or somebody’s people. Unfortunately, long stretches of the game, including the vast majority of Orzammar and the Dalish plotlines, are loooooooooong bland dungeon crawls filled with bad guys and nothing else. It’s a horrid way to run a railroad. Fortunately, outside of the bland dungeons, combat is at the very least tolerable, and usually more like what it should be – challenging and fun.
Lastly about the dungeons, and going back to my point about balance, the game is sort of partially level scaled. Badly. To quote Shamus Young, “People usually prefer a difficulty CURVE to a difficulty SAWTOOTH.” This is pretty much it – fights vary between cakewalks and soul crushingly hard TPK fests, sometimes over two rooms in a dungeon, sometimes the same fight with the same character at the same level with a different player. There are ways to do partial level scaling correctly, but this isn’t it.
I could keep going here. After playing so much Oblivion and Fallout 3, it’s really hard to go back to Bioware’s mostly non-interactive and linear dungeons. The various branching narratives and side quests of Dragon Age’s middle game are highly compelling, but again, the dungeons are some of the worst I’ve seen, made worse by the fact that I know they can do better, as you can see by playing through basically any given dungeon in Baldur’s Gate II.
It’s worth saying that a lot of this can be overcome by playing on Easy. I don’t really like that, and I wish there was a way to have a better combat experience without making it cartoonishly simple, but short of wholescale redesigns of the level scaling system and entire dungeons, what you see is what you get.
Graphics and Sound:
To briefly cover sound, the best compliment I can give to it is that everything sounds like it ought to. Swords clash, people scream, spells sound like spells. The soundtrack, when used, is mostly used compellingly and well. I’m not really doing it justice here, because you really have to hear it. Too, the voice acting is generally quite good, although as Penny Arcade once said, it’s pretty difficult to get around the accentless dwarves and elves (well, the elves. Dwarves varied pretty oddly between Texas and…somewhere). It makes them a little bland, and is hard to understand considering that the Orlesians get a distinct voice, as do the Antivans.
That having been said, I feel I should mention that the game does not, or didn’t always play nice with Realtek sound drivers. When I originally played the game on Vista, I had to use some fairly annoying workarounds every time I wanted to play to avoid stuttering and generally atrocious audio quality. The same hardware and the same game version played on Windows 7 were flawless, and I’m left to wonder if this was solely a Vista issue or what, since many many other people reported the same problems.
Now, as to the graphics:
(from right to left: Badass, unbelievably badass, awkward, and hiding his face in utter shame and humility)
That picture should tell you most of what you need to know right there. In general, the graphical quality of the game is pretty high, although with a puzzling lack of any sort of normal mapping. That’s not really a problem with the armor, but every single suit of clothes and almost all of the robes look flat and painted on, and generally like they’ve just stepped out of 2003. It’s very difficult for me to understand what could have possibly compelled them to not deal with this issue, and the only reason I can think of is that work on the engine dates from at least 2004. The ultimate result is that this looks like a game with great graphics from 2006, as opposed to 2009. However, since even 2006 graphics are still fantastic, this is a relatively minor complaint.
The other unfortunate thing is that while heavy armor looks badass and awesome, leather armor at best looks lame, and anything for mages looks unfortunately ridiculous. While I understand a lot of this has some realistic basis (have you ever seen real medieval headgear? It’s pretty bad), a little bit of self respect would have gone a long ways.
Spell graphics are almost entirely excellent, however, with the unfortunate exception of a few things like the Tempest spell. It’s very hard to get magic that looks good in a game, and Bioware has done well for themselves here.
Likewise excellent is the animation. There are a couple of random glitches, but nothing that should give you worry. I should say that while actually playing the combat is an often frustrating experience, it’s a real joy watching the combat, and I can take comfort in the fact that even as my characters are being slaughtered by the hax Overwhelm power, it looks suitably terrifying and horrific (seriously. Watching spiders crawling over my guys creeps me the hell out). I wish I had animation this good for Oblivion.
I don’t think anybody really does cutscenes as well as Bioware, and that’s good, because there’s a lot of them. Cutscenes in games are often a real drain to sit through, but I think these are about as good as they can possibly get – short, to the point, well-animated, well-acted, and they drive the plot perfectly. It’s really hard to get this right, and kudos to Bioware for doing so.
In direct contradiction of Samson’s take, let me just say that I enjoyed the Fade, both as a visual experience AND as a gameplay experience. One of the reasons I’m very glad I played a mage first is because it made the Fade sequences hit a lot harder than they might have otherwise, and the Fade section of the Circle Tower is probably the best realized dungeon in the entire game.
Having griped about the normal mapping thing, I should say that despite that, the environments are well done. The cities are nicely urban, the nature feels natural, Orzammar was a bit blocky for my taste but still good, and in general everything just looks like it should. Unlike Samson, the lack of any sort of sky doesn’t overly bother me. It’s a Bioware game, and they haven’t bothered with day/night cycles since Baldur’s Gate II. I don’t really like that particularly, but it is what it is.
To sum it up, this game is an audio/visual treat, but not nearly to the same degree that it could have been.
Let me say this. If you’re going to have a game that has an online component, this is just about the best way to do things. While I’m not particularly in favor of the needing to create an online profile thing, it is at the very least a one-time annoyance, and it was easy enough to turn things off that I didn’t want. In practice, the whole thing is pretty unobtrusive.
As to the things it does, screenshots and achievements, both are kind of nice, although you’re either going to care or you’re not. In the case of screenshots, I don’t really mind having them automatically taken (a nice touch, if somewhat flawed), but I don’t bother to upload them (who cares?). As for achievements, this is either the sort of thing you care about, or the sort of thing you don’t. I find, somewhat to my surprise, that I actually do care about them. They’re fun little goals to set for yourself, and add a little value to replays. Again, no sharing.
The entire social system here isn’t really for me, but I think if you’re going to do it, this is about the best way that I’ve seen.
Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening:
And now a word about the expansion, Awakening. In short, this was a worthy addition and extension of the game. The high quality plot was continued, and I found the revelations it contained to be, if not exactly shocking, highly compelling and interesting additions to the lore of this world Bioware has constructed. Too, I enjoyed the characters, both new and old. Like the set in Origins, they’re well-written, interesting, and likable. There’s a new system of interaction with them that replaces the party camp mechanic as well, and if it still has a few quirks to work out for Dragon Age 2, it’s still a pretty good idea.
The other thing Awakening does is to mostly quiet my angst about Dragon Age’s gameplay. I’m unsure as to if this is merely a symptom of the fact that there are many fewer levels to deal with in Awakening, or if Bioware has figured out their system better. I suspect the latter, as there were many, many fewer areas of egregious combat annoyance here, with much better balance overall. Dungeons were a lot shorter and more interesting than they were in Origins, and the whole thing is much more fun and less of a slog.
I do want to raise one sour note, and that has to do with the crafting system present in Origins and expanded upon in Awakening. In general, I found the one in Origins to be a good start, especially when it came to runes, but wanted the ability to make my own weapon runes, and a system of armor runes, both of which were created for Awakening. The flaw is this. Outside of actually crafting, you can’t see your recipes. Unless you took crafting skills with your main character, however, you can’t access crafting in camp/in your keep, which is where all the vendors for the various crafting components are. This leads to a horrendously annoying experience of going outside, reading recipes to discover what you need, going back inside, buying it, going back outside to craft some runes, going back inside to enchant, then going back outside to go play. At best, this is five or six loading screens worth of pain, and if you forget something, God help you. There’s absolutely no reason for this sort of bullshit, and especially in Awakening where all the other merchants are outside, there’s literally no point in this except to grief the player.
On the whole, 8/10 aliens.
Like any good game in this day and age, Dragon Age can be modded. I haven’t really spent any time with the toolset, so I can’t very well speak to it, but as compared to anything Bethesda has ever made, mod installation is a disaster. There’s a tool called DAUpdater that comes with the game, and if you’re lucky and the planets and stars align, it will work, and if you’re not, the results will be painful. There’s a third party tool called DA Modder that seems to work better for the most part, but again, it’s entirely possible to mangle installation seemingly at random, and once you do it’s a pain in the ass to figure out what went wrong. Compared to the esp/esm format and the tools available for Bethesda games, mods for Dragon Age are like something out of the Dark Ages.
Also like any good game nowdays, Dragon Age comes with a full slate of downloadable content. At time of writing seven DLCs have been released, and we’re due for at least a year and a bit more. This is almost unimaginable largesse from the point of view of somebody who likes the game, and I wish more developers would do this.
Too, as a system, I find the way that the DLCs were implemented to be almost seamless and foolproof, with one glaring exception – the fact that characters and locations were inserted into my game to compel me to buy the DLCs is immersion breaking and generally a dick move of the most gigantic proportions, and I want to make it very clear that I own all the DLCs very very much despite this move rather than because of it. I also want to make it very clear that the person who came up with this idea deserves to be shunned in polite society for all of time.
That having been said, as a way to turn cash into gameplay, this is about as good a system as they could have come up with outside of Steam. While you need to have an online profile to get the DLCs, and it will want you to be logged in to play, which is annoying but mostly understandable, this as far as it goes. Too, while Bioware went down the road of selling “Bioware Points” for cash, and then selling me DLCs for Bioware points, the point costs of the DLCs are such that you don’t waste points, which is a refreshing touch for anyone who watched the Fallout 3 debacle. With the exception of actually buying the Bioware Points, you can purchase, download, and install the DLCs from within the game itself, almost at a single click, which is a very nice touch. If only mods were this easy.
All griping aside, I want to say that overall I enjoyed the DLCs thus far a great deal, more than any other slate of DLCs I’ve been exposed to that I recall. To discuss them individually:
Blood Dragon Armor:
This was one of two freebie DLCs that were included in my copy of Origins, and it’s sort of the big brother of a whole host of other item freebies that were released prior to the game for various editions. This one is a full suit of platemail, most of which is available in the party camp for sale. It’s solid mid-game armor, and my warrior spent most of her time in it from when she met the requirements until the end of the Orzammar plotline. Nice statwise, I thought it was a little oddly styled, which I assume is to help it fit in to Mass Effect 2 (WTF?).
Handy, but not really critical. 6/10 aliens.
The Stone Prisoner:
This was the other DLC that came as a freebie in my copy of Origins, and unlike the annoying plugs for the other two launch DLCs, this is the one that actually got me to buy the others. Basic idea is that you can recruit a very small stone golem, Shale, for your party. Shale has some fairly unique items available for her, and is unique in that she can fulfill almost any role in the party – tank, damage, ranged, support buffs, she can do it all. In my second playthrough, she was a tremendously effective brawler, singlehandedly responsible for about half my party’s damage over time.
The other thing about Shale is that she’s hilarious. Even if she wasn’t awesome statwise, she’s worth having in the party for the hilarious banter. Her personal side quest also has the benefit of being the one part of the Deep Roads excursion that I actually cared about, and her one area was better than the other four combined. If I have one complaint, it’s that finding higher tier crystals was pretty difficult. Also that it ended. Endings make me sad.
Totally worth your time. 10/10 aliens.
This was the other launch DLC, and I went to the trouble of actually buying it. Samson was pretty critical of it, and it’s not hard to see why. The party storage chest was nice, but there’s a mod for that for your regular camp. The merchant is the best one in the game, so there’s that. But for a supposed Warden base, it’s a little ridiculous that you can’t treat the damn place like a second camp. If I ever make a mod, it will be to do just that very thing.
On the other hand, the equipment is super cool, for style if nothing else, and I found the story compelling. It really rounded out the Grey Wardens for me, and gave me an insight into their character that you don’t really get from the kindly father figure who is Duncan. If for no other reason than the story, I found this to be an enjoyable DLC, and I’d miss it if it weren’t part of my game.
Fun, but deeply flawed. 6/10 aliens.
Return to Ostagar:
In which you return to the site of your greatest defeat (well, second greatest for my dwarf, but) and avenge some wrongs. I really enjoyed this one. It was about the best reboot of a map you could hope for, had a great story to it with lots of emotion for my Warden and Alistair, and the equipment was cool. In two playthroughs now, equipping Alistair with Cailin’s gear has simply felt correct to me, as if by the mere act of doing so I am fulfilling some sort of prophecy. It is, at heart, a dungeon crawl, but an above average one in Dragon Age terms, propelling you forward with a sense of history and story.
Flawed as always, but who cares? 9/10 aliens.
I expected to heartily dislike this one but bought it anyway on the strength of the others. I was fortunate to find myself happily surprised. In this DLC, you play as a hurlock vanguard during the last climactic battle, and your goal is to kill all the main characters and save the main evil badguy.
For a DLC that was entirely combat, this was actually a pretty fun diversion. The combat wasn’t ridiculous at all, the mechanics of controlling darkspawn were fun (yes, I gleefully overused the Overwhelm power on the Shriek), and got a nice thrill out of killing off various party members and NPCs from the main game, especially Alistair. Killing Bann Teaghan always makes me sad, though, for some reason. I like Bann Teaghan.
Overall, it was fun as a diversion, but it is what it is, probably the weakest DLC. 5/10 aliens.
I may be overenthusiastic having just played it, but I find it hard to find anything bad to say about this one. Leliana’s backstory was one of the better companion stories in Origins, and getting to live part of it is neat. For a DLC that’s mostly thieving hijinks, the style is about the closest thing to a heist movie you can get in Dragon Age, sort of Oceans Elven meets the Thief series. The focus on semi-stealth and trickery over combat is hugely refreshing, and my time spent here was hugely enjoyable, and my only complaint is that Leliana ditched the hairstyle she has here for the crappier one in Origins.
Worth every second. 10/10 aliens.
I’ve spent a lot of time being negative about various aspects of Dragon Age, but it’s very much an I criticize because I love sort of thing. Of its various flaws, only the griping about combat approaches serious, and this can be fairly well mitigated through the difficulty slider when necessary. The world Bioware has created, and the stories they have chosen to tell in it, are hugely compelling things to me, easily the best in that regard I’ve experienced in any RPG since Baldur’s Gate II. This is RPG gaming at its finest, and you would be utterly remiss not to experience it.
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