We are, let us acknowledge, well past the sell-by date on Dragon Age: Origins, but having just completed my third playthrough of the game, I find that I’d like to talk about some things that bugged me. Also, I haven’t done a gamecraft post in a while, and I find that problematic. None of this is particularly original, but I want to talk about it anyway.
On the off chance you haven’t yet played through DA:O, thar be spoilers in them thar hills.
1. Combat Frequency:
I don’t think it should come as any surprise to anyone that there’s way too much combat in DA:O. As you can see from the screenshot up there, I’m not yet 2/3 of the way through the game (I’m through Redcliffe and the Dalish, but not yet through the Deep Roads when this was taken), and already I’m about 2,000 enemies in the hole, with some of the biggest combat sections of the game still ahead of me. This is an utterly gratuitous level of combat, and it’s problematic for a couple of reasons.
If you listen to almost any of Valve’s developer commentaries (and I recommend you do so forthwith), one of the things they’ll repeat over and over is the idea of breaking things up to avoid player fatigue with any one system. A bit of exposition, a bit of combat, a bit of puzzle solving or exploration, whatever.
In Dragon Age, you’re pretty much fighting dudes in every single room in every single dungeon. There’s very little puzzle solving, and exploration is subverted by your endlessly chasing darkspawn through caves. That means that every single room in every single dungeon looks like this:
That’s me about to get into a fight with 5 darkspawn. Which actually turned into 10 darkspawn because one of them ran into the next room and triggered another group or two of them. Multiply this by 10-15 rooms in any given map, multiply by a couple of dozen maps, and you’ll pretty quickly get tired of combat.
Another very unfortunate side effect of the endless combat fatigue is that it ruins pacing. It’s entirely possible to have a very gripping scene of plot exposition, character development, or whatever that results in a quest, and by the time you get there a couple hours later, you’ll have no idea what you were doing because you’ve hung the game up 3-4 times from combat fatigue, it’s actually the next day real time, and you can barely remember who the guy was who sent you on the quest.
Likewise, because exposition tends to get clumped on either end of extremely lengthy bouts of stabbing guys, you wind up with gigantic chunks of story exposition (Ostagar and the final battle are big offenders here) that similarly fatigue the player because nobody wants to sit through that much plot dump.
There’s also the subversion of other gameplay types. Back in the days of Baldur’s Gate, it was perfectly possible to play a more or less stealth-based or diplomacy-based game in addition to the usual “kill everything in the face” model. In fact, solo rogues were extremely viable in large swathes of both games – I almost always backstab my way through the Cloakwood mines, for instance.
But because DA:O throws so many guys at you, even areas of the game that should be stealth-based aren’t – robbing a manor in DA:O is basically code to fight 30 guards, which means you need your entire party, and means that even on rogues, stealth and trapmaking are essentially useless skills.
2. Combat System:
Now, all of this can be overcome with the right game. For instance, Jade Empire was similarly extremely combat-heavy. The difference, however, is that Jade Empire had a very good combat model that was fun, where DA:O’s is a sort of beta version of something that’s trying to get out of an MMO and work properly.
The broken level scaling system I don’t even want to get into aside, the big offender 1 is the AI. When it works, it really works. When it doesn’t work, you end up chasing darkspawn halfway around the Alienage because they’re trying to get to get to some random elf halfway across the map. So far as I can tell, this is partially due to the hostility system, which causes combatants to switch targets and gallop off sometimes at random.
Unfortunately, the AI hijinks combine with the not-entirely thought through rules sytem to produce bad effects. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see characters sliding around each other in mob fights (and given enemy density, there’s a bunch of these) unable to get a shot off because of the lack of clear ways to deal with a problem that anyone who’s ever played D&D 3.x wouldn’t even understand.
There’s also the issue with the screenshot up there, where I’m being practically instakilled by an uncounterable AI power (Overwhelm, my favorite). Not all powers are created equal, and some of them are very much head and shoulders above the rest. This wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t uncounterable, but they effectively are – you can counter something like Overwhelm, but only if figure out how via trial and error, and are extremely quick on the draw because DA:O is entirely cooldown and animation length-based for attacks instead of increments of time-based like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, or their tabletop (A)D&D predecessors.
Which is all to say that D&D players would find this odd. You know how to counter Magic Missile, say, by casting Shield, or defeating certain high level killer spells by buffing the right saving throw or resistance. How do you counter Overwhelm (or worse, Grab)? No way to tell without checking the wiki, and after that only with a very narrow subset of abilities.
In short, Dragon Age gives you a lot of numbers to work with, but obscures their interactions so as to make many of them meaningless.
Going back to the AI, like I said, when it works well it works. And to be fair about it, your companions can not only more or less drive themselves, they’re backed up by a pretty (but not perfectly) robust tactics system. And for warriors and rogues, this more or less works ok, because warriors and rogues don’t typically use a zillion abilities, and have nothing better to do with skill points other than buy the skill that unlocks more tactics slots (which is a nonsensical idea in and of itself – better AI through the skill system is fairly annoying). Where this really breaks down is mages, who gain a brand new spell every single level and a new tactics slot every 3 levels (maybe a bit faster if they ignore the skills they should be buying for the tactics skill). So if you want your mage to not suck, you pretty much have to drive them yourself no matter who your main character is.
And then, speaking of mages, there’s the joy of friendly fire area of effect spells, which are an idea that can work well (Baldur’s Gate), but doesn’t in Dragon Age at all because of the AI quirks.
So that’s fun. And all of these little combat quirks combine with the AI quirks and the gigantic amount of combat to form Gameplay Annoyance Voltron. Which, since you spend about 60-75% of the game murdering darkspawn with excessive violence, tends to be a problem. If the rest of the game wasn’t so good, we’d have all quit halfway through Ostagar.
3. Area Design:
And then we talk about area design. For instance, this is the Brecilian Forest, where you spend about 15-20% of the game during one of the big three recruitment missions:
Which is a lot of area to cover. Rather importantly, the only place you can A) change up your party; B) travel to your camp/the rest of the world is in the Dalish camp. This is to say that, unlike randa-elf (in fact even if you are randa-elf), you can’t camp in the forest. At all. Nor can you travel back to the Dalish camp without going through 0-4 other fairly large areas first. Not only is this sort of thing nonsensical (did I mention your party camp area is, in fact, in a forest?), it’s also extremely annoying.
Let’s work this out. Assuming you’re doing some of the sidequests plus the main Dalish/werewolf quest, here’s how you have to go about things, keeping in mind that area transitions are somewhere between 45 seconds and a couple of minutes each:
A. Roll through the Dalish Camp, talking to Zathrian, Varathorn, and Athras for quests.
B. Clear out the West Brecilian Forest. If you take Deygan back to camp, go back to A. Also pick up up the Grand Oak’s quest and get the stuff for Varathorn.
C. Pick which way you want to go into the East Brecilian Forest. Deal with Danyla (with a trip back to camp to complete Athras’ quest because you may need the reward item), deal with the first of three tombstones for The Mage’s Treasure quest, and then deal with the hermit for the Grand Oak (which may require a trip back to camp or two).
D. Head on back to the Grand Oak and deal with him. Also deal with the second tombstone here.
E. Go back to the East Forest and deal with the third tombstone.
F. Clear out the Upper Ruins.
G. Clear out the Lower Ruins. Your inventory will be full by now, so go back to camp to sell stuff, which means going through the Upper Ruins, East Forest, and West Forest. Did I mention the West Forest is huge.
H. Go all the way back from camp through the West Forest, East Forest, Upper Ruins, and Lower Ruins to the Werewolf Lair. Here you can more or less deal with Zathrian’s quest.
I. Depending on how you played the Dalish/Zathrian thing, you may need to make another trip to the Werewolf Lair and back, so back through the West Forest, East Forest, Upper Ruins, Lower Ruins, Werewolf Lair, back to the Upper Ruins (helpful door! Only unlocks after the quest! Dickery!), through the East Forest, West Forest, back to camp. This trip by itself should make you want to kill some designers in exotic ways because this is about a 15 minute round trip for no reason.
Also expect to be attacked by bears a couple times in here for no reason. And some werewolves, even if you’re friends with the werewolves. Because nothing says fun like breaking up area loads on your annoying trip back to camp with some annoying and extremely pointless combat in a forest you’ve already murdered dozens of creatures in already.
Oh, and expect to come back here for 3-4 sidequests as well. Mostly in the eastern half. Because, you know, area loads are fun. And travel on the world map like you can do at any other aboveground site on the world map is too logical.
A lot of people hate the Deep Roads for the endless combat, but at least the Deep Roads are in a straight line and, and this is important, contain quests directly related to the race at hand (Dwarves). Because, let me let you in on a little secret here: very little of the entire Dalish recruitment mission has anything whatsoever to do with the actual Dalish. Pretty much what you get is limited to conversations in and around camp, whereas in the Deep Roads you get a bunch of Dwarven politics and culture (Orthan Taig, Topsider’s Honor, Legion of the Dead, etc).
The Dalish stuff is all about Zathrian’s personal revenge fantasy as opposed to anything intrinsic to the Dalish. In fact, you probably get more Dalish-related questing in the hour-long Witch Hunt DLC than you do in the entire Dalish arc in Origins. So that’s fairly disappointing, considering the Dalish are still the least understood and probably coolest of the big three cultures.
4. “Hard” Choices:
Which brings me to my final point, which is that for a game built around shades of grey (Grey Wardens, anyone?) and supposedly hard choices, DA:O sure does shoot itself in the foot a lot. Let us examine some of these:
A. What to do about Conner at Redcliffe? You have some really bad choices here. Kill a little boy; kill his mother to kill the demon infesting said boy with blood magic, which is pretty grim; if you’re really luck and have spare mages/saved all the mages beforehand, flat out save the boy. Assuming you don’t have access to the Circle of Magi, this is a legitimately hard choice, with no really good answers.
B. Kill an entire dragon cult, or kill 98% of a dragon cult except their leader, then defile a holy artifact like he wants? I’m really not sure why you would join up with Kolgrim at Haven for any reason other than EVIL LULZ. Not only do you have to kill almost every single cultist besides Kolgrim to even get to him, and what kind of cult is that, Andraste and the Maker are presented as being pretty much unalloyed Forces For Goodness, Light, and the Warm Fuzzy Feeling like nobody else in the game. Yeah, the Chantry has some unwholesome elements to it (templars), but on the balance you really don’t have a reason to defile a holy artifact other than to be a dick and get an excuse to kill Leliana.
C. Kill all the mages at the Circle Tower like the templars want, or not? This is a hard choice that’s not excessively well written, because while the point stands that you really have no idea if all the mages are completely compromised or not, the fact is that most of the mages are pretty sympathetic characters and absolutely none of the templars are. In fact, most of the templars are pretty much assholes. So in the choice between “kill everybody including the best healer in the game” and “save everybody including the best healer in the game”, what you must do is relatively clear. It also helps to know that mages are the best class in the game by far.
D. Bhelen or Harrowmont for king? This is actually a harder choice than it seems at first, but it only becomes apparent in the epilogue. Harrowmont’s a pretty decent guy personally, but winds up being a terrible king, while Bhelen is an evil fratricide who’s actually a pretty just, fair, and forward-looking king. The only problem is that none of this is telegraphed well, so you only really figure this out once you pick one or the other as king the first time.
E. Give the Anvil of the Void to Branka or blow it up like Caridin asks? This is another choice that I didn’t think was particularly hard. Branka, to use the technical term, is a fucking batshit cartoon supervillain, while Caridin lays out some really calm, reasonable points re: why the Anvil is a Tool of Evil. So your choice ends up being “Yes, let’s give the batshit evil lady the tools with which to enslave the souls of the unwilling because MUAHAHAHAHA” versus “I don’t actually need 4 golems to back up my 150 other guys in the last battle for Denerim anyway, and also holy shit enslaving souls is pretty super fun times evil and no way”. Which has never struck me as much of a choice, no matter how much into the dwarven character I may be.
F. Anora vs. Alistair for ruler? Actually kind of a hard choice. Anora really is competent if a bit amoral, whereas Alistair is, if not necessarily destined to be a great king from where you’re sitting, and kind of a whiner, still a pretty decent guy. Any of the choices you get as to who marries who and becomes ruler of Ferelden are pretty solid to me, though I did sort of have to force my human noble to be a dick to Alistair, marry Anora, and exile Alistair.
G. Alistair vs. Loghain? So once you defeat Loghain at the Landsmeet, you can make him a Grey Warden, but if you do, Alistair leaves and potentially meets a bad end. And I’m not really clear on why you would do this, based on the “Alistair is a decent guy” thing versus the fact that Loghain has spent the entire time acting like a crazy supervillain and throwing the country to the sort of dogs who don’t have witty banter with the rest of your party in camp (I’d be a lot more worried about Orlesians if I had ever seen one). It might be one thing if you were hiring Loghain to general your armies, because he’s a damned good one, but you’re pretty much hiring him to kill himself at the archdemon. For my money, you may as well cut out (heh heh heh) the middleman, execute Loghain, and potentially let Alistair get cut down in a blaze of glory.
H. You, Alistair, Loghain, or Morrigan? So, who lives and who dies at the end (besides the archdemon)? As Loghain himself says, there’s not really much reason not to let him take the chop, considering he’s only slightly less evil than the actual darkspawn. Similarly, I have trouble figuring out why anyone would legitimately get behind a plan from a right-on-the-edge-of-evil witch that reads “Why don’t you let me have a demon baby, with which I will do things I’m not willing to mention which isn’t even suspicious a little bit at all”. Granted that everybody gets to live this way, but I suspect the demon baby ends up causing issues with that later.
So really, I find the real choice to be between you and Alistair, and I’ve had to really think about it both times the choice came up for me, and my first time I actually killed myself, because Alistair had a future as king, and I was expendable. In successive playthroughs, the biggest reason pushing me to kill Alistair instead of me is the fact that I’m in the xpack and Alistair really isn’t, and, well, sorry dude, but if I’m going to play another couple dozen hours of this game, it’s going to be as myself and not randa-Warden, you know?
Which kind of undermines a lot of things, and I think is a very strong contender for why Awakening was probably a bad idea on the whole.
In short (he said, belatedly), the point here is that Bioware needs to write a better, more humane evil, where your choices do not boil down to “DARK LORD OF EVIL BUAHAHAHAHAHA!” and “Maybe I should think about the common good, which is sort of my job.”
And also less combat. Definitely less combat.
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