Friday, 21 December 2012

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Super Adventures at Christmas 2012 - Game 3:

Today I'm taking a look at Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware's spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate RPG series. Also known as 'the good one' after Dragon Age II did its best to slay the franchise when it was barely a hatchling.

Though to be honest, despite that game's obviously rushed development time, endlessly reused environments, and a story that falls apart way before the end, I actually kind of like DA2. Sure I often wondered why I was walking around the same warehouse slaying the same mages for the fifteenth time, when it was obvious that nothing I did mattered and that no one in the grimdark crapsack city I was trapped in was worth saving, but holy shit that game had nice menus. I could sit scrolling through my inventory and assigning skill points for hours.

Anyway like I said, this is supposed to be the good one, so I'm expecting a little more from it.

The Chantry teaches us that it was the hubris of men that brought the darkspawn into our world, or so this cool looking animated introduction assures me. I still can't believe 'darkspawn' was the best they could come up with, but I can sympathise; I struggle with thinking up good names more than anyone. Full marks to the narrator though for delivering these lines with total sincerity.

Apparently the upcoming apocalypse is entirely the mages fault, as they tried to usurp heaven, and accidentally kind of broke it when they got there. They returned as corrupted monsters, the first of the darkspawn, and decided they might as well ruin this plane of reality as well while they were on a roll.

Dragon Age Origins Character Generations
Awesome, it's always nice when a game sticks the character generation right at the start instead of making me wait for it. I'm looking at you Saints Row 3 and Skyrim. And especially you Mass Effect 2. I've have to sit through that bloody unskippable intro so many times when I just wanted to play around with the face editor.

Okay I can choose to be either a human, an elf, or a dwarf, (pretty generic, but way better than Dragon Age 2's choice of a human, a human, or a human) then I get to pick my class from the equally generic warrior, mage, or rogue. Very old school.

Dragon Age Origin Character Creator Face Editor
The face editor isn't particularly awesome as it doesn't give much room for fine tuning, though it's still got a fair number of choices. I'm not a fan of how choosing a beard ghosts out the option to adjust the mouth and jaw though.

I can also change the expression for my character's icon, which is a great feature though I'm not sure they took it entirely seriously. Most faces tend to come out looking more like the guy on the left.

I've decided to play as a human mage by the way, so I gave him some face tattoos. I'll just pretend they're magic focusing runes or whatever. He's so damn dedicated to his arcane craft he even got his eyelids tattooed.

Different races and classes have a different selection of origin stories to choose from, but a human mage like me has only one choice: the Circle Tower. Here mages are imprisoned by the Chantry and trained to resist the demons that often try to hijack their bodies and go on a rampage of evil. Man, I should have picked 'warrior'.

Anyway, today's the day that I get to go into a spirit world called the Fade in a semi-secret ritual called the Harrowing. If I fuck this up the Chantry's templars will either kill me or steal my ability to feel emotion forever, so no pressure.


LATER, INSIDE THE FADE.


Dragon Age Origins Mouse bear
Hey, I made a friend! When I found this guy he was scurrying around in the form of a tiny mouse, but we soon fixed that.

Man, this place is a real creepy dull brown dismal wasteland, filled with half buried ruins and unnatural looking plants. Reminds me a lot of Morrowind actually.

The game is kind of like a hybrid of Baldur's Gate style mouse driven overhead view tactical gameplay, and Knights of the Old Republic's more hands on, close up style. I can either steer a character directly or click around the level to move them, play in real-time or use the pause to issue orders, and the camera can be as close or far away from the action as I feel like. They've tried to please everyone really and they definitely managed to make me happy. Great controls and interface.

Anyway I passed my Harrowing and returned to the real world, but the arch-mage told me to never reveal the secret to anyone so I can't tell you how it ended. I can tell you I got to keep my XP though.

Dragon Age Origins Mage tower library
After surviving that ordeal I have a new mission to accomplish: go talk to the first enchanter. But first I'm going to raid every floor of this tower for loot. Containers I can raid for gear have a sparkle over them, so I'm ignoring everything that doesn't glitter.

If this was an Elder Scrolls game I could have nicked all those books, but sadly everything's firmly nailed down in the Dragon Age 'verse.

I hate it when dialogue choices are ambiguous. I can't tell which replies are intended as friendly jokes, and which are insults. Well okay, I'm pretty sure I know where choosing #3 will lead. 

Talking to the first enchanter led me to these two, who are planning to sneak out of the tower to get married and want me to help out. Unfortunately this breaks all kinds of rules, and will lead to imprisonment, death, or worse for all of us if we're caught. So of course I volunteered to help them out!

Actually I ran off to the first enchanter and turned them both in. I didn't much want to rat them out, but I figured getting caught now would save them from breaking any serious rules. The first enchanter agreed with me, and told me to make sure they break some serious rules so he can catch them in the act. The first enchanter is kind of a bastard.

I have to be more careful with my magic now that I've got a team, as some spells have friendly fire. I need to aim my overly elaborate area of effect cone to only overlap enemy units, then keep my allies from wandering into the spell while it's active.

Dragon Age Origins Level Up screen
Level up! I threw some points into my magic and willpower attributes to boost spellpower and mana, and next I get to choose a new spell to learn. I have to decide between getting something that might be useful to me now, or something to put me on the path to unlocking something I'll find useful later.

The choice isn't made any easier by the vague descriptions though. Everything always 'deals extra damage' or 'gives a bonus to' or makes enemies 'suffer a penalty', without any numbers to specify just what effect I'm likely to be getting.

I went with Mind Blast in the end. Being able to stun everyone around me just seemed like a handy skill to have.

Magic and skills run off a mana/stamina bar, but if I can keep that topped up there's no limit to the amount of times I can use a spell in a fight. I just have to wait for the cooldown timer to tick down and the button's ready to go again, and I can always fire off a different spell while I'm waiting. Casting sustained buffs reserves a percentage of the mana bar, so I have to balance what effects I want running against how much ammo I want to have available. The mana bar recharges, but not that fast.


LATER.


Wow, my friend's escape attempt went HORRIBLY WRONG, I am entirely shocked. And somehow despite the fact that I was helping the authorities every step of the way, they've found a way to blame me for it.

Fortunately the darkspawn are about to invade the kingdom and wipe out all civilisation, so I've been let off the hook if I promise to sign up with the mysterious Grey Wardens on a mission to save the world from ancient evil. It all sounds like some kind of... shitty clich├ęd old school RPG story!


MEANWHILE, IN AN ALTERNATE REALITY.


Dragon Age Origins human noble origin fighting rats
A scene of rat-slaughter from the human noble origin.
But the mage tower story isn't the only way to start the game. There's actually six opening chapters, each one set in a different location with different characters and quests. You can play as a dwarf criminal in the slums of Orzammar, a wild elf cursed by an ancient mirror, or even as a human warrior fighting rats in the basement. Seriously, look at all those rats.

This mission has to have been a joke on players who picked the most generic hero; there's no way that BioWare of all developers didn't realise what they were doing when they put this in.

Anyway, all origin chapters converge at the fortress of Ostagar, where the King's army prepares to face the oncoming horde... of darkspawn.

Man, it's still making me laugh.

But before I can become a Grey Warden and join in the fight, I have to prove myself; which means a lot of walking around in a swamp, fighting darkspawn not-orcs.

The loading screen hints keep telling me to use warriors as my front line, keep mages back, send my archers to rain arrows from nearby hills, and move my rogues to backstab from behind. But I can only bring out four people! I'm not exactly commanding an army here, so despite my tactical ambitions, my fights usually degenerate into dirty brawls.

I managed to get my mage knocked out in that last fight, and though the health bar regenerated after the battle (no need for rest in this), he's still injured. I'll have to use an injury kit to cure this concussion or else I won't be maging at full spellpower. Note to self: you really don't want to let people get KO'd.

I'm glad the game has a party inventory, instead of separate bags for each character. That usually leads to unnecessary messing around really, with the player often left trying to shuffle around health potions between the group just to free up the space to pick up a new sword.

Hey, the game has maps! Beautiful painted looking maps! Such a fantastic alternative to being hopelessly lost. This is definitely a just a level though, I haven't escaped into an Elder Scrolls style open world.

I've got nothing but praise for the UI artwork in this game. I still think Dragon Age 2 has a fantastic looking interface, but this is more like what you'd expect to find in a medieval fantasy RPG. Metal and wood and gilded books with blood-soaked pages.

At the end of my trek through the miserable swamplands, I ran into a pair of witches who seem to know a lot more about everything than they're letting on. There's full voice acting in the game by the way, and these two are played by a pair of TV sci-fi legends: Claudia Black of Farscape and Stargate fame, and Kate Mulgrew who's of course known for her fantastic performance as the commander on NTSF:SD:SUV.

As you might expect, they're actually pretty good at their roles, which just makes it even more obvious that my mage has no voice. I mean sure he shouts stuff out in battle, but stick him in a conversation with a pair of actors and they're left talking to a wall. Having a voice-less protagonist can work great in isometric RPGs like Baldur's Gate, or first person RPGs like Skyrim, but when the camera's zoomed in and the character is shown interacting with people, it just feels weird.

Sorry, but I have to say that Dragon Age 2 wins this round with its fully voiced protagonist (in two genders!).

With my trials in the swamp complete it was time to complete my initiation. Which of course meant another secret ritual with potentially lethal consequences, this time involving 'submitting to the taint for the greater good'. The last guy who tried to back out got a knife through his gut, so I guess I'm drinking the nasty juice.

You know, now that I think about it, things ended badly for the guy who tried to back out of the mage ritual too. I think I'm spotting a pattern here. I suppose this is the part where I do everything they tell me to do and still end up being blamed for a disaster.

And so the armies of man clash with the corrupted forces of darkness, in an epic Lord of the Rings inspired cutscene. But I'm not involved in any of that, nope. I'm still up here at the top of the fortress, on a quest to light a signal fire.

Two of my team have quit my party for various reasons, but all their stuff was automatically dumped into my inventory, which was nice. It means I never have to worry about party members running off with my gear.

This is one thing that drives me nuts about the game, and all of these RPGs in general. When I come across a table full of equipment, and can't take any of it. No sparkles means no gear.

I don't care if it's all junk, I could still sell it and make some cash! I remember when I first played Morrowind, it blew my mind that I could pick up anything. All the swords, all the armour, the ornaments, cutlery... anything. Even Baldur's Gate let me take everything an enemy had equipped after beating them, but in this I'm lucky if I can find a potion and some coin on a guy covered head to toe in plate armour and swords.

Well I've found the signal fire I'm supposed to be lighting, but it's kinda guarded by this boss... thing. It seems the darkspawn managed to slip inside the fortress and beat me up here. Hey, I recognise this guy, he's one of those ogres, like from the first stage of Dragon Age 2. Oh this shouldn't be too much trouble then, I just need to keep hitting him and healing my dudes before they get picked up and knocked out.

Thankfully the game has quicksaves outside of battle, so if I screw this up I haven't got much to replay.

It might not have had the greatest graphics in its day, but I wouldn't call this a bad looking game. It's actually got a pretty distinctive style, which is impressive considering the number of fantasy RPGs out there. It's just a pity those circles didn't disappear when I turned off the HUD, because they kind of ruin this shot.

Anyway I left my three allies hacking away at the monster on autopilot (after fine tuning their AI in the tactics menu), while healing and hurting from afar with my mage, and after a short while the monster fell and the signal was lit! Now our allies can close the trap and the darkspawn horde will be no more.


SOME CATASTROPHES LATER.


Well I've had a few minor setbacks, and now it's down to just myself, a sarcastic Grey Warden called Alistair, and a witch of the wilds called Morrigan to save the world. On the plus side though, I'VE REACHED THE WORLD MAP! I'm finally free to go anywhere, and do anything. Though my witchy friend suggests that my first stop should be the village of Lothering.

That black smudge on the bottom of the map is the darkspawn horde slowly taking over. They've already gotten to the Ostagar icon and they're heading right to Lothering, so I think it may be wise to heed Morrigan's advice while I still have the chance.

Okay, this place was definitely worth a visit; it's very picturesque. Plus it's given Morrigan and Alistair an opportunity to throw a few good insults at each other as we walk around, which I always appreciate. That was probably my favourite feature of the sequel actually.

It seems that (unlike DA2) Dragon Age follows the standard BioWare formula of mission hubs I can visit in any order, so there's a huge amount of quests I could take on right now if I felt like travelling around.

This Flame Blast spell never gets old. Man look at those graphics, this could almost be a 3D remake of Baldur's Gate right now. Except without all those confusing D&D rules.

I didn't start this fight by the way. It turns out that somehow I've been blamed for the defeat at Ostagar, and now people are being sent out to kill me. Don't worry, I'm sure there's probably some way to get them off my back, possibly involving another group with a secret dangerous initiation ritual.


LATER.


Crap, this is what I deserve for being cocky. I tried to sneak up on a group of bandits without realising they had another group sneaking up behind me. For some reason they're allowed to bring out more than four people at once, it's so unfair!

My current plan is to keep running until they get bored of chasing me, and it's working fantastic so far apart from the way it's getting all my people killed. I gotta admit it's inspiring to see so many of the villagers rallying to my aid after all the stuff I've done for them. Well one of them rallied to my aid at least, and things are looking pretty bleak for her right now.

Fortunately the bandits ran out of interest before I ran out of road, and I was able to creep back and recover my team. The next time I went after the bandits I lured them out one by one. You might call it cheap, I call it a successful tactic.


LATER.


Dragon Age Origins party select screen
With my business in Lothering concluded, and a few more allies in my team, I set off across the land, ready to kill bandits, deliver mail, collect 10 flowers, and any other jobs that'll bring me wealth and level ups.

Though I stopped at my campsite first to distribute the gear and sell what I didn't need. It's always a good idea to have some space left in the bag for loot. It's a shame they dropped the party camp entirely from the sequel, as it's really handy to be able to access every character at once.

Dragon Age Origins dog
And so my adventures took me to the mighty city of Denerim, capital of Ferelden, where I cleared the streets of bandits, and wiped out a blood mage lair.

Dragon Age Origins Kitty cat
I then journeyed south west to the village of Honnleath, plagued by darkspawn and a sinister cat, to acquire a mighty golem for my team, courtesy of some free DLC.

From there I hiked north to the village of Redcliffe, overlooking the magnificent Castle Redcliffe, and defended them from a demon invasion with a bit of moral support and a lot of Fireball magic. Man I love that Fireball magic.

Couldn't find any animals here though.

Dragon Age Origins dog licks nose
Then I travelled to the east, and... oh wait this is Denerim again.

And then I was sent to Soldier's Peak to restore honor to the family of a famous Grey Warden and... hang on.

C'mon, seriously? I've got no problem with DLC if it's done right, but sticking a bloody NPC in the game at my campsite to advertise a quest is just taking the piss. No one wants to see 'insert cash to continue' messages in a game they own, even if it is for a sidequest. It's not even like the optional DLC content is a mystery most players wouldn't know about, the game has a shop on the title screen!


Okay, so what did I think of Dragon Age: Origins? Well, it seems like a good solid well designed, well presented RPG, with a ton of content. The sound, music and visuals are quality work, and I bet the developers spent as much time working out all the lore as they did actually making the game. They seem to have taken it as a challenge to create the most generic possible Tolkien-style fantasy RPG set up, then do something different with it. Elves are persecuted by the humans, mages are kept isolated in a gilded cage out of fear, dwarfs don't necessarily have a beard etc.

It feels like it's missing something though, like... a few characters in my party. It seems a shame to give me so many interesting sidekicks to choose from, but only let me bring three out into the field. It doesn't really suit the Infinity engine inspired tactical gameplay in my opinion. Also I've gotta say, while the characters are likeable enough, if I was forced to choose I'd rather have the Dragon Age 2 crew. DA2 had a lot of flaws, but wasn't a total disaster and it did improve on the original in some ways.


If you've got any thoughts about Dragon Age: Origins, the Dragon Age series, my writing, or anything relevant, you're welcome to leave a comment.

2 comments:

  1. You should definitely check out "Outcast" from 1999 dev by Appeal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally agree. In fact I've already bought the game and it's on my list.

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