Friday, November 20, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins

At first, I was not ready to believe all the hype surrounding this game. My friends touted it to me as the greatest thing to hit the computer since the mouse, but I just wasn't sure. It had been since Oblivion, nearly four years, since I'd invested myself in a massive epic RPG. I just wasn't interested, or there wasn't a good one out, or it was undergrad and I was way too busy.

And besides, Dragon Age was just another Bioware RPG, right? My history with their games wasn't exactly the torrid love affair that it was for most of my friends. I played Knights of the Old Republic and certainly enjoyed it, even though I didn't find it the revolutionary masterpiece that I many of my friends did. I scratched just enough of the surface of Neverwinter Nights to know that I didn't feel like playing the other 95% of the game. And I've heard the Baldur's Gate suite of games referenced and quoted enough that I resent them even though I've never played any of them.

But now the bustle of undergrad has given way to the relative tranquility of grad school, and with an apparently good game out, why not give it a shot? Time isn't an issue--I figure it's either video games or House reruns--and if the game were a total bust, all I'd really be wasting is 50 dollars of the Department of Homeland Security's money. So far, I've been far from disappointed.

Unsurprisingly, Dragon Age plays exactly like any other Bioware game. You play the silent protagonist, customized however you like, who's tasked with defending your corner of the kingdom/world/galaxy from the Evil Supernatural Threat of the Day. Even though you're supposed to believe you're playing in a completely-defined setting, all the action really takes place in six or seven clickable spots on the world map. Half to two thirds of the game focuses on a parallel group of four or so quests, all of which need to be completed to lead up to the Climactic Confrontation in the last chunk of the game. In lieu of the "sandbox" feel of setting continuity, the game focuses on character interaction and development, especially when it comes to discovering the back stories of your six to nine other party members. (Often, it's quoted in terms of the number of novels' worth of dialog the character discussion contains; Dragon Age weighs in at nine.) And, of course, with all this character development comes the prospect of character romance.

That may seem like a hefty paragraph of over-generalization, but seriously, every Bioware game plays like that. It's a formula that's brought them success--and if it's not broke, don't fix it--but given that every Bioware game is mechanically the same, the characters and plots need to be immersive and legitimately interesting to convince me to play your game. And that all starts with the setting. Bioware took the easy and conservative, though effective, route in their first few efforts, drawing off the established settings of the Forgotten Realms and Star Wars.

It's inherently easy to make a Star Wars game. It can't be hard to draw off 30 collective years of Star Wars myth when you're making KotOR. The framework is already there, and all Bioware had to do was fill in some interesting details. In other words, given that someone is going to spend fifty hours of their life playing a Star Wars game, it can be reasonably expected that that person is going to know what a droid is, what a Wookiee is, why Jedi are important and heroic, and why the Sith are scary and evil. If you make up a cool story about the history of the Jedi, you can just have your characters tell it, and the player will automatically care about it.

That's not necessarily the case if you're making your own setting. You have to establish the setting framework first before you can tell those cool stories. Leaping into the tale of some legendary Grey Warden from a hundred years ago just doesn't work without first establishing who the Grey Wardens are, why they're important, and why you should care about them. At the same time, though, this sort of legend is useful (and almost necessary) for establishing a sense of verisimilitude.

Dragon Age goes a step beyond this, though. If you dig deep enough, you can actually hear different versions of the same legend, or different myths about the same character. All of that contributes to the setting having an organic feeling, as if the world actually developed itself through millennia of culture rather than developer fiat. The depth of lore isn't as extensive as it is in, say, the Elder Scrolls universe--but then again, the Elder Scrolls have had four mainline games plus at least as many side stories to develop its internal mythos. That the Dragon Age mythos is even able to be compared to the Elder Scrolls this early in its development speaks volumes.

A game can't survive on quality of setting alone, obviously. Otherwise, it would be sufficient to read a series of Wikipedia articles on the subject, similarly the critical research on the Mongol empire that I may or may not have done for an afternoon or two during my Big Oil internship. You need a plot and characters. Dragon Age does all right with both; as of now, I'm slightly more impressed by the story than the party. Many of the characters in this game have the tendency of being too arch, bordering on bitchy, but that's not always the case. Shale the golem is amusingly douche-y, Alistair's sense of humor is actually funny, Sten's laconic nature actually makes you believe he's from a foreign culture, and Leliana's vast repertoire of tales actually make you believe she's picked up a thing or two as a traveling minstrel.

Aesthetically, Dragon Age is average to decent, with the notable exception of the voice acting, which is superb. I've probably been spoiled on a steady diet of Jeremy Soule in the Elder Scrolls games, but the music feels repetitive and uninspired. The graphics aren't too bad--my computer, which is relatively new and decently powerful but by no means a "gaming rig", can play it with high resolution and graphic detail. I have to assume that anyone playing on a computer meant for gaming could turn all the settings to "ultra super awesome" and things would handle just fine.

One comment about the game's difficulty. I've talked this over with a friend who's also playing through the game now, and I've narrowed it down to three possibilities: 1) I'm missing something big, and finding that something would make the game a lot easier; 2) I'm really bad at the game; or 3) the game is just really hard. (I choose to believe option 3.) Just about every fight feels like a challenge, and at least one party member dies in a significant number of them. And here's the thing--I'm playing on normal difficulty. There have been more than a few times I've been tempted to say "screw it, I'm going for easy mode." I can't imagine how or why you'd ever play hard, let alone "nightmare".

All in all, I recommend this game, unless you're not ready to commit 50+ hours to a video game. (Be especially wary if you value your social life.) And I recommend it highly if you're a fan of Bioware's previous work or epic fantasy RPGs in general. Even if you're not a Bioware fan by and large, Dragon Age: Origins might make you a believer.

Currently listening: "Simple Pages", Weezer, from the Green Album

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