I haven’t written about a computer game in a while… mostly because I haven’t played any in a while (unless you count Spider Solitaire and First Person Tetris). That will change soon as the next month is packed full with releases that I’m really looking forward to. Gothic 4, Two Worlds 2 (the release has been pushed back) and Fallout: New Vegas. The scent of add-ons and sequels lies heavily in the air this fall. (And then there’s also the Borderlands Game of the Year Edition, which I suspect to be the cheaper way to get all those juicy DLCs.)
But for now let’s talk about a game that’s not a sequel or a prequel or any other kind of let’s-wring-more-money-out-of-this-dried-out-lifeless-franchise-quel: Dragon Age: Origins. Not that there isn’t a lot of greed involved in this one. The game has been out for less than a year and already there’s an add-on, a whole slew of DLC’s, two novels and a board game. Soon there will be a trilogy of flash games, an anime movie and for all I know a squeaky chew toy for all your geek-dog needs. I find this a little disconcerting, but on the other hand both the publishing industry and Hollywood have stepped up the pace a little when it comes to release dates and sequels and such and it is really too much to expect the games industry to miss out on all that fun (and money).
Yes. Dragon Age… First a little something to keep the confusion at bay: for all of you who wonder about the fequent use of “we” in a single player RPG: I played the game together with Jonas, which means that he did most of the clicking and I did a lot of “go over there… no over there… there!… stop turning, will you?… you missed a bit of loot… oh, it’s just a dagger.” It’s fun, trust me.
We played a Dalish Elf named (slightly embarrassed pause) Bob. Which isn’t really anyone’s fault, at first we just wanted to try out the game and then we kind of got sucked in… with the wrong name. There is an argument to be made, however, for either not dealing with the name issue at all (like in Gothic) or having a preset name. I’m not going to make that argument, at least not at length, because I don’t write articles about game design theory. In brief, that other approach has two main advantages: a) you can record dialogue for the player-character, which will do wonders for the immersion and b) you don’t end up with names like Gandalf the Awesome or, well, Bob, which really doesn’t do much for the suspension of disbelief. Dragon Age went the other way there. It’s not the end of the world, but I thought I’d mention it.
Dragon Age: Origins puts you in a quasi-medieval fantasy world called Ferelden. Depending on your choice of character and class you will play through one of nine individual intro-adventures that will take you at least ten minutes to play through. Okay, I’m being sarcastic again. The Dalish Elf intro isn’t that bad. Predictable, but not a total loss. And you meet some of the characters from your intro again later in the game, at least with most scenarios, which is a nice touch. But even at the very beginning of Dragon Age I couldn’t help but notice how incredibly linear the game is. I hadn’t played a BioWare game before and I have to admit that I had trouble believing Jonas when he told me just how bad it would be. Sure, in the first dungeon you can choose between going right or left at one point, but both options will end you up at the same cut scene, so where’s the difference? If you’ve played BioWare games before I trust you’ll know what I mean when I say that every area might just as well be a single straight path. If you didn’t… just imagine visiting a very strange nature reserve with a nervous guide who keeps reminding you to never go off the path since otherwise the invisible walls will come and get you.
Once you’re done with the intro you’ll inevitably find yourself in the camp of the Grey Wardens. They’re nice chaps, actually, who enjoy drinking the blood of super-evil demon-spawn and long, romantic evenings by the campfire. And soon you’ll be one of them, rejoice! Dark and gritty games being what they are, things don’t quite go according to plan. You manage to join the Grey Wardens, but unfortunately not much later your king as well as the majority or your new brothers-in-arms get slaughtered by the darkspawn and you kind of get blamed for the whole mess. Treason is involved, naturally, but try telling that to the soldiers that are coming to kill you.
The rest of the plot is essentially all about stopping the Blight, an invasion of darkspawn led by the Arch-Demon, by bringing the different races and factions of Ferelden out of their respective holes and onto the field of battle, and about getting a new king onto the throne. Not necessarily in that order.
Dragon Age has good and bad in it. The good is very good and the bad is… a lot.
What is good is mostly the voice acting and writing on the various NPCs that you can pick up as companions during the course of the game. Dragon Age has a list of characters (and actors) that would put many a Hollywood movie to shame. The cast list on the IMDb has well over a hundred actors, amongst them such august names as Tim Curry, Kate Mulgrew, Dwight Schulz, Tim Russ, Dominic Keating (did they get their hands on an old Star Trek contact sheet?), Claudia Black and Robin Sachs. And while I’m here to praise the voice acting and not fault it, I must say that unfortunately most of the actors named above are wasted on tiny bit-parts. Way to go, BioWare.
Where was I? Voice acting… good. There are a few characters in the game that are just brilliant. Morrigan, for one, although the writers seem to be oddly unsure if she’s really one of the good guys or not. Claudia Black voices her with such a wealth of sarcasm and irony that one cannot fail but love that character (we did, she’s one of the available love interests). Kate Mulgrew lends her scratchy voice to Flemeth, a minor character, but a memorable one. Tim Curry, the biggest name in the cast, is sadly a little colourless as Arl Eamon; I for one wouldn’t have suspected him behind that character. The real gem of the game, however, is the to me totally unknown Steve Valentine as Alistair. There were times in the game, when the combat system was being particularly obnoxious and the plot more transparent than usual, when all that kept us playing was innocent, cute, funny Alastair. The writing on the character, who also happens to be the by far most important NPC, is superb, and you really learn to adore him. By the end of the game we were making a lot of our plot decisions on the basis of the will-Alistair-approve principle (okay, also on the we-don’t-really-care-because-this-is-too-obvious principle, so what?). BioWare games often have, or so I hear, great voice acting and decent writing, but when it came to Alistair and a handful of other characters it really impressed us… and we played Gothic, so we’ve got high standards. (Oh, and then there’s the Leliana issue… the half-Russian, half-French, half-British character that is 150% badly voice acted. Yeah, she wasn’t very good.)
Unfortunately there is a lot of bad to balance out poor little Alistair. I’ve already mentioned the linearity of the game in terms of the terrain. The plot itself is not dissimilar in that respect, just like on the maps you can sometimes choose if you would like to go left or right first, but you always end up with the boss-level enemy at the end of the dungeon.
And the game is small. Again, both in terms of plot and terrain. Sure, there are fourteen or fifteen main locations, each with half a dozen maps attached, but since all you can take is the scenic route along the carefully designed walkway of inevitability, most of these are quickly explored. Denerim, the capital of Ferelden, is particularly disappointing, since it basically only has the marketplace and a few other, tiny locations that don’t give you very much to do.
Speaking of markets: the game has a big problem there. The merchants restock for the last time about halfway through the game. After that there nothing more to look forward too, a severe problem for me (seeing that I am a girl it is only right and proper that I prefer the shopping to the chopping). The unique items are few and far between and often neither really cool nor fairly priced. They did some good with the runes, but then again you can only find a handful of the good ones in the entire game.
Another big problem is the entire messy mess that calls itself a combat system. Okay, so we’ve seen worse, but the developers of Gothic 3 should be hung, shot, quartered and poisoned, preferably at the same time, so that does hardly count. (On second thought… Risen was good, so why don’t we hang, shoot, quarter and poison the bloody release-date-rushing publisher JoWood instead?)
You will play most combat situations with a group of four characters at your disposal. Four characters who can be set either to “be big boys” or “won’t be able to tie their own shoelaces”. In one setting they will merrily run after anything that wags its tail at them, regardless of their own mortality, in the other setting they will stand still, idly picking their noses, while an ogre is biting chunks out of their thighs. Neither are ideal, as you can surely see. The maps are all basically two-dimensional and (again) linear, which pretty much takes the fun out of strategy, and even if that weren’t the case, strategy is only possible at the no-shoelaces setting, which complicates things a little. Oh… and then there’s the camera, which hasn’t been told that we are playing a real-time RPG (as oposed to a turn-based strategy-game) and thus is determined to be stuck on top of your characters at all times. No, I didn’t want to see that dragon halfway down the corridor, why do you ask?
Yes, of course, there’s good too, like the wide range of attack spells that are available to the magic users, but in the end that always led to the fighters picking their noses while the Two Mage-ettes, Morrigan and Wynne, picked off the enemies at their leisure. Not ideal, dear BioWare, not ideal at all.
In the end, after all the fighting and selling and questing and what little exploration there is, the most disappointing thing of all was the plot. The game has a built-in progress indicator somewhere on the character screen and don’t let that sneaky little bastard fool you. Dragon Age: Origins stops at the 50% mark, for whatever damn reason. This was, needless to say, a little bit of a disappointment to us, because… how to put it… WHICH OF YOU CLOWNS CAME UP WITH THAT F***ING IDEA?
That’s not the only problem though. Somewhere around the halfway point (25% in Dragon-Age-speak), the game managed to make us really care about Alistair and the future of Ferelden. Alistair, as I should maybe mention at this point, is one of the possible options for replacing the recently-deceased monarch. And at some point you get to make that decision. Who shall rule Ferelden? We, naturally, decided on Alistair and after that the character kind of vanishes from the game. Oh, sure, he’s still there and you still get to talk to him, he even fights with you provided that you made certain choices earlier on, but somehow the spark is lost. And the same goes for the rest of the characters, really. Writing-wise the air goes out of the game like out of the balloon that snogged a hedgehog. They tried to do all these epic, giant speeches and battles and all that it amounts to is a long succession of cut scenes with battles inbetween that don’t allow you to save for hours on end and that you’re too afraid to skip because there might be a good bit hidden somewhere in all that muddle. (There isn’t… go ahead and skip like your life depended on it.)
It’s a shame really, because without the disappointing ending Dragon Age might have been a good game. Not great, but decent. As it is it barely beats Divinity 2, which isn’t saying much since I’m less and less impressed with that one the more I think about it. I don’t think we will be buying the add-on (Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening), not after that ending. The sequel maybe, but only because it looks like they’re trying to fix a few of the problems that the first one had. Not sure Hawke beats Bob as a name though.