DA: O (post 3)

I’m now about 20 hours into Dragon Age: Origins. That means it is time for an update. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway: spoilers, spoilers, spoilers. If you read the following post, and you haven’t played DA yet, you will be spoiled.

To keep this more readable (since it’s a lot of text), I’ve divided my thoughts up into lots of tiny chunks sorted by subject. Hope that helps.

Strategic Combat

Combat Controls: I had this feeling going in that the game was going to be very tactical and strategic, and I worried about managing that with the limited control system of the Xbox 360. But so far, that really isn’t what the game is about. There are tough fights — true. It’s definitely challenging at times, like BG (Baldur’s Gate), NWN (Neverwinter Nights), and KotOR (Knights of the Old Republic). I’ve died multiple times and thought an encounter was too tough for my group (like D20, there’s a lot of room for random behavior. Get lucky on a few rolls and an impossible fight becomes an easy fight). But this game is less about strategy and more about watching your party mow through monsters — probably more like KotOR than anything else from BioWare.

Combat Enjoyment: To me, it feels a lot like World of Warcraft (and I think that’s intentional on BioWare’s part). You spot a foe, you draw him in, you let the tanker take the hits while one mage buffs/heals your party and another mage hurts the monster. The rogue flanks and crits. You all use your best power. Then your secondary. Then your tertiary. Then you win the fight or your primary powers have re-charged and you do it all over again. Chug a few potions or run around in circles when things get dire. And that’s it. Pretty fun, if you’re into that (as I am). I will add that I love “injuries”! Nice touch. Injuries are what happens when you fall in combat, but your party wins. Instead of just standing up, completely fine — you are afflicted with an injury (a broken bone, a concussion) that negatively impacts your stats. They could have been more harsh, but I love the idea.

Tactics: I’ve complained before that the tactics screen comes across as too complicated. It is. It could have been introduced much more gently. As a result, I ignored it. But around the 15-hour mark, I met the NPC Wynne and noticed an item on her tactics page said that she’d heal her party mates when they dropped under 25% of their health total. Seeing that made it all very understandable for me; I realized it was just a series of “if/then” statements. Since then, though I appreciate the defaults I’ve started tweaking party members’ tactics and feeling much more empowered by the system. It really helps you control your henchmen.

Epic Battles

Bugs: Not surprisingly, because BioWare has a good, dedicated QA group and a lot of publisher QA assistance, the game is well polished. There are bugs, but they’re not greatly impacting my game. Examples? I’ve noticed that when you save near a closed door, before a fight — if you enter the room, die, and re-load, often you will see the enemy through the closed door. Since you can’t interact with placeables while in combat mode, you can’t open the door and initiate the fight. Bad! Potentially game breaking! Fortunately, I’ve found that targeting a hostile with an AoE (area of effect) spell makes my guy auto-open the door. There are probably other solutions, but that’s my natural start to any fight so I’ve not had to bother looking for others.

Other bugs: There’s no auto-save prior to the Zevran fight (and some other big, difficult fights). That cost me about 20 minutes of re-playing to catch up to where I had been. Sometimes scripts don’t update quickly enough, so there are problems with clicking placeables and getting old text if you click them too soon. For example, I read on-line that one guy killed a boss and initiated dialogue with someone only to see that cause the original trigger to re-fire, seeing the boss resurrected, and the fight re-initiated. I’ve seen similar behavior where I initiated dialogue with a guy three times before he finally updated and said the right thing. Anyway, it’s nothing too impactful like crashes, critical path breaks, and bad interface. I’m generally impressed and satisfied.

Audio: The audio is fine. I like the VO of the characters. Their one-liners are diverse enough, 20 hours in, that the repeats aren’t too bad. The music is pretty background. But some monster’s VO volume is seemingly twice as loud as my yelling-for-aid henchmen. If there were a separate slider for monster VO, that’d be fine. But I have everything turned down to the point where I can just barely hear it all, and the monsters are still loud and make me want to hit mute.

Story: The story has been enjoyable and easy to follow. The “easy to follow” description surprises me somewhat because there is so much lore and I thought I’d be buried under it. But it all sticks to the background, via the codex — there when you feel like it. And it hasn’t been important to the story, besides. The story? So far, the darkspawn attacked, and the defenders came up with a plan to halt the advance. But one guy pulled a power play by not coming to reinforce the defense. The original defenders were wiped, putting the guy who didn’t help into a position of power. The player knows he has to deal with him, but he also has to make sure the country is secure from the darkspawn armies by gathering aid from other available armies.

Exploration

Sandbox: I think I’ve played too many games like Oblivion and Saints Row and Grand Theft Auto. It’s spoiled me. When I play a game like DA, I feel like there’s a great disconnect between me and the world. I pop into an area, like a small field. I fight a few monsters. And… then I’m out of the game and looking at a picture of the world. The game has some nice, larger areas that really get you into the game — castles and towers and so forth where you spend hours exploring. But you don’t get that sense of the world and exploration that you’d otherwise get freely traveling between these places. I understand the idea is to focus on the interesting bits and not forcing the player to aimlessly roam through procedurally-generated content. And that’s a fine decision, but I maintain DA didn’t do the best job of it. Traveling from the opening village to the city of Neverwinter in NWN2, for example, I felt much more of a sense of journey than I do watching the ink-smudge spread across the DA map. In other words, just a few more maps between places — maps you only have to go to once, the first time around — probably would have added that sense of travel.

Henchmen/Dialogue: I’m disappointed with the henchmen/dialogue system. As with traditional BioWare games, you have a group of followers. They have their own opinions and they may conflict with yours. The more you say the right thing, the more they like you and vice-versa. The problem? You can buy their favoritism. As you explore, you find gifts. Hand over a gift and the henchman likes you. Tell Alistair you really care about him and trust him? Alistair approves, +4. Hand a mug of Ale to Alistair? Alistair approves, +7. Tell Alistair you like murdering little kids? Alistair disapproves, -5. I thought Morrigan was going to abandon my group because she hated how much I wanted to play the game (that is, side quests). Sten has the same philosophy. But despite all the things I’ve said wrong, both of them are kissing my ass thanks to a few gifts. Obsidian really showed off some fun advancements to the dialogue/henchmen system in Knights of the Old Republic 2. It’s a shame no one has paid attention.

Dragon Age: Origins

Inventory: A lot of people complain the backpack capacity is too restrictive. I’m fine with it. I’ve only once bumped up against the limit, and that was when I went straight from Redcliffe Castle to the Mage’s Tower and back again without a break. My secret? Dump, sell, or immediately use anything that grants a small bonus to something like nature damage or mental defense. They’re not worth holding onto. I used to be an RPG hoarder, but I’ve been broken of that bad habit by games like Oblivion. These items alone will add up to take the most room in your pack and are not very valuable. It’s an easy solution. Taking up the second-most room in my pack? Crafting gear. I’d dump that stuff, too, but I want to play around with the crafting system and haven’t gotten around to it yet other than for making potions.

Quests: I’ve been very happy with the quests. Story-wise, everything feels like it belongs in the world. It feels organic and well thought out. There’s nothing terribly innovative about the quests, but like I said they fit the story well and there are a lot of them. I don’t even know how many I have right now. I’d say I’m sitting on 20 or 30. Normally I try to keep the queue small so I can focus on a few at a time, but that just doesn’t happen in DA. Side note, DA does a great job with the journal so you’re always aware of what’s going on. Also helpful, speaking of the journal, every time you load your saved game, there’s a brief write-up of where you are in the story. Very nice.

Graphics: I’m not really a big graphics guy. As far as they are concerned, my top priority is frame rate. Then comes clarity (i.e. showing you the action in a clear, understandable way). Then comes color (because I like color). Then, at the bottom, for me, comes high polygon counts and ray-tracing and bump-mapping and all that gibberish. The frame rate is “lower” in DA (maybe upper-teens to mid-, upper-20s), there’s quite a bit of pop-in, and the visuals are not very colorful most of the time. But I can’t complain too much because it does look pretty good. The models are nice and I like the cel-shading on them. The Fade, however, makes me want to complain a lot. Yes, I love that it comes across as dreamy and ethereal, but it’s so fuzzy and blurry that, combined with the frame rate, it really gives me eye strain. The section in the Mage’s Tower where you have to free yourself and your henchmen from demon possession was particularly difficult to get through since you’re in the Fade so long. It made an otherwise enjoyable section of the game feel somewhat sour. Actually, the eye strain — and the annoyance with the loudly shrieking demons.

Skill Tree

Skill/Power Balance: I’m finding that there are definitely some powers and abilities that are better than others. I “wasted” a point on Earthquake. I say wasted because it really serves no useful purpose. That’s a shame for such a high-level ability. I wish I could trade it in for something better. Cone of Cold, on the other hand, has been hugely helpful. I’ve waltzed through so many encounters because of it. So you really have to think about what you’re doing when you gain levels. But I will say this: observations like these are why sequels are a very, very good thing in video games. Developers watch the community play, learn lessons, and improve things for the next go around (not everyone gets it right the first time around like Blizzard with their endless iteration).

I could probably go on a bit but I’ll stop here for now. As for where I am in my game, I went through the elven mage origin story, traveled to Redcliffe and then the Mage’s Tower before heading back to Redcliffe to save the kid. I resolved three short quests in the middle of the map, and now I’m in Denerim (though I haven’t stepped foot into the city yet).

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