DA: O (post 6)

When you review-as-you-go, you record your first reactions. Normally, reviewers play through a game, noting these reactions, and then write it all up in the end. Since I don’t do that, I want to take a moment to respond to my prior observations — not all of them, but the ones that require addressing.

Overwhelming

Yes, this game is overwhelming at the start. Male or female? Dwarf, elf, or human? Warrior, mage, or rogue? Noble or peasant? When you really think about these choices and how they filter through the game, it’s a lot to ask of a person who hasn’t stepped foot into the game world. My suggestion? At the very least, let us play for twenty-to-thirty minutes before we actually start on our adventure. Let us find out if we’re more inclined to blast from the back row with spells, sneak to the flanks and work a dagger in, or charge into a throng of foes. I mean, if we’re going to spend 60 hours doing one of these three things, it’d be nice to know which one we found most fun within the context of this game.

The Dying Man

When you set out for the Grey Warden treaties, I wrote that I came across a wounded warrior in a field. I didn’t rush to his aide, and he died. I was impressed by that: a decision that came outside of the context of a dialogue option. Now, I understand that designers have to make the beginning good (to draw you in) and the ending good (to satisfy those who play that long), but… there aren’t a ton of cool little scripting joys like that one. Alas, most of the non-combat decisions take place in a dialogue box.

Story

I wrote that the story has some great plots — like the two dwarven factions. That’s true, but that one quest is also one of the few (only?) non-obvious story lines — where choosing the obvious good route doesn’t lead to an obvious good resolution. The game could definitely use more. Again, it’s disappointing that we didn’t see more unique stuff like this littered throughout the game.

Controlling Combat

I remember well my first tough fight. It was in the fields with the Grey Warden treaties. There were some archers up on a hill while some grunts rushed out to stall me. I did not last long working through the grunts while arrows rained down upon me. And I remember wishing I could make this henchman do [this] and that henchman do [that], but being frustrated that I couldn’t control them well enough. Although I’ve learned to better control my characters after 80-ish hours of play, there really is no way on the console version to give individual movement directions to your henchmen. It does make the game feel a lot less strategic than, I bet, the PC version feels. I think that’s why I say the game feels more like the next incarnation of KotOR than Baldur’s Gate.

Injuries

I was excited about them at first but I pretty much ignore them now — as evidenced by my huge stash of untouched injury kits. Kind of sad when my player has a fractured skull and a concussion, but I’d rather charge into the next fight than take a moment to heal up with an injury kit because the penalties are so minor. I think the idea is right, but the implementation was poor.

I came up with an idea for an RPG where it’d be somewhat “Sims” esque. You’d have a bar that would slowly deplete itself as you adventured, took damage, etc. Time in town would recharge it. The lower the bar, the more poorly you fought, made decisions, etc. Let it get too low, and you have a mental breakdown. The idea was to simulate fatigue and wear-n-tear. I think that could work well, but I obviously understand BioWare’s goal is to not punish the players too greatly, and to add a little more item management to the mix. Speaking of, I wonder why BioWare is so fixated on item management. The game would be 10 hours shorter if you didn’t spend time picking stuff up off the ground to sell it at stores so often.

Tactics

I hated them at first. Then I was like, wow! These are so helpful! Then I went back to ignoring them. For the most part, characters default to a somewhat-intelligent behavior. You really don’t need to tweak them or implement more fine-tooth strategies for them. As long as they help me out a little (in both play-throughs, my character did more than 50% of the total damage) and don’t get in my way, that’s all I really need. Tactics is a good idea and I think it works well, I just don’t think it’s necessary to invest into extra slots. 4 or 5 is enough and everyone starts with that many. Oh, and I never did find out how to get my healer to automatically rejuvenate a fallen companion.

Skills

  • I was originally frustrated at how many chests I couldn’t open since I was lacking a rogue for so many sections of the game, but ultimately it’s a very minor issue. Chests contain pretty standard loot, and loot is always coming at you fast-and-furious. Instead of 11 bows in your inventory, with lockpicking you’ll have 17. No biggie.
  • I downplayed Coercion when I commented on it, but a second playthrough without it definitely impacted my decision making. A few times. That is, for example, I couldn’t convince Sten’s captors to free him with no Coercion and was forced to incur great wrath by threatening his captors and forcing his release. I like that, but the cost is too high for so few instances.
  • Pick pocketing seems useless. Mabari Dominance seems useless. Survival seems useless. Traps is nice for detection, but otherwise useless and unnecessary. Combat mastery is nice for the benefits, but otherwise is no biggie. I’ve invested into all of these skills to the highest level. I wanted to realize I was wrong and find so many uses for them. But, no. Ultimately, every time you play you’re going to want to put points into Combat and Coercion and, depending on your playstyle, maybe Poisons and/or Potions. Nothing else is necessary.

Henchmen/Dialogue

I complained that it was too easy to keep your henchmen fat and happy with the huge number of gifts. Well, my second play-through broke that comment. I took a lot of different turns at those forks in the road this time, and that ended up bothering my henchman greatly. Leliana left after I destroyed the ashes. Wynne fought me to the death when I sided with the Templar faction. Sten and Morrigan nearly left me because they had to come along with me while I did quests, while I’m sure Alistair would have left me if he could (which he will, when I get Loghain). Only Zevran has been easy to manage, and even he was a little disappointed with some of my decisions. So despite the huge assortment of gifts, I’ve lost and nearly lost a few henchmen. So really, this one comes down to who you have with you and what decisions you make and how good your persuade is. There could be too many gifts or not enough, based on how you play.

Inventory

My first playthrough, I found I only rarely bumped up against the limit. On my second playthrough, I rarely even get that close. So much of what you come across is junk only worth selling. After ridding myself of that junk, I’m usually sitting with a backpack using no more than 23-out-of-120 slots. The rest is filled with gathered junk to sell at stores.

Abilities

I think I underestimated the diversity. In my first game, I milked Cone of Cold from start-to-finish and pretty much felt like it was the one-and-only way through the game. Then I discovered a few different spell-casting tactics and approaches (such as the arcane warrior specialization) and it changed my tune. I even found Earthquake to be occasionally useful, and found ways to really milk some of the spells like Blizzard, Inferno, and Tempest. And that was before trying out different rogue and warrior builds — such as sword-and-shield, dual weapons, the bow-toting ranger, etc. There are definitely a lot of different types of characters and ways through this game. It feels more like a good start than a polished finish, but it’s enough to add to the re-play factor.

Upgrading Your Equipment

This is another point I underestimated. But only slightly. And only because I’m a warrior now and they cycle more often than mages. I’m not going through equipment willy-nilly, or maybe not even as much as I should (I found a plain longsword early on and it’s still better than some of the special weapons I’ve been gifted with since), but I do cycle through equipment. I’d say I’ve gone through 3 or 4 sets of armor and may make another change or two before the end game. And with my weapons, I probably cycled through a few sword-and-dagger combos before settling on my current set. Same goes for my henchmen. I’m even using runes a little more often since I seem to have come across more items that can be upgraded. I’d downgrade this system from a fail to a poor.

Quests Updates

I complained that I sometimes had trouble keeping up with which quest I just completed or updated. That hasn’t been a problem my second time around. I pretty much know all the quests and it’s pretty obvious what’s going on with them at all times. I was a little overwhelmed the first time around but it’s not so difficult on subsequent play throughs. That said, I would still appreciate a new tab for quests that need to be cashed in — or maybe a tab for “active quests related to this area”. Ooh, yeah. That would be nice. And some of those quests could use more updates — like the ones where you have to talk to five people across the world, and you got four but can’t quite remember who the fifth was.

Duration

My first play-through was just shy of 60 hours. My second play-through (even after completing more quests) is probably going to wrap after 35-ish hours or less. If I was racing, I’m sure I could drop that down but that’s not my point. My point is actually that this many hours for a game is very solid. Pretty good for an RPG these days, I think. But the claims of 100+ hours seem off, for me at least (unless we’re adding my two play-throughs).

As for completion rate, I’m doing well there, too. I’ve finished all of the origin stories at least once, and I’ve taken the obvious routes though every quest (I’m sure that there are some slight differences based on character choices, but I’m referencing the more major options). I just need to see the three remaining endings and I should be into the 90s, if not 100%. (I’ll update this post after I finish that second play-through.)

Bottom Line

I almost don’t want to do the whole summary here because I feel like I’ve done it a lot already with this game. But OK, I’ll try to be brief. Yes, the game is great. Yes, it’s about what I expected from the previews and hype. Yes, it’s a rare game with replay value; I rarely beat a game and then immediately re-play it all of the way through and enjoy it more the second time. But that doesn’t change that DA:O has a lot of flaws and poor design decisions and, from the context of future’s hindsight, I think this game will probably end up looking a lot less exciting when compared directly with its inevitable (I hope!) sequels. So the bottom line is that I would heartily recommend this game. (And when I get a PC, I’m sure I’ll grab a Game of the Year edition sometime down the road and go again.)

Done!

So that’s it. After tons of redundancy and plenty of omissions 😀 I’ve written up all my thoughts on the game. I’ll be playing DA for a few more days, but then it’s time to move me and this site onto something new. Saboteur? Prototype? Mass Effect? LEGO Star Wars? Mario & Luigi? Batman? Nothing has me too terribly excited (that level of enthusiasm is more reserved for Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect 2, and Heavy Rain). Guess we’ll see what the mail brings. 🙂 Ooh, I’m thinking Assassin’s Creed 2 or Borderlands. Yeah, that sounds good. 🙂

DA: O (post 5)

(I meant to publish this a couple weeks back. Oops! So let me publish this now, and then maybe in the next week I’ll possibly write up one more since I’m nearing completion of my second go-around and have completed all of the origin stories. Some things have definitely changed based on this experience, and I think I’ll have my last review as a response to all my prior posts. But anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Going back in time to when I had just finished my first play through…)

I recently finished my first play-through of Dragon Age: Origins. *spoilers, spoilers, spoilers* The final stats? 56 hour and twenty minutes. 94% of the world visited. 62% of the game completed. I’m a little surprised at each of the three totals.

  • I tried to do absolutely everything, so I thought the game might take longer than it did — not that I am at all disappointed in a 56-hour adventure. It’s just that I’ve heard some people went over 100 hours, and I don’t see how I could have expanded my game out by an extra 44+ hours.
  • That I stepped foot in 94% of the world surprises me a little bit. That means I probably missed three-to-five maps. Again, I thought I was pretty thorough so I’m not sure what I missed. Maybe small, inconsequential maps. Maybe something more significant entirely.
  • 62% completion surprises me a little, but not as much. I have several origin stories to complete. And then there are a lot of forks in the road in Dragon Age, and I’m assuming that going right where I previously went left will probably get me into the mid-90s. From there, it’s just the matter of picking up a few little things I’ve missed here and there.

By now, you can probably safely assume, even if you haven’t read any of my prior posts, that I enjoyed the game. No one plays a game to completion and then starts wondering what he missed and strategizing how to best go about finding those missing threads. Well, you would be correct. I really enjoyed the game. There’s something to be said for a game that can get so many things wrong and, overall, still be so right. And speaking of wrong, I’ve probably gone on too much already, but there are a few things I want to stress.

  • In the final battle of the game, you’re facing off against the arch-demon — a gigantic dragon, theoretically the most powerful creature in the game. And? I played on the hard difficulty and found myself coasting through the fight without a hitch for a good ten minutes — until a few minor grunts and demons clambered out onto the battle field and promptly wiped my party. I re-loaded my save and easily coasted to the same progression. This time, though, I had my group better situated and waiting for the ambush. And? I was annihilated, again. How disappointing. And frustrating. And a waste of time. Ask anyone who’s played the game and they’ll tell you that the difficulty is unbalanced throughout. How you design your character, combined with random luck, really determines whether you blow through an encounter easily or have to re-load a bunch. This is just one of countless examples.
  • The auto-saves were always disappointing, only protecting you about half of the time you hoped that they would protect you. And one area in Fort Drakon actually broke a BioWare rule that you never transition to a new map and have the player immediately immersed in (difficult) combat (and no aut0-save to help you out, either — meaning when you die, you have to re-load to the prior map, then transition to the new map just to try the fight again).
  • You play the game to learn how to play the game. This is a constant rejoinder. For example, near the end of the game your group is split into two and you’re forced to play as different characters than you have all game long. To that point, I had exclusively played as the mage — so now, after 50-some hours, I suddenly had to play as a warrior without knowing any of the abilities of the warrior. I’m certain I played pretty poorly. But my next game will be as a warrior, so when I have to trade off to play as the mage I’ll be ready.
  • Then there were the occasional bugs. Fortunately, none of them were ever too big a deal. That is, there are very few game-breaking bugs (I never came across any, most never will, but I’ve read the reports to know they exist). For instance, in Fort Drakon there are two generals you can fight to make the final fight easier. You only have to do one. I chose to do both. After completing the kill of the second general, I proceeded to the final area — where my journal updated to tell me that it’s likely I’ll see the first general in the final fight since I ignored him.
  • Then there was the time where Zevran introduced himself to me after I’d progressed through his entire back story — and slept with him. Zevran must be particularly forgetful, because tens of hours after I told him I was with Leliana (delivering me a -18 penalty to how much Zevran liked me), he asked me if I was with Leliana. Yes, Zevran. I told you that already. So we’re done, he asked me? We never were, I responded. Another -18. Good thing I had some shiny trinkets left over for him. There were creatures who died in mid-air and quests that became blocked but were never cleared from the journal, rewards not given, abilities implemented improperly, exploits, etc. All minor, but revealing a lack of perfect polish.

I could go on. But I’m afraid I’ll just repeat myself and everyone else who has pointed out the substantial flaws to the game. But that’s the funny thing. There are tons of reviews decrying every flaw in the game, but the game is so fun that we keep playing. I’ve not yet read one review where someone wrote that they love RPGs but this game is so awful it isn’t worth playing. More common are the reviews like mine, where people say wow, this could have been so much better — but it’s still damned good. And it is.

So what makes it so good?

For one, I enjoy the combat. There’s not so much of a strategy to combat as there is a strategy to character building. That is, how you evolve your character determines how the fighting goes. Fighting, in a sense, is a place to challenge your level-up decisions. And I really like that. Yeah, the talent trees are thin and there’s not a lot of rock-scissors-paper to the spells and fighting, but it’s still enjoyable to grow in power and figure out new techniques.

For another, I enjoy the quests. There’s some good depth to them. At the upper-most level, the story is pretty straight-forward and typical. There’s a big evil coming. Go kill it. The end. But the details to getting there are much better. For example, in Orzamar (the dwarven city, if I’m spelling it incorrectly) there are two factions vying for election to King. There’s the nice guy who is all about compromise and respecting everyone and ruling diplomatically, and then there’s the jerk who will do whatever it takes to make sure the kingdom moves in the direction he thinks is best. As we learn from the epilogue, get the nice guy elected and things do not go well. I love stuff like that.

And then there’s the comment on just how much there is to do. What a big game. Despite being as thorough as possible and beating the game, I still have things to do. First are the origin stories. From there, the achievements have somewhat guided me. I want to deliver a hit of more than 250 damage. I want to follow Alistair’s story to his romance. I want to sacrifice myself and Alistair at the end. And side with Loghain, and Oghren’s lover, and the dragon the cult worships, and so on — all the more selfish/”evil” routes through quests. I want to try using different henchmen since I ignored everyone but Alistair, Wynne, and Leliana the first time, and I want to find out all their back stories and interactions. I want to try out playing as a warrior and playing as a rogue. Shoot, I want to try a mage again to see how the other spells work. I think I’ll look for some fan-posted character builds (best defensive warrior, highest damage-dealing rogue, etc.) to see what other people are doing, and see how that changes things for me.

I’ve said before that I think a game is generally as enjoyable as its main mechanics. In DA, you spend most of your time talking, fighting, and improving your character (gaining levels and loot). And I think BioWare made sure that these three things, within the context of a ton of quests, were all fun. So while there is room for improvement, a good foundation has definitely been established.

DA: O (post 4)

I’m at that point in the game, just over thirty hours in, where I’m helplessly drawn into the game, and even somewhat anxious to beat it so that I can start it up a second or third time and try different things. But I’ve also been playing long enough that the newness has worn off more fully and I can see the warts and flaws more clearly. Here’s a post dedicated to some of the current issues that bug me.

  • I found a Magic Staff during my origin story, and I’ve only just now, at level 13, switched to something better. Why? Three reasons. For one, I never found anything better in my looting. For another, when I occasionally found something better I couldn’t use it because I did not meet the item’s requirements. And for a third, I’d now-and-then find something in a store but these items were very expensive and I didn’t have or want to spend the money. Games like Diablo have you rolling through equipment change — even when you’re upgrading your equipment with magic. Dragon Age is the other side of that coin, kind of like KotOR (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). I prefer something more toward the middle but it’s not a “bug”.
  • The issue the former comment addresses strikes me as odd because there is a system in place for near-constant equipment upheaval. For example, there are seven tiers to differentiate the quality of a piece of leather, so why not start the player with a tier one piece, then let him find a tier two piece from looting, see a third tier piece in a store, and be rewarded with a fourth tier piece from a boss? But again, this hasn’t come into play for me. I think Alistair, who has gone through three sets of armor, has had the most change.
  • I have a ton of runes that I can use to magically upgrade my equipment, but almost no equipment that can be upgraded. I think I have one sword and one dagger, plus a third item that was so weak I sold it off. For a long while, I was saving up those magic bits — for when I found a good item that I could also upgrade. I thought maybe the highest-tiered items would have more slots. Eventually, I realized that even if that were the case, using up an inventory slot on an item that adds one point, or even five, to the fire damage of a weapon that normally does 50 in a hit isn’t worth it.
  • One of the things I like better about Neverwinter Nights 2 is that it forces you to manage your resources strategically. You can’t unleash every spell you have on this fight, because you’re going to need them in your next fight. And the fight after that, too. There are long stretches where you don’t get to rest, so your party is often struggling — hurt, no spells left, etc. For me, it adds to the immersion, forces me to be creative, and generally makes everything a little more challenging. Dragon Age, on the other hand, lets you recover all your abilities, at worst, every few seconds. If you have five or six combat damage spells, by the time you’ve used the fifth or sixth spell, the first is ready to go again. And even if you use up all of your mana, that, too, recharges — in combat (slowly), and out of combat (almost instantly). As a result, I could walk from one dragon to another and have just as easy a time with the second as with the first. This plays to personal preference, but there you go.
  • Similarly, falling in combat and receiving an injury doesn’t amount to much since the penalty is only a -1 to some ability — possibly a non-important ability. This definitely keeps things “friendly”, so to speak — or casual. Combined with the removal of the necessity to manage your resources, I’d argue that they go too far in terms of making it casual — but obviously the model is KotOR and that game did very well. I won’t argue that one, even if I do have my preferences.
  • There has been more than one time when I spoke to someone only to get feedback that I received some experience and money. I had, apparently, resolved a quest. I like the quest/journal system so I wouldn’t criticize it, but I think there’s a learning curve to it all and that it’s easy to miss information — and that’s what led to me earning an unexpected reward. One suggestion I’d offer is that maybe there could be a new tab added in for “quests that are complete, but for which you have not yet received a reward.”
  • The talent trees strike me as too shallow (and, yes, I realize it’s roughly mirroring KotOR’s, and KotOR only had three levels as opposed to DA’s four). If you focus all your points into one specific branch of a tree, you get too powerful too quickly. Under Primal Spells, you can go from Winter’s Grasp to Frost Weapons to Cone of Cold to Blizzard — and you’re done. Cast Stonefist at a frozen demon, and watch it get shattered. I admit, it’s very awesome to see yourself with that kind of power. But I wish, since each of the four winter spells are different, that they started weaker and that you could raise the power of the individual spells as you progress.
  • I mastered Persuade early on and I’m somewhat regretting it. It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of use to it. I have probably avoided three or four fights as a result of Persuade. I think I earned some extra treasure a couple times. But the only time it really stood out is when I used it against the Desire Demon possessing the kid. That was cool. I wish there was more of that. On the other side, Leliana has 3rd-level mastery with lock picking and twenty-some Cunning, and that’s good enough for about half the locks I come across to not open.
  • Speaking of “twenty-some Cunning” — I think when there is no scale or range to an attribute, it’s hard to know what’s good. In D&D, you (used to) roll three six-sided dice. Your range is three to eighteen. So a score of fifteen is pretty good. If the scale is percentile based, 1-100, then you know an 85 is very good. In Dragon Age, I know the higher level talents usually require as much as a 36 in an ability, so I can assume that’s a pretty good number. But do I really need to raise it higher? I have no clue. This is one of those things where you need the online community to break it all down — take the game’s fog and bring clarity to it. The hardcore fans won’t mind that but it is somewhat off-putting to the new and casual players.
  • I’m a little disappointed with the plot options, from how I understand it so far. They usually boil down to helping people the way you think you should, or not helping them at all. One thing I liked about the Witcher is that they often times put two desirable options in front of you — forcing you to accept one and be at odds with the other. Even if there wasn’t much consequence to it, it still made for a tough choice. In DA, your not-tough choice amounts to whether you want to generally be the good guy or the bad guy.
  • I mentioned it before but it bears repeating: auto-saves are good. In a game like this, where you don’t know what’s around the corner and sometimes feel there is nothing around the corner, death and a re-load can come quickly. And while the game does auto-save somewhat frequently, I have come across several tough encounters that were not preceded by an auto-save. This game needs more checkpoints. Forcing gamers to obsessively save every three steps is a game design dinosaur.

Another lengthy post. I’ll stop here for now.

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).

DA: O (post 2)

I’m at the 5.5 hour mark, or so. I went through the Harrowing, I helped a Blood Mage escape, and then I traveled to a camp site with Duncan. There, I met Alistair.

When I last played Dragon Age, it was a module made with the Neverwinter Nights toolset. The campsite was small. When Duncan told me to find Alistair, I was like, “Uh, he’s right there. He’s literally 10 feet away.” But in the now-completed Dragon Age, I spent an hour wandering the camp — feeding a prisoner, trying to find booze for a guard, persuading a bodyguard to set up a meeting, tending to a wounded dog, picking flowers, and talking to everyone I could find.

To this point, I was having fun — but I didn’t quite feel “hooked”. That changed the moment I stepped out into the wilds. Leading a party of three (Alistair, and two other recruits like myself), we slayed wolves and archers and helped a dying man (fun note: I re-loaded to see what would happen if I didn’t immediately tend to his wounds; he died. That was awesome) while exploring and picking more flowers. And then I foolishly wandered in front of four archers up on a hill. I was dead before I realized where the arrows were coming from. I switched to a fighter and — realized I had no idea how to “fight”. I hit [x] a bunch of times, since that’s what my mage uses as a basic attack, but that left my guy standing there getting beat on by the archers. By the time I realized I had to press [A], the battle was over. Oops!

There, despite my increasingly-demanding desire to keep playing (in that session of Dragon Age in the Neverwinter engine, I think I cleaned out the ruins but I don’t think I played beyond that — so I’m almost caught up to the extent of my knowledge of the story’s progression), I decide to call it a night (to be honest, I’d decided to quit playing an hour earlier. My how times flies). More tomorrow, though — for certain.

Random Side Note 1: The Xbox controls seem to be, ah, loose. That is, I’ll hit [X] to go into steady-firing mode. And I’ll basically put the controller down as I watch my guy fire away. But sometimes my guy will stop shooting and walk to the right — even though I didn’t press the left-analog stick. I remember that happening in KotOR, when it was still in development. And I think I remember telling that to one of the programmers and the programmer making it so that input of less than, say, 10% of a full press resulted in no command. I wonder why that’s not in place for Dragon Age.

Random Side Note 2: I love the light highlight on the characters and their overall appearance. It’s stylized, but very lightly so. It’s, like, 80% realistic, 20% stylized. I dig it. The world is pretty monotone in regard to color, though.

Random Side Note 3: I’ve noticed a few different sites talking about hoops that make no sense. That is, “you can’t hop over this 3′ tall gate. You must, instead, do these three other tasks to get the item that you’ll then trade for a key to get through the fence.” I’ve been trying to pay attention to that kind of stuff and, so far, no problems.

Random Side Note 4: I’ve also been trying to pay attention to the overall, big picture story. Too complicated? Too simple? So far, it seems fine. Generally, I’m joining the Grey Wardens to fight the evil that wants to corrupt the world. That’s basically it. Moving into the details slightly more, there are some who are worried about a potential Blight (an organized attack by the Darkspawn). Others assume there’s nothing to worry about, that nothing is going on more than the usual random raids by the Darkspawn. The “army” wants to do their best to secure the defenses, just in case. And I’ve been sent to recover some treaties to make sure all our allies come to our aid, if needed. A nearby tower is being repaired to provide a better defense, but it’s been discovered that it has bottomless caverns; I’m assuming that when I return from getting the treaties Duncan is looking for, I’ll find out that the Darkspawn poured up into the camp.

Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360)

Selecting a Character

Normally, I title a post “First Impressions” and get out all of the “oh man, I’m playing [this game]” thoughts. Then I’ll make another post to record my thoughts once the excitement has leveled and I’ve figured things out. From there, I’ll make a few posts on specific game mechanics. And I close it all out with a finale post.

That’s normally. But kicking off a first-impressions post for DA: O is a little different because the number of options is pretty intimidating at the start. You have the choices of: male or female; elf, dwarf, or human; mage, warrior, or rogue; specialization classes; which skill trees to advance; which attribute points to increase; which henchmen to side with; etc.

Fundamentally, this is one of the largest problems in RPGs in general — not that there are so many choices (that’s great), but that so many come before you’ve even set foot in the world and understand the challenges. Should you take persuasion points or are there not enough situations to warrant it? Should you focus on one two-handed weapon or is there a great weapon-and-shield combo in the game? Should you play as a warrior, or are most of the available henchmen warriors, and rogues are hard to come by? Many will say that it really doesn’t matter, that you can play through the game regardless of your choice — but there are definitely set-ups that make the game easier or more difficult.

So what did I decide? I started out making a male, elven mage. I usually play warriors on the first go-around, so I liked the idea of shaking things up and going for the spell-caster. And I chose to play an elf because they’re the dirty, second-class citizens of the Dragon Age world and I thought that might add to the challenge.

Speaking of challenge, I read the description for the difficulty levels and it seemed like the primary difference between them related to “friendly fire”. Although you can’t trust the AI controlling your henchmen, and although you can’t control them as easily with a controller as you can with a keyboard-and-mouse, I decided to gamble that friendly fire won’t be a huge issue (famous last words?) and set the difficulty to “nightmare”. Then I read that monsters do much more damage on nightmare difficulty, and the setting also manipulates their AI level. In other words, I’m probably in for quite the challenge.

So far, I’ve only played for about an hour-and-a-half or so. I created my character, I read a lot of codex entries and tried to get used to the controls, I passed “the Harrowing” (a maturity ritual to separate apprentices from mages), and then I wandered around a keep collecting books and XP.

Now, I have the job of escorting a Grey Warden named Duncan back to his room. Side note, I played through a few of the origin stories back when I worked at BioWare. I have a fuzzy memory of the keep I’m now in catching on fire and being invaded by enemy troops. From there, I’ll beat them all up, get a dog, and then leave the keep with Duncan to go take the Grey Warden tests.

I suppose I’ll go see if I’m right. If you want to follow along with my progress, here’s my BioWare/Dragon Age profile page.

Catching Up

This website kind of fell to the wayside, but don’t worry — it has nothing to do with lost interest, and yes, I’ve been gaming.

The lack of updates stems from:

  • Not finding too much “new” to mention following the completion of Sonic Chronicles. My last post pretty much nailed the majority of my thoughts on the game. The only things I can add are that I never frequented stores, level-ups never made me feel more powerful, I enjoyed turning into the golden Sonic for the boss fight, and I was less excited about the game starting over after victory and realizing nothing had changed. Overall, I enjoyed the title and would probably check out a sequel.
  • Playing Saints Row 2 — which wasn’t really any different from the first Saints Row. SR2 is pretty much a clone of SR1. Same bugs, same balance issues, same problems, but… same fun missions and gameplay, and a whole lot more of it. It’s definitely one of the most fun games out there to play. I think the only thing that felt different to me between the two games is that I had a lot more respect earlier on in the game, but that might just be a result of knowing how important respect is and focusing on it. I will say that I prefer SR2’s crib-focused respect over SR1’s clothing-focused respect.

Now that I’m caught up, it’s on to… Dragon Age: Origins!

I’m currently playing Dragon Age: Journeys, a fairly decent web game that ties in with the main title (DA:O) on a promotional level, but also unlocks some additional items and perks. It’s only supposed to be about 2.5 hours but I’ve been playing in such tiny doses that it feels like I’ve been playing for weeks.

As for Dragon Age: Origins, I ordered a copy for the Xbox 360 and I just received a notification that it has been shipped and will probably be here with 3 or 4 days. I can’t wait to get started onto it! 🙂