Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins

Man alive. This game makes me shout and yell and want to break things. The AI is incredibly dumb.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

If I can use a simile (or maybe a metaphor, I can never tell) for a moment, If Dragon Age were a trading card game, Origins would be a starter pack. DLC is booster packs, and things like Awakenings are expansion packs. It's pretty clumsy, I know, but there we are.

So, they've essentially built a core world with a pretty decent game engine, pretty graphics and so forth, and they've got grand plans to release DLC for the next 2 years or so, to supplement it. Now, if they get it right, it could be awesome. If they balls it up, well, then so be it. So far, though, it's looking good. Ish.

First things first, what are the bad points? Well, the cut/speaking scenes are pretty bland. People just stand and stare. And the eyes are pretty lifeless. Voice acting is not great. They conjured up a bunch of pretty impressive voice talent, including Commander Janeway from Voyager, Claudia Black (who's turning up everywhere these days), Tim Curry and more. But it's like they've asked them to deliver everything as blandly as possible. Which is weird, because they all do fantastic jobs in other games.
Plus, there's this dude: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0004718/
He used to be on Grange Hill. I always liked him. Except that his voice is SO distinctive that it annoys me. I don't know why.

I should point out that I'm playing on PC. And here's why. I hear that combat is pretty rubbish on consoles. Also, the graphics are miserable/washed out/low quality. Plus, no mouse. Having played the PC version quite a bit, I now understand that the console would be terrible. The ability to spin the mousewheel and get a tactical overview of combat is essential. You can't do this in the console. Ergo, the console version is not good.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. It's called 'Origins' for a reason. Depending on your class (rogue, warrior, mage) and race (elf//dwarf/human), you'll get a wildly different starting game. If you're anything like me, and like to poke in every dank corner of every map, then this can give up to 15 hours of gameplay just for your character. If you're prepared to skip through many of the talking bits, you can probably halve that, and if you just want to get to the 'main game', it could probably be done in 4 or so. However, of all the talking bits, the "origin" parts seem to be the most interesting, and therefore worth the time. Later on, when you're talking to generic merchant 15, you'll be pushing that escape key often. Subtitles will help.

Also, amusingly, after combat, you get covered in blood. This can make for some (possibly unintentioanlly) hilarious cutscenes, as you trade pleasantries with a noble and yet you're covered in blood. I can't find a good picture right now, so I'll grab a screenshot later, but here's a quick example of the general effect:

Each class has 4 specialisations (rogue can be bard, assassin, etc), and you'll meet some companions who cover off the main categories (bard, assassin, shapeshifter, warrior, etc) and, of course, a dog.
At any time, you can have 3 other people in your group, and they'll have different reactions to different things. Sten, the big tank, doesn't like it when you're nice. If you waste time being good, he'll get upset.

So, then, what about the combat? Well, it's a bit mixed. I don't want to ruin the story, but it shouldn't come as any great surprise that you're selected for greatness by a group called the Grey Wardens, who operate above the law, giving you the excuse you need to act however you like. However, the first warden you meet, Alistair, is a dick. And also not very good at fighting. So I was left thinking the combat mechanics were rubbish.

Until you leave the first village, Lothering, you're pretty much on rails, and stuck with Alistair for the majority of the time, which is disappointing. The dog makes a better tank, and the dog is crap. Maybe I was misusing him, and he's better for skirmishing the enemy, but given you can only take 4 people out, he seems like a complete waste of space. Anyway, mileage may vary. You might love him (but I bet you don't).

In fact, Alistair actually caused me to give up on this game initially. I was really really bored once I got to Lothering for the first time. I didn't really get where it was going, and it all seemed way too linear. A friend encouraged me to get back into it, and also grab the DLC to which I was entitled, and I'm glad he did. Once you get past Lothering, the game really opens up. More party members, more freedom to explore and so on.

Back to combat, though. It's good. I like a lot of the ideas they have. For example, skills/spells cost stamina/mana. So far, so good. But armour has a fatigue rating expressed as a percentage, which directly affects the cost of the ability. So if you're wearing around that gives you a total of 20% fatigue, and the ability would normally cost 10 points, it costs 12. It means you really do think about what armour to use, instead of just picking the thing with the highest protection.

And there are a bunch of skills which you can toggle on and off like, say, Powerful Swings, which does more damage per blow with two handed weapons, at the cost of accuracy and defence. However, they have a 'maintenance cost', meaning that to keep the mode active, you're always down some stamina points. It's clever, and I like it. It might exist elsewhere, but it's still well implemented. And you can often have multiple skills active (a mage might have shield and spell boost, for example).

Ok, so, seriously, combat. There are 'tactics', which let you set up some really quite complex actions. You have a bunch of objects, conditions and actions. So, you might say "when ally drops below 50% health, cast heal". Or "when in melee combat with more than 1 person, cast knockback". You get the idea. It's extremely comprehensive. Next, you'll be pausing. A lot. Which is no bad thing. But back to my starting point. The AI is bloody annoying. It quite often does what it wants, despite what you've told it. So, you might set up an archer to fire at someone, only to find they've been attacked in melee, switched to their sword, and not bothered to switch back. or you moved them somewhere, and now they're facing away from the battle, not targetting anyone. Or you move a mage out of the main ruck, and they run right back in and die. Of course, you can force them to hold position, but that's a group setting, meaning your melee characters won't advance to attack other targets without explicit instruction. Equally annoying. So, I spent a lot of screaming at the screen, because someone's just spent 30 seconds doing nothing as another party member dies.

In general, though, the combat flows really nicely. I never seem to have enough mana or stamina, but there are potions and mushrooms for that. I just stumbled across spell combinations, too, where you can combine two different spells for a bigger effect. I won't spoil anything for you, but there are some pretty sweet ones. It really encourages experimentation.

I'll be reviewing the DLC, since I can't find any decent reviews of it anywhere (by which I mean, sites other than IGN).

So, yeah, in general, a nice engine, suffering from some blandish character graphics, with a nice combat system, despite some AI weirdness. The story itself is pretty cool. And, if you get it on PC, a good few hours of distraction.

Here's a nice German video that gives a pretty decent overview of the combat, with subtitles.

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