Saturday, July 5, 2014

Impressions #8: Dragon Age: Origins

Bioware and I have a very strained relationship. I want to love their games. However, their games have a tendency to do everything they can to irritate me. Though I enjoy their writing more often than not (which is NOT license to tell me how much you love/hate Mass Effect 3), there is almost always an odd quirk or two that comes up so often that it becomes a real issue. This is why it has taken me so long to actually sit down and take the time to play Dragon Age: Origins. Last year's Steam Summer Sale proved the ideal time to purchase the Ultimate Edition of the game, but I had never actually played it up until now. Having finished my playthrough of Origins, I have quite a bit to say about it.

Let us start with the thing that irritated me the most: the combat. I could not stand the combat in Dragon Age: Origins. Battles take place in real time. When the player party comes close enough to an enemy unit, battle starts instantly. Characters draw their weapons and attack enemies, either with skills that consume mana/stamina or weapon strikes. Tactics can be adjusted by either manipulating the step-by-step procedure each character follows, in a style similar to the gambits from Final Fantasy XII, or by pausing the game to tell them what to do manually. At the end of the fight, health, mana, and stamina is restored.
This seems simple enough on paper. However, even though I was playing on Easy, the system presented a number of issues to me. For example, there were a number of times where I found my allies near death. I paused the game to order them to drink a health potion. More frequently than I would have liked, these actions were interrupted by enemy attacks. That is not where I draw issue. What angered me is that when they get back up, they pretend as if the order to drink a health potion never happened and resume their combat routine. In the period it would take me to pause and reissue the order, the ally would typically get knocked down again. This would continue until they died.
On top of that, the combat even outside of circumstances like the one described above felt much like a chore. With few exceptions, encounters fell into one of two categories. One type of fight was so trivial that just allowing my characters to whack an enemy's shins until they die was more than enough to take care of them. The other type was tough enough that the player would need to pause almost after every single action so that new orders could be issued and time was not wasted. In either of these cases, it feels more often than not that the game's battle system should have been Turn-Based, rather than Real Time with Pause.
Turn-Based Combat would give players a greater ability to make tactical decisions than the Real Time with Pause system used in Dragon Age: Origins. This would also free them from the burden of constantly needing to stop and pause the game, switching between characters and fiddling with their orders in just the right way. It brings a much needed layer of precision into the gameplay, allowing players to more accurately plan and perform combat actions without forcing them to repeatedly halt the action. Real Time with Pause did not really work in Baldur's Gate and it does not work with Dragon Age either. I found that fighting became much more tedious in both games because of that system. Not to say that Real Time with Pause cannot work at all. Rather, I do not think it was a strong fit for Dragon Age.

Though I do dislike the combat, that was not my biggest complaint. The thing that bothered me most was the exploration of the various areas in the game. It is typical RPG fare. Players and their party explore dungeons/forests/towns, completing objectives. Along the way, they can find side quests, treasures, monsters, etc. Traps will also be scattered throughout dungeons for Rogue characters to find and disarm. Classic fantasy RPGs are the main source of inspiration, and it clearly shows.
Unfortunately, this is as much a negative as it is a positive. What I mean by that is that most of the dungeons in the game are far too long. Exploring an area just enough to get through the main story can easily take two or three hours, and that is just one area. Dragon Age: Origins is also infamous for areas that can take much longer than that, like the Fade or the Deep Roads. Unlike most other games I have played, I rarely feel like I have made any significant progress in a single session of Dragon Age. The game feels artificially long because of this. As a gamer, I feel that if a single dungeon takes more than one hour to clear its main quest objective, it is far too long. Anything of greater length than that, for a single dungeon, is disrespectful to my time.
The level design was also made worse in the most of the padding came in the form of unavoidable combat. Were it not for all the many, many fights that I would have to go through to get anything accomplished in Dragon Age: Origins, I might have had a more favorable impression of the battle system. Unfortunately, the game throws waves and waves of enemies at the player. Most exits to individual zones are blocked by foes. Even as a Rogue, it was impossible to sneak around them. However, that has nothing to do with my, or my character's, ability to sneak. Rather, it is thanks to the way the game registers combat. Being “in combat” or “out of combat” is determined purely by how close the player character is to an enemy. When I walked silently across enemy lines without their knowing, I was still “in combat” because they were close to me. Sadly, players cannot change zones while in combat. Even though they did not see me and I was not attacking anything, I was “in combat” and could not proceed without killing everyone in the room. This can be made even worse when the game fails to see that all enemies have been defeated, and takes too long to transition out of combat.

And all of this begs the question. If I disliked so many aspects of this game, why on Earth did I stick to it long enough to finish? To answer that hypothetical question: I did so because the story and lore of Dragon Age: Origins is really interesting. So much so that I compelled myself to push through the torturous parts of the game to get to the next section of story and dialog. Though a lot of the plot is predictable in its own Bioware-way, there are enough twists and surprises to keep the experience feeling fresh. As one can expect from the development studio, the ensemble cast of characters in the game are very well written and come off as believable people. Player interactions with these characters are interesting and change enough small details that the game feels unique to each individual player. Also, unlike The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins makes the player feel like they are having an impact on the world and its people. The world reacts to events that happen in the game. NPCs even comment on and acknowledge past events and deed.
One of the most interesting ways this is accomplished is through the games various origin stories. Based on the player's starting gender, race, and character class, different origin story options are available to them. Rather than just be a wall of text, these origin stories serve as the start of the game, leading up to the point where the player character becomes the Grey Warden. I played as a Human Noble, and my origin story was reflected constantly throughout the game. I felt like the game tailored itself to my story and my character, which I have great respect for. The ending is also very different depending on the alliances forged and sides taken during the player's journey, taking the more positive aspects of old-school RPG design.

Ultimately though, I will probably never play through the other origin stories. Simply because that would imply that I have any interest in going through Dragon Age: Origins a second time. I enjoyed the story exactly enough to finish it one time. I could not possibly bear playing the game again. I see why it is a popular game among RPG enthusiasts. For better or worse, it is a love letter to the old school isometric RPGs brought into 3D space. In many ways, I like and have respect for it. However, the time commitment necessary to finish the game, and the annoyances generated by its combat systems, are simply too great for me to really say that I enjoyed the game. I hear Dragon Age 2 changed things around a bit. Maybe sometime in the future, I will attempt to play that game as well. First, I will need to finish the DLC modules for Origins because I hear Awakening is pretty good. Then, I will need to wash the taste out of my mouth with something more palatable.   

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