OK so I’m 52 hours into Dragon Age and I haven’t finished it yet, but I can tell from the story that I’m approaching the end game. The game isn’t going to throw anything new at me from this point besides capping off the story and some big battles. From here on, it’s all denouement, probably with some difficult choices regarding party members. I’m just guessing, but this is Bioware after all.
I could have rushed through and finished it by now, but like a good little grinder I have completed all the various side missions that came my way, plus my randy female elf mage kept getting sidetracked by her own personal quest (given by me) to see how many other NPCs were into the Sapphic. Another night at the Pearl anyone?
Creating a gameworld? Have another Tolk
Dragon Age wants to be an epic game. I’m not sure that it’s been entirely successful. Ferelden, the game’s fantasy world, has been filled out with a very detailed history and lore. It has your typical fantasy races, sorted generally into the Goodies and Baddies. The Goodies are your Dwarves (Bill Oddie), Elves (Tim Brooke-Taylor) and humans (Graeme Garden) and like the actual Goodies, they don’t always get along and often one of them temporarily turns Evil. The Baddies are the Darkspawn, who look suspiciously like orcs and goblins with fake IDs. It’s all very same-same but different, but hey, that’s the fantasy genre for you.
Mages are the sole magic-users in the game and priests serve only to regulate the mages through their mage-police, the Templars. We are told that mages are under a tight leash because they brought the Darkspawn into the world when they were summoning demons in their bedrooms. This is made out to be a big deal in the story. There is even a forbidden type of magic, Blood Magic. The game has told me through many characters and Codex entries that using Blood Magic is strictly prohibited and Mages who do so are hunted down and punished. Except that it seems to be prohibited in the “jaywalking” sense and not the “murder” sense, because I use it all the time in combat with no penalty (it kicks arse btw). I have even taught it to one of my party members, Wynne, who is also an outspoken opponent of it, and she also uses it constantly. Maybe she’s one of those self-hating mages.
This brings me to a dissonance that lies at the heart of Dragon Age – the world that is alluded to in the lore and backstory doesn’t quite match up with the world you walk around and play in. The actual world feels like a collection of winding corridors which are actually graphically not that purty compared to, say, Oblivion, or GTA3 (yes, 3). Oblivion had its faults, but the environment was pretty, big and open. You could see a tower on the horizon, walk towards it and explore it when you got there. That creates a feeling of grandeur more effectively than a tower of words hidden in a menu.
I suspect that people who come at Dragon Age from a background of tabletop gaming will not find this to be a problem, as they are used to inferring a world from graph paper and texty descriptions. However, when I’m told about a rich detailed world, I want to experience it. Oblivion had lots of books and lore too but it was matched by the size of the world and the variety of things I could do, rather than the game simply telling me how damn big and epic this world was all the time.
The difference is like that between painting and architecture. A painting can employ perspective to give the illusion of depth, but when you walk around in St Paul’s Cathedral you can feel the depth by moving around in the space. I know there is a certain fallacy in using this analogy when both games are experienced via a 2D screen, but … look out below!! It’s a new section about the combat system!!
Combat: party on dudes
Single player, squad-based combat has had a poor history on consoles. However, the system here is both easy to use and complex enough to remain interesting after 50-odd hours. For my money, it is the game’s strong point.
Potions, spells and abilities are all activated through radial menus. Combat pauses when such menus are open. This interrupts the flow of combat but I can’t cast my spells accurately and on time without it.
You can also elect to control any of your 3 buddies at any time, or you can set combat tactics for them, which is a bunch of scripts based on the formula “If X do Y”, such as drink a potion if health is below 50%, or use a special attack on an enemy if it is attacking your main character. As your characters level, they can get more tactics slots, so you can end up with tactics to cater for a variety of situations. My main gripe with the tactics system is: why isn’t there an option to tell your healer-mage to revive you if you’re dead? Err, not that I die much, cos I’m hardcore.
I love the tactical aspect of the combat in this game – it is more important than your raw stats or abilities. Whenever I lost a battle, I could retry the fight straight away with a different strategy rather than having to grind up a few more levels.
Story and characters: so much grey!
The dialogue system is your RPG-standard of “multiple choice”, but Bioware does dialogue better than most. As a result the choices tend to avoid being a crude binary choice between being a goody two shoes or a rude prick, like it so often was in Oblivion*.
When speaking with characters during a quest, issues are presented in such a way that there is no clear “correct” path, and people don’t always react in the way you would expect, which leads to some bona fide deliberation over your choices. Your followers react to your decisions too, and their approval of you can increase or decrease. If their approval gets too low they may leave your party altogether. I liked this idea, as it brought in an element of party management beyond just divvying up loot, and added a further weight to my decisions. I was thus disappointed by Bioware’s decision to include a safety net option of gifts – items which boost a character’s approval rating when they are given. This breaks the system just like purified water broke the karma system in Fallout 3.
Are we there yet?
Dragon Age is an enjoyable dungeon crawl, even if the generic fantasy world feels a little familiar. Despite its drawbacks in presentation, the unique (for the PS3 anyway) experience of handling squad based tactical combat is what will keep me grinding through to the story’s end – well, that and the chance of more lesbian elf sex.
* I am comparing Dragon Age to Oblivion a lot, but that’s because it is the only other western fantasy RPG on the PS3 besides Sacred 2, which is too Diabloish and grindy to count.