Too Good For Principles

by Wardog

Wardog raves about something that isn't Kristin Cashore.
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So, do you remember when I was outraged in the playpen about Bioware’s quite frankly rubbish marketing for Dragon Age Origins? And do you remember when I swore blind I would boycott the game on principle?

Well … I decided I would boycott it by not buying it in the first two weeks it came out, because apparently that’s when the sales figures matter the most.

And then I decided I would boycott by not buying it on the day it came out.

And then I decided I would boycott by not buying the collector’s edition on the day it came out.

And then I bought the collector’s edition on the day it came out.

So much for principles.

Ahem.

There are simply too many reviews of Bioware's latest floating around the web for me to even really consider adding to them. I mean, how many times one can say “it’s awesome”? So, instead here are a few scattered first impressions, both positive and negative.

Here are some things I really love about Dragon Age:

Tailored Origin Stories

At character creation, you have to choose a background for your character from what seems like a quite limited selection. Equally you are constrained in your choice of class by your race – dwarves can’t be mages for example. And, although this may feel a little restrictive in terms of giving players as much choice as possible at character creation, from every other perspective it’s pure genius. I mean, think how many times you’ve been tempted to replay a game but the idea of going through the slow-paced, repetitive, tedious tutorial segment is simply unbearable. Temple of Trials anyone?

I’ve only played a couple of the stories so far – I’ve been a male elf commoner, a female elf commoner, a male dwarf noble and a female dwarf noble. Gender does have an impact, albeit a relatively subtle one and, despite the outcome always being the same, the story wound up playing out very slightly differently each time I attempted it. And on every occasion, it left me with a very strong sense of having created a fully-fleshed out character, with an established history and plausible motivations, ready to take on the main plot

My favourite so far as definitely been female dwarf noble. I won’t say much to spoil it beyond: forbidden romance! politics! betrayal! Awesome! It’s almost, but not quite, more fun than the game that follows. I notice the Dragon Age toolset is now available to download. I’m holding my breath for Extreme Dwarf Noble Simulator. The elf commoner background was equally well put together but slightly less interesting for me personally. It’s a basic revenge-against-oppressor story, although kudos to Bioware for a genuinely well-handled rape (not explicit, and not of the PC, obviously, that would simply be too horrific).

Even though I’m absolutely loving my current play through, the wide selection of possible origin stories are so exciting to me that I can barely contain myself from starting up yet another game, just for the opportunity to see events unfold from a slightly different perspective. What’s it like to be a human mage, what if I was a dwarf commoner?

Having ploughed my way through most of the game since beginning this article, I'm now in a position to see just how effectively Bioware have woven these origina stories into the main plot. They're not isolated from the rest of the game, like tutorial segments tend to be, and the characters that populate them have an impact on the events that unfold. It's a little bit disorientating truthfully. Residual hostility from my elf commoner beginning led me to murder a character in pretty much cold blood when I was playing my dwarf noble. Roleplaying failure, on my part, I know but, dammit, it was worth it.

Dwarves!!!

As a small adjunct to my previous point, I would just like to tip my hat in the direction of a portrayal of dwarves in which they are not written off as short, fat, ale-swilling, axe-wielding comic relief. Dwarves have a rigid, caste-based social system and theirs is a civilisation the edge of ruin, as they defend the last remaining bastions of their once great underground cities from the incursion of the Darkspawn. They’re just awesome.

Gorgeousity

I can’t answer for the console version but Dragon Age looks gorgeous on my PC. I’m generally easily pleased when it comes to graphics so I’m probably not an appropriate judge but there are enough sweeping, Tolkein-esque vistas to make me sigh with pleasure.

Elegant Design

I love, love, love the combat system. Finally something that has all the depth of the old, turn-based Baldur’s Gate games but doesn’t require intense micromanagement (unless you want to, of course). Since Baldur’s Gate, I’ve noticed a definite struggle in RPGs to balance the tactical overview of the old isometric games with something more modern and cinematic that allows you to show off all your shiny graphics. Neverwinter Nights 2, in particular, managed to create something extremely complicated, offering you a whole bunch of camera angles, that nevertheless didn’t quite do precisely what you wanted at any given moment. Mass Effect, of course, was staunchly over-the-shoulder, which entirely suited its more FPS-ish combat but Dragon Age seems to have perfectly mastered both modes, offering you a default over-the-shoulder perspective for wandering around the world and admiring the beauty of just about everything (especially Leliana) and a top down, fully rotatable strategic view you can access with just a sweep of the mouse wheel.

Combat is cooldown based, rather than turn-based, and it works absolutely beautifully. It reminds me a lot of WoW, actually, but it does mean that you don’t get bogged down in an insane quantity of spells and abilities, some of which are likely to become obsolete over the course of play. And it means combat flows a lot better and feels less artificial than "oh, no, after you please" dance of turn-based combat, even though you can still pause at any time to issue commands, use potions and so on.

The other innovation that completely makes the combat system for me is the introduction of the “tactics” system – simple conditionals you can set for your NPCs in order to better guide their behaviour in combat. These can be moderately complex behaviours tailored for difficult fights or as simple as “when your health goes below 25% use a healing item you doofus.” There are some pre-programmed styles, which are moderately effective, and it’s great to have some middle ground between no control whatsoever and having to micro-manage your party members in excruciatingly detail to make sure they don’t behave completely stupidly the moment someone points a sword in their direction.

And, if you really want to, you can turn off their brains entirely and control everything.

I haven’t dug as deeply into combat as I could but the experience thus far as been extremely accessible, balancing both action-packed fun and significant tactical depth. Yay!

NPCs

Bioware have really excelled themselves this time round with the recruitable party members (well, with one exception, anyway). Yes, they’re not massively original, there’s a whimsical bard, a noble warrior, a dwarf with a beard, a snarky seductress etc. etc, but somehow they really really work. Maybe it’s the sheer amount of dialogue, and the loving attention to detail that has gone into each and every one of them, but you very quickly become hugely invested in them, not just as NPCs but as companions, friends, lovers and allies. Oh and you get a really cute wardog as well.

My favourite, thus far, as to be Alistair – somehow they’ve managed to take the standard nice, compassionate, warm-hearted, noble boy-next-door type and make him genuinely fun to be with. He’s charmingly voice-acted and excellently written, he makes me laugh and sometimes he makes me cry a little bit, he’s so unbelievably sweet. I swear to God, I’m half in love with the man, and I don’t usually go for that kind of thing.

I’ve spent less time with the other NPCs – I love Morrigan and I can’t stop staring at her breasts (which are fabulous), and she’s voiced superbly by Claudia Black, but given what a goody two shoes I am, we just don’t get on very well. And, despite slightly ropey voice acting, there’s something a little bit enchanting about Leliana as well … I have to tell you, it’s a bit tense in our camp at the moment because I love Alistair and Leliana loves me … and I know the decent thing to do is make a choice but … but … but

And since writing the above I’ve picked up an enormous, camp golem. Joy! Just to clarify that is a golem who happens to camp. Not a golem for your campsite or anything.

Zomg! It’s so big and branching!

Thankfully there’s no alignment system whatsoever so you’re pretty much free to do as you please without too much in-game bitchslapping for your choices. One of the more successful aspects of the story, as far as I’ve seen, is that the consequences of your decisions are more subtle and far reaching than it’s possible to predict, at least on first play through, so it avoids the save/reload cycle of checking out all the options before doing something, and leads to quite an organic sense of story progression and development.

And there are some things I don’t like about Dragon Age, although I’m generally so enamoured of the game that they’re basically nitpicks.

Sanguinity

Whenever you attack someone in Dragon Age, there’s an enormous blood splatter effect that covers your entire party pretty much uniformly. There’s no two ways about it, it looks ridiculous.

The Only Black in the Village

Despite the game being generally quite good at allowing you to be whoever you like, it does nevertheless lead to a few interesting situations. Possibly Fallout 3, in which the appearance of your father changes depending on your own appearance, has spoiled me but my extremely attractive dwarf of colour was a bit distressed to discover his entire extended family was very white indeed. It wasn’t a massive problem or anything, it just brought me up short.

Oh God No – Not Another Influence Mechanic

Although Dragon Age has done away with a moral alignment system, there is, however, a companion-based influence mechanic in which your NPCs will either approve or disapprove of your various actions. And, needless to say, the more they approve of you the more you get out of them, from extra story points, to stat boosts. Sigh. Because influence-whoring with your companions is always a fun way to engage with the game. Thanks Bioware.

I’m playing, because I can’t help myself, as a sickening goody two-shoes so I’ve been forced troop around the world with an entourage of other sickening goody two-shoeses or risk all my companions hating me. Again, this is annoying because I much prefer the company of the sharp-tongued, sarcastic people but I had lovely Morrigan with me for all of five minutes before her approval rating dropped through the floor. This was particularly frustrating because she seemed to disapprove greatly of me doing the main plot, and there wasn't a dialogue option to explain that to her.

Thankfully, however, you can buy your companion’s love with gifts and trinkets, so you do have some amount of control over them but it’s still an annoying and frustrating mechanic. As ever, I think it’s because it only models one possible relationship: natural simpatico. There’s no benefit to not sucking up to your companions so, therefore, you have to.

Dragon Age: Sexual Harassment Simulator?

Speaking of the companion influence mechanic, I’m discovering something slightly weird about the romance options. There are several of these, and they seem slightly better done than average and slightly more flexible in that there is the possibility of going with someone for a bit and then falling for someone else. However, the consequence of this is that it seems as though the ONLY relationships you can have with you can with several of your NPCs are romantic ones. I’m not sure if I just did it wrong but this is what happened to me.

Romance spoilers ho!

I started playing, and a friendly/joking relationship evolved rather naturally between my character and Alistair. I liked this. We were mates! A few flirty options went by (“do you know how handsome you are” for example) but I ignored them, preferring instead to flirt girlishly with Leliana. And, then, suddenly, extremely awkwardly and endearingly, Alistair gave me a rose and hinted that his feelings for me might have drifted towards the romantic. It was so unbelievably, heart-stoppingly sweet that my character couldn’t help but fall from him, recognising, perhaps, that friendship had blossomed into something more. I went straight over to Leliana and broke up with her. “But you said such things to me!” she said, making me feel as guilty as hell for having led her on. But over a few more conversations, and Leliana was pretty decent I have to say, we managed to repair our relationship and drift slowly back towards our old friendship, albeit with less flirting from me. Alistair eventually declared his love for me and I thought that was that.

But then I resolved a side plot involving someone from Leliana’s past and afterwards we accidentally slept together. Seriously. Entirely by accident. I thought we were just having a friendly conversation, and then she hit on me, and then I tried to let her down gently, but because I hadn’t chosen the “fuck off and die” dialogue option, the game seemed to interpret my reluctance as mere maidenly reticence. And the next thing I knew I was having lesbian sex. Naturally I reloaded because I didn’t want to cheat on Alistair, or at least not inadvertantly. It seemed as though my only option for not having accidental lesbian sex with Leliana was to stop talking to her (very mature I know). Except Alistair was suddenly a bit anxious about how close I’d grown with her, insisting that I make a choice between them. So I told him that, of course, I would choose him. This made Alistair go cute and bashful, and he nudged me to tell him how I felt about him.

Errr. Hello? You declared your undying love for me about half an hour ago. What is wrong with you. Sigh.

Anyway, I went to dump Leliana for the second time in one lifetime, chalked it up to experience and tried not to think any more about it.

About half an hour later, Zevran hit on me. And the exact same thing happened again, right down to Alistair making me choose between him and Zevran despite the fact I don’t like Zevran, I hadn’t done anything to encourage him besides giving him a pair of Dalish boots, and we’d recently gone through the exact same malarkey with Leliana. And, once more, the needy git – despite the fact we had recently exchanged not only vows of devotion but also bodily fluids – made me pick between him Zevran. Thankfully it gave me plenty of opportunity to tell Zevran how much he sucked and how I wouldn’t use his dick if it was the last dick in Ferelden… Which brings me onto:

Zevran Dudecorset

GAH! I hate this character. Hate. Hate. Hate. It’s like having a bad Inigo Montoyo impersonator following you around trying to hit on you. Seriously. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. He’s quite pretty – I have to admit – but he’s also a skanky skanky ho. I really want to know who Bioware thinks they’re attracting. Fourteen year old girls? What the fuck? Also the nature of his bisexuality seriously irritates me – it’s grounded in this weird sense of his “otherness.” He’s not like you and me, oh no, he’s a bisexual. But also, by the way, not too bisexual – if you’re a girl and you ask him about it, he gets a bit hesitant, explains he prefers women really and asks if you mind that he takes it up the arse (not in so many words, I’m sorry to say). And there are plenty of ways to tell him that it’s okay and plenty to act in disgust and outrage (which, by the way he seems to consider perfectly reasonable and understandable), although none to tell him it’s hot or, y’know, a legitimate expression of one’s sexuality.

It’s a shame because sexuality is otherwise quite well handled. Maybe it was just because I was playing as a female but I like the fact that Morrigan is (or at least seems to be) basically straight and that Leliana, although I understand you can romance her if you’re a male, reads quite well as full-time lesbian. Or rather as a person, a character, a fully rounded individual who also happens to sleep with women. Unlike poor Zevran who is a bisexual in a box, raised by whores. Because, you know, nobody would actually and naturally be bisexual – it has to be trained into you from an early age. By whores and assassins. Sigh.

Conclusion

But I have to say, all my negatives are quibbles. I’m crazy about Dragon Age. I love it to pieces recommend it most enthusiastically.
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Comments (go to latest)
Dan H at 14:13 on 2009-11-26
Zevran Dudecorset!

It's his voice acting that gets me. "Khallo, my name eez Zevran Dudecorset, you keeled my father, prepare to shag!"

I found the bloodspatters really hilarious. They just drop straight down the uncanny valley. The moment you get into combat you get covered in this eerily uniform spattering of blood that covers your entire body evenly *even underneath your clothes*.
Arthur B at 14:54 on 2009-11-26
I finally worked out what the Zevran concept art reminds me of.

Not completely comparable, of course - the dudecorset is the notable exception - but both have the silly hair, the weapons slung across the back, the very green and very silly armour, and look more like a LARPer standing around feeling vaguely foolish rather than someone who's actually comfortable in what they're wearing.

Crucial question: is Zevran still an ACTION FUCKER, or should the title be applied to someone else?
Dan H at 15:03 on 2009-11-26
You are so right.

Also, wow that webcomic was lame.

Although I rather love the "where are they now" section where it says "After the soaraway success of Chainmail Bikini, Shamus went back in time and created the obscure and little know DM of the rings".
Arthur B at 21:13 on 2010-04-22
Finally got around to playing through this. It's great, but I don't think it quite matches Mass Effect; I wasn't inspired to read through every single codex entry in this one, for example. Also, I never quite got immersed enough to stop treating me like a game. My Shepard in Mass Effect was a brute, but a brute who operated according to her own internal logic, if you see what I mean, whereas in Dragon Age I was just a dick to people for the sake of it.

That said:
- The battle scenes are better than the ones in Oblivion, especially the climactic fight where you actually have an army as backup. Not quite there, though. One day, someone's going to do a fantasy RPG with an engine that supports having a number of onscreen combatants comparable to Dead Rising or the Dynasty Warriors games, and that's going to be awesome.
- I like the fact that you can get a companion so pissed off that they leave or attack you - you don't have to be shackled to people you just plain hate for the entire game once you pick up a companion. I killed Zevran as soon as I encountered him, for example, because I knew his accent would get really irritating really quickly. And as for what happens to Alastair... I was grinning from ear to ear.
- I was literally just about to praise the music there but then I got to the light metal screamy song in the end credits. What the hell?
- That's some amazing plot holes they have there in the last battle, but never mind.
- Exception to lack of immersion: I played as a mage, with the result that I really hated the Chantry (and religion in general). I liked the fact that at the very end you can ask the Queen to free the Circle of Magic.
- STARTING MAGI CAN HAVE A SPELL THAT MAKE YOUR ENEMIES EXPLODE IN A SHOWER OF GORE.

I will almost certainly play Awakening, but it isn't quite as high on my priorities as Mass Effect 2.
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