Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins is a Bloody Long Game

What is there to say about Dragon Age: Origins that hasn't already been said? There's a ton of content to experience, lots of dialogue, lots of loot, lots of blood, lots of quality polish, and not so many dragons. It's probably the most "old school" RPG we've seen in the last few years (or at least the most successful one), and that alone makes it a very compelling game. But despite its many great features and overall high quality experience, DAO still suffers from typical BioWare shenanigans that leave me to say that it's merely "pretty good." 

First of all, there's a big problem with DAO's difficulty balancing (a problem that also plagued Mass Effect), where your character becomes so over-powered by the end that everything feels boring and tedious. I played through on the default "normal" difficulty, and found the beginning at least a little challenging, perhaps mostly because I wasn't familiar with the tactics menus and didn't have a firm understanding of the skill mechanics and combat system. But once I got the hang of that stuff, it was never all that difficult, except for a few optional quests that I had to come back to once I'd gotten stronger.

Near the mid-point of my 100-hour playthrough, however, I'd become strong enough that combat wasn't really challenging me any more. I still had room to build my skill sets, so it was still somewhat entertaining, but at about the 75-hour mark I'd run out of things to spend my skill points on and just threw them into spells that I had no reason to ever use. In the final fight, my party was so strong that we killed the entire legion of darkspawn without using a single soldier that we'd spent the whole game recruiting. 

I could've bumped the difficulty up to "hard" or "nightmare" if I wanted more of a challenge, but it's not saying much in favor of the difficulty scaling if I have to scale it up myself. (But by that point I was sick of playing such a long game that I was content to breeze by in normal mode.) I mean, apparently enough people complained about DAO being too difficult that BioWare scaled DA2's difficulty back to make it easier. If that's the case, then I might be starting DA2 in "hard mode." (If I ever get it, that is, because I'm not particularly interested in using EA's Origin store.)

Prison sex with Alistair, eh? Where's the soap on a rope when I need it?

Then there's the issue of the scaling loot. A non-linear game like this, where you can do the main quest in whatever order you want, reasonably requires some kind of scaling to make sure that you actually can do things in any order. But I've always felt that scaled loot detracts from the reward of exploring and completing quests, because it doesn't actually matter what order you do things because your loot is going to reflect your current level regardless of anything else. But at least it's not as bad as in Mass Effect.

For as much content as DAO has, I felt like it was almost a bad thing. It's just tiring to play the same game for 100 hours, especially when that game is a complex RPG with a lot of meta-gaming elements. Even more especially when you realize that 85% of the game content is one big side-quest. Your main objective is to defeat the Archdemon, but in order to do that you have to restore the army lost at Ostagar. To do that, you have to go to go to a bunch of communities and solve their problems before they'll help you. So enervating. 

I'm also not too thrilled about the other party system, either. There's the usual problem with BioWare games, where I end up playing the whole game with the same party members, while everyone else twiddles their thumbs at camp, because there's just no reason for me to ever swap them out. I find the most effective, most enjoyable combination of party members, and anything else is completely undesirable and useless. Much as I might like some party members, they're just not useful to me in questing and combat. 

The romance options aren't particularly interesting. As a heterosexual male, my two options are Leliana and Morrigan, and neither one is especially desirable. I don't like Leliana's heavy French accent or her constant religious preaching. She also has a tendency to snap at me whenever I resort to more draconian methods. Morrigan has a better personality, but she's got a tendency to snap at me whenever I do something noble, and her utilitarian, emotional detachment gets annoying when her affection meter's been at 100% "Love" status for the last 70 hours. Wynne is the only human female in the party with a halfway decent personality. 

Cat fight between Morrigan and Leliana. Special guest: Oghren's forehead.

But then other companions just aren't interesting at all. The dog is fun and enjoyable, but he's just a dog, after all, and can't talk or really develop as a character. Sten has like no personality besides the "big, strong silent type" cliche which makes me totally indifferent towards him. Zevran had some potential, but he's kind of reduced to "shallow assassin" cliche, and I didn't care much for his Italian accent (or is he a Spaniard?), or his attempts to romantically seduce me. Shale was kind of amusing, but for some reason I never felt endeared to her and never brought her along in my party.

I really liked the ending, though. I like how it didn't try to be a big, dramatic affair, and instead went for a calm, quiet outro. It was pleasant to just be chatting with my party members about what's just happened and what their future plans are, before meeting the adoring masses. And then cutting straight to the epilogue instead of having a cheesy cut-scene with me standing in front of a cheering crowd. 

But even the ending managed to piss me off, because I couldn't pet or interact with my dog, even though he was right there. I could talk with every other party member (except Morrigan, of course, who vanished with my tainted seed), and I was generally happy to let all of them go their separate ways. (I was kind of annoyed when Zevran wanted to stick around, though.) The dog was the only one I wanted to join me in my future quests, and I couldn't even pet him before setting out. What gives?

And that was my time with Dragon Age: Origins. It was pretty good, but I wish it hadn't suffered from the usual BioWare nit-picking problems that I tend to find. Primarily, I just wish it weren't so damn long. And I've still Awakening and a few DLC campaigns to play, still. 

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