Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins Review

Dragon Age: Origins, is a very traditional RPG. I've said this before, but I can't stress it enough. The gameplay is nothing like anything I've played in years. It reminds me most of Neverwinter Nights 2, which is a really long (like recent Final Fantasy games long) RPG based on Dungeons and Dragons' Forgotten Realms.

The subtitle of the game comes from the 6 Origins stories that you choose from at the beginning of the game, with limitations from race and class. These are short (relatively, anyway. They're a couple hours long) introductions to the world and your character, and they all converge into the actual game when you are inducted into the Grey Wardens, an order devoted to defeating the evil Darkspawn, blah blah blah.
The basics of the plot may sound very cliched and boring, but it's the writing and the details that make the game what it is. This is where the developer, Bioware (best known, now, for the Mass Effect series), shines.
The game is laid out like pretty much every Bioware game I've played: introduction area, several middle areas that you can choose to do in whatever order you wish, and then the (epic) finale.
These middle areas are the meat of the game, and unlike in even other Bioware games, feel very diverse, which is a very important thing in a game as huge as this one. You do everything from saving a town from a zombie invasion, deciding the result of a civil war, to finding a sacred relic to heal someone. These quests all feel very different, and that's a combination of several different aspects, including the writing (phenomenal, as always), art, and level design (I especially liked the part finding the sacred artifact).
The biggest problem I have with the story is sometimes it's a bit too traditional. There's a part in a forest where I'm talking to this giant talking tree that's decidedly reminiscent of Treebeard, and just a few minutes later I'm falling asleep next to a river. (Go read Fellowship of the Ring, if that didn't make sense) That's a minor flaw though, and almost unavoidable in a game as huge as Dragon Age is.
There's also TONS of sidequests. A lot of them don't really have much story, as in get them from a quest board, go do them, and turn them in, but some of them are pretty good. Of course, there's the obligatory companion quests, which are awesome as always, if not as good as Mass Effect 2's. (which are the high point of that game, so they shouldn't be.)
Overall, the story is the main draw of the game, and definitely lives up to Bioware's ridiculously high standards.

This is where the game got a bit iffy for me. It works pretty well, but it's immensely complicated, and if you're not very good at strategy, it will be quite hard. For some reason, there was a really big jump in difficulty, so big that easy is pretty much just going from room to room killing everything, and Normal is a complicated test of strategy. I'm not sure if I'd like to see the guy that could beat Nightmare difficulty or not...
Anyways, there's three classes and three races, and they're so cliched you can probably guess them without me telling you, but I will anyway. You can be a Human, Dwarf, or Elf, Warrior, Rogue, or Mage. What makes this work is that each class has around four different tacks you can take. Each class has several different talent (or spells, for Mages) trees. For example, the Warrior has the main warrior talent tree, and then the Weapon and Shield, Two-Handed, Dual Weapon, and Archery trees.
Each class also has four different "specializations" they can learn, further customizing the character. For the Warrior, these are Templar (mage-hunters/paladins), Champion, Reaver, and Berserker.
These work really well in customizing your character, and even though you get nearly a dozen characters in your party, they end up being very unique and different in their playstyle, let alone the way they act.
I think my problems with the gameplay are just that, my problems, and it just depends whether you will enjoy it or not. It's made and balanced really well, so it just depends on you whether it's the kind of thing you like to do, and if it isn't you can always just turn the difficulty to easy.

Visuals and Sound
Nothing too specific here. Good soundtrack, nice and epic, very reminiscent of classic fantasy movies and the like. The combat sounds awesome, and the voice acting is incredible, as always, though I wonder why they give other nations real-world accents. (seriously, there's a nation that sounds French, and one that I'm pretty sure is Spanish.) Ironically, my biggest problem with the sound is that I can never find a player character voice that I actually like when it gives you the choice. It would be the lack of your character talking, but I accept the fact that it's just impossible to have the PC (player character) talk in a game as huge as this with as much diversity possible.
The visuals aren't the best in the world, but it still looks awesome when you take down one of the big boss monsters, especially something like the High Dragons. (I can post some pictures, if you want.) There's blood and gore everywhere during the fights, and occasionally you'll do something fancy like slice their head off, and the weapons and armor look suitably epic.

Just bear in mind that this is probably the most traditional RPG you will ever play, and you'll be fine, as it's also probably the best RPG of this kind you'll ever play. It does have some issues, but these pale in comparison to the sheer experience you'll have if you enjoy RPGs.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Decisions, Decisions -- Dragon Age: Origins

First off, I want to say that Dragon Age is a very different game from other contemporary RPGs, even western RPGs. RPGs seem to be leading the charge of the melding of genres- either RPGs taking on action/adventure or shooter aspects, like the Bethesda open-world RPGs or Bioshock, or them taking on RPG aspects, as in Modern Warfare 2. Dragon Age is NOT this way. It is pure, unadulterated, RPG. It may not follow the Dungeons and Dragons rule set, or a variation thereof, but it definitely has the feel of it. This game is based on character constuction, skillsets, and tactics, which requires MUCH different skills than something like, say, Mass Effect. Such a difference, apparently, that I kind of sort of suck at it. Normal is, I am afraid to say, too hard for me. I switched to the easy difficulty, simply because I was running into parts I couldn't pass and it took forever to do the parts I could, and it was just taking entirely too long. Of course, now it's too easy, but that's preferable to not being able to progress-- mostly.

Anyways, on to the topic of the day: the decisions you make in Dragon Age, and how this could affect the industry. There are decisions galore in DA:O, from which characters you bring in your party, to whether to kill that traitor, to things a little deeper and wide-reaching. It is one of these last that I'm going to be using as an example, hopefully as free of spoilers as possible.

Gamers are used to simple decisions, black and white, good or evil. Even Mass Effect, famous for its far reaching consequences and their impact on the later games (will talk about that later), has relatively simple decisions-- so simple, in fact, that the wheel used for conversation has areas that are for the good decisions and the bad decisions, and the interrupt feature tells you whether the action is Renegade or Paragon.

But, in some games at least, the decisions are getting more complicated. What do you do when there's more than two decisions- and none of them are clearly good or evil?

Take, for example, one decision you have to make in Dragon Age. There's a boy, a mage, who has been possessed by a demon. You have three options: kill the boy for the greater good, use blood magic, with someone willing to serve as the required sacrifice, and essentially exorcise the demon, or travel to the Circle of Mages and acquire their aid to banish the demon, taking the risk that the demon will wreak untold havoc in your absence. (Ok, I told you the options, but I doubt you'll figure out when this is going to happen much ahead of time, and I don't tell you the result.)

Gray. All I see is gray. (Good thing I'm a Grey Warden then! Sorry...) In my opinion, this is a good thing, at least for RPGs. Life is complicated, and never (ok, rarely. Never say never!) black and white. RPGs especially should reflect this.

It also allows for a deeper character development, story, and much more character variation. Despite all the different choices in Mass Effect, I bet they are mostly polarized into Renegade and Paragon camps. Dragon Age is not like this. Your character can be closer to truly unique than in any other game I have seen. And that is a truly wonderful thing. (Yeah, I like that line.) I hope that, in the future, game developers continue to develop this idea, and provide us with the tools to make our own stories.

And now, I end with a question for my readers: What do YOU think? Is there something to be said for simple good and evil? Or is realism and complexity better? Tell me why!
If I see a really good comment, I'll give it a shout out on my next post and respond, so do your best!

P.S. Sorry it's been so long, I didn't have access to computer for several days and then it took me a while to tear myself away from Dragon Age. Will attempt to repeat the supernatural feat Friday, or maybe this weekend for Monday's post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Creative License

I would be talking about the Halo: Reach beta, but there's one huge, gaping problem with that.

I don't have a beta code. I never even played ODST (except for maybe an hour of firefight where I just sprayed everything in sight with the Warthog machinegun), let alone bought it, despite the minor reunion of characters from Firefly and Serenity. (Why, oh why did it have to get cancelled!!! Ah well, I'll just have to stick with Castle and Chuck.)

In lieu of that, I'm going to be talking about something inspired by something the creators did.
You probably know already, but Bungie has signed a DECADE long deal with Activision! You know, the publisher who just completely messed up Infinity Ward, who have made what was probably the most commercially successful game in a VERY long time, Modern Warfare 2. But, wait! There's a catch here. Bungie owns whatever it is they're making, outright. (Tell me what it is, ASAP!!!) The problem with the IW-Activision (#FallOfDuty) thing is that Activision owned IW and MW and could tell them what to do. Not so with Bungie, they own this new IP and will completely determine what they do with it... for the next ten years...

So I'm going to be talking about the importance of owning the IP (Intellectual Property) for the development of the game.

Bobby Kotick made a speech a little while ago, where he said that Activision wanted to take the fun out of making video games. That is very, very stupid. It is an acknowledged fact (to me, at least) that work you don't believe in end up... well, bad.

Think about it. I'm going to take a general example from school. You have a project, and you think "Hey, that's actually pretty cool!", you work on it and enjoy it and do an incredible job.
The next week, you get a project in another class, maybe one you don't like as much. You think "This is so stupid...", you don't really work on it, and it sucks. How often do you do really well on something you care absolutely nothing about?

This concept applies to almost everything, but especially well to video games. If you're not having fun making it, how is it supposed to be fun for the people playing it? With the best games you can tell there are a labor of love by the developers, cutting no corners and polishing it to perfection.

In short, you MUST want to play the game you are making, or no one else will want to play it either! Don't force people to make games when they want to make something else, you're just depriving us as the consumers of the opportunity to play whatever it is they DO want to make.

P.S. And, happily, we WILL play whatever it is that West and Zampella want to make at Respawn. Sadly, not for several years...