January 10, 2010

Paying Tribute to Dragon Age: Origins

Mike Rohde Says when I completed the Human Noble story line, and took my Rogue, Mage and ever-faithful Mabari war hound to battle the mighty Arch Demon, I felt how Peter Jackson must have felt when he completed the Lord of the Rings; it was that epic, awe inspiring and superb. BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins is at the vanguard of D&D-style RPGs and has replaced Bethesda Softwork’s Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV as the Crown Jewel of the genre.

My credentials on this subject stretch back to humble beginnings. In 1981, I played Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on an Apple ][. The game was played on a green screen, some of you younger gamers should ask your parents what a green computer monitor was like… The monsters would appear in the top left corner, in 2D, and didn’t move. The characters were represented in text, with a name, number of hit points, and so on. You played the game by issuing commands in turn-based style. You’d hit one letter for your frontline fighter to attack, another letter for your thief to shoot an arrow or use a dagger, and another letter for your mage to heal or shoot fireballs. The action was depicted in text and the results were recorded in simple numbers.

Of course, there were dungeons, but no maps. If you wanted a map, you had to hand-draw them yourself. My dad provided graph paper for me to keep the lines straight. I can hear some of you laughing now as I type this and I can see others of you fondly remembering the same experiences. Within the dungeons there were treasure chests. If your thief had a high enough skill, the chest could be unlocked, if not then you had to come back later after leveling up. Outside of the dungeon there was a store where you could buy and sell things.

The hardware, graphics, game play and stories have changed through the years but the basic premise of Dungeons and Dragons have stayed true through the generations; and I’m sure those of you who play(ed) D&D using dice would have to agree. However, changes have been made, and they are for the better.

Some of the improvements made in Dragon Age are somewhat subtle and you might not even notice the changes were made. This is because the improvements speed up game play and don’t drag you down with mundane chores. For example, your characters will self-heal after battle. This saves on casting countless healing spells and drinking countless numbers of health poultices. After some leveling up, my characters rarely drank a health poultice during battle and instead saved them up for the final carnage. Another improvement is the shortcuts when leveling up. You can allocate your earned points manually or you can do it automatically. I still did this part of the game manually, as those experience points are hard fought and won, and I didn’t want the AI to spend them for me. But still, the option is there. Another huge, yet subtle improvement is the Junk category in your Inventory. If you’re good about moving acquired items into your Junk folder as you progress through a dungeon, then it’s easy-cheesy to offload all unwanted items when you visit the store. You can then use that gold to buy a backpack, which allows you to carry around even more useless stuff just to sell it later.

Speaking of the useless stuff… This is a part of the D&D-style games that drag me down. How many times do I have to inspect and pick up the same crappy mace, the same longsword, the same small wooden shield only to go and sell it for a few sovereigns? I know what you’re thinking, you don’t have to pillage every dungeon you visit. But if you don’t, then you’ll bypass some of the actually useful stuff. I’m hoping that someday soon the game developers will find a way to improve upon this. One idea is some kind of notification that an item you picked up is better than the one your party is currently using. For example, if you find some light leather armor, instead of having to compare and contrast the new armor to the armor your party is already wearing (and determine if having one more point of armor is worth the extra fatigue) you should see notification that this new armor is better than what your rogue is wearing; without having to flip through all the screens and compare the numbers and description. That could speed up game play considerably. More simply stated: when you find new equipment, the onscreen prompt could be as follows: “You have found Tier 2 Light Leather Armor, this will improve Leliana’s defense by 2 but will slow down her attack speed by 1. Do you wish to equip this armor now?” Personally, I would love this kind of improvement.

One more subtle improvement is that everything seemingly weighs the same, or at least, takes up the same amount of space in your inventory. In Oblivion, heavy armor would take up much more space than a dagger. Because of this, you could spend quite a bit of time deciding what to drop and what to keep, which isn’t exactly a fun task. In Dragon Age, you don’t have to make that choice. You simply drop the stuff that is obviously worth less than the new stuff that you found. That might not sound like much of an improvement, but it does lessen the decision making and gets you back to the action, which is the whole reason to play the game.

Is Dragon Age a game for everyone? No. Absolutely not. If you want a pick-up-and-play game and be done with it in a week, then skip this over and move on. This game is for dedicated gamers who are willing to learn, grow and immerse themselves in the world of Fereldon. You’ll need patience to learn the controls and the strategy. I’ve invested 60 hours into the game so far and after the defeat of the Arch Demon I immediately started formulizing how I could do better the next time through. Be forewarned: This game will steal your soul and own your console.

Dragon Age has an expansion pack announced, Awakening, coming out in March. Read the full review here on The Goozex Report.