Game Description: From BioWare, the makers of Mass Effect, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Baldur's Gate comes Dragon Age: Origins. An epic tale of violence, lust, and betrayal, Dragon Age: Origins is a single player role-playing game (RPG) set in a fantasy game environment, and featuring three playable character classes, accessible in the form of three races. In addition, the game features extreme character customization, a new game engine, party-based gameplay utilizing non-player characters and a built-in personal history system for each hero character rooted in a variety of possible origin stories.
HIGH BioWare's character work is the best in the biz.
LOW The combat system is a mess.
WTF Screwing up a quest by missing one line of dialogue 20 hours beforehand.
The brilliant doctors-turned-developers at BioWare conquered Star Wars, took players on an Eastern-themed martial arts journey, and have crafted what I see as the definitive outer space sci-fi blockbuster. Next up on the agenda? Their take on the classics.
A third-person role-playing game (RPG), Dragon Age: Origins is set in the besieged, Middle-Earth-styled land of Ferelden. Under attack from evil darkspawn creatures bubbling up from beneath the surface, the player must construct a character (mage, rogue or warrior) and choose from one of six distinct background stories. Whether human, dwarf or elf, privileged or poor, male or female, the protagonist will eventually join forces with the Grey Wardens; a group of elite guardians tasked with defeating the darkspawn whenever they appear.
Although the familiar fantasy setting full of shining knights and quaint villages sets Dragon Age apart from recent BioWare offerings (Mass Effect, Jade Empire or Knights of the Old Republic) it actually has much in common with its predecessors. As expected, the player will collect a group of allies and traipse between a series of locations while completing quests both major and minor. Structurally, it's basically identical to any of these previous works. Don't take that as a criticism, however. As far as I'm concerned, BioWare does this style of game better than anyone else in the industry. They absolutely know how to make an adventure like this click, and it only takes a very short period of time before anyone even remotely inclined towards RPGs will become a captive of Dragon Age: Origin's seductive spell.
More than anything else, it's the unparalleled characterization, deep conversations and degree of role-playing that makes a BioWare project so successful. Handled by any other studio, the attempt to save Ferelden from the jaws of disaster could have easily been a completely forgettable, by-the-numbers adventure lost in the overstuffed fourth-quarter shuffle. Instead, players will (again!) be treated to a twisting, turning plot and an incredibly interesting and engaging cast, each with fully-formed personalities, backstories, and endearing quirks (some not so endearing, perhaps) that stand as showcases for the superbly talented writers behind the game.
...Oh, and the voicework? Incredible.
Enhancing the appeal of this already-rich content is the fact that so many of the player's decisions have far-reaching and significant ramifications. Although some are not immediately apparent, the way the player plots their course through the adventure will touch on nearly every aspect of their own, personalized experience. Rather than the simplistic good/evil dichotomy that seems to be popping up everywhere these days, the choices in Dragon Age are sure to have many gamers agonizing over their options. There just aren't very many clear-cut choices here; each crossroads in the story has its own rewards and pitfalls.
Besides the moral difficulty in completing certain quests, the supporting characters in the player's party will often voice their own opinions. If they are of a like mind, then there's no issue. If they dislike the way events unfold, they may leave the party or even attack if the situation is extreme enough. It's very rare that a game can engage someone mentally or emotionally on a level above standard gameplay, and BioWare is able to do it reliably, and with regularity. It's truly a credit to their skill.
Intellectual appeal aside, I have to admit that my time spent slaying darkspawn, hunting down rare pieces of armor, and trying to figure out which of my team would be the best romantic match wasn't everything it could have been. It's very true that a huge part of Dragon Age is the story and characters, but an equal amount of time is spent combing dungeons and vanquishing enemies. Although much has been made of Dragon Age's tactics and combat system, I suspect that reverence only applies to the PC iteration. After watching videos for comparison, it becomes painfully apparent that the console versions are not optimized for their platforms, and lose much in the translation.
Rather than feeling calculated or deliberate, most of Dragon Age's encounters are chaotic, writhing melees with the player struggling to make sense of the action. In my experience, the most effective "strategic" decision available was to try and take out any nearby mages first. Anything more complex than that never seemed to come to fruition.
There are fairly extensive behavior menus that can be programmed to govern how AI-controlled party members react in the quasi-real-time battles, but the results are mixed, and I doubt futzing around with these settings will yield much reward for most console players. Even when used, there's simply not much room to strategize when mobs of enemies appear out of thin air and instantly swarm the player's party. It may be strategic in theory, but greater accommodations towards the PS3 and 360's native strengths would have made for more robust, sensible combat.
Further tarnishing the game's cachet is the generally low standard of technical presentation. Although I'm not a graphics whore by any stretch of the imagination, the visuals on display lack the same arresting qualities and glossy artifice that I would expect from such a top-tier game. Dragon Age is perilously close to being too drab at times, and doesn't even begin to match up to BioWare's last effort, released a full two years ago.
Apart from the visuals, the game is rife with bugs and glitches. None gamebreaking (that I found, anyway) but there were entirely too many for my liking. Voices would sometimes skip or repeat, characters would get stuck in environmental geometry, certain cut-scenes didn't play properly, my console inexplicably locked up twice during play, and trumping it all, the game glitched and omitted the ending entirely after defeating the last boss. BioWare has something of a reputation for releasing slightly buggy titles, and with the gargantuan size of the projects they turn out, it's almost understandable, to a certain point. That said, issues occur in Dragon Age just a bit too often to have these rough patches totally dismissed.
Despite my qualms about the combat engine, graphics and the amount of minor bugs on display, it's a testament to BioWare's craft that Dragon Age: Origins is as intensely addicting and as ultimately satisfying as it is. This sprawling, massive adventure easily carves itself a spot at the top of the RPG genre thanks to the quality of the role-playing itself, and will be doubly appreciated by those who have an affinity for the fantasy-medieval theme or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. For RPG fans who want something to sink their teeth into, this one's an absolute no-brainer.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 44 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, language, partial nudity, and sexual content. Parents, take heed... see all these warning descriptors? They're definitely here for a reason. No kids allowed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any issues. The massive amount of voicework is fully subtitled in-game as well as during cut-scenes. You may have to move the camera around to see casual conversations since speech occurs directly over characters' heads in the field, but it's all well done. There are no significant audio cues during gameplay—it's fully accessible.
HIGH This is a very serious breach of protocol, but I have two: 1) Watching my companions change from fantasy archetypes into actual characters. 2) Glyph of Repulsion + Inferno + a doorway = awesome.
LOW The sheer amount of useless crap that I'm presented with while looting. (NOTE: This has been relieved somewhat by a recent update.)
First off, let me say that Brad's review is (probably, since I haven't played it) entirely accurate as far as the console version goes. After watching several of the videos of the combat system for the Xbox version, it's clear that it's less than their best. This comes as no surprise to me—I've always felt that a point-and-click interface was superior to a controller in most RPGs, especially those in the BioWare family. So instead of reading this as a refutation of anything in the original review, take it as a confirmation of the PC version's superiority, and as a statement of why Dragon Age: Origins is, to date, the crown jewel of BioWare's brand.
Dragon Age follows in the formula set by its predecessors—the player creates a character, gathers companions, and goes forth to defeat whatever unspeakable evil has decided to conjure itself. The path is a familiar one now, but looking back on many of Dragon Age's predecessors it's remarkable to see how things have evolved. For instance, the karma meter, a staple of classics like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, is gone now, and is replaced only in spirit by your companions' reactions to certain choices. The decisions you make will often reside in a massive moral grey area, similar to the The Witcher, if not as expansive or morally ambiguous.
The depth of characterization has improved drastically over the years, and Dragon Age manages to create connections with the player like never before. In most other similar games, there are usually a few characters among your party that really stand out, while the rest are just also-rans. For every Wrex a Tali, for every Celes a Setzer, and so on. Not so in Dragon Age. There are no throwaways in the party, no also-rans. Everyone has some kind of redeeming value, be it in depth or pure amusement. This is the only time I can remember where I felt some sort of attachment to every party member, with nobody eliciting the "this guy kind of sucks" reaction. The companions are great about interacting with one another as well, as the ambient dialog between them is both revealing and amusing, often at the same time. This is something that I felt was missing in Mass Effect, and its inclusion was a very welcome addition.
The way relationships are handled have also been drastically improved, having been elevated from a long side quest to a massive exploration of character that can have a huge impact on the rest of the game. In every other similar title where I had the option to be romantically involved with companions, the process of doing so consisted of me asking them to have sex with me about a hundred or so times, bedding them, and getting some kind of achievement and maybe a little reward for it. Everything amounted to little more than a side quest with some pixelated boobies and maybe a slightly different ending. Dragon Age's romance subplots allowed me to see the character change in front of me, adapting to my influence depending on the dialog options I chose. As any of the romance trees progress, the companion in question will start acting a little different, but only around the player—to everyone else they're as nice or mean as they always were. Eventually I was able to see wholesale changes in them, like renouncing a core belief/philosophy, or slowly breaking out of an emotional shell.
The PC version's combat system is solid enough, if a little unbalanced. Magic is by far the best weapon in the game against just about everything, and going into combat without a mage in the party is a surefire way to get a battle axe lodged in your face. While all classes are have their uses, the greatest satisfaction came from playing as a mage. Warriors and rouges are essential in combat and their abilities are useful enough, but nothing quite beats trapping a horde of enemies in a room and then summoning a 20-foot tall tornado of fire to roast them while they hopelessly try to get out. Other spell combos are just as satisfactory, like freezing a line of enemies and watching my melee attackers shatter them to pieces. As I said, the other classes are certainly worthwhile, and there are several mage companions to use if I want to play as something else. However, melee combat just isn't as thrilling, as BioWare has never quite topped the system they came up with in Jade Empire.
The battles themselves, again in contrast to the console version, proved to be enthralling as well. Some of the fights can prove extremely difficult, so choosing my targets and powers to use on them carefully came into play quite a bit. There was more than one occasion where I chickened out and simply lowered the difficulty level, which is mercifully available at any time through the options menu. Whatever problems the console version might have in this area, I can safely say they aren't present in the PC version. A mouse and keyboard are far better suited to this kind of setup than a controller, since the ability to click on party members/enemies/items/whatever is still the best and most intuitive way to interact with a game world such as this one.
It's very easy to write off Dragon Age as yet another fantasy RPG trying to siphon off what originality remains in the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, and for the first few hours it certainly feels that way. But once I met my companions and the massive world of Ferelden began to show its true colors, it became clear that Dragon Age is without peer within its genre. As Brad said, nobody does this kind of game better than BioWare, and with Dragon Age they topped even themselves. After creating a wonderful universe full of plot intrigue and interesting dynamics in Mass Effect, BioWare did it again in a totally different setting with a brand new cast. And here I was thinking I was going to have to wait until Mass Effect 2 for something to outdo the original. I was wrong, and I'm very glad that I was.
Disclosures: The game was obtained via Steam purchase and downloaded and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 85 hours was spent on one and a half playthroughs on (mostly) normal difficulty.
HIGH The new armor and weaponry is pretty good stuff.
LOW It's about an hour long, total.
WTF Where are all the dialogue options?
The latest downloadable add-on to BioWare's smash hit Dragon Age: Origins was released on January 13 for the Xbox 360 at a price of 400 Microsoft points. ($5.00) Titled Return to Ostagar, this side quest includes several pieces of new armor and weapons, along with one new Achievement.
Judging DLC for a game that's as story-heavy as Dragon Age is a little difficult. In Return to Ostagar, the player's party gets a chance to return to the site of the fateful battle where two important characters were killed, and where the events of the adventure itself were set into motion. It's a key location, heavy with significance. However, having played the game upon its release, coming back to this mission now so long after the fact feels a little odd. Not to spoil anything for anyone, but I suspect this mission would've been a much better fit if it had been available before completing the main storyline.
Issues of timing aside, I have to admit that I expected a little bit more out of Ostagar. Although the new armor and weapons are good, I can't imagine that I'll get much use out of them at this point. Instead, I would have rather had more story and dialogue than new gear—after all, the intellectual, emotional side is Dragon Age's greatest strength. The DLC comes up surprisingly short in this aspect.
Despite returning to the battlefield with two party members who were survivors, there's very little discussion of what transpired. Even worse, completing the final act of the mission seems the perfect time to have some deep character-building happening, yet only a line or two pass before the Achievement pops and it's time to return to the world map. This gaping void in particular felt like a glaring omission, especially for a game that previously went to such great lengths to create rich and involved dialogue.
As much as I enjoy Dragon Age, I can't help but feel that this add-on could have been more. For $5.00, I got a few lines of dialogue, new weapons and armor, and about an hour's worth of straightforward monster-killing. It's not a terrible bargain and certainly not the outright robbery that some DLC can be at times, but Return to Ostagar can't compare with the quality of The Stone Prisoner or Warden's Keep DLC missions. Of course, the price point of Ostagar is lower than either of those and I'm glad for that, but then again, I guess you do get what you pay for...
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 45 minutes of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, language, partial nudity, and sexual content. Parents, take heed... see all these warning descriptors? They're definitely here for a reason. No kids allowed.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You won't have any issues. There's not much voicework here, and what's present is fully subtitled. There are no significant audio cues during gameplay—it's fully accessible.
HIGH: Oghren's joining ceremony.
LOW: The fact that it was all over at 16 hours.
WTF: Nobody seems to recognize me as an elf now. Even other elves.
The first expansion to last year's RPG masterwork Dragon Age: Origins, Awakening has the unenviable task of trying to make better something that was already great. Granted, the burden placed on Awakening is considerably smaller than if it was a full sequel, but with a $40 price tag it needs to be something more than a few new places to visit and some new items. Ultimately Awakening succeeds in being everything an expansion is expected to be, for better or for worse.
Things start six months after the events in Origins, with the player being tasked with rebuilding the Grey Warden order. An Origins character can be imported into Awakening or the player can choose to start a shiny, brand new warden. While most of the items I had in Origins transferred over without a problem, things I got from DLC (like Avernus's robes or the Warden Commander armor) do not. This wasn't particularly a problem for me as my main character was a mage, but I know others who began the game with no weapons because of this and essentially had to play most of the opening mission unarmed. The idea that we paid for these items just to see them be taken away for expansions is a tad irksome, along with the idea that I can't play the choices I made in Origins if my character died.
Still, once things get going Dragon Age works its magic (pun intended) just like in the old days of 2009. There are quite a few new powers and specializations to be found, and some of the new mage abilities (like Repulsion Field) were very welcome. Combat is identical to Origins, so PC players will get the same smooth experience, while console players will probably be disappointed yet again.
The main storyline concerning self-aware darkspawn is a good one, so no fears on that front. Awakening explores something that I was wondering about in the original as well—the idea of thinking, rational darkspawn as opposed to simple monsters. Obviously I'm not going to spoil anything, but the arc revolving around the darkspawn and their newfound motivations kept me intrigued throughout the game. Unfortunately, it didn't have to do so for that long.
Awakening is quite short, as I clocked in at about 16 hours total. This pales in comparison to the 80 or so hours I put in on my first Origins playthrough, and because of this a lot of the best aspects from Origins feel very watered-down. The new cast of characters I'm presented with has just as much potential as the original bunch did, but sadly I didn't get to see much from them due to the length, sapping Awakening of what was Origins's greatest strength. The city of Amaranthine feels much smaller and more confined than Denerim did, and while I understand that Amaranthine isn't supposed to be as grand as Ferelden's capital, the lack of a hustling hub city was really glaring.
I think it's safe to say that the cliché expression is true—players that enjoyed Origins will enjoy this as well, and future returns to Thedas will definitely be welcome. However, when it's all said and done I couldn't help but feel that the immersion was a little thin due to the relatively small amount of content. I didn't get to know the cast as much as I would've liked, and the story, while good, probably could have benefited from some more substance. I'm certainly satisfied with the experience, but at $40 I'd expect some more meat on the bones.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail download and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 16 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once.
Parents: This game has been rated M by the ESRB. The same rules apply here as they did in the original—no kiddies.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines are subtitles and there are no significant audio cues.
HIGH: Getting to make the choice I've wanted to make since Origins.
LOW: Enemies that float in midair after I kill them.
WTF: Why could this not have been part of Awakening, at the very least?
The downloadable content (DLC) for Bioware's masterful Dragon Age: Origins has been decidedly lackluster so far. I personally enjoyed Awakening a bit more than many others did, but the rest has been useless crap that I didn't find at all interesting—and even Awakening wasn't what it could have been thanks to a woefully short play time. Enter Witch Hunt, the small, $7 add-on that promises to bring closure concerning the saga of Dragon Age's most enigmatic character, Morrigan. However, closure is the absolute furthest thing from what Witch Hunt provides.
How much the player gets out of Witch Hunt (if anything at all) is totally dependent on how much that player cared about Morrigan in the first place. Even then, its maximum impact can only be felt if a very specific set of choices were made in Origins. As for my character, I did make those choices, so I got the full effect of the confrontation between the Warden and Morrigan, plus the obvious lead-in to the upcoming Dragon Age 2. Indeed, being intentionally left in the dark regarding some things was expected with a sequel right around the corner. However, I can see how what was meaningful for me would be worthless to others who didn't follow the same path. This greatly cheapens Witch Hunt's worth as stand-alone DLC.
A couple of new characters? Bah. Reunion with Dog? Psh. Visiting some familiar locations from Origins? Please. Witch Hunt is about one thing and one thing only—getting to see Morrigan again. It is this brevity that begs the question—why couldn't this have been part of Origins, or even Awakening? It's literally two extra hours with about six minutes of Morrigan at the end. It feels like it should have been a side quest in a larger adventure.
Witch Hunt did let me make the choice I wanted to make at the end (which was gratifying) but it doesn't do nearly enough to be able to stand on its own—even as an add-on. Indeed, it represents the fundamental problem with the concept of DLC in a game like Dragon Age: if it had been part of Origins or Awakening it would have been much stronger and had much more impact. As it stands now, it's an empty experience punctuated by a few extra minutes of Claudia Black's voice acting and a big tease for an upcoming game. No thanks.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via download purchase and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 2 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once on normal difficulty.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, language, partial nudity, and sexual content. Although there isn't really much going on, the same rules apply here as they did in the full game. No kiddies.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You'll be fine. All spoken lines have subtitles and there's aren't any audio-centric segments.
So, now that it's here I've been able to log some hours with it and at this point all I'll say is that despite some of the big talk BioWare was putting out, Dragon Age = KOTOR/Jade Empire/Mass Effect in a Medieval-ish/Lord of the Rings skin.
Frankly, it's the same game they've put out a couple times now, so everyone's mileage may vary. In my case, this is one of my favorite game types and BioWare does them best, so I'm digging it. However, I'm under no illusions that the game pushes any boundaries or explores new territory. This is firmly-established boilerplate.
Although the voice acting is superb and there are tons of dialogue trees available (always pluses) Dragon Age is much rougher and more unpolished than I would expect from BioWare, and it doesn't have their usual zing! quality. I mean, even a mediocre BioWare game beats the pants off of a lot of other games, but it's far from their best… I've hit a handful of small bugs, certain design decisions annoy me, and the game lags far behind its contemporaries in a technical sense. Hate to sound like a graphics whore or the equivalent, but the visuals are part of the immersion, so if they're not there then it's kind of an issue at times.
So far it's still good and still very enjoyable—it just feels a little like they've got the formula down and they're phoning it in here.
P.S. – The DLC featuring the extra character Shale is so worth it. They did a great job not just with the quest, but in how seamlessly they integrated him into the main game. Maybe a little too well, if you get my drift. That said, he really adds a lot to the mix and I would recommend it to anybody contemplating playing Dragon Age.
IMO, get it and install as close as possible to the beginning of the game so you'll have access to the character early on. You won't be sorry.
Read more on the Drinking Coffeecola blog.
As is somewhat apparent, I've been spending some time (a lot of time, actually) with BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins. Although it's got a few issues, it's a great Adventure-RPG if you like the style as much as I do, and it's had no trouble keeping my interest. However, there has been something that's been bothering me about it—the character Shale.
For those that don't know, Shale is an extra character that can be recruited into the player's party. A powerful wrecking-ball of a golem with a witty personality, he's a very attractive prospect. The issue? He's only available via DLC.
This fact isn't really an issue for me personally since I ponied up for the Collector's Edition. In that particular package, the DLC is included. However those who bought the standard retail version will have to pay extra to get the same content I'm going through right now.
In general, I actually enjoy DLC quite a bit—it can add new life to games that might otherwise be shelved or traded in, and anything that can extend the life of a great disc gathering dust is welcome in my eyes. However, I'm starting to question the ethics of DLC… specifically, DLC that launches day and date alongside a "complete" retail game.
After downloading the extra mission and unlocking the character, it was quite obvious that this character was fully integrated into Dragon Age in every way. He has tons of dialogue and fits in seamlessly in every situation. Rather than just being an obvious "add-on", Shale feels as though he absolutely belongs. Ordinarily I would say that this was a great job of integrating extra content and give kudos to the developers, but since this package was available as soon as the game hit retail, it's a little hard to ignore the evidence suggesting that rather than being an "extra", Shale was possibly removed from the game and turned into DLC—or at the very least, it was planned as a part of the game from the start.
Don't get me wrong—I realize that publishers and developers need to make money. They're not in this business for any altruistic purposes. These people need to be paid and their families need to be fed. That's not in dispute. Furthermore, they are at liberty to do whatever they want with their product. Gamers aren't "entitled" to anything really, so we either take what people sell us or we find a new hobby.
That said, I can't help but have some internal questions about the "proper" role of DLC, if such a thing can even be said to exist—and if it does, what is it? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? If so, where's it drawn? Who draws it?
In this particular case, it feels a little dishonest to me to think that a complete game might have been carved up and split off into fragments as a way of increasing profit. At the same time, I have to admit that it's a very irrational sort of feeling since as I stated, gamers have no right to anything at all, except the right to not purchase something. Nobody's forcing anyone to purchase anything, and as long as the standard game isn't a gutted shell, then it's a matter of player's choice.
Looking at Dragon Age (and it's hardly just BioWare/EA, by the way… plenty of others have had launch-day DLC as well) the game is certainly "complete" without the extras in the sense that there's plenty of content and a beginning/middle/end. It's not an unfinished game, to be sure. Still, I just can't get over the quasi-tainted feeling I get knowing that the plan was to have these things as extras well in advance of the game's launch. Giving players more of what they want after the game's met with favorable reception is one thing, but intentionally keeping back certain dimensions of the game for those that don't pay extra seems like another. Logically, I can't assign any sort of moral misdeeds given the profit-based product nature of gaming, but at the same time, I would still feel taken for a bit of a ride if I had had to pay for something that's so obviously engineered into the "full retail" version in such a premeditated way.
It seems like parsing out a game's substance, attaching a dollar value to each segment, and coming up with a justifiable definition of what a "complete" game entails is a very slippery slope to me, and while we're all sort of finding our way with DLC, I can't help but feel that things are going to get worse before players, developers and publishers can all agree on a comfortable middle ground.
Edit: I've been informed that despite sporting a $15 pricetag online, the Shale DLC was free in every copy of the game and not just the Collector's Edition as I had previously thought. My error there and apologies for that. I've earned a -2 in my Fact Checking stat, and you can consider my crow eaten—but the general issues raised with same-day releases remains. (Additionally, as a point of clarification, the Dragon Age Warden's Keep DLC also launched on day one, and that's a paid download.)
Read more on the Drinking Coffeecola blog.
Last post, I mentioned that the tendency to choose segregation as a means to solve problems was a feature of many societies in the world of Dragon Age. Another, related motif appearing in many Thedan societies is the existence of a rigidly-defined social order in which a person's status and even his occupation are set at the moment of birth. To varying degrees this kind of social rigidity appears in almost every social group in the game (except the elves). Through its dialogue and plot, Dragon Age: Origins repudiates these systems, but in its mechanics it supports them.
The most obvious example of social rigidity in the game is the caste system of the dwarves of Orzammar, which assigns occupation and status to a person based on that of the same-gendered parent. Caste systems in general serve to stratify and divide society, but this one is notable for its lack of mobility. Even marriage and childbirth do not result in an individual's movement from one caste to another, although a low-caste woman may be adopted into a noble family if she gives birth to a noble's son. Otherwise, a dwarf's status and occupation is chosen for him by his birth.
In a somewhat ironic twist, the society of the qunari giants in many ways seems to resemble that of the dwarves. The game's main qunari character, Sten, is often reticent about his own past, but is happy to share his views on the appropriate role of women and other people who don't know their "place". To him, it is mystifying that farmers want to be merchants, merchants want to be warriors, and warriors want to be nobles. Moreover, he simply cannot process the idea of women who fight in battle, even though the game's most effective recruitable characters are all female. Qunari society is not explained in great detail, but Sten makes it evident that it is one of rigid divisions and roles.
The people of Ferelden also have a very stratified society, on the bottom of which reside the elves, who have been freed from slavery but not oppression. They are held in their position by ethnic violence—characters within the Denerim alienage point out that elves who move out often end up dead, their homes burned by humans. Above them is the bulk of humanity, and among the commoners it appears that upward mobility is at least possible, if not a regular occurrence. It is important to realize, though, that the human commoners also have a ceiling on their aspirations, for they will not become nobles. Teyrn Loghain is the exception that proves the rule—the breathless astonishment of the common soldiers for his elevation to nobility borders on disbelief. The treatment of his rise to power as a freakish occurrence speaks eloquently to the existence of a vast gulf between the two tiers of human society.
The game actually seems quite ambivalent about the social rigidity repeated throughout Thedas. In its fundamental structure, the story argues against strict stratification—the social and economic positions of the various origins are quite diverse, but they all end up in the same honored place as a mighty gray warden. Sten's views on social and gender roles are easily punctured by a female protagonist, and mercilessly mocked by Morrigan whenever she gets a chance. On several occasions it is made clear that the dwarven caste system is slowly killing the culture that gave birth to it. From all this it would seem that this game, like the culture from which it emerged, explicitly rejects the validity of rigid social divisions.
The mechanics of the game, however, buy into the qunari ideals because Dragon Age features firm class boundaries and rigid character builds. A character cannot mix the skills of a mage and a warrior or rogue, and a warrior-archer cannot adopt the Ranger specialization reserved for rogues. A character chooses an occupation and is then locked into it and can never become anything different. He cannot even become a different type of his own character class. A player who fully develops a rogue archer and finds he does not like the build has no option for addressing his mistake other than replaying the game entirely because there is no way to re-spec.
The character's real "birth" into the game world occurs when the player designs him, choosing an origin and a class. From this moment forward, his occupation is set. If the player later finds himself unhappy with his character's lot, there is no remedy but to start over with a new "life". In this respect, the mechanics of the game resemble the defined and restrictive social systems that appear so frequently in its world. Although many of the characters praise the idea of breaking the mold, and the game itself appears to argue against institutions like the dwarven caste system, any such message is undercut by the practical reality that the game actually employs such a system itself.
Playing Dragon Age: Origins gave me a relatively frequent sense of déjà vu. Although the game portrays a number of different nations and societies, there are recurrent features that speak to underlying ideas about the psychology of its inhabitants. One such motif is the tendency for its denizens to solve their problems through segregation. At several levels, the people of the continent of Thedas like to resolve issues by pushing problematic groups into isolated areas and pretending, as much as possible, that they no longer exist.
The most obvious manifestation of the segregation impulse appears in the form of the elven alienage seen in Denerim. Here, as in countless ethnic ghettos, the impoverished elves are made to live together in squalor. Walls surround the alienage, keeping the elves in and humans out. Some elves express thanks for this function, and why should they not? When humans appear in the alienage they typically intend violence. The wandering Dalish elves, by contrast, separate themselves from what they perceive as the contaminating influence of humanity through constant motion. Notably, the solution chosen by the humans for the elves of the city is the same as that which the free-roaming elves have chosen for themselves. Though the city elves are segregated in their homes, and the Dalish by their homelessness, the net effect is the same.
Similarly, the Thedans respond to the social and religious challenge of magic by isolating the Circle of Magi in their own remote tower in the center of a lake. There they live under constant guard by church knights, for fear that they will take up forbidden practices or fall victim to demons. While the chief religion of Ferelden teaches only that magic should serve man rather than control him, this idea seems to translate to the masses and the clergy as a warning that magic, and mages, are sinful and dangerous. While magic might be of great use to the people, the Chantry prefers to separate the mages from the population, with the upshot that their normality and helpfulness pose no challenge to the popular conception. Although its mythology suggests that mages were the originators of the darkspawn and the Blight, Dragon Age is not as ambivalent towards the circle's isolation as it is the elves': the oppressive segregation of mages gives rise to two of the game's tragedies, by fueling Uldred's political ambitions and by causing Connor to be left vulnerable to demonic manipulation.
Strategic challenges are also met by the Thedan segregation impulse. A "Blight" begins when the darkspawn awaken an archdemon and spread onto the surface to attack the humans living there. When the archdemon is slain, the darkspawn retreat underground and victory is declared. For the surface-dwellers, this may be so, but when the Darkspawn retreat, it is only to renew an ongoing war with the dwarves who live underground. To them, the Blight is actually a brief reprieve. Here the disadvantage inherent in the segregation approach is obvious: pursuing the darkspawn using the full force of the assembled army could conceivably hamstring future Blights and would at least buy the dwarves some time to rebuild their numbers and society. Yet the surface-dwellers persist in the belief that once the darkspawn are back in their place, the crisis has ended. By ignoring the darkspawn who have been pushed back, the Thedans ensure the continued strength of their enemies, and the continued weakening of their allies, the dwarves.
Yet the dwarves, too, feel the segregation impulse. Their society is built on a rigid caste system, but a significant fraction of their population doesn't belong to any caste and therefore "doesn't exist". These individuals, who are not even allowed to join the regular army, live in a crumbling old section of the city, as rife with poverty and squalor as the alienage of the elves. In contrast to the alienage, however, the castless dwarves have formed powerful criminal organizations. Through the usual means—theft, gambling, extortion, smuggling—these enterprises allow these bottom-rung dwarves to damage the rest of their society. Again, the attempted segregation is an abject failure—disastrous to both the castless and those lucky enough to belong to a caste. The dwarves cling to this failed system nonetheless, because they seemingly cannot imagine any other.
What is lacking from Dragon Age is any sense that the people of Thedas are significantly conscious of the shortcomings of these systems. Certainly they are least cognizant of the most dangerous—their failure to continue the fight against the darkspawn once the horde retreats. Yet each of these systems is social poison, and while isolated individuals speak out against them, there is no organized effort to correct the mistakes. Defeating the darkspawn horde merely removes an immediate threat to a society headed towards an inevitable catastrophe brought on by the dividedness it has chosen to embrace. Maybe that's why it's "dark" fantasy.
I finally got around to playing (and finishing) Dragon Age: Origins — Awakening this week, and it was an interesting experience.
I'm going to be talking about only this subject for the rest of the blog, in what most people would probably describe as rambling haphazardly in geektastic fashion. If this doesn't sound like a good way to spend three minutes, skip reading today's post and come back next time for my rundown of the Sony PS3 Move event. You've been warned.
(Also, I will be responding to some of the DLC comments later, I just need more time to digest them.)
To start with, it was a pretty chunky amount of content for something called an "expansion". It may sound odd, but after going through it I kind of felt as though it might have worked better if it had been split up into its three main component parts and doled out one at a time, similar to the way Fallout 3 handled its five add-ons.
The main reason I say this is that as an expansion, it did not include the same amount of character-building and dialogue content found in the main game. If you ask me, those things are what made the original DA experience what it was, and playing a title which is technically the same (but with less dialogue) only served to highlight how poor the gameplay actually is.
Combat is still a fairly jumbled mess and level designs remain quite boring. Many of the quests are on the insipid side, and without having the same level of dedication to my party, I found myself simply skipping some of the more pointless quests to keep the story progressing at a faster pace.
This is just a theory, but I imagine if Awakening had been separated into thirds, going through it might've been more tolerable since there would be less to go through at a time. After all, it's easy to put up with stuff that isn't stellar if it only takes an hour or two. Getting through ten or fifteen hours of not-stellar is a little tougher.
Another reason I think separating it might have been a good idea is that I found the experience to be fairly buggy, and having to only focus on one portion at a time may have been a benefit to quality control. As a sometimes-completionist, it was quite irritating to see that some quests didn't clear from my active queue after finishing. At first I thought it meant there was still something left to do, but no, they were just bugged. Other quests simply wouldn't trigger. For example, in Amaranthine, I was supposed to steal booze from a gang, yet the gang never appeared.
Along similar lines, I found the implementation of the companion-specific quests to need a little more work as well. I couldn't get Sigrun's to activate (another bug, well-noted by the GameFAQs community) and the same went for the second part of Oghren's. Also, due to the way the game is structured, it appears as though whichever party member is collected last will not be able to undertake the Joining ceremony, nor their specific quest, apparently. When the proper character is spoken to in order to initiate it, it instead leads to the final battle. (If I'm wrong on that, please let me know.)
These issues were quite surprising given that interacting with the companions are generally the high points of any BioWare game, and they left me with a generally unsatisfied feeling.
I don't want to sound like Awakening was all bad, though, because it wasn't. Despite the characters not having as much dialogue or depth as the main game, I did enjoy them. Once again, BioWare shows it has the most consistently well-done characters in the industry thanks to interesting party members like the acerbic, wisecracking Anders, or the undead Justice. The handling of Nathaniel Howe was another high point, and I certainly enjoyed seeing the way his character related to previous events.
The engaging characters were par for the course, but one thing I didn't expect was how similar Awakening was to Mass Effect 2 in terms of structure. In both games the player is tasked with collecting upgrades to fortify something. In Mass Effect 2 it's the Normandy spacecraft. In Awakening, it's the Vigil Keep. Both titles have late-game ramifications based on how much effort the player put in. Besides that, both games wait until the end phase to really kick their main plots into high gear. After what felt like three generally disconnected quests in Awakening, everything started to mesh and make sense in the final two or three hours. There were a few fairly agonizing choices, and the level of drama finally took a sharp upswing before credits rolled. This paralleled my experience with Mass Effect 2's teammate-fetchquesting exactly, just on a smaller scale.
Another unexpected aspect that I appreciated about Awakening was that it gave me a second chance to experiment with a new character build without having to re-play the core 50-hour quest. In my Origins run, I chose to be a sword/shield user and became quite comfortable with being the primary damage dealer in every encounter. After discovering that BioWare did not take into account the fact that a player's Warden can sacrifice themselves at the end of the adventure, I chose to start a brand-new character rather than compromise the storyline continuity I had created.
(And by the way, WHAT THE HELL was up with NOT taking that ending into account? It should have absolutely been possible to import the choices I made in the game INCLUDING the fact that my Warden made the ultimate sacrifice at the end. Resurrecting her with a quick handwave? No bloody thanks, and way to disregard the way I played the game.)
Deciding to take a different route, I created a mage to see how the other half lived. After setting one up and taking my best guess at how a mage should be built, it was quite a shock to have to completely re-vamp my battlefield strategies and play the game in a totally different fashion. I was vaguely hating life for the first few hours until I found the right selection of spells that suited my preferences, after which things started to click. I can't say that I never stopped feeling naked without heavy armor and shield, but the mass-damage lightning spells and sniping-distance energy bolts helped to compensate. I don't know that I would stick with a mage for Dragon Age 2: Excessive Subtitle Here, but I might consider it and that's not something I would've said prior to Awakening.
After all was said and done, I'm not quite sure that the experience was worth it. Like I said, I enjoyed the chance to go through new content with a different kind of avatar and I was definitely a fan of some of the new teammates, but it all felt a little long and a little flat until the very end… I guess it just goes to show that developers should play to their strengths, and in BioWare's case, their strengths are their writing and their characters. Take some of that away, and the end product doesn't quite make as much sense as their other efforts.
Many readers and staff on this site have praised BioWare's high fantasy epic Dragon Age: Origins for its compelling story, loveable characters, and nail-biting decisions. Truly, it is a great game, but no one has had the time or focus to closely examine each of the games major choices in an effort to discover what makes them so great. A closer examination reveals that not all of these choices are nearly as good as the others. This article aims to teach what makes story choices in a game compelling, and what makes them forgettable.
Where Dragon Age Succeeded
I'll discuss the game's choices by talking about the good ones first. My first major quest was at the camp of the Dalish. You are given three options, side with the werewolves and kill all the elves, side with Zaithran and kill all the werewolves, or break the curse by killing Zaithran (and by extension, the Lady of the Forest) and allow the elves to live and the werewolves to live on as humans. If you were playing as a "good" character, there are basically two less than ideal options, and one choice that allows life and freedom to flourish. On the surface, this seems like typical choice, but to bring about the scenario that allows you to kill Zaithran, you have to go through a rather specific set of dialogue options. Good-guy characters are initially confronted with choosing between two terribly unjust massacres, and are rewarded for taking the time to negotiate a new solution.
The game's most complex and varied choice occurred in Redcliffe, where I actually had three sets of choices. The first was to kill Connor or free him of the demon possessing him by entering the Fade. If you chose to free him, you could do so by sacrificing his mother or by gathering more mages to increase the power of the spell. "Gathering more mages" is dependent entirely on the Mages tower quest, and if you sided with the templars, this option will not be available to you, since all the mages will be dead. It's a nice touch that makes the whole world seem very connected, and helps you realize that your choices matter. Regardless of how you choose to free Connor, at the end of the Fade quest, the Desire Demon gives you yet another choice. If you let her live, she will give you either the Blood Mage specialization, or an extra spell/talent point (there are two more options for gifts, but they're not as compelling). Even though I was playing as a good-guy, I couldn't resist the call of another spell since talent allocation was permanent, so I let her live and took my reward. I set out to play a good character, but I was successfully tempted by the demon, making this an unforgettable quest that set the standard for temptation in games (at least for me).
Note: There is another set of options for if you choose to "wait to make your decision" about Connor that revolve around whether or not you let Connor's mother kill her own child. I personally did not experience these options in my playthrough, but I am sure they would be just as compelling.
The game's best choice occurred at the Landsmeet. Throughout the game before and during the Landsmeet, cutscenes give us an amazing understanding of Loghain. He fears an old enemy, the Orlesians, whom he grew up fighting and learning to hate. When the previous king, Maric, died, he left his kingdom to the naïve and inexperienced Cailan. When the darkspawn attacked, Cailan was open to requesting aid from Orleais, the occupiers whom Loghain spent thirty years overthrowing. He realizes that the only way to protect his precious Ferelden is to seize power by betraying Cailan and hunting down the young warden (you) who would dare to consort with the enemy. I can't duplicate it, but the game does a beautiful job of establishing Loghain as more than just a traitor, but a deluded, paranoid over-reactionary whose true motivation is the protection of his kingdom. He's a bad guy, but he's not evil; he's just wrong, and I really connected with Loghain as a character because he's logical, but his judgment is severely impaired by his own pre-conceptions. He is, hands down, the best villain ever conceived.
The sympathy I felt for Loghain caused me to think deeply about whether or not I should kill him or make him a Grey Warden. I killed him because Alistair meant more to me than he ever could, but there's a fundamental flaw with these options that I can't overlook. I tried to work the dialogue trees so that I could let Loghain live without making him a Grey Warden, but that's not an option written into the game. Granted, it made for a compelling choice, but the whole thing felt very contrived. If he lives, why must he become a Grey Warden? Why can't I throw him in prison instead of executing him? These questions are asked by every player, but the game refuses to answer, and I walked away from the quest with an artificial taste in my mouth.
Where Dragon Age Failed
We've established what made Dragon Age good; now let's talk about where it could use improvement.
The Mages' Tower contained the most polarized choice in the game. I could either take the risk of some mages being turned into abominations and fighting against me (an event which can be prevented by using an item during the boss fight), or I can slaughter dozens of innocent men and women. Since I was playing as a good-guy, the choice was so obvious that by the end of the game I had literally forgotten that I had another option. The situation is made even less compelling by the fact that the second most important character in the game, Alistair, constantly voices his dislike for the templars, and any mages you have encountered previously have done the same. A below average ending to an otherwise interesting quest.
The choice I had to make while searching for the urn was okay, but not universally good. In my search for the urn, I am given the option of defiling this sacred artifact and turning Leliana and Wynne against me in exchange for the Reaver specialization. Perhaps I would have cared if I were playing a Warrior, but since I was an elf mage, unlocking the Reaver meant nothing to me. If this quest had also offered me the chance at a few extra spell/talent points, I would have thought long and hard about my decision. The Desire Demon's choice was compelling for everyone, but the Urn's choice really only mattered for Warriors.
After dealing with the urn, I headed to Orzammar, where two choices awaited me, one of which was stupid and pointless, the other being black and white. The first one was to pick which dwarf I would support in his effort to become king. Honestly, they did not tell me enough about the two kings for me to care which one was placed on the throne, so I just sided with the old king's son. There are repercussions for this choice in the epilogue, but the game did a really poor job of letting me know the pros and cons of my decision. At the end of this quest line, you are confronted by the creator of the golem anvil and a female dwarf who wants to use it. I could either destroy the anvil, thus ensuring it can never again be used for its unique combination of murder and slavery, or I could betray my commitment to allowing life and freedom to flourish. My choice to destroy the Anvil was simple, made even easier by the knowledge that not destroying the anvil would cause Shale to leave the party. Other than the vaguely understood notion that golems would join my army in the final fight, I didn't really have any reason to keep the anvil.
Finally, we get to the final choice in the game, who lives and who dies. This in theory should have been awesome, much like in Mass Effect 2, but it ends up being disappointing and feeling cheap. To kill the Archdemon, you can either sacrifice yourself, sacrifice Alistair, or have sex with Morrigan. This choice was interesting in theory, but ultimately it was the most disappointing aspect of the game. Here's why; regardless of whether or not you impregnate Morrigan, she will leave you. Furthermore, if you are in a relationship with another character, that relationship is no way affected by this decision. I honestly expected Leliana to slap me after the final battle, but she doesn't even talk to me about it. She's not even aware that it occurred. The game makes it out to be this huge decision with unknown repercussions, but sleeping with Morrigan is literally a free pass. It might mean something in Dragon Age 2, but that doesn't excuse it from being a complete waste of my time in Dragon Age: Origins.
All things considered, the game had some of the best characters and choices in gaming, and the best villain. There were a few spots where the options felt like they didn't matter or were contrived, and BioWare really should tried to make every choice compelling for every. However, if you want to play a game that really forces you to care about its characters and its world, you can look no further than Dragon Age: Origins.
What we can take away from all this, assuming you stayed with me to the end, is that there is a formula that can be derived for designing choices in a game. I do not mean to say that game stories should be cookie-cutter copies of one another, but perhaps a list of guidelines should exist to help designers create compelling experiences. Such a list might look like this:
1) The choice should be more than just "good" or "bad", but if there is an "ideal" choice, it should be hard to execute, but still have some form of negative consequence.
3) Choices should be compelling regardless of what type of character you are playing.
4) There must be consequences for the choice either immediately or later in the game.
5) Players must be mostly or at least partially aware of either the immediate repercussions, the distant ones, or both. Surprises are good, but players should never be totally in the dark.
6) When a choice involves siding with one faction over another, the player should have legitimate reasons for his selection, but should still feel sympathy for the other side.
What else do you think belongs on the guidelines?
—by Jonathan Wilson