Dragon Age: Origins — Like An Alcoholic Parent

Dragon Age: Origins is like a drunken parent.

When times are good — times are really good. Lots of laughs and presents and love, all warming you with the hypnotic wash of whiskey breath.

When times are bad — boy, they suck. It’s all rage and thrown furniture and grotesque shame, all hidden behind a drying cake of beer vomit.

My opinions of Dragon Age — which I played on the Xbox 360 — are thus a wildly swinging pendulum. So many high points. So many low points.

The Opening Caveat

Actually, I’ve got quite a few, so buckle up.

First, I’m not a huge fan of fantasy. Like with any genre, when it’s good, it’s good. I’ll read a romance novel and enjoy it if it’s good — fantasy, though, feels too often like a derivative genre, and so much of it is, “Seen this before.” The shame of it is, fantasy is one of the widest playing fields in terms of potential content and originality, but most times, it just burps and throws up on itself while half-slumbering in the recliner. It’s content in derivative mediocrity. Like with anything, when it’s done well, it’s done well. I do still like fantasy at times. Both Morrowind and Oblivion are easily two of my Most Favoritest Games, ever. Ultima, too.

Second, I bought this game on the 360, which apparently is the Least Awesome Version of this game. So I’m told, anyhow.

Third, I apparently chose one of the weaker openings? Mage? Elf? I dunno.

Fourth, I’m a very impatient person. Keep this in mind.

Fifth and finally, I recognize that my opinions are out-of-step with the larger body of opinion on this game. I’m not trying to tell you not to enjoy this game, nor am I trying to poo-poo your experiences or limit them in any way. If you enjoyed it? High-five. Dragon Age: Origins is not your mother, and my insults to it will not be on par with me calling your mother a “grimy, cock-hungry slime-strumpet.”

Moving on.

The Kick-Ass

The Characters

Your companions might be the best characters in a video game. That might be hyperbole — I’m not really examining it overmuch, and it’s possible that with but a lance of a pin that illusion would pop. Still, hyperbole aside, these are compelling, captivating characters. They’re built on nuance. They aren’t so easily examined — “Oh, he’s a virtuous dude,” “Oh, she’s an evil witch twat.” Just when you think you’ve got ‘em pegged and think you know how they’ll react to your choices, they go and do something completely different. Yet, in retrospect, something completely in line with their character.

So, let me be clear: these characters are the single reason I continued playing this game. They’re what got me through the tough times, like when Drunk Daddy wanted to shackle me to the radiator and bitch about Mommy. I loved the ambient conversations (though for some reason they always came up just as I was about to exit one area and move to another, so I’d have to hang out by the door and listen to them), I loved the choices, I loved their individual stories, I loved their look, love love love.

Okay, the love ain’t universal — there’s always the Sten Factor to consider. Sten is the equivalent of an ATM machine or lamppost that follows you around. He’s dull as shit. Monotone. Big. Not a really intense story (though it has a few moments). I think the dog has more character.

That said? You gotta love the War Dog. (Best name I saw for him, as per Penny Arcade: “Barkspawn”) War Dog is tough. Eventually, I replaced him with Shale, because Shale talks and has story.

The Choices

You have lots of choices in this game, and they’re actually meaningful. It’s a revelation. Most affect the story in a small (yet interesting) way, but some affect it in a “big damn hammer” way. I won’t spoil it by listing such choices, but know that throughout you are offered meaningful ways to manipulate the story up to and through the end.

The other nice thing is, these choices aren’t “good” or “evil.” You have an array of gray area choices, with many of them offering outcomes on par with a Pyrrhic Victory. In other games, the choices are eerily polar, as many have noted (“Help the old woman get rid of rats!” or “Hollow out the old woman of her internal organs and use her body as a shuffling puppet while you deliver a moving truck of drugged-up pre-schoolers to your Lord and Master, Satan Almighty!”), but not in this sucker. In DA:O, the choices are fascinating and sometimes scary as fuck. I often had to gently lift my jaw off the floor. (“The game will let me… do that?”)

The game’s pretty brutal at times, too. I appreciate it. That said, some have claimed its mature themes and use of blood is original — those people did not play the Ultima series starting with Ultima VI and VII. Those games were dark, and pretty blood-soaked.

For the record, were someone to bring back the Ultima series away from its MMO bullshit, I would buy it. I would buy a hundred copies. I would make love to all of those copies.

The Dwarves

On the surface (er, pun not intended), the dwarves aren’t anything fresh. Short dudes. Big beards. They drink. They live underground. They work the forges. Snore.

Dig deeper beneath the surface (no, really, pun not intended, shut up), and the dwarves are fucking awesome.

The entire dwarven story geeked me out. I loved every minute of it. It felt like they really played with the culture, and put you smack in the middle of a very interesting “civil war” with some really intense choices. It was the most impactful part of the game, and part of that is because they had a rich and nuanced society down below in Ordzammar.

If I do play through the game again (answer unclear, ask again later), I’d play me a goddamn dwarf. I bet it will be awesome.

The Elves

The elves get a somewhat more radical overhaul, in that they’re treated as slaves and serfs, and are further the subject of racism. It’s a nice hook, and keeps them from being the Weird Mystical Beautiful Beings you see so often… erm, that is, until you get to the Dalish Elves, which end up essentially being the Weird Mystical Beautiful Beings. I kind of wish they didn’t do that? Like, maybe they just kept our experience with the elves bound to the Denerim Alienage? So it goes. They get points for trying.

Magic

A small point, but the magic in the game was interesting enough. I don’t know that it was super-compelling, nor was it a system born of intense originality, but it worked. It was easy to understand, it gave me nice variety, and blood magic (which I did not choose as a path, mind) is a nice hook.

Oh, The Fade on the other hand, sucked the air out of the mage story. Nice idea. Not a great execution.

The Little Stories

This ties back to the characters, perhaps, but all throughout, the smaller stories really got me. The Redcliffe stories, the guy who wants to open a Chantry in Ordzammar, Flemeth, the War Dog… lots of smaller stories that really made the tale come alive for me.

Hell, the Branka storyline blew me away. It was the first time in the game where I really grokked why the Darkspawn were a threat. All that business about the Broodmother and eating the dark flesh and Branka’s madness at the Anvil of the Void. Holy shit, crazy. Brave, weird, creative stuff. (Unfortunately, I played Ordzammar late, so half my playthrough I saw the Darkspawn as just a dumb “monster threat” ripped off of countless other tales. They really needed to hit that point harder throughout the entire game, in my opinion.)

The Moist, Open Ass

The Codex

Justin Achilli called it, and so I won’t go deep into it.

But fuck, I do not want to read books on my television.

Incorporate it organically, or leave it the hell out. Every time I turned around I found a new book that added to an increasingly useless library. Is that what I want to be doing? Let’s examine the choice: you could a) Run around and kill Darkspawn and be awesome, or you could b) Sit with your nose pressed against a television reading books on the screen about boring fantasy bullshit.

Mmm. Yeah. No.

I like books.

I just don’t want them in my console video game.

Sorry.

Combat

Fill a box with starving cats.

Shake the box.

Upend the box and let the cats all run out, willy-nilly.

You have now seen how combat plays out on the console version of DA:O.

I’d rather pass a fistful of gravel through my entire intestine than play the combat in this game on anything above casual.

I’ve got so many issues with the combat in this game, I don’t even know where to begin. It hurts me. It hurts Baby Jesus. It hurts us all.

Okay, first, thanks, Bioware, for not actually explaining everything about combat. I had a friend tell me things about combat I didn’t know when I was already halfway through the game. I didn’t learn about Tactics, or how to use them properly, for quite a while. Every other goddamn game gives you a robust (and sometimes even interesting!) tutorial. Wherezuh? Wuzza? I want my tutorial. I’m not reading the postcard manual that came with the game. That postcard is half-a-dick worthless.

Hell, on some of the load or transition screens, they’d offer “hints!” and some of these “hints!” were actually “essential motherfucking information!” about combat.

Second, the combat is inconsistently difficult. Anything above Casual was a fist to my balls. A fight with like, four brain-damaged Blight Wolves could go south in a half-second. Man, even on casual I had a few teeth-gritting controller-throwing moments. We were traversing the map one time and got stuck in a random encounter, and it was a bunch of jerkfaced nobodies we were fighting, and they owned us 10 seconds into the battle. Like, wham. Corpses! Us! Shit. And this leads to my next issue…

Third, load times. I got into the habit of saving after every successful fight (a slow process in and of itself), but that’s only made more frustrating because the load times were painful. You die in a fight, you then sit there while the game grinds and does simple math and takes a nap and eats some chips and takes another nap and — oh! We’re back! Combat again. And… we’re dead? We’re dead again? And we’re loading. And we’re loading. Aaaaand we’re looooaaaading. *gun in mouth*

Since combat is a huge portion of the game, I really wanted some strategy, and I wanted a robust combat experience. What I got was a bag full of anger and syphilis. Hate hate hate. Haaaate. (This is similar to my experiences with Mass Effect. Another great game ruined by God-fucked combat systems. C’mon, Bioware, really?)

The Skills

Half the skills seemed pretty useless to me.

That’s really all I’m saying. Traps? Potions? Crafting? Ehhh. I guess. This might be a personal preference, because I don’t think many games do this well outside of MMOs.

Items and Inventory

The items and inventory in this game were not fun to deal with. I don’t know what it is about games that constantly want me to do things that Aren’t Fun, since games should be Maximum Fun All The Time. Do you really think I want to micromanage my inventory? Got any spreadsheets I can do in the meantime? Maybe Morrigan needs me to shovel some snow? Or… is it time to do Alistair’s taxes?

It’d be one thing if the inventory items were interesting, and were born of nuance. Not a lot of nuance to be found, though. Pretty dull, and most of the armor and weapons look pretty boring, nor do they have flashy effects. I felt like every hour was lengthened by, “Oh, another four shitbark crossbows, three dwarf-dick axes, five tinfoil helms, an infinity of ‘deep mushrooms’ — whatever they are. I have to sell this stuff or I have to move to the junk folder and then destroy the junk and then… ZZZZzzz.”

Halfway through the game, I had the max weapons and armor for my companion peeps.

That means, for the second half, I basically found nothing new or interesting in regards to my inventory. That is not fun.

Oh! And stupid goddamn locked chests. It feels like zero thought went into making locked doors and locked chests interesting. Listen, you keep something behind a locked door, I’m forced to think, “It must be awesome; who locks away boring shit?” (Will is fond of bringing up the Thief series of games — that’s a series that made you appreciate the fantasy convention of people keeping Awesome Shit Locked Away.) But here? In DA:O? How often did I pick a locked door, behind which is a locked chest, inside which is like, a Deep Mushroom and a dog treat? Further, you can pick a chest’s lock and steal crap from people even when they’re standing right in front o you! For a game obsessed with choice and consequence, this is a silly stumble to make.

And, and! The game further default to that silly old game convention of, “Hey, I just killed a wolf or a bear, and… the bear has a bunch of coins and a dagger? Seriously? Does the wolf have an MP3 player? I could use an MP3 player.”

The Graphics

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

I hate brown in video games.

The world around us is home to many colors.

Further, this is a fantasy world. I’d like it to come alive. Even if most things are brown, please choose a few dashes of color and paint some bold strokes. Please? Please? Otherwise, everything feels like it’s smeared with a handful of baby shit and Vaseline.

The game wasn’t universally dull — despite its earth tones, I think Ordzammar really felt like a fantasy kingdom — but overall, blergh. My eyes were sad most times.

The World Itself

In games like Ultima, Elder Scrolls and Fallout, you are privy to open worlds. Even way back in Ultima, it would take me a while to get to, say, Skara Brae from Yew — and that made the world feel big. It felt comprehensive. It felt alive.

With Oblibion and Morrowind (and Fallout), I really got a sense of the world simply by walking it. It made me a feel a part of time and place.

Further, in all those games, I see a building? I can go inside it. Door locked? Pick it! Smash it! Sure, it’s somebody’s house, but often the items felt tailored to those people — dresses and dolls and weathered blades. And if you enter someone’s house when they’re home or you steal their shit? Hey, surprise surprise, they attack! Or they call guards!

Dragon Age forgets all that. It feels like a small world, and outside some snow here or a forest there, it feels alarmingly homogeneous. I don’t have to walk everywhere. Denerim is basically just several small instances that feel mostly dead. Haven’t we gotten to the point where we can have the other characters… moving around? Instead, they all just stand there, dead-eyed. In Oblivion, which came out years ago, people move around. They have routines. Hell! They had routines in Ultima! They’d close up shops!

No day and night cycle?

Nobody cares that I’m in their house, stealing their shit?

The only people moving are a handful of children?

Major let-down to me. I know earlier I knock fantasy a little bit, but the one thing that is captivating about a fantasy world is seeing it come alive.

Here, I see it birthed stillborn on a dirty wooden floor.

DLC

I’ll let Penny Arcade say it:

… a heaping ladle of weaksauce, there.

Conclusions!

You might think, “Gosh, Chuck really hates this game.”

I don’t! I don’t.

But the game wildly vacillates between A-plus and F-minus for me. And that drives me nuts. I go through Ordzammar or Redcliffe and I feel bold and adventuresome and I believe I’m making captivating decisions, but then I’m doing the Circle of Magi quests or the Dalish elf quests, and I mostly want to snooze. I make great choices, I feel powerful. I get caught in combat with a bunch of Darkspawn, I feel stupid.

The game, like a drunken parent, loves me and hates me with equal measure.

The game reaches for greatness, and falls short. It mostly makes me want to play Ultima or Elder Scrolls again.

22 comments

  • Spot on. Mass Effect was entirely murdered for me by the combat system, team tactics, and equipment micromanagement sucking all the fun and playability out of it. I had hopes that Dragon Age would have learned its lesson, and it has somewhat, but there’s still too much. I want interesting decisions in my combat when playing the dude I made, not annoying decisions of what amulet to put on the girl who the game made.

    That said, I’m still working my way through the game, and there are enough things that I love to keep my going (my girlfriend made the correct decision to play a Dwarf noble in terms of background story) that I plan to play it through, but man, if only some more time had been spent making it a fun game instead of just a good story.

    • I may have to try the dwarf noble, just to see.

      But yes — I wish it was a better *game* rather than an awesome choose-your-own-adventure story.

      – c.

  • I purchased the PC version. Because I’m smart.

    Anyway, while the graphics and combat are improved in my super-shiny version in comparison to your bucket of weaksauce you have there, I have similar complaints about the codex, DLC and the size of the world. In Fallout 3, I spent a lot of time trudging from place to place just to get somewhere I wanted to go. I could fast-travel afterwards, sure, but before I mapped the place, it felt HUGE. It really helped with the immersion.

    Even Mass Effect, where you’re in a ship that goes faster than the speed of light, feels bigger than Dragon Age: Origins. That being said, I really need to finish my first play-through. Then start a new one. Or two.

    …I want to know the stories, all right?

  • Funny you should say what you have.

    I am half-way through my second full playthrough (my actual second playthrough fell victim to a game-changing glitch,) and I can’t bring myself to finish it. The load times are killing me. Yesterday, leaving a shop in Orzamar, I changed a baby diaper and got a drink in the time it took to load. On my way to my next mission, I had to load three more times. Mind you: My PC is not weak. I set it to the lowest graphical settings so I could nix a little load time.

    Gah.

    So last night, I started playing Oblivion again.

    • That’s the thing, David — I hear you about PC issues. You never really know in terms of a PC game what you’re getting. Mind you, this can provide a much better experience than what’s on consoles, but… it also might go the other way. I have a rock-ass PC, and Fallout 3 on it (when it doesn’t crash) is prettier, but faaaar slower than what I get on the 360.

      So, you can’t win for losing with some games.

      And, Josh, yes — the world feels small, and as such, not very dangerous or interesting. Fallout 3 — it’s gray/brown palette choice aside (it’s at least appropriate there, if hard on the eyes and soul) really felt evocative and dangerous. I felt like I was charting a course through dangerous land, because that’s exactly what I was doing.

      Man, my fingers are too cold to type.

      – c.

  • Also with Fallout, there’s a green wash over everything, which is thematically appropriate.

    Once, on the PC version, I removed the green wash. It didn’t feel like the same game.

  • So, even if you don’t want to do a full playthrough, it’s totally worth it to try the other intros. Some are stronger than others – the Dalish elf one is…as exciting as everything else related to the dalish elves, but the others are worth a see.

    I bought the DLC and found it fun, but I also think it’s only part of the equation. Bioware’s been good abotu handign out free DLC right and left – I start play with a stack of magic items from where I ordered, from playing with the character builder, and from playing their online flash game. That’s pretty sweet.

    Beyond that I have no real disagreement – I think we differ somewhat on where tolerances fall for some of this. I actually dug combat once I got the hang of it, but I also got a tutorial in tactics from, well, Final Fantasy XII, so that’s not so useful.

    Actually, except the fade. I dug it. Bioware managed to hit my sweet spot for interesting vs. “Oh God What A Giant Fucking Puzzle” though I suspect the fact that the rewards were fantastic played into that.

    -Rob D.

    • Mister Rob D:

      I do think that the dwarf noble intro is calling to me. I may play through the others, just for giggles, before I trade ‘er in.

      The DLC… my issue isn’t that it exists, it’s that I see a quest bubble above a dude’s head, I go to him, I *talk to him* for minutes on end, he talks about a quest, I get jazzed *about* said quest, and boom! Like in the comic, “Hey, would you like to buy some DLC now? Mood balloon, erupted!”

      – c.

  • I picked it up on PC, and all in all I really dug it. Not sure how combat works on the 360, but it seems like it would be a hassle. I usually let the npcs do what they want, and pause the game now and then to redirect things or to bust out Morrigan’s Sleep/Waking Nightmare combo at the start of a fight.

    I honestly never read the Codex. I figure if it’s important, the game will tell me. Stuff pops up, and I just ignore it.

    The DLC quest giver in camp is super annoying, especially if you talk to him and then have the stupid quest sitting in your quest log taunting you.

    Really, my only problem with the game was there were a couple of times I felt the dialogue options left out and obvious response, typically the one I really wanted to do. That and how stupid the helmets look on everyone.

    (On the other hand, I never got Oblivion, and played Morrowind for about 15 minutes before deciding I did not care and did not have time.)

  • There was so much of this game I loved, and so much of it I hated. Coming from a strong MMO background (I can’t believe I just fucking said that, like somehow this qualifies me to be President or a jizz-mopper), there were so many problems I had with it that became a migraine-invoking nightmare.

    Keep in mind, I -loved- this game. I had sex with it and didn’t tell my wife, only to come home one day and find her plugging it also.

    The Codex, The Fade, the insanely boring elves (not the slave ones), the god damn loading times… and I played it on PC. I can’t imagine not having the camera controls you have on PC and fighting a dead hooker, much less the ultimate evil in the world. I actually did like the combat, but more for the nostalgia. It was like playing Baldur’s Gate/Torment/Icewind Dale for me again, two series and one game that I really less than three’d.

    Not being able to really explore the world did kill it for me in a major way. When I found out you couldn’t free explore, I was seriously shocked. I didn’t know that games even came that way anymore. It seemed just lazy: Bioware knows they could have put in a full world, and Jesus Fucking Amway, they delayed the game enough times that I thought Duke Nukem Forever was going to beat it to the shelves. What were they doing with all that extra time? Mussing up Alistair’s hair? Checking the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Guidebook for more crap to put in Morrigan’s mouth?

    I will definitely keep playing the game and it’s DLC, but holy crap those things just got to me.

    Also – Dwarves that don’t sound like Billy Connelly is getting blown by Ewan McGregor for the win.

  • I enjoyed the game. Some of the choices on offer literally made me stand up and walk away for five minutes to think about the repercussions of that choice.

    That’s the sign of something special.

    I’d have liked more of a Sandbox feel (like Fallout 3) but I feel like I got my money’s worth from DA. At some point, I’ll revisit.

    However, once I was about halfway through the game, I went back and played out the other five character backgrounds. I’m glad I did.

  • I played it. 30 hours later, I finished it. I put it back in its Gamefly envelope and sent it back. Again, just about everything you’ve said here I agree with (though I might do a separate review, just ’cause).

  • Just curious, has anyone else had the “hyped” game problem? The last 4 games i bought that “everyone” loved have totally blown really mean wardogs. Fallout 3 was the exception for me but Dragon Age is so far a strikeout. I have no idea how to manage characters, i read the manual, set up the tactics and watched everyone fall over dead anyways. What’s a newb to the tactical rpg to do?

  • even with high difficultly it is no problem to play the game. IF you play the secound time, play on max difficultly, otherwise it will be too easy, thats my opinion

  • One of the more entertaining reviews I’ve read in sometime. Additionally I would say your pretty much spot on with everything you’ve said. EXCEPT… I completely disagree with playing on casual as it makes combat an absolute bore fest. It essentially makes all your decision making in regard to weaponry, armor, spells and everything else I can think of just plain pointless. Hit X once and watch your forces mow everything and everyone down in a matter of seconds. While I’m not exactly a hardcore RPG fan I was able to play on normal and get a firm test but fair test and at least game me the illusion that my choices had a direct effect on whether I won or lost a fight. That said I did have to turn the final battle down to casual after failing 12 times just in time before my controller was being readied to be thrown through the wall. All in all though a great review.

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