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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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?)
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.”
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.
I’ll let Penny Arcade say it:
… a heaping ladle of weaksauce, there.
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.