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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (367)

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Dragon Age: Origins   PlayStation 3 

Spiritual Successor to ‘Baldur’s Gate’? No.    3/5 stars

Dragon Age: Origins (Ultimate Edition)
“Spiritual Successor to ‘Baldur’s Gate’? More like ‘Icewind Dale.’”


Leading up to its release, “Dragon Age: Origins” (“DAO”) was hailed as the spiritual successor to one of the greatest RPG series ever created, the “Baldur’s Gate” Trilogy (and I call it a trilogy because “Baldur’s Gate” and “Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast” felt like one game, while “Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn” and “Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal” felt like distinct titles). Supposedly, after a too-long dalliance with shooters, BioWare, the Canadian company whose Infinity Engine powered “Baldur’s Gate” as well as some of the other greatest PC RPGs ever made, was getting back on track.

Presentation
“DAO” looks good. The environments are large and detailed, while the characters are semi-realistic/semi-cartoony and stand firmly on the near side of the Uncanny Valley. Everything in the game world is built from polygons covered in extremely nice-looking textures. One interesting piece of graphical flare is the option to turn on ‘persistent gore,’ which leaves characters covered in dynamic blood spatters after every melee. I was rather disappointed, however, at the large amount of pallet swapping used on weapons and armor. On the whole, “DAO” has the ‘look and feel’ of a darker, grittier “Neverwinter Nights 2.”

Unfortunately, the game also features a horrible camera that is obviously the inbred descendant of the camera from “Neverwinter Nights 2.” The camera in “DAO” is one of the game’s main sticking points and was a huge point of contention pre-release. Early on, it was announced that only the PC version of “DAO” would allow the camera to pull back into a full overhead point of view (like the Infinity Engine games), while the console version of the game would force the camera to remain third-person. This is the primary reason I went with the PC version of the game… which, after a comparison with the PS3 version, turns out to have been a mistake. The camera in the PC version is controlled by right-click-holding and moving the mouse around, while the zoom level is controlled with the mouse wheel. Of course, EVERYTHING in the PC version is done with right-clicking, which makes the camera rather awkward and frustrating to adjust. It also likes to collide with walls and ceilings, abruptly throwing off the player’s view of the game world. Even worse, when in overhead mode, the camera can’t stray more than a few meters from the active party member, removing any tactical utility that might have carried over from the Infinity Engine games. While the console versions’ camera doesn’t have as much diversity, it also doesn’t fail to deliver on tactical promises, plus it moves smoothly with the right analog stick, which is really all that matters once the classic perspective has been rendered unusable. It also allows the player to see all the fine graphical details that are lost when in overhead mode. Another way in which the console version offers a superior interface to the PC version is that the console version conspicuously marks all searchable pieces of scenery while the PC version only marks scenery that actually contains loot, making it tedious to find tiny interactive objects by sweeping the mouse back and forth across the screen.

The sound in “DAO” is sub-par. The PC version is relatively smooth, but the console version suffers from near-constant audio-stuttering. While the introductory song is quite good, it is also the only memorable piece of music in the game (aside from the bland battle theme). The rest of the game’s sound track is made up of subdued strings and ambient sounds.

The voiceacting is a mixed bag. While all of the recruitable characters and important NPCs have unique, character-filled voices and deliveries, there are plenty of unimportant NPCs that sound incredibly stiff and stilted. However, what really drags the voiceacting down is how slowly the characters speak their lines and how many unnecessary bits of speech are thrown in for no reason. While it is nice that subtitles are an option and there is a ‘skip dialog’ button, the game’s copious conversations become tedious rather quickly. I quickly grew tired of the overly-chatty dwarf merchant who insisted on making the same small talk every time I spoke to him when I just wanted to see his store! I see no reason why a fully-voiced game should include more unnecessary dialog than a partially-voiced or fully-text game.

On the technical side, “DAO” is kind of a mess. It freezes/crashes more than it should (I counted 17 times during my playthrough). There are also plenty of quests with strange bugs that either render them unfinishable or just screw with the player (like the bug in “Dragon Age: Awakening” that steals the main character’s equipment, but forgets to return it). While BioWare’s games have never been perfect, “DAO” is heading in the wrong direction with regard to testing and technical polish. It’s coming ominously close to Bethesda quality… even after all the patches!

Story
While all of BioWare’s Infinity Engine RPGs used licensed story material from extant Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings, “DAO” is set in an all-new, BioWare-created world. Sadly, this world is incredibly boring and generic, cribbing from J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings in painfully obvious ways. While it’s true that the Forgetten Realms setting also blatantly apes Middle Earth, at least Forgotten Realms has been around long enough that it has evolved its own sense of self. Forgotten Realms is unique in its derivativity, while the world of “DAO” is just boring. I don’t understand why BioWare felt the need to do the background and setting in-house, when there are plenty of other Dungeons & Dragons settings that they haven’t even touched. Al-Qadim, Birthright, Council of Wyrms, Dark Sun, DragonLance (a personal favorite), Greyhawk, Ravenloft, SpellJammer: These are all perfectly good intellectual properties that have never been used in a proper videogame RPG (banish all thoughts of the SSI Gold Box series being ‘proper’).

There are four main races in the world of “DAO,” with three – the standard human, elf, and dwarf – available as options for the main character. The fourth race, the qunari, are slightly unique in that they are a race of stoic, giant warriors (and one of them is recruitable as a party member). There is also a fifth race of obligatory ‘bad guys’ in the form of the darkspawn. The background exposition at the beginning of the game explains how some ancient mages grew too powerful for their own good and decided it would be a good idea to go into the Fade – a spirit-haunted ‘other side’ where most races’ souls go when they dream and where everyone’s souls go when they die – and take over the Golden Palace of The Maker (the game world’s take on a monotheistic god). Instead of gaining the powers of a god, however, these mages found their souls corrupted. When they were ejected from the Fade, they had transformed into mindless parodies of their former selves, which were dubbed ‘darkspawn.’ Darkspawn look and act very much like Middle Earth orcs. Also like orcs, darkspawn serve corrupted ancient gods (that aren’t elaborated upon very much in the story, which is a shame) and can only organize themselves into a cohesive army when lead by an Archdemon – the soul of an ancient god trapped in the corrupted body of a dragon (instead of the soul of an ancient god wearing a pointy crown and a magic ring). But because plain old orcs have been done to death (and everyone knows it), darkspawn have the addition of a zombie-like ability to infect non-darkspawn with a disease that eventually kills them or turns them into ghouls (though I only encountered ghouls once, and that was in the “Awakening” expansion). This disease is spread through contact with darkspawn blood, and also affects plants, blighting the land wherever darkspawn travel. Thus large movements of darkspawn lead by an Archdemon are creatively called ‘Blights.’

“Dragon Age: Origins” opens with news that a new Blight has begun. Each race/class combination available to the main character provides a unique origin story (hence the game’s title). I chose a human noble rogue (a devilishly handsome (read: hideously revolting) fop named Finkel, whose flaming red hair and nut-brown skin betrayed some kind of infidelity on behalf of his mother) and was treated to an opening story involving treachery among the various noble houses of the nation of Fereldin. At the end of this origin story, and all other origin stories, the main character in inducted into the Grey Wardens, an order of elite warriors who gain potency in battle against the darkspawn through a ritual known creatively as ‘The Joining.’

At this point, all main character story lines homogenize. The Wardens seem to have everything under control, as the King of Fereldin and the Wardens have gathered a massive army at the ruined city of Ostagar and plan to cut-off the Blight before it can even start. However, nothing ever goes as planned and yet MORE noble treachery results in a crushing loss and the loss of all the Grey Wardens except the main character and the wise-cracking Templar, Alistair.

Saved by a deus ex machine, the main character and Alistair must travel the nation seeking to cash-in old favors and rebuild the army in order to stop the Blight before it consumes all of Fereldin. There are numerous options available for the order in which to pursue allies, as well as the obligatory moral decisions which lead to minor variations in the way the story plays out. Once the player is done messing with alliances and side-quests, it’s time to face the Blight and kill the Archdemon.

None of the main character’s choices result in a drastically different ending, and this basic narrative structure is laid-out plainly within the first few hours of play. None of the mystery and gradual exposition of previous BioWare RPGs is present. Instead, the game just says, “Recruit these guys, kill these guys, go here, kill their leader, you win.” I was expecting a lot more than the predictable, by-the-books, combat-focused narrative I experienced.

The only thing that saves the story in “Origins” is the cast of recruitable characters. Each of them has a well-fleshed-out backstory and distinct personality. My personal favorites are the drunken dwarf, Oghren, and the incredibly camp golem, Shale (a downloadable bonus character).

Fortunately, the ‘Ultimate Edition’ of “DAO” includes the “Dragon Age: Awakening” (“Awakening”) expansion pack as well as 4 separate DLC stories. Where “Origins” falls short in story, “Awakening” takes up the slack.

Set several months after the conclusion of “Origins,” “Awakening” sees the player’s main character promoted to Warden Commander of Fereldin and assigned to Vigil’s Keep, a newly acquired fortress granted to the Grey Wardens by the new King. Despite the death of the Archdemon and lack of a new Archdemon, the darkspawn left over after the Blight have been behaving in an organized manner. Some rumors have even spread that the darkspawn have become sentient and have learned to speak. It’s up to the Commander of Vigil’s Keep to fortify the Keep, refill the Grey Warden roster with new recruits, and investigate the mysterious behavior of the darkspawn. While this story is much shorter than “Origins,” it has much better pacing and is a lot more interesting. However, because the story is shorter, there’s less time for character development and the new characters (only one character from “Origins” returns) don’t feel as fleshed-out. Regardless, I’d rather play through an engaging story for 30 hours than a boring one for 90.

Finally, I’d like to mention the 4 DLC stories. Each of them lasts for approximately 1 hour, and all of them are terrible. I can’t believe that these things are going for $7 as individual purchases! The only reason to play through these turkeys is the powerful bonus equipment that can be unlocked in the “Origins” and “Awakening” games by earning achievements/trophies in these add-ons. Of the four stories, only one (“Witch Hunt”) is a continuation of the main story; one (“Leliana’s Song”) provides backstory for one of the characters in “Origins;” one (“Darkspawn Chronicles”) offers an alternate history look at the end of “Origins” if the main character had died during their origin story; and one (“Golems of Amgarrak”) is just meant to be ‘challenging’ (and it achieves this goal by providing a cast of allied characters who have impossibly-low stats and abilities for their level, making them utterly useless – I had to solo the entire thing with Finkel).

Gameplay
“DAO” shares many gameplay mechanics with BioWare’s old Infinity Engine games. Combat is mock-real-time with the ability to pause at any time to issue orders, characters gain levels by earning experience (either in battle or by reading informative codices), conversations progress through dialog trees with multiple branches, and an automatic journal keeps track of all currently-active and completed quests and story arcs. However, “DAO” seems to rejoice in its break from Dungeons & Dragons and features numerous changes, some for the better, many for the worse.

The leveling system in “DAO” is quite a bit different from any edition of Dungeons & Dragons and incorporates some aspects from games like “Diablo.” While it was a bad decision on the part of BioWare to limit to active party to 4 characters, they softened the blow by allowing the player to recruit all available characters but leave most of them at the party camp. Camping characters share experience with active characters, so they never run the risk of falling horribly behind due to lack of use. There are only three playable classes in “DAO”: Warrior, Rogue, and Mage. To add a bit of diversity, each class has 4 specializations (6 in the expansions) to choose from at specific levels. The problem with specializations, however, is that only 2 of them for each class are worthwhile and all of them need to be unlocked (either by pumping a friendly character or info or reading an expensive manual) before they can be chosen. Even worse, the second worthwhile Mage specialization is only available in the expansions. The “Diablo” influence on the leveling system is really only appropriate for an RPG of the ‘hack ‘n slash’ sub-genre and feels out of place. At each level-up, a character receives 3 points to increase their basic stats and one point to learn a class ability. In addition, at different level intervals (these vary by class), the character gains 1 point to spend on a skill (such as lock-picking, coercion, etc.). Why is this bad? Because of the constant stat-bumping, equipment has minimum statistic requirements for use and comes in an array of different materials that become available as the characters rise through the ranks. It is very annoying to spend money on a complete set of ‘Leather Armor (Cured)’ only to discover that I should have waited a few minutes to buy ‘Leather Armor (Leather)’ or a few more minutes to buy ‘Leather Armor (Inscribed).’ And why does my dexterity need to be better to equip ‘Inscribed’ armor over ‘Cured’ armor? They are all leather! These aren’t magical or special pieces of gear, they’re just minor upgrades meant to keep a grind treadmill moving… which makes no sense in a game like “DAO” in which grinding is impossible due to the game’s finite number of enemies.

Instead of the old weight-based individual inventory system, the entire party of characters now shares one big inventory pool, which is based on total number of items carried, ignoring item weight (thus it is possible to carry 100 rings OR 100 battle axes in the same bag, or even 100 stacks of 99 healing items). While this may seem silly and abstract, it is a great improvement over the old system and requires much less time spent micromanaging bags of treasure. The party inventory can be further expanded by purchasing the limited number of backpacks sold throughout the game world. Unfortunately, there are very few places in the game where the player can drop items from the inventory, meaning that players with full inventories, instead of dropping a pile of loot and coming back for it later, must destroy low-value items to make room for new items. Of course, running out of inventory space is rarely a problem, as enemies in “DAO” drop an incredibly stingy amount of loot. Upon killing a darkspawn emissary, I would expect to be able to loot him of his magic staff, full set of leather armor, and a bit of coin. Instead, this enemy would usually just drop the coins, which makes no sense when I can SEE the equipment on his corpse. It’s much like the stingy loot in “Icewind Dale,” whereupon defeating a group of enemies armed with +5 magical greatswords and +5 magical platemail, the player would be awarded with a potion of healing from each foe.

This stinginess permeates the entire game world economy. Since there are a finite number of foes to fight in the game and each drops a pittance of treasure, it is not possible to buy all of the best equipment in the game (all of which comes from item shops, not fallen enemies, and none of which can be stolen). While it may look like the game is providing enough cash early on in the game when enemies are dropping tens of copper pieces, it is not until the player realizes that good equipment costs hundreds of GOLD pieces that the futility of saving money becomes truly apparent. There are 100 coppers in 1 silver and 100 silvers in 1 gold. Thus 1 gold is 10,000 coppers. I managed to collect about 500 gold during my playthrough, which is an incredibly low amount, especially when taking into account the game’s crafting system and its expensive recipes. It’s more cost effective to just make do with found expendable items than to bother crafting them.

Another positive change added in “DAO” is the fact that characters no longer ‘die’ when reduced to 0 HP, but are K.O.’ed instead. In the Infinity Engine games, any character dying meant reloading the last save (until late in the game when resurrection magic would become available). In “DAO,” a ‘dead’ character groggily crawls to their feet at the end of the battle with an ‘injury.’ There are a variety of injuries, each of which gives the injured character a different penalty. Injuries persist until the player returns to the party camp or uses an injury kit (an expendable healing item) on the injured character. Characters also rapidly regenerate their health and stamina/magic when outside of combat. While I really liked the injury system and regenerating health, I can’t help but think these things were implemented primarily to compensate for the fact that there is no equivalent to the Dungeons & Dragons Cleric (i.e., a durable healer) available in the game. Instead, Mages handle all of the damage dealing and healing magic.

Speaking of Mages, they are absolutely broken in “DAO,” mostly because of their ability to cast an unlimited number of spells; resting to relearn spells is no longer required. They are so overpowered that the ideal party of characters is 1 Rogue and 3 Mages. Warriors are absolutely useless in “DAO,” and can be outfought by Rogues, pet dogs, and gender-confused golems. In fact, the only thing keeping Mages even slightly balanced is the fact that they can’t just pick-and-choose spells from their skill list, but must build-up to better spells by taking all of the earlier spells of a given type. While it is annoying to be required to waste a spell slot on ‘flaming weapons’ in order to learn ‘fireball,’ I can at least see where the developers were going with this decision. Of course, it also means that players will almost never experiment with most of the spells available.

In the PC version of “DAO,” the Infinity Engine style of combat remains largely untouched. There is a customizable strip of icons along the bottom of the screen for quick-use, and hitting the spacebar pauses the action but still allows the player to input commands, which will be executed once the game is unpaused. The console version actually improves on this old combat engine while keeping it largely the same. There is a controller button that both pauses the game and brings up a circular menu of commands/options, while still allowing the player to switch characters and declare targets while the action is paused. Instead of a quick-bar, the console version features 2 sets of 3 quick-slots that can be switched by holding a button. Activating any command that requires aiming a cone or blast radius also pauses the game and allows the player to position the area of effect at their leisure. It’s clear that a lot of work went into designing and testing this console interface to make it as smooth and intuitive as possible, while the PC interface was just copied from older games and slapped into place: Against all of my expectations, the console version of the battle system works well. Of course, the console version also seems to be a bit easier, but that may be because I had already completed the PC version before testing the console version.

Unfortunately, both the PC and console versions of the game feature major combat flaws. One of the worst is that melee characters almost always ignore commands to pursue and attack a moving target. Another major flaw is that the game’s programmable AI, called ‘Tactics’ and notably similar to the ‘Gambit’ system in “Final Fantasy 12,” can and will interrupt manual commands. I had to disable Tactics completely to prevent my allies from being stupid and not listening to me. The battle system also focuses entirely too much on special moves with cooldown timers (even non-combat moves have cooldowns, which makes pickpocketing once every 10 seconds extremely tedious). While I do know that the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons has started to move in this direction, the main inspiration behind the inclusion of this type of battle system in “DAO” is obviously “World of Warcraft.” While the Infinity Engine games were fully turn-based and tried to hide the turns behind a constant flow of action, “DAO” pushes dangerously close to real-time combat, replacing ‘turns’ with ‘seconds.’ The end result is a game that can be frustratingly difficult early on, before characters have learned many special moves, but becomes pathetically easy toward the end. Isn’t that the opposite of how RPG difficulty curves are supposed to go?

Overall
“Dragon Age: Origins” is a sorry excuse for a spiritual successor to “Baldur’s Gate.” Instead, it’s a combat-heavy, story-light bit of fluff that is more reminiscent of the mediocre “Icewind Dale” and its sequel. Despite a few overall improvements to the gameplay systems and higher production values, there’s not enough here to provide more than a mediocre experience to fans of BioWare’s earlier work. The Ultimate Edition is, however, a decent value at $30, and it’s not like there are a plethora of other, similar new games to choose from. “Awakening” alone is enough to justify the purchase price, though the presence of online-activation DRM in the PC version will assuredly lead to headaches in the future. Despite my initial stance, I would recommend the console version, even to PC purists.

Presentation: 3/5

Story:
Origins: 3/5
Awakening: 4.5/5
Leliana’s Song: 3/5
Darkspawn Chronicles: 1/5
Golems of Amgarrak: 0.5/5
Witch Hunt: 1.5/5

Gameplay: 3/5

Overall (not an average): 3/5

 

 


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