Dragon Age far from flawless

December 22, 2009

I’m finding Dragon Age: Origins to be more than a little hard to swallow.  According to the in-game ‘heroic accomplishments’ character screen, I’m no more than 25% through the game, and that’s after having spent a significant (for me) 45 hours playing it.  Compare that with a total of 48 hours immersed in the thoroughly addictive Batman: Arkham Asylum, accounting for nearly two completions of the main campaign (I say “nearly” after having had my will broken by Poison Ivy on hard difficulty the second time round) and who knows how many spare hours honing my arm and leg breaking skills against thugs in the challenge mode.

Arkham Asylum’s thrilling combination of well paced story, stunning graphics, and above all perhaps the finest stealth and melee combat mechanics of all time, had me addicted from the moment I escorted the Joker through the asylum gates, so 48 hours spent is no surprise.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m now having to force myself to return to Dragon Age, and it’s pretty clear to me why this is the case.

Most reviewers have commented on Dragon Age’s ball crushing difficulty—that while some fights are certainly doable, some are a slither away from impossible.  This is true, but I would say of my own experience that, if anything, the doable encounters are few and far between, and that the majority either tax me to the upper extent of my skill (honed in Bioware’s spiritual predecessor Baldur’s Gate II) or venture far beyond it.

The fact is that I’m struggling to cope with most battles on normal difficulty (the setting which Bioware describe in-game as “the recommended setting for players familiar with role-playing games”).  And when things get too tough for me to handle (which they frequently do), I find myself forced to switch over to easy difficulty on the fly.  Of course this means that in an instant, all my enemies are left crippled shambling wrecks of their former selves, unable to withstand any of my attacks and incapable of causing me any lasting harm.  I annihilate them in short order.  Normal in Dragon Age is more or less equivalent to veteran (inducing spasms of rage) in Call of Duty 4, and easy is akin to recruit (shooting blind one-legged ducks with a lascannon).

I’ve no doubt that you’ll find plenty of support amongst the loyal fanbase for the simple philosophy that if you’re finding a game too difficult, taking the difficulty down a notch is the correct and obvious way to go.  With respect to most games I would certainly agree, but in Dragon Age I think we can all identify something more than a simple case of players (myself included) trying to punch above their weight.  The divide between the two settings is colossal.  I don’t need an easy setting that caters to Bioware RPG virgins; I need an easy setting that shaves some of the ridiculous punishment off of normal, or a normal which has a somewhat less psychotic effect.  As it is, I’m left feeling unsure about what I’m achieving whenever I switch—did I really beat that elf mage, or am I just a slimy cheater?  And of course this is a huge immersion breaker—you can forget about feeling like an inspiring hero battling the oncoming blight when you’re exiting to the options menu every five minutes.

Furthermore, comparisons between Dragon Age and its futuristic brother, Mass Effect, are inevitable. And in this I can identify only a few areas, mostly unimportant, where Dragon Age does a better (or at least better suited for my palette) job.  The interface—more specifically, the inventory screen—is light years ahead of Mass Effect’s clumsy, console-ported mess.  Some item type filter options and radial buttons go a long way toward making organisation of loot (of which there is a metric crap tonne) less irritating.

Control over your party is also infinitely more precise.  Whereas Mass Effect’s combat revolves around the player character in a more frenetic shooter mode (your other two NPC party members in tow), Dragon Age takes the more strategic high road with an emphasis on command of the individual actions of the whole group.  This is, admittedly, about how one chooses to play the games—Dragon Age has a sophisticated engine for AI tactics built in, so you don’t necessarily have to bother with micro management—but the strengths and weaknesses of the gameplay mechanics in each game certainly steer the player down one way or the other.

Gameplay aside, Mass Effect clearly has the edge for me when it boils down to the core story, characters, and dialogue.  The cultural atmosphere of Ferelden—Dragon Age’s high fantasy setting—is almost surreal compared with the more familiar (or at least more identifiable) politically charged galaxy in its sci-fi cousin.  Much of this is accounted for by an awkward schism between the main quest line and the wealth of less important side quests that run along side – sadly an estabished RPG trope.

From the outset, the message that the oncoming darkspawn (orc) invasion is a threat to all humanity is made very clear, but apart from a select few, no one in the world seems to care much about their doom.  Travel to the capital city, Denerim, and instead of a medieval metropolis alive with activity, you’re greeted by a quaint little market and no more than a dozen merchants, all chiefly concerned with the running of their paltry excuses for businesses.  Most of the other citizens are absorbed in petty social occurrences and other assorted matters of no importance at all.  And all this takes place amidst a constant bombardment of religious and superstitious prattle.  Mass Effect largely dodged this awkwardness by minimizing the number of side quests and making the main threat secretive rather than overt – an ancient enemy biding its time to strike.

A strong cast, in tune with the demands of voice acting for a fantasy RPG, might have helped a great deal, but for whatever reason personal conversations with members of your party are rarely anything but dull.  Most of the banter ranges from general background topics, such as “How did you become a Grey Warden?”, to more particular reminiscences along the lines of “Why did you want to leave the Crows, exactly?”  These almost always yield very little genuinely interesting backstory, which is a symptom of how shallow and lacking in emotional depth the personalities of the NPCs are.

The stunningly lackluster Leliana, a bard of Orlesian (Dragon Age’s French) origin, is a perfect example of Bioware’s failure in this area.  Half of her conversation paths are merely vehicles for her to ramble on about specific items of lore – an activity which, she chirps, she loves too much not to do.  And when she’s not waffling about the origins of the darkspawn or some other boring topic, she’ll blather on at painful length about the Maker (God) and how he fell in love with a woman called Andraste—a cliche of a tale which she naturally adores.  I would like her to die, but I’ve invested too much time in her now and she’s the only rogue in my party I know how to use.

Some witty interjections and more natural, less serious remarks from Alistair, a faithful companion who joins your cause early on in the main story, are among the few exceptions to the rule.  Contrast this with a consistently higher level of writing quality in Mass Effect, exemplified by Urdnot Wrex’s tragic tale of the genocide of his species, or Tali’s personal doubts about her pilgrimage away from the Quorian flotilla—some of the game’s most engrossing dialogue, some of the best of the genre, and spoken in a way that constantly reminds you of the characters’ emotional baggage.  There is no contest.

But for me, one difference in particular defines both games more than any other.  Whereas Dragon Age requires the player to imprint their own personality on the player character (who has no spoken dialogue), Mass Effect places you in the gravity boots of a fully voice acted hero and asks only that you direct his moral compass.  Sure, you can change the surface appearance and there’s a choice of classes, but apart from the gender choice, Shephard is in essence the same person.  You don’t get to imagine (as you do in a pen and paper game) what he sounds like, or what his mannerisms are, because that dimension has been taken care of by the writers and the actor.

Being incapable of the kind of sprawling and vivid imagination required for something like a serious game of pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons, the task of inventing a voice for my character in my head is daunting to say the least.  While I coped with, or rather worked around this in the Baldur’s Gate series, the fact is I didn’t know any better at the time. Now that I’ve tasted something richer, it’s very difficult for me to click dialogue options in Dragon Age and not receive that instant vocal feedback.  I’m like some sort of conversational crack whore.  Watching my character stand completely silent, his arms folded, moustache twitching at random, with zero facial expression, while I choose assertive and often violent responses to the character I’m speaking to feels very odd.

I’m sure I can find it within myself to say some positive things about Dragon Age, in time.  It’s not as if I haven’t had some fine role playing experiences in some of the chapters.  But at the moment, I’m stuck working (and I mean working) my way through the bowels of an underground system of caverns, serving as a lacky under one of the noble houses vying for control of the dwarven city of Orzammar.  I don’t exactly feel like I’m playing a pivotal role, and that’s something I never stopped feeling as Commander Shephard, the first (known) human spectre and ultimately the saviour of all civilization.  Ferelden had better start offering up some seriously juicy stuff, because Mass Effect 2 is coming to dinner, and it’s looking a hell of a lot more appetising.

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