Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins - Review

FTC disclaimer: I do have a material relationship with EA Bioware insofar as they did send me a free review copy of Dragon Age: Origins. Nevertheless the copy of the game that I actually played was a “Digital Deluxe” version bought via a Steam pre-order, thus including all existing additional downloadable content. I'd claim my opinion isn't influenced by a second free copy, but I'm disclosing this information so you can decide that for yourself.

This review of Dragon Age: Origins will include several comparisons of DAO to MMORPGs in general, and specifically World of Warcraft. That might seem a strange comparison to some of you, as obviously these are different genres of games. But there are common problems and solutions in single-player and massively multiplayer role-playing games; and by comparing them I hope to show up some inherent limitations of the two genres.

Dragon Age: Origins is the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. Although DAO isn’t based on a D&D license like Baldur’s Gate, the game system used is quite similar to D&D, with some clever additions adapted from MMORPGs, e.g. warriors having a taunt command. So like Baldur’s Gate you start out the game alone, but quickly pick up various colorful companions. It’s not quite “go for the eyes, Boo, go for the eyes”, but your companions do have a mind of their own, leading to sometimes funny interactions between them and you, or each other.

A RPG consists of two building blocks: Combat, and a story which happens between combats. In Dragon Age: Origins combat happens in real time, but by hitting space you can at any time pause the game and give commands to your characters. You can control one character directly in real time, and give a series of tactical instructions to the other characters. Note that even on “normal” difficulty, the second lowest of 4 difficulty settings, doing combat only in real time will get you killed in any harder fights, and every boss fight. Thus pausing and working in pseudo turn-based mode is pretty much required.

In comparison to World of Warcraft, combat in Dragon Age: Origins is generally harder, and far more tactical. Some basic principles are the same: You put a heavily armored tank in front, taunting the enemy to attack him; heal said tank with a healer or potions; and use the remaining party members to deal damage. There is aggro management, crowd control, and the necessity to watch both health and mana of your characters. Only that in WoW you only play one character (unless you multi-box), and you can’t pause to give commands. As in DAO you can save before the combat and then replay any failed attempts, and as you can pause in combat to have time to think and give commands, combat can be harder and still be doable. As you control all characters, there is also the possibility of friendly fire, which as a concept in a MMORPG would cause all sorts of problems.

The story that happens between combats in Dragon Age: Origins is mostly told in the form of dialogues, plus a few cutscenes. In the dialogues you have several options, which do have some influence on how the story unfolds. But much of that choice is an illusion, as the main storyline will progress with only minor variations regardless of which options you chose. DAO has a rather dark story, and the choices you have aren’t of a simple good or evil nature. For example a recurring choice is dealing with children possessed by demons, where you are given the options of letting the evil demon loose, or killing him by killing the child, neither choice being very pleasant. In other cases the dialogue has much simpler choices to make, which basically boil down to “do the quest” or “refuse the quest”, with doing the quest being the obviously better choice, to get more xp and rewards. The world of DAO features orcs, ogres, dragons, and many other mainstays of fantasy RPGs, only that for some reason the orcs are called hurlocks or genlocks, the ogres look like horned demons, and the dragons are referred to as archdemons. That is the sort of “creativity” I could have done without.

In comparison with WoW, the main difference is that as a single-player game DAO has a beginning, middle, and an end. That is the classic structure of storytelling in general, and thus the story of DAO follows a classic narrative structure, with you starting out as an unknown, and ending up saving the world. World of Warcraft doesn’t have an end, nor a story per se, but has “lore” instead, which is told in non-coherent bits and pieces through quest texts and books you find on your journeys. One consequence of that is that the world of WoW is relatively static and only changes with patches, or through tricks like phasing. In Dragon Age: Origins the world is changed by your actions, so that a village isn’t the same before and after you saved it from an evil undead invasion.

While you do interact with NPCs, and especially with your companions, this interaction of course is much simplified in DAO compared to the interaction with real other players in WoW. While you might do an action that displeases one of your companions in DAO, you often have the option to reload a previous save game, do the same action again with a different group composition, and thus keep everyone happy. Your companions in DAO are also suspiciously fond of gifts, so if you committed a heinous act in the presence of a good character, you can just bribe him with a trinket to completely compensate for the loss of esteem. I haven’t played the game through yet, but it is reported that if you do enough positive actions and gifts to a companion, you can even have cybersex with them. Not sure if that applies only to members of the opposite sex, not to mention the dog. Given the sex and copious amounts of blood splatter, I wonder why the game is only rated M. Your characters in dialogues and cutscenes after a combat are often covered in lots of blood, and there doesn’t appear to be an option to switch that off.

Character development in Dragon Age: Origins works by gaining xp and leveling up. While I would recommend to always have a healer, a tank, and two dps in your group, you will with time get enough different companions to choose from so that your main can be any class and specialization. However taking a mage character with a healing spell as your starting character will make your first game go a lot smoother. Characters have a kind of a talent tree, but as the tree is very wide and only 4 talents deep, you can quite well mix various specializations, and for example have a mage who heals, deals area damage, and does crowd control to boot. The rogue and warrior talent trees are somewhat less varied, but still interesting.

Depending on what version of Dragon Age: Origins you buy, different methods of “digital rights management” (DRM) will apply, that is either Steam DRM, or a simple disc check. EA did not put a more invasive DRM like SecuROM in Dragon Age: Origins. However every version of the game comes with at least some codes for downloadable content and these codes can only be used for one account to be created on the Bioware website. Thus if you buy a second-hand copy of DAO (or pirate one), you will miss out on at least part of the game, or you will have to buy the missing downloadable content. So in a way the DRM of Dragon Age: Origins is rather similar to the DRM of World of Warcraft, where you need a valid account too to enjoy the totality of the game. Of course Dragon Age: Origins has no monthly subscription fee, but Bioware will sell you additional content for the game in the future, with the first DLC called Return to Ostagar just having been announced to cost around $5.

In summary, in my very personal opinion, I do enjoy Dragon Age: Origins for its very tactical combat. Other people like the epic story of DAO, but I found the story to be rather stereotypical, linear, and cliché-ridden. I did however appreciate the “origins” part of DAO, which results in the first hour or two of your game being different depending on which origin you chose for your character. I’m not a huge fan of DAO’s dialogues, which are often long, and ultimately have only a small effect on the main story. But I must admit the story is well told, and not limited to simple good vs. evil choices. And you could always click through dialogue fast and get right back into the next fun tactical combat. So overall I do recommend Dragon Age: Origins.

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