I looked up fanboy on Urban Dictionary, and I got the following:
“A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless of if they suck or not.”
In that case, and despite UD’s horribly poor spelling of ‘regardless’, I am a fanboy. Or fangirl, as the case might be. To be more specific, I am a BioWare fanyoung person. I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate or KoToR, and due to my legendary dis-possession of an Xbox, I never had the chance to give Jade Empire a try either. I did, however, play Neverwinter Nights 1 and 2, and Mass Effect. Those also were the best CRPGs I’ve played for a long time, so you might understand my glee when BioWare’s latest epic Dragon Age: Origins was reaching it’s release date. Glee that quickly turned into nerve-wracking anticipation when the release date coincided with a nation-wide train strike for that day, meaning I had no way whatsoever to get to Uni.
Anyway, after some problems with the delivery system (the game came in several hours late, so a lot of my free day was gone already) I finally was installing the game telling myself that after playing the game for three days, I’d write a review about it.
That was two weeks ago.
I’ve been busy.
If that doesn’t tell you a thing or two about the scope of this game, you really should give RPGs a try some day.
Dragon Age: Origins defines itself as a ‘dark fantasy’. I’d disagree there on the premise it’s exactly as fantasy should be. But then again, my mind is so filled up with cynicism and hatred towards the world my view on what makes a story good might be a tad skewed. If anything, I’d label it a ‘mature’ fantasy game. However, like Age of Conan is a mature game for puberescent boys fighting a heavy influx of testosterone and having no idea how to deal with it, Dragon Age: Origins is a mature game for mature people. Yes, there’s gore and sex and violence and all the things that puberescent boys spend their nights searching the web for, but the game holds so many nuances and subtleties that would just fly over the heads of those who still really are just a bunch of children.
The story is standard. There’s a huge army of evil orc- *coughs* darkspawn who have risen up from the earth, led by an Archdemon in what is called a Blight, with the sole purpose of killing everyone. An elite group of warriors called the jedi kni- I mean Grey Wardens are the only ones who are able to stop them, but they and the king are betrayed and slaughtered. You are miraculously saved and must now build up a new army and deal with the traitor before finally facing off against the Archdemon.
The generic storyline is, however, merely a coat-hanger for what I consider to be one of the best epic fantasy experiences since Tolkien. Yes. Since the fucking arch-father of modern fantasy. Dragon Age: Origins brings very little new to the table. You can be an elf with pointy ears, a dwarf who is half a metre shorter than the average or a human. Once you’ve made your choice of race, you can pick your class, the possibilities being warrior, rogue or mage. In case you were wondering, warriors wear heavy armour and can use any weapon except for magic staffs, rogues wear light armour and sneak about and mages use magic spells to put your enemies in a nasty state of death. Or frozen-solid-in-a-block-of-ice-ness as the case might be.
Then comes the moment where the creators picked up the background and psych-profile ideas of Mass Effect and went ‘we could do more with this’ and came up with the Origins system. There are a total of six origins to choose from, though each origin has certain restrictions. For example, every mage has to go through the mage origin. This includes both human and elven mages (dwarver are thick- I mean, magic resistant and cannot be mages). The other origins are all race restricted, but all of them can be played as either a warrior or a rogue.
After you’ve picked your origin, you get to the expansive appearance editor, where you will use a small legion of slider-bars to create the most hideous faces before finally giving up, picking one of the preset faces, and changing skin, hair and eye colour, as well as hairstyle to what you want. When you’re done with that, you get to play your origin story, which serves as both a tutorial section (sort of. Every time you encounter/do something new, a pop-up text pops up that can be read, or skipped altogheter. If you’ve ever played a CRPG before, ever, you’re free to ignore these, though). The origin story will tell you how your life has been, introduce you to Duncan, an elder Grey Warden looking for recruits, and lets you go on your merry business until something invariably gets fucked up, you have to kill a bunch of people, and have to get out as quickly as possible. Duncan pops up in the nick of time, as if he’s been watching you all along and waiting for the right moment, the dirty stalker, and offers you a way out of the rather large pile of dung you’ve somehow ended up in: namely recruitment into the Grey Wardens. You may accept or refuse, in the latter case he invokes the Right of Conscription, meaning you now have to go anyway. He then takes you to a place called Ostagar, where above-mentioned battle and betrayal takes place, and after which you have to travel with Alistair, the only other surviving Grey Warden, Morigan, a witch of the Wilds and a Wardog you get to name yourself (mine are always called ‘Fang’ for some reason, except once, when I named him ‘Muzzle’. I’m horrible at names). In true CRPG style you pick up various other party members along the way, and in true CRPG style you can only take a set number of them -in this particular case, three- along with you. Unlike true CRPG style, all the characters you pick up are amazingly well written, all of them are likeable, and surprisingly enough, I did not have the feeling that the first three I picked up were also the ones who had most cause to go with my character (despite the fact that they were *coughs*), nor did I relate more to them than to the others (I remember playing Drakensang, where I simply didn’t give a rats arse about anyone but the first few characters I picked up). In fact, I found I needed multiple play-throughs to get the most out of every single partymember. Each and every one of them is unique, and they all are amazingly well written and acted. Particularly when my party members chat among themselves I am amused at worst, cackling out loudly at best.
When I, however, learned that every single bit of spoken text in the game was voiced, I was skeptical. Games are, after all, not known to attract a great many good voice-actors, or, for that matter, voice-directors. Especially in RPGs, where the player basically decides how a conversation develops, yet every possible line from the NPCs has to be spoken, meaning the actors more than likely receive a bunch of random lines, and some directions as to how the scene is and what emotion the character is experiencing. However, my fears were quickly calmed by promotional videos, showing amazing voice-acting, and replaced by a new fear: the silent protagonist. You see, when I said every line was voiced, that actually means every line but the ones of the main character. Yours are simply lines of text to select, and everyone around you will pretend you uttered those words and reply accordingly. This had me peeved at first, especially after Mass Effect, but I grew accustomed to this fairly quickly, and the marvelous voice work that almost made me orgasm quite a few times drove me to awake my inner actor, causing me to say my character’s lines out loud myself -or rather semi-loud. I didn’t want any possible passers-by to think I’m going nuts- This included lines that weren’t written, like random orders during battle (I am that sad) or remarks after certain events. “Do you have a plan?” asked Alistair the Templar to my rogue, Helena Couslan. “I always have a plan!” I replied to my computerscreen. “Sometimes I just don’t know it yet!” I added, as I pretended Helena looked around the cell they were locked in for a way out.
I admit. I am sad.
While dialogue is easily the greatest feature of the game, the combat is slightly less innovative. At least on the PC version. You have an action bar at the bottom of the screen that has all your abilities. You click on one of the abilities to make an action happen, selecting a target or an area if needed. While not doing any specific action, your character will be using whatever weapon(s) they’re holding on whatever enemy you targeted for them. You can press space to pause the game and select any action you wish to take, which will then be executed as soon as you press space again to unpause. You can also switch between characters and take direct control over them, or, if you find this to be too much fuss, let the AI control them.
And here I feel many hearts chill in terror. “But doesn’t AI for party members in games usually suck?”
Well, yeah, but that’s why BioWare was kind enough to give us our own ‘design your own AI’ kit. Or, as they like to call it, the Tactics System. This basically means you can assemble a list of tactics for every character in your party (including your own) that the AI will execute when you are not in direct control of that character. Setting these tactics looked daunting at first, as I have zip knowledge of programming, but turned out to be working on a fairly intuitive condition/effect system. On the left hand you insert a possible target for your abilities, as well as the condition that target has to be. This can range from ‘enemy; armour: heavy’ to ‘ally; health >25%’ to ‘self; surrounded by x enemies’ etc. On the right hand you have the action the character is to perform on the target when the specified conditions are met. Logical examples would be: ‘Use: sunder armour’, ‘Use: heal’ and ‘Use: whirlwind’. The system is programmed so that the character moves down the list, looking if the first condition is met, then the second, etc, until they come across a Tactic whose condition is met and whose ability is executable (not on cooldown, enough mana, etc) at which point they execute said ability, all the while pounding on enemies with their equipped weapons.
If all of this blows your mind, you can simply set the tactics to certain archetypes (warriors and rogues can be set to ‘scrapper’ or ‘archer’, while warriors also can be ‘defenders’. Mages can be set to ‘healers’, ‘damagers’ and ‘some synonym for controller that slips my mind’) and let the fairly competent AI take it from there.
Combat itself, however, is brutal. And I don’t say that because whenever a melee attack occurs, people get splattered in blood that doesn’t disappear for a long time (unless you’re playing on the lowest graphic setting). I meant the difficulty. I consider myself a fairly decent gamer, skill-wise (ha hah), yet I had my arse handed to me so often it makes me want to contemplate the meaning to it all. Also, even if you win a battle, you’ll still curse yourself for every party member who fell, because, while fallen allies simply stand up again after a battle, they do carry around wounds. Debuffs called ‘broken rib’ or ‘wrenched arm’ or ‘cracked skull’ or whatnot that give a penalty to a certain attribute. These wounds can only be healed by use of a healing kit, a consumable item that can be bought, created or looted. You’ll only have a limited amount of these at any given time, however, and you can’t choose which wounds to heal with them, so even when you’re certain of victory, you’ll want to make sure all four of your characters make it through unscathed.
This difficulty, however, is part of why this is a mature mature game, as opposed to GTA4, which is a teenager mature game. It takes the patience of one who has drank from the cup of age and wisdom to not want to throw your computer down a window when you get slaughtered by the same gang of bandits for the umpteenth time, though this difficulty, at least in my opinion, makes victory all the more sweeter. And the game-designers seem to have realized this, and decided to add additional sugar to your sweet victories, in the form of executions: My first real boss-fight was against a gargantuan beast called an ogre. A huge, fierce beast that killed me and my party about 5 times. I realized that the ‘charge in and pummel to death’ approach I grew accustomed to in other games simply wouldn’t cut it, so I started my sixth try more tactically, much more carefully. When I saw the beast jump up to do it’s smash attack, I paused the game and give commands to all my party members to get the hell away from it, limiting damage done, and I also saved all my stun attacks for when it picked one of my guys up and began mauling it, an attack that would usually end in that character’s death. However nothing was sweeter when my main character, the aforementioned Helena Couslan, struck the final blow, and the game switched to slow motion, 300 style, as she jumped up towards the beasts’ throat and landed a few lethal strikes with her blades, causing it to topple and fall backwards. Regular speed resumed as she picked her blades out of the bleeding corpse and jumped back off. I, however, was still staring at the awesomeness that came as a reward for my hard-fought victory, and needed a few minutes to gather myself before I could continue playing.
The game is by no means perfect. There are some glitches, at least in the PC version. For example, it sometimes takes a few moments between an enemy dying and the game registering their death. This does not mean that the enemy continues fighting for the duration; it falls down and bleeds a puddle of blood just fine, however you can’t loot it, nor does it trigger the plot-related cinematic it’s death should trigger until the death is registered. In mid-combat, this bug isn’t a bother at all. However it can be quite bothersome after combat, especially a small fight against two or three enemies when you have to wait for their bodies to be lootable, if loot drops of them at all. The game also crashes and shuts down back to the desktop every now and then -though I lay the blame there with my windows Vista system, and not BioWare- a bug that would have caused me to quicksave every few minutes, were it not for the fact I press the quick-save button already after every single battle and before every single door I open, due to the sheer amount of dead my party is visited upon.
Anyway, I’m nearing the 2600 word-count here, so let me wrap this up. If you are a fan of fantasy tales, or indeed the English language on it’s own, then you should give this game a try. If you are tired of short, easy games the industry seems to crap out daily when it goes to the loo and want a game that offers a challenge, a compelling, in-depth story or at least has the feel there’s some work put into it, this game is definitely for you. If you don’t like difficult or tactical games, think all the pausing interrupts flow, are bored by the vast amount of dialogue (even though all of it is skipable) or want instant gratification out of your games, then I might suggest a less intellig- I mean, more action-oriented game instead. I heard Modern Warfare 2 is good. If you think this game isn’t worth your while because it’s been over-hyped by the EA money-machine, you’re just being stupid. You Know Who You Are.
I, personally, look dearly forward to the sequel, though that might still be a bit. We are, after all, promised two years of downloadable content.