Mass Effect has been on my to play list for about as long as it came out. It just seemed like my thing, I had heard good things about Bioware. I keep kidding myself that someday I’ll get to it, just like I’ll get to Skies of Arcadia (serious forces have transpired on multiple occasions to keep this from happening).
I had heard good things about Dragon Age in the early spring of 2010 from a coworker, and it was Bioware, so naturally when I had a free $20 or less game coupon at K-Mart (great deal, K-Mart, who knew?), I picked up Dragon Age: Origins as my choice. This game got stellar reviews, so I was surprised at how unpolished a product it was. One of the big benefits of the game is to see how decisions made in the story have an impact on the game’s ultimate outcome. Unfortunately, after finishing with about 30 hours of play time, I’m reluctant to go through it again. This game has a decent amount of fun moments, but ultimately is unpolished and, at times, frustrating. The world created is simply not interesting enough for me to want to invest the time to explore it further.
By a twist of fate, the main character, a Grey Warden, is given the task of reuniting a band of less-than-friendly races to build an army to fight off a menacing hoard of undead known as “the Darkspawn.” If this sounds like the story of Lord of the Rings; it’s because it is. The player’s main goal is to unite the Elves, Dwarves, and splintered humans into contributing to fight off a blight that promises to swallow the world. Along the way, you are constantly reminded that actions have consequences, as well as overarching themes about the responsibilities of powerful people.
The game heavily relies on Dungeons and Dragons, like the Baldur’s Gate franchise, in utilizing a system of battle statistics and special skills. Characters are not complex, they are cookie-cutter. Mage, warrior and rogue. It’s all D&D or Lord of the Rings derivative. Armor and equipment are equally bland. The characters have simple stories and simple personalities, but a good deal of effort was put into making them operate as a team (with little asides to each other depending on your party’s composition), and the introduction of of a likeability statistic that can be boosted by taking actions consistent with that character’s belief-system, or by giving them special gifts.
Enemies are less-inspired, and are basically just evil. There are undead enemies and also demons and Darkspawn, which, aside from humans and the occasional giant bug, make up a majority of the action in the game. What’s the difference between a Darkspawn and an undead? Nothing really, they basically look the same. You’ll see the same thing over and over again during the game. It used to be that game designers would level-up the enemies and denote the changes by changing the sprite colors. This simple short-cut was lazy, but it worked. I wish that the same thing had been done in this game though, as it is difficult to assess what kind of threat is coming out around the corner when the enemies always look the same, but have vastly different abilities. The same thing over and over again. I would have been happy with simply changing the colors…
There is no world-map system, moving from place to place is done on a map where sometimes semi-random events are triggered. These events are just fixed battles though, and often they are surprisingly difficult. The environments are not interactive in the slightest. There is generally just a few persons to talk to, and then enemies around filling most of the dungeons. No puzzles or secrets. Voice over and musical composition are unexceptional. No complex plot-resolutions that require thought. Side-quests are flat and uninspiring. Animations for characters aren’t really that good. A lot of the non-combat aspects of the game have your character either just running around or standing in place during oddly structured dialogues. Standing in front of a hostile giant dragon; what a great place for a 15 minute conversation on what you need to do next?
Ultimately, character and environment design seem stifled. Clearly the developers did not want to spend a good deal of time coming up with gold here. What you’re left with is a generic medieval fantasy world with graphics that would have been decent on PS2.
I’ll give this game high-marks on the amount of control the player has over the character. Tough decisions are frequently forced upon the main character, and those decisions not only can proximately impact the companions in your current party, but also impact the broader resolution of the game. When I mean tough decisions, they are not the same type of decisions that someone would encounter in say, Fallout. The decisions are rarely good or evil (evil + a cool item). Usually the choices that need to be made are true rock-and-hard-place type dilemmas; ratting out a dear friend or and risk catastrophe, or maintaining order at the expense of personal loyalty. Doubt about whether the ends justify the means will cloud over every one of the tough decisions in this game that must be made. The game forces a conscience on the player as well, by requiring the player to commit to an ethically complex solution several times. The dialogue frequently ends up like this?: Do you want to kill X or let him go? Are you sure you want to kill X? Kill X/Let him go? In between these questions, the characters in your current party will chime in and give their own opinions as to what the course of action should be. And they will disagree. The consequences of the disagreement are immediate as well; if one of your party members dislikes enough of your actions they may leave or they may agree with you thus increasing a combat statistic as a perk. Saving individual characters is not the only tough choice you’ll have to make. You’ll also have to decide which race survives, and how much freedom you’re willing to sacrifice in order to stop the Darkspawn.
The repetition of whether here initially I thought was very annoying, until I realized the game developers were really trying to stress the importance of this aspect of the game on the player. Unless you’re absolutely obstinate, you will waiver in your course of action when these situations present themselves as all sides of the argument are presented. I almost always changed an out of the gate hard line on an issue, to compromise position. Frequently though, the game cuts the possibility of a compromise out of the equation though, making the ultimate decision even harder. You are berated by the fact that these choices aren’t easy. Practically speaking though, this back and forth with your party is time-consuming and breaks up any tension in the plot. Facing a key boss or potential ally/adversary has no climax with a 10 minute break for an ethical discourse. This is the most unique and best designed portion of the game; generating an emotional rollercoaster that results from having power and the being forced to decide how to use it.
I took a middle of the road approach to most of these actions, but a friend of mine who inadvertently started playing this game at the same time I was, deliberately took an entirely evil path. He gave me plot resolution outcomes that seemed improbable, but also exposed to me how my oversimplified I made the world out to be. In a bit of a spoiler, I’ll explain. I saved the elves. My friend saved the werewolves. What you discover relatively early in resolving this particular quest, is that the werewolves at war with the elves are sentient beings. Necessarily, they must die if you’re to resolve the problem the elves are having. Did I inadvertently commit a genocide and not even realize it? Possibly. The implications are profound. Should you save the ruthless tyrant? Probably not, but it’s still a choice at least. Bioware is onto something here.
The other open-ended aspect of the game relates to side-quests and the order at which the main plot of uniting the races of Fereldon can be completed. What is unclear to me thus far is what impact going to recruit one race has on the outcomes of the other; but I generally like choice. Side-quests are a key weak point here though. Basically you are given a list of objectives, but because the game doesn’t really have a complex item or interaction system with the environment, all quests are essentially go to X, kill/talk, go to Y. A game like Oblivion had a way of disguising the fact that all you’re basically doing the same thing over and over again, here there are less layers of complexity. None of these side-quests seem to matter or impact the story. They are filler in an attempt to give the player a chance at slightly better loot or experience.
Action/Combat & Difficulty
My girlfriend’s comment upon stumbling home at midnight was “this looks like World of Warcraft.” Indeed, the new vogue in RPGs seems to be creating a team experience where the player’s main goal is to manage a party in combat, rather than direct its every move. You’re given a programming system that reminded me a lot of Final Fantasy 12, although in practice it didn’t seem to work as well. Party members rarely did what I wanted when there were more than one or two enemies. I suspect a significant portion of this result was operator error. But without a more complex tutorial system I was lost. You can also switch to other party members and control them directly, but critically you can never control all 4 at once.
I mentioned Baldur’s Gate earlier, and I extend that comparison to the combat here. The skills the mage character class has, for example, are virtually identical. When the going gets tough, the chaos that emerges from a big battle is both overwhelming and exhilarating. It really does feel like an MMORPG. The difference between one spell cast or special ability cooling down means life or death. The post-combat auto regeneration of life and mana also are a kind improvement over Balur’s Gate. An enemy getting close to you means death if you’re the wrong class. Often I held back on enemies I thought were weaker only to find myself surprisingly dead. This is dangerous ground. A close call makes the game a lot of fun, but a lot of repetitive losses in situations where you can’t exit and start over made it frustrating for me. Towards the end I found myself begrudgingly turning down the difficulty.
Enemies tactics and toughness seem quite evenly matched to your own party during the game; so this is not the possibility of level grinding for super-equipment or amazing abilities is not there. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes I prefer to trade incredible playing skill for brute grinding force in an RPG. Maybe this is a lesson long-unlearned from Dragon Warrior. I often found it difficulty to acquire enough money for equipment that was any more than marginally better than what I already had, and this was a bit frustrating. The side-quests the game provides offer some detours for more experience and power, but I stopped doing these after I realized a town on the world map was swallowed by the impending hoard in the game. Obviously doing side-quests was going to limit other possiblities (another important choice), so I, perhaps prematurely, stopped trying to tie up some of these loose ends. I would have liked the opportunity to have more control over the odds of winning in this game. The branch structure of leveling, and the fact that 10 or 15 levels is kind of a lot make the stakes of choosing the right abilities higher as well. I wish I had picked up different abilities for virtually all of my party members. You can find yourself investing 4 levels into getting the master skill that turns out to be a dud. No going back after this one. Very harsh. This combined with the difficulty of even some routine battles can be discouraging.
Map and menu options are detailed, but are poorly organized if you have this game on a console. This is a sharp contrast to the level of control in real-time you have over special character abilities, which is both economical and intuitive. The 6 special button slots (three buttons, with the back buttons swapping out triangle, square and 0 work well). Curiously though, a lot of menu options or special abilities freeze the action in the game though, so it’s unclear whether the real-time aspect of the game was fleshed out here.
I’ll admit I played this game compulsively for a few weeks over the summer, but this review is less than glowing. If I had to give this game a score, it would be around 7.5. The strangely addicting aspect comes from the WoW feeling the game gives. If you like those types of RPGs, then this should be something you experiment with. Perhaps a second-play through would have given me more confidence in completing the battle aspects of the game. New decisions might be fun to make. But my interest in going back into this world would be to discover new things, resolve new problems. Changing the NPCs that pop up along side you at the end is not worth 30 hours of game time.