Monday, December 21, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins (PS3)

Full disclosure first: I didn't finish this game. In fact, at about 60% of the way through the story line, I sold it to the local game shop and used my credit for a copy of Borderlands. Why? Because I just can't stand Dragon Age.

Where to begin? Well, we'll get the technical stuff out of the way. On the PS3 at least, it's glitchy as all hell. There were graphical artifacts at every turn, with textures popping in and out; characters self-clip constantly (especially if they're wearing armor or facial hair). Particularly annoying is a discontinuity in the camera's ability to circle the selected character: as you rotate the camera, it skips from about 350° to 0°. Very annoying. The graphics are gorgeous, mind you; just filled with distracting glitches.

Dialog audio was full of holes as well. Thanks to the 3D sound processing, combined with camera angles, the engine would occasionally decide that the dialog was being delivered from 1000 yards away, or from behind a foot-thick tapestry. Meaning that important plot points in dialog were muffled or totally inaudible. So I turned on the subtitles... which inhabit a giant box at the top of the screen (hence, not actually "sub"), distracting me completely from the imagery on the screen. Oh, and all dialog is unskippable.

Save times are also exceedingly long. Between selecting save, and having control returned to you, at least ten seconds elapses. Given that frequent saving is about the only way to make progress, those ten seconds add up pretty quickly. I'm pretty certain I spent a total of one hour of my life staring at a filigreed box telling me "Saving game content. Do not turn off your system."

Then there's the godawful party AI. It's like controlling a whole party of Leeroy Jenkins. Unlike previous Bioware RPGs, combat takes place in real time. And while you can pause the game to issue orders, there's no indication (or auto-pause) when those orders have been completed--the moment you relinquish control, they return to their AI scripts. So you might pause the game and tell your tank to attack your target, but the moment you switch away he has a better than average chance of running off after some monster three hundred yards away, leaving your poor mage to deal with the dragon on her own.

The game allows you to tweak the AI scripts in meticulous detail, based on a system of triggers and actions. But there's so much customization allowed that there's basically no good way to figure out what the ideal settings should be. Trial and error, perhaps. But I didn't have the patience for it. And the defaults are just horrible.

But the technical issues aren't what killed this game for me. I can forgive a lot of technical issues in a game this big. What killed it for me was the tedium.

Every quest goes on forever, with sub-quest after sub-quest. Every dungeon goes on forever. Every time I'd walk up to the big, obvious, central door, I'd think, "Okay, the boss has to be in there." And then I'd be rewarded with another section of dungeon just as long as the one I'd just finished. Every dungeon was easily twice as long as it should have been.

And it's all combat. Aside from a few pitifully easy riddles (to which the answer was "dreams" about 10% of the time), there are precious few puzzles to be solved. And every time you think there might be a diplomatic solution to a situation, it turns out that the character in question request that you go off and kill somebody else--who lives, I promise you, at the end of another inanely long dungeon. And all of this combat is made frustrating and infuriating by the aforementioned party AI. The game is pretty good at not making you backtrack, though. I'm thankful for that.

Every time you arrive at a new destination with the intention of enlisting their aid in the upcoming war, you discover their castle/tower/forest/city is infested with undead/demons/werewolves/civil unrest. And then, after you remove their problem, you get to talk to the Grand High Puba of that vicinity... who assigns you another fetch quest (with laboriously long dungeon). You'd think ridding their home of skeletons would be sufficient, you know?

In a similar vein, the setting is painfully, atrociously derivative. It's a nearly-pure mix of Tolkien and D&D. Dwarves are smiths and miners, who live underground and can't be mages; elves live in the woods, and are in tune with nature; humans live in towns, and generally don't get it. There are talking trees. The only twists I found are that once, long ago, elves were enslaved by humans (and so are now second-class citizens); and, mages are carefully controlled and regulated by the church. Other than that, I found myself wondering about THAC0 scores and when we'd be taking the ring to Mount Doom.

Now, the game does many things particularly well. The writing is top-notch, with the banter between party members being downright interesting. I especially like a system whereby you can influence your party's regard for you by giving them gifts (in addition to the standard reactions to your game choices). Get their approval high enough, and they'll reveal more about their backstory... or sleep with you. Sadly, I was unable to initiate a lesbian affair between my character and Morrigan. But I did get an elf assassin to flirt with me. The overall campaign plot is kind of cliche, but the individual characters you encounter, and their stories and motivations, are original and excellent. All of this is voice acted especially well, with practically the whole cast of Star Trek: Voyager involved.

Dragon Age is also suitably epic. Before I gave up, I'd logged nearly 30 hours of playtime. And I didn't do any sidequests (for fear of encountering more obnoxiously long dungeons). So if you want something you can really sink your teeth into, then this could be your game.

The combat system itself is quite decent (AI gripes aside), with excellent balance. I played a mage, and never had a problem holding my own in battle. My only real complaint there is that about 60% of the available spells are completely bloody useless. But Dragon Age is hardly unique in having lots of pointless spells.

So how do I feel about the game overall? I wanted, very much, to like it. I tried really, really hard. But it wore me down. When it's 5 hours between notable accomplishments, grinding through lame battle after seen-it-already fight, it's hard for me to stay motivated. The game very quickly began feeling like work, which is not what I want when playing a game.

Now, Dragon Age has its fans. My brother's one of them. And I can see why they might love it: the story is epic and the characters interesting. So you might like it better than I have. But ultimately, I just couldn't take any more.

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