Dragon Age review: second third fourth fifth…

Let’s start off with the traditional gamer apology: Ahhh, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo and I didn’t do all my chores and I didn’t quite finish all my work because… I was playing Dragon Age: Origins.

Point the second: yes, this is another DA:O review and impressions thing. You’ll be seeing a lot of that in the next few days and weeks. You know why?

Because the game is just THAT good.

Tertio: I’ll try really hard to put no spoilers at all in this post. Spoilers are just empty calories!

Antimony_100
"So, cake or death." -- "Orly?" -- "Ya rly. If you fail, you die."

I must have been one of the lucky ones, because the installation went without a hitch, the configuration utility figured out its settings quite accurately, and there were zero problems trying to get into the game. Well, apart from the fact that my character creator chars get morphed into fugly bastards (or byotches) when I import them, but that wasn’t very hard to get around.

Just one thing I thought was weird: the installer — at least on the CE version, though I’d imagine they’re all the same — doesn’t create a shortcut to the game. That puzzled me for a minute, considering that everything wants to put at least two, better yet five! shortcuts in every possible place (and several anatomically unlikely ones) it can think of. However, the handy dandy configuration utility does come with a “Make desktop shortcut” option … in the repair section. Not my idea of extreme good organisation but hey, it’s just a shortcut. If you don’t know how to make your own by now you probably shouldn’t be near computers without adult supervision.

As you probably know by now, there’s this whole “Look how freaking 1337 I am!! {mypage.bioware.dragonage.epeen.com}” social networking thing going on with Dragon Age too, where the game will take screenshots and update your characters and whatnot on this newfangled internets. It’s worth noting that this is very easily turn on-and-offable in the options. I turned it off to begin with, because I’ve always hated that kind of thing (WoWArmory and Thottbot being two examples) and I’m borderline militia-gun-stocking-paranoid-peering-weirdo when it comes to the internet and my illusion of privacy. Then I turned it back on again, because it was pretty unintrusive, didn’t impact performance in any way I could measure, and I discovered I wasn’t paranoid enough to care.

(Quick tangent: that site is a pain in the ass to navigate. The main bioware player stuff site is fine, but you have to hit MyGames–>DragonAge[platform] to get to the Dragon Age stuff, and once you’re there there is NO easy way to navigate. If you hit the manage characters link, there’s no way back save through the browser. And so on. Yeah, it’s beta, which is why I’m not foaming at the mouth and ranting. But it’s pretty shoddy right now.)

eloise_001
"Dude, not against the wall!"

As for the game itself… It’s not just better than I expected it would be. It’s a LOT better than I expected it would be. These days, I assume a product’s touted greatness is 95% hype, 3% truth, and 2% pure bullshit; well, DA;O is, so far, 99% pure win. (I’m too cheap and not far enough in to give it 100%.)

Each possible origin has its own introduction, and this is no mere 30-second trailer, oh no. At my pace, it’s several hours of adventuring and interaction and lore-reading (a lot of lore reading) and trying to stuff everything that isn’t nailed down into my pockets. My invisible pockets, in the case of the Daelish elf.

I’ve only managed a couple of the “origins” parts of Dragon Age: Origins — a Daelish rogue and a human Mage — but I intend to try all six. This is Syp’s fault, but it’s a brilliant idea. I’m going to experience them before I know too much about the game and the story, and it’ll give me a chance to see if a clear favourite emerges from the pack. Just because I’m a proud, card-carrying member of Elves Aren’t Bad doesn’t mean I’m utterly incapable of playing anyone else. In fact so far my human Mage, Antimony, is ahead in terms of sheer personality and buzz-cut Buddhist nun-look coolness. Plus, her spells are pretty badass.

Antimony_001
"You're gross, yet oddly cute. Can I take you home?"

Hrm… what else to write that isn’t spoilerish? The UI is clean and works well, at least at 1920×1200, though double-clicking is a little unresponsive sometimes and the now-you-see-me!/now-you-don’t right click context menu (on some items) is a little counter-intuitive. That’s probably because the game has you right clicking to interact with most things, but to interact with items in inventory you need to right click and hold. I usually end up right clicking 2 or 3 times before I remember. It’s a minor thing, anyway. Other than that the UI is quite nice, which probably makes it wtfbbqgreat! for less sadistically critical people.

Combat is fluid and fairly easy to control even for someone who — like me — is kind of a noob at this type of gameplay. I picked easy mode to begin with because I was afraid I’d get my ass kicked by the first rat I needed to kill, but I could have selected normal and done just fine. Now that I know this, I can change settings on the fly, which is another nice touch.

Oh, and the journal has a Codex section that contains all the stuff you learn as you go along. This is pretty standard in RPGs these days, but this one is done quite well. It’s very easy to see when you have new entries and they’re very easy to read. As an extra bonus, they’re really excellently written. My mage char had a butt-ton of lore to read, as you might expect (hey, I see books lying around, I read ’em!), but it didn’t really intrude on my gaming. I would play a bit, collect lore and stuff as I went, and then take a few minutes now and then to read the details. It worked very well.

The graphics are pretty good. Actually, they’re excellent, especially the landscapes. The characters aren’t bad, though I’m not a huge fan of the somewhat wooden standing pose (as shown in some of the screenies above). The knees are a little too bent, the legs are a little too far apart, and the hands are a little too far from the body — at least on female characters. I have a sneaking suspicion that the male pose was used as the basis for the female one, and it just doesn’t look quite right. On the whole though it’s not something I really notice unless I’m being critical and staring at screenshots.

"I think this gore-splatter is rather tastefully done, myself."

The gore is … okay. I’ve left it on for now, because scenes and locations are changing often enough at this stage that my characters don’t stay grossly gory for too long. It’s definitely more cartoon-goreish than anything else, which means I’m not bothered by it. I’m not sure how much grit and grimness it adds — but I haven’t turned it off either, so maybe it does add something. In any case, that too is easily turned on and off.

And then, of course, there are the… er, what are they called? Cutscenes? Stuff where you’re not controlling your character. Well, there’s a lot of those. When I first saw how very many there were I got a bit dubious, but in fact it’s been quite seamlessly integrated, and if it suddenly stops once you’re out of the first few sections I’ll end up being quite disappointed. I doubt it will though, because it looks like the cinematic dialogue thing was worked into the whole fabric of the game — and when it’s constant and consistent like that, I have to admit, it’s pretty damn good.

eloise_003

The only downside of that, as I think Syp already pointed out, is that one’s own character remains strangely mute while all the other characters are happily babbling away. The only way we can talk is by picking conversation options, and we never actually say anything in these scenes; the only time the voice option is used is during normal play, where you get the usual “I’m out of mana! Argh! I’m dying” and “I’m on it!” type comments. I can understand the difficulty in doing anything else, but the game is so ambitious and succeeds so well (from my very limited experience) that it’s a real shame the main character is always going to be silent.

What else can I say without actually saying anything about the story? The story is, in fact, the major part of this game, and that’s exactly as it should be. Apparently one’s conversation choices will have an impact throughout a character’s odyssey, but since everyone claims that these days I’m taking it with a grain of salt. All the same, I’m intentionally NOT exploring absolutely every available conversation option with every single available NPC — not just because some of those things just aren’t things my character would say, but also because in many cases you’re supposed to be in a hurry to see someone else or do something else, and I take those hurry-ups seriously. I know I probably shouldn’t, because games never seem to actually say “Ah, sorry, you were supposed to hurry to talk to the old mystic and instead you dilly-dallied about the camp opening every damn box and chest and stuffing your pockets, and now the guy you were supposed to go and save… well, he’s dead. Abort, retry, restart?” But they should, and I’m still hoping that this one might. Even if it doesn’t, that’s how I play. Don’t tell me we’re in a tearing hurry to save the world then let me faff about scratching my butt for three days — that’s immersion-breaking.

Antimony_003
"No, I'm Antimony, not Sinnead. Who's Sinnead?"

But lo, there was story, and the story is good. I don’t even mind watching NPCs ignore me while they’re arguing with each other, especially not if I get the option to tell kings something like “You’d have to get really lucky” when they ask if they might know my name. Gotta love sass.

I’d give the voice acting 8 out of 10, and I’m really, REALLY mean when it comes to tearing apart crappy dialogue and wooden voices. So far the worst offenders were the three hapless humans my Daelish rogue (Eloise) encountered right at the start of her Origins — the characters aren’t very well done artistically, and they’re not all that well acted either. However, it only got better from there until I was well and truly sucked in. There are a few famous and semi-famous names on that voice acting roster, too: Kate Mulgrew (the gravelly she of Voyager), Tim Curry (always a winner!), Steve Valentine (best-known to me as Nigel the forensics guy in Crossing Jordan), Claudia Black (Farscape, SG1) and others whose names are too small for me to read without my contacts.

So what does all this amount to? If you liked Baldur’s Gate then you’ll probably love this. I didn’t play that game much because my computing power was totally gimped back then and because I found the whole party UI thing incredibly frustrating — but mostly because I couldn’t get the game to run reliably and decently. For that and various other reasons, the whole party-RPG thing kind of passed me by until Neverwinter Nights 1 (not the AOL version), which was enjoyable though ended up being a damn sight more fun as something you played with other — real — people.

I seem to recall reading something to the effect that there were no multiplayer plans for DA:O. But if that’s true, why is one of the installation folders (dragonage –> modules) called “single player”? Eh? Riddle me that, Batman!

Anyway — if you don’t have DA:O and you’re wondering whether you should, I hope this (and the million other reviews) was useful in helping you decide. If you’re planning on getting it but not right now, that’s fine. Get it whenever — it’s not like the gameplay will degrade if you don’t get it right now. The only difficulty you might have is avoiding spoilers, though to be blunt anyone with the teeniest sense of plot can guess that the Origins parts don’t go well for one’s character. After all, they have to have a reason to leave what they’re doing and head out into the wider world…

Gah! The Spoiler Police are beating down my door! /flees

Antimony_002