Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins

I finished Dragon Age: Origins today, finally receiving that false sense of accomplishment I'd been toiling after for the past few weeks.

It was beautiful, and it reinforced my belief in computer games as an art form. Here are some reasons why.

1. The Characters
With supporting characters, you can afford a little cardboard. When you're creating a story, you want main characters that your audience can emotionally engage with. They must engender a sense of love or hate, or at least cause someone to vacillate between the two. I can't think of a main character in Dragon Age that didn't cause some sort of emotional attachment or reaction. Take Morrigan, for instance. Morrigan is a member of your party, the cadre of characters that follows you around and helps you complete your quests. Morrigan is not a nice person, to put it mildly. She's aloof and darkly pragmatic, and she tends to disapprove of all decisions that involve helping people. But when you speak to her, you begin to understand why she is the way she is. She's complex and interesting, and while you want to hate her, you also don't want her to leave. All of the other characters are just as complex and interesting to interact with. They also interact with each other during quests, which can be quite amusing, depending on whom you've brought with you.

2. The Setting
Dragon Age is a typical fantasy, in that it borrows a great deal from everything else in the genre. A lot of the concepts and plot points will register as familiar to any well-read fantasy geek (like me). However, Dragon Age has proven that just because something isn't completely original doesn't mean it's bad. Sure, it's typical fantasy. But it's darn good typical fantasy. You'll be too busy enjoying yourself to notice that most of the game's "darkspawn" remind you of orcs, goblins, and trolls, or that the plot is relatively formulaic, or that two of the world's major races (elves and dwarves) have been done and redone ad nauseam since the days of Tolkien.
Seriously, folks. Going in, I thought I'd be distracted by this stuff, but that wasn't true at all. It's a tribute to Bioware's craft that they've managed to repackage it all so well.

3. The Music.
Inon Zur, the composer of Dragon Age's beautiful soundtrack, is a genius. Some of it gets a little repetitive after a while, but what game music doesn't?
If the game had never been created, but Inon Zur had still put out an album with this music on it, I would buy it. Leliana's Song was particularly captivating, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, play the game (the song's on youtube if you're not interested or don't have the money).

4. The Graphics
Graphically speaking, Dragon Age is magnificent. You'll need a fair amount of processing power and a good graphics card in order to witness that magnificence, but that's beside the point. DA is beautiful! Enough said.

5. The Choices
There are a lot of different ways to play Dragon Age. There are many different dialog options, loads of sidequests, loads of ways to finish those sidequests, and loads of ways to build your character. Choice is a really, really good thing in an RPG, and Bioware is the master of options. The only way to truly enjoy the game is to play it several times, discovering all of its possibilities.

Now that I've finished with the glowing praise, I'd like to offer some withering criticism. There are a few things about Dragon Age that I feel could have been changed or just plain left out.

1. Unbalanced Difficulty
I'm ashamed to admit that I couldn't finish the game on a single difficulty level. Cutting through darkspawn is easy enough even on the hardest difficulty level, except when you're surrounded by a bajillion of them, which happens quite frequently. The bosses are incredibly hard, even on the easiest difficulty. Sometimes, I and my party members were required to face a bajillion darkspawn and a boss. I ended up playing through the game on Normal, and switching to easy when I was overwhelmed by darkspawn or during any encounter with a boss. It was necessary in order to preserve my sanity, which was being slowly chipped away every time I died and had to load a saved game. If things had been toned down just a little, I feel I would have enjoyed the experience a bit more.

2. Sex Scenes/Romance Options
Bioware pandered. The sex scenes served no purpose other than fan service. The camera could have tactfully panned away or faded to black, but nooooooo...
Okay, so maybe there wasn't any nudity, but still! Bad form.
Although I like options in RPGs, as previously stated, I feel like Bioware went overboard on the romance stuff. I remember playing Knights of the Old Republic in the good old days, before gaming companies felt like they needed to represent every possible sexual orientation. Good times.

3. Item Storage
This may be a little picky of me, but I much prefer Oblivion's item storage system to Dragon Age's. Sure, you could get overencumbered, but at least you could carry more things based on your level of strength. In Dragon Age you have seventy item "slots" for your character. Weight is disregarded completely. Also, you can carry as many of the same item per slot as you like, which seems completely unrealistic to me. It's like, although your character has a limited number of pockets, those pockets are infinitely large on the inside.

4. Skills
Skills are little handy abilities your character uses to make his or her way through the world. They're very useful, but there comes a point in the game where upgrading your skills becomes relatively useless. You and your party members each become good at one or two of them, and that setup works really well. The problem is, when you've maxed out those one or two skills, the game keeps offering you more points. You could start learning another skill, like stealing, but another character in your party is already maxed out in that skill, rendering those points completely unnecessary. It's not harmful, certainly, but it's annoying.

To sum up: Dragon Age is an exceptional game, as rich and absorbing as any good book. Its good points far outweigh its bad ones, and I highly recommend it.
 
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The Institute for Circular Reasoning by Peter Semple is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.