Monday, July 05, 2010

Review: Dragon Age: Origins (PS3)

Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare's latest run into the storydriven fantasy RPG genre, it was released back at the end of 2009. I played through the Playstaion 3 version of the game, the PC version has some bigger changes in the interface, which I can't comment on, as I haven't played it.

The game starts with a typical character creation screen, like in so many other RPGs, this is the only place where you can customize your character, later changes of haircut or such are impossible. I don't really get why as it wouldn't hurt to allow customization later on, yet it would make it much easier to fix early mistakes. Depending on which race you chose you will see a different Origin story, i.e. around an hour of the game that is completly unique per race. After that hour the different races path will cross and the rest of the game will be more or less the same for everybody.

The overall structure of the game is very similar to Mass Effect, the game is build around a global worldmap from which you quick travel to locations in which you can then talk to people or solve quests. The worldmap itself is purely a GUI element and you are always restricted to the rather small locations, there is no huge open world that you can freely traverse in this game. This allows the game to be rather story focused, as you don't have much chance to wonder off from the given path, but you are free to tackle most quests in whatever order you desire. This also has the consequence that the game is basically grind free, as there are simply no endlessly respawning monster hordes.

The dialog system in the game is basically the same as in earlier BioWare titles, you don't have a Mass Effect-like dialog wheel, but classic dialog trees. Unlike previous titles however I found the dialogs to be much more natural in this game. There is no longer a clear split between good and evil answers, most of the time at least. There is also no longer a one dimensional good/evil meter, instead your party members approve or disapprove your actions individually and thus there is a bar that indicates how much they like you. One big downside of the dialog system is that your main character is mute again. Voiced dialog only comes from the NPCs or your party members, this steals a good bit of the authenticity that the dialogs had in Mass Effect and makes everything feel more game like and less movie like.

The story is a bit of a mixed bag, it is not bad, but neither is it as gripping as Mass Effects. It also developers rather uneven. The main story is rather uninteresting and boils down to basically slaying a single dragon, but a few subplots can be quite interesting, but even there I missed a satisfying explanation for the bad guys motivation, searching around on the Internet it seems that there are two prequel books that give some further insight into that, but something like that should really be part of the core game.

The fight system in the game is functional in that it lets you smash enemies, but on the consoles it just feels weird. You have direct third person control over your character at all times and also the ability to switch to other party members and control them, yet the fighting itself while played in realtime is mostly dice rolling. You have the ability to pause the game at any time to assign different actions, but a way to command your party members to go to a specific position seems missing. Your members will act intelligent enough that this doesn't become much of a practical issue for most part, but sometimes they just end up running all over the place and it would be nice if there would be a way to tell them "Go there". What makes the fight system especially weird is the mix of realtime and dice rolling, some of your spells depend on the exact position of enemies, but many other spells and attacks just home on you and you can't dodge them, they will even fly through walls, so that taking cover is close to impossible. Another problem with the system is that the outcome just felt to random, sometimes I was beaten by a foe without a chance and on the next reload I bit him without a problem, without a clear indication what I did different. This randomness is enhanced due to the lack of mid-fight revival early in the game, as when an important character dies the fight might be as good as lost. The fight thus becomes a game of drinking your potions fast enough. Another issue with the fight system is that I found the most successful tactic with bigger foes is to simply run away, if you are lucky the foe will run after you and you can simply run in circles while one of your mages or archers is shooting him from a safe distance. This however also works the other way around, if a foe runs away, it is nearly impossible to hit him with a sword, as sword attacks only seem to work when both parties stand still. If you press attack on a fleeing enemy, your character will simply run after him. These annoyances caused me to switch to the casual difficulty, as there just isn't much point in doing lots of load and save to make it past and uninteresting fight. On the positive side however the game automatically refreshes your health and mana after each fight, so you don't have to mess around with potions between fights and your characters will automatically be revived if a single member survives the fight. This is basically the same system used in Mass Effect and it removes a good part of annoying micromanagement.

The items system in the game suffers from the usual issues, such as having an always full inventory. This can be somewhat fixed by buying backpacks that enlarge your inventory and buy selling old unneeded stuff, which the game handles well in that it allows you to sort unneeded stuff into a "junk" category from which you can then destroy them or sell them later when you meet a salesperson. There are also just to many items in the game without a clear use, they might come into use for other classes or higher difficulties, but on the lower difficulties I simply ended up collecting a lot of stuff that I never used and the game didn't do much to explain what they are for. The game also has rather uninteresting weapons and armor, not once in the game did I need to buy a weapon or a piece of armor, as everything I found randomly was simply good enough, so I allocated plenty of money without nothing to buy. And just like Mass Effect the game gives you way more party members then you can use. What's the point of having eight members when you can only ever use three of them? Even worse there actually is a single point where you need to use them all, right at the end, which of course sucks when you haven't bothered to level up and equip the people you never used. On the positive side however, all party members gain experience, even when not used.

On the technical side the game is ok, but not great, the graphics especially suffer from slowdowns/loading times when you want to cast a bigger spell and the texture resolution is quite low when it comes to character close ups. Object also pop-in at quite a short distance. But overall it works, the slowdowns don't bother duo to the dice-rolling nature of most of the fighting and you simply get used to the low-res textures.
The loading times in the game are acceptable, but the startup time however is horrible, as the game spends a really good long while on checking your save games and connecting to the online service for DLC, so much that you get the feel that the thing crashed.

Just like Mass Effect 2 the game comes with codes for DLC in the box. Those are used to give you an incentive to buy the game new, as the codes can only be used once, but as if those codes weren't already annoyingly enough, they also have an expire date of 30. April 2010. So at this point you can just buy it used. There is also extra pay-DLC for the game, which is advertised by characters in the game itself, this is among the most stupid and annoying things that I have seen in gaming so far, it however only happens in two places as far as I can tell, so you can easily avoid it once you know where they are.

Overall the game is really good. It took me around 40h to finish the game the first time through and there is still plenty of replay value with all the different dialog choices and races. It however never quite reached the quality of Mass Effect, neither in terms of graphics, gameplay nor story. It falls into a few common RPG pitfalls, but for most part avoids them well enough, especially on the lower difficulties you can simply play it, have fun and enjoy characters, dialogs and the story, without ever feeling overwhelmed or being required to do any grinding or to many fetch quests. When it comes to value for the money, this game is hard to beat, just don't expect anything revolutionary, as this game follows for most part the traditional and familiar BioWare formula.

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