Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dragon Age: Initial Thoughts

I haven't been this excited about a new game since Civ IV. Even Oblivion had to wait for well over a year before I deigned to pick it up. But Dragon Age has been shouting "Buy me! Play me!" for quite a long time.

My list of favorite games changes regularly, depending on my mood and memory, but Baldur's Gate 2 holds a really secure spot on there. I've played many good games since then, but none has captured the magical combination of awesomeness that defined BG2... phenomenal writing, a plot that was gripping yet sprawling, really interesting and detailed play mechanics that rewarded you for planning out tactical combat, and a living, breathing world that you felt fully a part of. I still can hardly believe that we had a game - a high fantasy RPG - which allowed you to purchase an equity stake in a theater, hire actors, guide them through weeks of rehearsal, then put on a killer opening night and milk the box office receipts for months. And I'm probably only one of a handful of people who actually bothered with that particular side quest.

The Baldur's Gate games and their successors, Neverwinter Nights, were set in the Sword Coast region of Dungeons & Dragons, and followed the D&D ruleset. (The original BG games were version 2, Throne of Bhaal was 2.5, and NWN was version 3.) So the online RPG community leapt for joy when Bioware announced that they were working on a new series, called Dragon Age, which would mark a return to the realm of high fantasy (more recently, Bioware has dabbled in Eastern settings with Jade Empire, the Star Wars universe with KOTOR, and the alternate space setting of Mass Effect), but this time use their own intellectual property. No more borrowing setting, content, or rules from Wizards of the Coast; Bioware would build everything up from scratch for an incredible game experience. The universe cheered.

That was... oh, about six years ago.

Bioware has been running a VERY tight ship. Even after they started announcing the release date, they did not follow the normal process of dropping tons of videos and screenshots on everyone. The game didn't even have a web site or forum until very recently.

And, you know what? I've been totally fine with that. I decided long ago to not let myself get too excited over the game. I've had my heart broken before, and have had near escapes from things I thought would be sure-fire wonderful games (I'm looking at you, Spore). Wasting $50 on a game that isn't fun isn't nearly as much of a tragedy now as it was a decade ago, but on general principle I still don't like to waste money or time. And, honestly, I didn't want a bad Bioware experience to leave a bad taste in my mouth that would cover up my delicious memories of the BG series. So, I resolved to hold off getting the game until I could read some reviews, and to avoid all advance info about it. (I should point out that this isn't very unusual for me. Once I find an author or director or whatever who I like, I always stay away from any information about the work until after I've had a chance to experience it directly. Hence my overuse of the SPOILERS tags on this blog.)

I was pretty good on avoiding info, not great. I lasted pretty long until my youngest brother started geeking out on it, at which point I couldn't help out-geeking him. I started reading through their codex, getting a feel for the world and its system, avoiding anything that seemed plot- or gameplay-related. What I found looked rather interesting.


On the surface, DA seems indistinguishable from any other major high-fantasy work. You have three good races, the humans, elves, and dwarves. Dwarves have long beards and live underground; elves have finer features and come from the forest; humans are numerous and live in cities. There are many monsters running around who want to kill the good guys. There are fighters, wizards, and rogues who, respectively, use might, magic, and larceny as they quest together.

However, Bioware hasn't just lazily copy-and-pasted The Silmarilion here. They are re-using existing entities, but coming up with really fresh and interesting stories about them. For example, unlike in Middle-earth, where the elves are a superior race, in the world of DA, elves have been essentially enslaved by humans. They live in squalid slums, and are treated as an underclass. Only a few wild elves survive, and their existence is hardly better, trying to scrape together a living away from human encroachment.

Dragon Age is also billed as a Dark Fantasy. I suppose that this is mainly to distinguish it from children's fantasy. I recently read a chat transcript with some Bioware guys, and one of them mentioned that George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" was one of the inspirations for the game's tone. I think that's a great analogy... both are fantasies set in vaguely medieval worlds that have extremely ruthless plots. (Martin's focuses more on the political fractiousness of the middle ages, while, at least so far, DA seems to focus a bit more on the spiritual aspects of a dominant Church.)

Anyways. All that to say that, by the time the game rolled around, I was only somewhat pure. I had watched a video trailer that featured an extended (choreographed, not in-game) battle, and had a basic understanding of the game world. Oh! And I had also played Journeys. Dragon Age Journeys is a fascinating marketing idea - a group made a complete, stand-alone Flash game that's set in the Dragon Age world and features many of the same gameplay characteristics (leveling up, talents, skills, leveled weapons and armor, etc.), but is, y'know, inside a browser. It was fun, though maddening technical glitches seemed to keep me from getting my premium content.

Ohhhh, right, I should mention that as well. Other than the game itself, the huge thing about Dragon Age is its vast set of downloadable content. This is a game-driven yet purely technical achievement, roughly analogous to Valve rolling out Steam simultaneously with HalfLife 2. Downloadable content is hands-down the hot topic in gaming these days. Games like Rock Band have shown that after consumers have given you $50 for a game (and maybe another $70 or more for instruments!) you can make them return to the well time and time again for little $5 impulse purchases. Those purchases add up, and can easily eclipse the cost of the game itself. (Personally, I've probably spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 on Rock Band songs, and I'm an extremely casual player.)

Dragon Age incorporates that whole thing into the game itself. Well, even more than that, outside the game. Because I had been logged in to my Bioware account while I was playing Journeys, when I started playing Origins for the very first time, my rewards from Journeys were waiting for me. Now, most content that's out there now is basic stuff, just things like magic rings, enchanted boots, and so forth. However, there are also downloadable characters, locations, and entire quests as well. Bioware has been very open about this: they want to spend years and years releasing extended content for the game, probably in the form of little add-on chapters... maybe you'll pay $10 and get a new quest of about 10-15 hours.

Which is cool and all in the abstract. I'd rather have it for free, but I recognize the economics of the situation. It takes a lot of talent from a lot of people to put together a fun, polished product, and those people deserve to be fed. The big problem, though, was that Bioware just wasn't prepared for it. They wrote a long, heartfelt, apologetic post describing the meltdown that occurred: they had gathered the best evidence they could about what sort of traffic a single-player game with downloadable content could possibly create, drawing data from recent major launches like Spore. They expanded that by the size of the content that was available, and then doubled that figure. In addition, they created a "Plan B" in case that didn't prove to be enough and they needed to bring on more capacity. Well, launch week was a mess. Eager consumers blew past their initial setup, annihilated Plan B, and hungrily slavered as desperate Bioware IT guys frantically tried to pull together more computers. Bioware limped through the European launch, and seem to be doing well now, but man, how the Internet HOWLED! People were outraged that they had paid extra for expanded, premium content, and were not allowed access to it.

I'd been curious exactly how the content would work. Would you need to go on a quest in order to get your items? Would they be restricted to certain levels? No, and not exactly. Items just show up in your inventory when you first start the game, before you've gotten anything else, and can provide a significant boost to your early efforts. Other things show up as optional quests; I haven't had a chance to try those out yet. (In case you're curious, I just opted for the basic version. I have no use for a tin case. I do like the idea of a cloth map, but sadly these have gotten way worse since their Ultima glory days. Gamers now have a new name for these: "Mapkins.")

Some of the special items came as incentives for pre-ordering the game. This was actually a kind of bizarre situation, as Bioware offered different incentives to different realtors. Anyone who pre-ordered would get the Memory Band, but only Amazon customers would get the Lions Paw Boots, and Gamestop consumers would get another reward, and so on. I'm fascinated by the concept that someone might choose to buy one place instead of another because they can some different loot that better fits their intended character.

I chose Amazon, not so much for the Lion's Paw Boots (though they do fit decently well with my rogue), but rather because they were offering a $10 credit. (Retailers seem to be pretty creative in finding ways to get around the fixed prices on major new releases.) I finally pulled the trigger on the preorder after catching a couple of online reviews. Pre-release buzz has been very positive, but it's hard to judge from that; it seems like every game gets great feedback until it's actually released. The major sites actually hadn't reviewed it yet by launch day, but a couple had, enough to give me confidence that I wasn't making a horrible mistake.

I was planning on just doing the standard free shipping for the game; it came out on a Tuesday, and I wouldn't be able to play it much before the weekend. But then I noticed that they offered "Release Day Shipping," which would guarantee delivery on Tuesday, and cost just a buck more than standard shipping. I mentally shrugged and bought it. On Monday night, I received notice that it had shipped... from Indiana. I laughed... it seemed like it COULD get to me on Tuesday, but not terribly likely. On Tuesday, it was in my hands around 10AM. I was astonished. Go Amazon!

Of course, since I HAD the game on Tuesday, I had to at least install it. On my ride back from work I devoured the manual (NERD!) and daydreamed about the game. Then, I realized I had made a horrible mistake. As part of their really excellent marketing campaign, Bioware had released their Character Creator for Origins several weeks earlier. You could use it to, well, create your character. As Penny Arcade has noted, some of us can take a VERY LONG TIME to make the character look just the way we want.

In my case, I had been toying with the idea of playing another Bard, in homage to my BG2 character. It seemed like elves would make great bards, so I made a character named Cirion who was a City Elf Rogue. (Bard is a specialization that you can take once you reach Level... Eight, I think?) I had spent... well, yeah, probably a bit under an hour tweaking the face, playing with the hair, trying out different voices, and making it just right.

Well, anyways, on my ride home as I was actually reading about the races and classes, I realized that to play the kind of character I wanted, I'd be way better off as a dwarf. An elf's bonuses wouldn't do anything for me, while I would get some benefit from a dwarf's. And, furthermore, since bard is a specialization, I would need to be a full-on rogue for my party. This ain't like the days of BG, when you had a six-character party and could get away with both a rogue AND a useless bard. No, one rogue was all I could take. Which was fine - I love playing as a thief, and actually would have taken the thief class in BG if it hadn't been for Imoen - but it meant that I'd need to scrap Cirion and start from scratch.

I let DA install while I was making supper, then took a far more hurried run through the character creator. Dwarf Commoner gave me a MUCH better set of starting skills than a City Elf, and I quickly allocated the attributes to give me a high Cunning and Dexterity. (I'm deliberately not putting anything into Strength - a later talent [or is it skill? I still have trouble remembering which is which] will allow me to substitute my Cunning for Strength in most applications.) I started from a preset that I generally liked, then played around with the hair and tattooes, leaving most of the options (ears, eyes, nose, mouth, neck, brow) largely untouched. I spent a bit more time on the voice, knowing that I'd be hearing a lot of it. I was pleased to note that they had an entirely different set of Dwarf voices from their Elf offerings, and finally chose one that appealed to me. Finally, for the name I chose Seberin, as an appropriate alter ego to Cirion.

I almost always play as a rogue when I get the chance to do so. For American-style RPGs that let you define your own character, I generally model my character after a mixture of Shadowspawn/Hanse from the Thieves' World books and Silk from the David Eddings novel. My archetypal thief is completely and shamelessly larcenous, happily stealing anything that isn't locked down; he will steal from anyone, he prefers to steal from the rich, but primarily because they have better stuff. That said, apart from this rather large gap he is still a rather moral person: faithful to his friends, helping people when he has the opportunity, supporting causes that he believes in. Silk was charismatic, a real charmer; Shadowspawn personified silence and quiet menace. My characters typically land somewhere between one of those extremities, partly depending on my current mood but even more depending on how fun the games' creators have made each approach.

My BG2 Bard was very much in the Silk vein, and so far Seberin is following suit. There's no Charisma stat in this game, but I'm taking all the Persuasion skills that I can take, and my Cunning has already allowed me to talk myself into some new places. I've been almost entirely bypassing the combat skills, which I'm sure will bite me sooner or later - I've already learned that DA:O uses leveled enemies, and the thing I hated most about Oblivion was how I would spend time increasing my lockpicking and sneaking skills only to level up and be punished by far more difficult enemies. ANYWAYS. Jumping ahead of myself.

Back to the game: The "Origins" part of "Dragon Age: Origins" both reflects that (1) this is the introductory chapter in a new game world, and (2) the game features a variety of "origin stories" that define your character's destiny and motivation. As a Dwarf Commoner, I was a member of the Casteless. We learn that the Dwarves follow a strictly striated caste system, far more severe than that followed by humans: every person is born into a caste and knows exactly what their relationship is relative to everyone else. Nobles on top, then craftsmen and merchants and so on. Even servants are members of the servant caste, and take pride in it. Seberin, though, was born to parents who had no caste. Long ago, folk wisdom says, the dwarfish Gods were angered by the great evil among some of their people, and punished them by marking those dwarves and casting them out. Therefore, it is a sacred duty for every dwarf to shun the casteless. Every dwarf bears tattoos marking their social position, so everywhere you go, you are ostracized.

Seberin works for a crime lord, someone who mainly smuggles objects from the mines to lucrative markets on the surface. The most lucrative trade is in lyrium. Lyrium is the stuff of magic, the source of mages' powers. Because dwarves have lived for generations surrounded by the stuff, they are largely immune to its powers; this is why dwarves cannot become mages, and why they are naturally resistant to spells. Lyrium is more or less useless to the folks in the mines, but it is essential for mages, and so anyone who can get lyrium to the surface will be rewarded.

Early in the origin story, the boss asks you to track down a smuggler who has made off with some lyrium, and take care of him. This is among the first of the many fascinating moral choices you must make. Bioware is pretty famous for their moral dilemmas; some are presented better than others, but all of their RPGs constantly give you the opportunity to make interesting decisions based on your world view. Both your actions and your motivations can be expressed; the most typical example in the Baldur's Gate series is when a noble person asks you to go on a virtuous quest and offers a reward. A good person will go on the quest. A very good person will go on the quest and refuse the reward. A neutral or bad person will go on the quest, but loudly proclaim that they are only doing it because of the money. A very evil person will kill the noble and take their money.

Anyways, you have some opportunities earlier in the game to establish your personality. You first speak with your sister, and then with your mother, and in those conversations you are receiving information (learning about who you are, what you do, who your family is), but also providing information to the game (whether you are kind or cruel, whether you have a sense of humor, whether you are motivated mainly by fear or greed or virtue, whether you are curious or traditional). On this job, though, you meet the renegade smuggler, and have a host of options in dealing with him. I only played through it once, but it would be fascinating to try again and see how else it could go. You can kill him right away, or talk with him. If you talk you can wheedle, or threaten, or cajole. You have to decide whether to accept a bribe to let him get away. If you accept it (as I did) you have to decide whether to hold up your end of the deal or just kill him. And those choices have consequences: I let him go, only to learn later that the boss had witnesses in the tavern who could testify that he had walked away alive. Only some quick silver-tongued persuasion on my part convinced him that I had killed him later on. What if I had failed to persuade him? Good question. I'm sure that the game would have still proceeded with the next segment, where you infiltrate a fight of champions put on for the Grey Wardens, but the script would have followed a different path to get you there. More than the actual gameplay impact, what I love about stuff like this is how INTERESTING it is. There isn't a clear "right" answer, you need to struggle with the choices you're given, and your choices lead to believable yet unpredictable consequences.

That said, I'm very curious just how my gameplay style will map onto their morality system. They aren't using a D&D-style alignment attribute, where I would probably wind up on the Chaotic Neutral pole. Anyways, there's a lot of ambiguity in a kleptomaniac who genuinely likes people and wants to save the world, and I'm curious what the game ends up deciding I am.

I've just recently finished the introductory portion of the game. After the origin story, you meet with the Grey Wardens, do some stuff in the woods, then watch some awesome cinematics and fight in a big battle. I'm just now to the point where the world starts to open up a little: I can see an overworld map with lots of locations on it, and soon I should be able to start moving around at will. I'm quite looking forward to it! The game's been good up until now, but I'm a huge fan of the free-roaming, side-questing, exploration, steal-everything-you-can phase of these games.

That's it for now - I'm sure I'll have an exhaustive summary once I finally beat the game. Depending on what's happening in the rest of my life, that may not be until a year from now, so don't hold your breath.

Oh! One more thing - user-created content. As if BG2 wasn't already one of the best games out there, it also had some of the best user-built mods that I've ever seen. It's really pretty amazing; people are STILL updating mods for it now, almost a decade after it came out. People created entirely new "romance patches" that allow you to, for example, have a baby with Aerie. I never got too deep into NWN, but it also had a rich modding community that released a lot of stuff. Anyways, Bioware has taken the tools that they used to build the game, and are releasing them to us, The People. This is an unmitigated wonderful thing. It'll be a while until we start seeing real mods, but I can't wait to see what people come up with. I'm extremely tempted to get into it myself - I haven't even downloaded the tools yet, but I'm already fantasizing a bit about potential add-ons. One of the best aspects of the new Bioware Social site is adding the ability for potential modders to find one another. We're long past the time when a single dedicated person could put together a decent mod; these days, you need someone with the time and talent to create custom character models, and another person to handle programming, and maybe other people for sound, writing dialog, play-testing, and so on. The increasingly complex games we have demand more specialization, so kudos to Bioware for trying to help make that happen.

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