Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dragon Youth

Well, I've been having a blast with Dragon Age.  It has utterly taken over my leisure time, and very pleasantly so.  For the last couple of weekends, nearly every minute that was not spent hiking, eating, or sleeping was devoted to Dragon Age.  It's been a long time since a game has sucked me in this much, and I'm loving the experience.

Before I get to the juicy stuff, let me get a few complaints off my chest.

* Bizarre server integration.  DA is a single-player game, but it uses DRM with the server to authenticate your right to use "premium content."  As a result, if you try to load a saved game before it has authenticated you, it will deny you permission.  What's much worse is that the game regularly phones home as you play the game, uploading your progress so your friends on the social site can keep track of what you're doing.  Except, if you have a spotty Internet connection (as I apparently do, though I hadn't noticed any real problems before now), you get annoying modal pop-ups saying "Unable to connect to Dragon Age server."  Which is incredibly aggravating.  It persists even if you disable all the available options for uploading data.  This is my number-one request for the next patch.
* The economy feels broken.  It isn't nearly as aggravating as, say, Morrowind, where my main complaint was that no merchant in the world had enough money to buy the best stuff you found.  My main complaint here is the extreme discount on selling stuff back to merchants.  There is a twenty-five-years-old tradition in fantasy RPGs of being able to buy weapons and armor (or whatever), use them until you find or buy better equipment, and then sell the originals back.  Traditionally you earn between one-half and one-quarter of the original purchase price; you don't make money on selling stuff back, but it's a reasonable investment.  In DA, you're basically getting pennies on the dollar.  As a result, there's no incentive to buy any equipment... it has a limited lifespan, and will be useless once you get the next tier, which will probably happen soon.  After discussing with Andrew, I adopted his strategy of only buying gifts, potions, and skill/talent books from merchants.  I also really like Andrew's suggested improvement, which is simply to add a new set of skills or talents for bargaining; alternately, have your Coercion affect bargaining, or your Cunning.  Someone with all four ranks and a Cunning of 100 could sell items back at full price; someone with no ranks and 10 cunning would get today's crummy rates.  This would take only a minor tweak in the game code, and lead to a far more satisfying and interesting economy.
* In general, the Journal and Codex are extremely useful and well-written.  However, at least once I've been in a quest which did not update the Journal when I got a crucial new piece of information.  That wouldn't be so horrible, except that I currently have at least 30 open sidequests, and am actively working on a dozen or so of them at any given time.  I spent about an hour wandering around Orzamar looking for Faryn before realizing that (1) he wasn't actually in Orzamar after all, and (2) I had spoken with him last week, when he told me that I needed to go to Redcliffe to continue the quest.  Gah!  I suppose it's a sign of how good the Journal usually is that I hadn't considered that it wasn't accurate here.

And... that's about it!  On to the good.  First, the system.

Overall control in combat feels almost exactly like Baldur's Gate.  This is a Very Good Thing.  You pause the whole game by pressing the spacebar, and then can study the battlefield and decide on tactics.  You can control each individual party member, but it's also easy to select everyone and issue the same order; for low-level fights, I usually just grab everyone and instruct them to attack some poor sap, then repeat with the next villain in line.  Combat is incredibly satisfying.  Everyone can learn various special moves, which are basically equivalent to feats from D&D 3rd edition.  My rogue can hit someone below the belt, which slows them down and causes them to take more damage.  An archer can shoot someone in the foot, which traps them in place for a while so they cannot move.  Someone with a two-handed weapon can activate various modes, like Indomitable or Powerful Swings, that change their overall performance in battle, like increasing their strength and making them impossible to knock down, but making them more vulnerable to damage.  For most standard fights, you won't bother with these special moves, but on tricky boss fights or ones in unusual situations, you'll need to carefully consider how you operate.  For example, I was recently ambushed on a forest road.  There were archers to the left, on a raised hill across a ravine, and some fighters and dogs on the path ahead.  I ordinarily rush enemies with my melee fighters, surrounding them with three attackers while my mage casts spells on them from the rear.  In this case, though, there was no room to maneuver on the path, Instead, I sent my strongest guy ahead to block the bath and tackle the enemies one-on-one.  Meanwhile, my other two melee fighters switched from swords or daggers to bows and arrows.  None of them are specifically trained in archery, but they're good enough at it.  So my newly minted archers and my mage concentrated their fire on the archers atop the hill while my main fighter kept them safe.  It was unconventional, and the fact that it was unconventional made it even more satisfying.  No two fights are exactly alike, even if you're always fighting with the same team.

I do have to confess one guilt: I'm not sure whether this is a shortcoming of me or of the game, but I have come to follow a standard strategy when I face a fight that seems too hard.  First, some background: I have a team that's extremely effective when facing an opponent, even a very strong one, but because I don't have area-of-effect attacks, we can get overwhelmed by a large number of weaker enemies.  When I get into this situation, then, I try to even the odds.  My main character is a rogue who has high levels of stealth.  He'll sneak ahead until he finds the next set of enemies, and get a feel for their numbers.  If it's reasonable, he'll position himself behind the strongest spellcaster or fighter in the group; then, the rest of the party will charge in, and when the enemies start attacking them, he'll backstab like mad.  On the other hand, if there are just too many enemies, then he'll head back towards the party, and then, once only a couple of enemies are still in sight, he'll reveal himself.  This will attract a couple of enemies to chase after him; he'll run back to the rest of the party, and then we'll have a good old-fashioned slaughter.  Repeat as necessary.  Again, it feels cheap, and I'm sure a lot of people would hate to play this way, but I'd rather do something sneaky like this than drop to an easier difficulty level.

And actually, now that I think about it, I learned this tactic at the hands of the game.  Relatively early on in the story, you and three other fighters are exploring a woods.  You run across an enemy spellcaster standing on a bridge who casts hostile magic at you.  One of the first lessons you'll learn in DA is to focus on enemy mages first: they are weak, so they go down fairly easily, and more importantly, they can do more damage and cause more grief than almost anyone else.  So we all rushed him, at which point he turned tail and ran.  We chased after him.  BAM!  The land beyond the bridge was filled with traps.  Party members took damage and were stuck in place.  Dozens of previously invisible enemies were lying in wait, and others had emerged from stealth on the bridge behind us, effectively blocking our retreat.  I lost that battle.  I re-loaded the game; next time, I fought the mage with ranged attacks, and then, when he fled, only advanced very cautiously.  At each stage we attacked the visible opponents with archery attacks.  Once we had clear cover, my rogue disarmed all the traps, and then we could finally advance forward and finish off the mage and the rest of the enemies.  All that to say, I learned well how devastating it could be to lead others into an ambush, and so maybe I needn't feel guilty of trying it myself.

I was initially disappointed at the party size; Baldur's Gate allowed you to have a party of six, and even then I thought that I could have enjoyed controlling one or two more.  Four is definitely smaller than six, but it's a good number.  From what I've heard, there are a lot of viable strategies to use when forming your party, depending on who you want to adventure with and what style of combat you prefer.  My stock party is led by my rogue, who has some skill with two-handed weapons but mainly specializes in the softer skills (coercion, stealing, stealth, lockpicking, trap detection, etc.).  He is backed up by two solid fighters: one is a very powerful two-handed-weapon specialist who can deal incredibly damage; the other is also a strong fighter, but favors using a shield, and as a result acts as a bit of a damage magnet.  (My rogue has only about half as much health as either fighter, but he almost never dies, because they are so good at absorbing enemy attention and attacks).  One simple but very enjoyable aspect of battle mechanics is backstabbing.  If you position your rogue behind an enemy, every attack that he lands will count as a backstab, which does much more damage than usual.  Because enemies tend to focus on the hulking, scary warriors swinging swords in their faces, it's simple to send my tiny little dwarf behind them where he can rapidly prick them full of holes with his two enchanted daggers.  My fourth party member is a mage.  She initially specialized in offensive ice-based magic, but became far more useful once she learned the Heal spell.  She's now a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and shifts her role more often than any other party member, based on the ebb and flow of the battle.  Most of the time she is using ranged magical attacks on whichever enemy we're facing.  When someone starts falling in health, she'll pump them up.  She uses targeted ice attacks on particularly tough enemies.  When we're surrounded by a crowd of enemies, she'll use Mind Blast to try and incapacitate a large number of them.  If she's stuck facing a bunch of enemies at once, she'll break out Cone of Cold to freeze them in place.

One tricky thing about DA, as with D&D, is that many of the best magical attacks can also hurt your party members.  This goes both ways, of course: I've faced several enemy mages who've wiped out their own low-level opponents with an inopportune fireball.  As a result, I've stayed away from some of the more impressive offensive magic, because it isn't compatible with my hands-on melee style.  That said, I've heard that some people have extremely successful parties that consist of three mages and one warrior.  The warrior only exists to draw attention away from the mages, while the mages can use their powerful area-of-effect magic to wipe the field clean.  (I haven't tried this myself, but I think the best deal would be to, say, give your warrior all the fire resistant armor and charms that you can find, and then use fireballs with impunity.)  Some people have even been able to fit two rogues into the party, by making one a two-weapon melee fighter, and having the other specialize in archery.  The point is: four people actually works.

I think the biggest reason WHY it works is because of the Camp.  In Baldur's Gate, if you dismissed someone from your party, they were out.  You might be able to get them back later, if you went to their home or whatever, but until you did they wouldn't be involved in any of the action.  In DA, though, you are conceptually traveling with all of your followers all of the time.  Whenever you want, you can make camp (outside a city, in the wilderness, wherever) and see everyone.  This is a great time to talk with people, give them gifts, pursue romantic entanglements, whatever you fancy.  In a particularly brilliant stroke, Bioware set it up so early in the game you encounter some merchants who decide to travel with you; therefore, no matter where you are, you always have someone who can buy all of your loot.  (My only criticism here: the camp merchants' items, and particularly their health poultices, really should regenerate.)

Anyways!  You can still kick people out of your party if you want, but by letting you travel with more than four people, Bioware has avoided the most agonizing aspect of the old BG system.  I was always worried that, by not taking a certain follower, I'd be missing out on an especially cool quest.  Now, even if you generally don't take someone in your party while you go to battle or go shopping, you still can talk with them, learn their story, and maybe get to go on a quest or two for them.

That being said, there are definitely certain situations where having someone in your four-person party affects the plot of the game.  Some scenes will only be triggered if a certain member is in your party.  Often, when you're talking with an NPC, that NPC will interact with other party members, but if they aren't in your active party, you'll never see that interaction.  One of the most dramatic things that happens, though, is that party members will comment on your choices, and their opinion of you will grow or diminish based on your decisions.  This can make organizing a party especially tricky.  I mentioned before that I travel with two warriors and a mage.  Well, one of the warriors is basically a Lawful Good type; the other is either Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil; and the mage is probably Chaotic Neutral or Chaotic Evil.  Needless to say, they don't always see eye-to-eye.  If one of them approves of a decision, I can expect others to disapprove.  Therefore, I've gotten into the habit of switching to an alternate party when I move into a city or other area that I expect to contain a high level of personal interaction and a low level of combat; even though these people aren't effective fighters, they're far more likely to agree with one another and myself, and so I don't need to worry about triggering unnecessary disapproval.  Which may seem cheap, but hey, maybe not.  After all, in Firefly, Mal would take Jayne and Zoe with him when he had to deal with some violent back-stabbing smugglers, but he would take Wash and Kaylee when he went shopping.  I'm basically doing the same thing here.

Conversations in general are - wow.  Just really, really well done.  I have spent an hour at a time in camp, just talking with all of my various followers, learning what makes them tick, trying to impress them with my empathy, picking the perfect tokens of my affection for them.  (In case you're curious, this is totally unnecessary - if you wanted to, you could beat the whole game just by yourself, and kick everyone else out of your party.  It wouldn't be nearly as much fun, though.  And, you don't have to make your party members like you, but if you do, (1) they're more likely to share interesting quests and such with you, and (2) they may be inspired by your leadership and become more effective at their tasks.)  I've gotten in the habit of saving before I start any significant conversation.  Most of the time it goes well, but in case disaster strikes, I can always quick-load and try it again.  The conversations are very well-written, interesting, and meaningful.  At various places in the conversation you are prompted to ask a question, add a comment, or respond to your interlocutor.  There's always a good variety of options available here, and I almost never feel like I don't want any of them.  You can be humble or proud, honest or deceitful, amorous or cold, brave or cowardly, fun-loving or boring, nostalgic or practical... I think that my initial post had mentioned that I was curious how morality would play out in this game.  Well, it's almost entirely done within the conversations, and it's an incredibly broad range, far more multidimensional than the old Law/Chaos/Good/Evil choices.  And I'm impressed to see that the game doesn't try to reduce you down to a particular moral description.  Instead of your character having some sort of absolute moral position, your morality really exists as reflected in the opinions of your companions.  Each will judge you on their own moral system, and depending on how consistently you behave, different people may have very different perceptions of you.

The end result: I don't feel like I'm confined to playing out a particular role, either a role that was assigned to me or one that I chose.  Instead, I can improvise, really finding the best expression of my character's personality through the multitude of moral choices I receive.  In doing so, I don't need to worry that, say, I'll lose my Templar abilities if I stray from the path of Lawful Good, or that I'll lose my Druid position if I abandon the cause of Neutrality.  I can make the choices I want.  That said, there are still consequences: primarily in the opinions of those you travel with, but also in how the world itself is affected by your decisions.


So: my main character, Seberin, is a rogue.  I mentioned in my previous post that I tend to play RPG rogues as a sort of mixture between Silk and Shadowspawn.  I'm finding that I have more choice and more personality in this game than I've been able to play with before.  I'm playing the character that I find most fun to play, not the character that necessarily aligns best with a power-gaming strategy.

Seberin exhibits what the movie Grosse Pointe Blank described as "a certain moral flexibility."  He lies, he connives, he schemes, he steals, he cheats.  However (and any interesting character needs to have a "however"), he does all of this in the ultimate service of good.  He likes his family, cares for the people close to him, and wants to keep the land safe from the darkspawn.  However, if he can get fabulously wealthy while he does this, well, so much the better!

Two recent scenarios gave me a ton of freedom to explore this personality, and I absolutely loved how both of them played out.  I'd be very curious to try again with another character and another set of morals, and see how they would end differently.

First, on a quest for the Urn of Sacred Ashes (mini-spoilers ahead, no biggies), I fought through a long dungeon, and finally met the Big Bad Guy.  He gave a Big Bad Guy speech, and then appeared to change his mind, and ask if I wanted to make a deal.  I ALWAYS am ready to make a deal - even if I don't think I'll take it, I always want to hear the other person out, and see if there's some other advantage I can take.  This guy (I think his name is "Kolgrim," though I may be confusing names here) wanted to enlist my help in destroying the Urn of Sacred Ashes.  This would be a Bad Thing.  I said, "Yes!"  Not because I wanted to do it, but because I wanted to see how far along I could push this thing.  Kolgrim became more chatty, and I learned more about his belief system and what he wanted me to do.  Alistair freaked; I have really high Coercion, so I talked him down and persuaded him that I knew what I was doing.  Morrigan was pleased at the idea of tweaking the Chantry.  Sten was predictably stoic.

We emerged on a mountaintop.  Kolgrim got me past a particularly difficult-looking obstacle, and then showed me the way to the Urn.  On my first play-through, here I attacked Kolgrim and his followers.  They were a smaller crew than in the dungeon, but I still got my tail whipped: Kolgrim, plus a mage, plus a large drake, plus several Reavers, all amounted to an impressive and deadly force.  After a few tries, I figured, "Well, maybe I WON'T attack Kolgrim."  I went ahead, and did some more stuff to finish the quest for the Urn.  At the end, I had the choice of whether to destroy the Urn.  I chose not to - after all, I'm basically a good guy, and not interested in promoting the aims of a demonic cult that murders innocents.  I emerged from the urn, and found Kolgrim, who predictably had a fit.  Screaming in rage, he threw himself at me.  He, and two other Reavers.  No mage.  No drake.  This was a far, far better fight.  By practicing deceit and treachery, I had managed to complete my virtuous quest.  Huzzah!

I'm reminded, incidentally, of my Masterpieces of Western Lit class in college.  We did a few chapters of the Old Testament here - it wasn't as thorough a treatment as I would later tackle in The Bible as Literature, but still quite interesting.  One of the things we talked about a lot was the meaning behind the Old Testament (er, sorry - I meant Hebrew Bible - old habits die hard) stories.  Not in the Sunday School sense of spiritual lessons, but in a sociological sense: what were the virtues that this particular tribe promoted in, say, the story of Jacob and Esau?  Well, seen from a historic and sociological perspective, this story is basically about overturning the laws of primogeniture: an underlying moral is that, rather than automatically granting all of a family's wealth and power to the son who happened to be born first, it is better if the son who is more cunning and clever to take the fortune.  This flew in the face of Mesopotamian culture, but proved to be an incredibly helpful lesson: by rewarding the brightest and cleverest of their tribe, the Hebrews managed to establish a respectable kingdom even in the midst of neighbors who were far larger and more powerful than themselves.

Anyways, I found myself thinking of that... in the Bible story, Jacob is tricky and deceitful when he takes Esau's birthright from him.   But, is he really "bad"?  It's hard to say that he is... after all, it is Jacob and not Esau who fulfills Abraham's promise and founds the great nation.  To be sure, you can make plenty of arguments that he shouldn't have done this, but just reading within the text itself, you can definitely see this kind of trickery promoted as a virtue.  That's the kind of feel that I'm getting for Seberin: he uses amoral means to achieve moral ends.

MEGA SPOILERS (but only if you intend to play The Stone Prisoner)

The second incident came during my quest for Shale.  At the end of a dungeon, I met up with a runaway girl who was talking with a cat.  The cat was talking back.  It was quickly obvious that this cat was actually the demon who had been imprisoned by the mage who used to live here.

The girl is mesmerized by the cat, and won't leave with you.  The cat smugly tells you that it intends to possess her.  But, it must escape from the wards on its prison.  You are given the standard conversation options: denounce the demon and attack it, or acquiesce to its wishes, or attempt to bargain with it.  I did the latter, and then chose an option that allowed me to lie to demon, promising it freedom.  I then got to solve a cute little puzzle.  Once the puzzle was complete, the demon was freed, the girl got scared... and THEN I attacked.  By stringing the demon along, I had gathered more information, lulled it into a false sense of security, and still managed to be a hero and save the day.

This kind of stuff is FUN!


It's probably also a testament to the verity of this game that I thought long and hard about my options for romance.  Bioware first introduced romance in BG2, and the effect was amazing - you had three potential romantic partners (if you were playing a male, that is; I think there was just one option if you were a woman), and incredibly rich and complicated plots that would carry you along the path from acquaintance to companion to friend to lover.  There's been a lot of excitement about romance within DA, and long before the game was released there was a lot of chatter about which partners different people preferred.

Like your party itself, romance is purely optional - it improves your relationship with a particular party member, of course, but it's the sort of thing that you'd do for fun rather than an in-game advantage... with Bioware's excellent writing (and, yes, some interesting game-engine cut scenes), this aspect of the game is uniquely interesting, something fun to do other than cutting up Darkspawn.

Earlier this week, I was tempted to place the following status update on Facebook: "Christopher got to first base with Leliana."  Then I thought I'd modify it by appending, "Is it weird that today's RPGs require more planning and strategy when you woo a woman than they require for assaulting the Dark Lord's fortress?"  Then I decided the whole thing was too wordy, and revealed more of my nerdiness than I really wanted to, and let it go.

As far as I can tell, you have two potential female partners, Morrigan and Leliana.  (There are also gay and/or bi options.)  This put me in an immediate quandary: I wanted, I needed Morrigan to be in my party, but I was much more interested in pursuing Leliana in a romance.  (She's cuter, and sweeter, and more interesting... sort of a Joan of Arc figure, if Joan was a minstrel assassin and spy.)  Still, I had no use for putting Leliana in my party.  She's a rogue, and Seberin was all the rogue that I needed, having already eclipsed her in the theft department.  Since I intended to specialize as a Bard as soon as I could, she was even more useless than Zevram (sp) would later be.  Still, it all worked out well.  I took Morrigan whenever I travelled between areas or while in a hostile location, and I took Leliana everywhere else.  Everything went along swimmingly: I raised bother members' opinion of Seberin considerably, started the romance plot line with Leliana, and toasted my success.

And then I messed up.  Morrigan had been romantically interested in Seberin for a while, although he never pursued anything with her, having learned the hard way that she doesn't react well to any mention of "love."  After one night of indiscretion, though (hey, keep in mind that Seberin is deceitful and greedy), she decided to lay claim to him herself.  Now, I'm afraid to talk to either of them, because both will demand that I break off with the other woman, which wouldn't be so bad, except that I'd need to break up with Morrigan, and that would result in a -30 or so opinion drop.  Hence a loss in her effectiveness as my one and only spellcaster.  Sigh.  Video games were complicated enough already without bringing in romantic entanglements.  (I'm secretly loving it.  I'm also going to wait until someone reverse-engineers the developer console so I can modify my game and reset a flag so I can pretend that Morrigan and Seberin are still just friends.  I fear that this game is teaching me lessons that should not be applied to real life...)


I realize I've just barely scratched the surface of the story.  Honestly, I think there's just too much of it to try and deal with now.  Again, there are an absurd number of side-quests and whatnot going on, all of which feeds the feeling that Faerun is a living, breathing world.  I may try and summarize the plot at a later point, but I definitely won't be able to recall every nuance.

I'm already thoroughly intrigued by the world that Bioware has created here.  Even though this entire game takes place within a single nation, just my conversations with foreigners within my party has intrigued me about settings for future games.  The buzz around DA has been very positive, and my own experiences have been entirely great, so I hope that we'll get to continue exploring this rich land.

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