Thursday, August 02, 2012

You Are a True Warrior and Worthy of Respect. (Happy Bark)

Boy... I seem to keep going from epic game to epic game lately. I swear there was a time just a couple of years ago when I was hardly gaming at all, just dropping in for the occasional round of Civ, but I feel like I've been on a non-stop Bioware binge for practically the last year: first a repeat of the Baldur's Gate tetralogy, then a brief (ha!) sojourn in Europa Universalis, then back on the Bioware horse for Star Wars: The Old Republic, then the entire Mass Effect trilogy, and now I'm dipping back into Dragon Age: Origins. They're all great games, so I really shouldn't complain.

I was actually initially thinking of pressing ahead into Dragon Age 2, despite all the bad things I'd heard about the game, but reviewing other gamers' opinions now didn't make me any more inclined to pick it up. DA2 and Civ 5 are two fascinating examples of games that were praised by the gaming press and absolutely hated by fans of their respective franchises. Reading all the criticism for DA2 (and the inevitable praise of DA:O contained therein) made me nostalgic for a game that I played just a few years ago, and so I decided to return to Ferelden. Thanks to the passage of time, you can now buy the Ultimate Edition of DA:O for just $25 on Amazon (was $15 on Steam during their Summer Sale, and $8 during a Flash Sale). In contrast, Dragon Age 2, a newer game, costs a bit over $7 on Amazon, which speaks volumes about the [lack of] demand for the title.

I already owned DA:O and (ahem) some of the DLC, but Ultimate Edition included a lot more DLC that I had never done before: Leliana's Song, Witch Hunt, Darkspawn Chronicles, and Awakening. I had deliberately stayed away from Awakening when it first came out; the general consensus was "good gameplay, but not much story and not worth the cost." Yeah, maybe not worth the $40 it cost when it came out, but I bet I'll like it just fine as a virtual freebie. (Incidentally, I'm much more interested about DLC for DA2 than I am with the game itself; in particular, I've been tempted to pick it up just for Mark of the Assassin. Yep, I'm a nerd!)

So, in this go-round, I decided to roll a new character and do all of the DLC. So far, it's been a total blast. I think that new players should start by playing the main DA:O campaign, but for repeat players like me, here's a pretty good sequence:
  • Start with Darkspawn Chronicles, which is sort of an alternate-universe version of the climax of the main campaign (and thus something I want to establish psychological distance from quickly). Beating this gives you a cool powerful sword.
  • Continue with Leliana's Song, chronologically set several years before the main campaign starts. This would be a small spoiler for the main campaign, but is perfect here if you've already gone through the main game. This should give you a special piece of armor, but I failed to unlock it and am unwilling to replay it just yet.
  • Play Dragon Age: Origins. You can do the in-game DLC in any order you like: Stone Prisoner, Warden's Keep, Return to Ostagar. (Ultimate Edition also gives you a ton of extra items, including paid DLC items like Feastday Gifts / Pranks and also promotional items like the Edge, Memory Band, and Blood Dragon Armor. Some of these show up in your inventory at the start of the game, others can be bought in the camp.)
  • Witch Hunt?
  • Golems of Amgarrak? I hear that this one is really hard, so I'll probably do it after WH so I can be as high-level as possible.
  • Awakening
  • Cry, then try to decide whether to power through DA2 or just wait for the third game
EDIT 1/22/13: After actually doing this, I've since learned that the post-DA:O sequence should actually go like this: Awakening -> Golems -> Witch Hunt.


Darkspawn Chronicles is... a bit disturbing. The AV Club's Gameological Society actually had a really good write-up about the experience recently. Chronicles is a role-reversal game that feels a little like Dungeon Keeper in that it casts you as an evil monster who must stop the goodly heroes from accomplishing their quest. It's very personal, though: you don't just fight nameless helmeted knights, but must do battle against the companions who you've gotten to know and love throughout your previous game. You must slay Wynne, defeat Sten, murder Zevran, and in the climax, beat a whole party of surviving party members (Alistar, Morrigan, Leliana, and Barkspawn [ha!]). The gameplay is exciting - you can make various Darkspawn your thralls, and it's a lot of fun to control Ogres and Shades and other baddies - but I still cringed at the bad stuff it made me do.

In contrast, Leliana's Song has a great (albeit predictable) story, but the gameplay was just OK. Leliana is one of my favorite characters in DA:O, which has possibly the best collection of companions in any game (though I'll eventually need to resolve the question of whether Mass Effect's are better). This mission lets us see the pre-Chantry version of Leliana; she has a recognizable personality, but it's fun to pick out the differences in her character (she's a little more free-spirited, very trusting, and, curiously enough, less secretive than she is when she ceases being a spy). Marjolaine plays a fairly big role in the story too. At every step of the game, I knew what was coming next, but I like these characters so much that I didn't mind. (The one thing I did mind: apparently I missed a Masterwork Leather Piece while playing, so I didn't unlock Battledress of the Provocateur. Nertz!)

For the main game, I decided to follow a path similar to my highly successful and enjoyable re-play of Baldur's Gate, and transition from playing a male rogue to a female elf mage. It definitely helps to have played the game once before rolling a mage; magic tends to be the most complex system in any RPG, so I like it more if I know ahead of time which spells and schools of magic will be most useful to focus on.

My new character is Kiriyon. (I really need to come up with a new set of names for female characters; Kiriyon and Sebrina seem too much like Rule 63 versions of my standard avatars.) Kiriyon is an elf Mage; you don't get to pick your background here since all Mage origin stories are the same, but it comes up a bit in dialog with other characters, and so I came up with an idea that I was from the Alienage in Denerim; parents died when I was young, I was raised by the community, and given to the Circle at a very young age when my magic started to manifest. Kiriyon is roughly Neutral Good whereas Seberin was in between Chaotic Neutral and Chaotic Good. Kiriyon's background makes her sensitive to injustice and suffering, especially those which are institutionalized, and will go out of her way to help the down-trodden. (Much to the continuing irritation of Morrigan, of course.) She's very curious about human culture, and currently has an open-minded view of the Chantry that will likely evolve over the course of the game, guided to no small degree by her relationship with Leliana. She takes pride in her magic, and sees it as primarily a source of responsibility, not of power. She believes in the best of everyone, and will always try to persuade others to see her perspective if she can avoid causing a fight.

DA:O is one of those wonderful Western-style RPGs where you can go pretty much anywhere at any time after completing the introductory quests, and I'm following a very different path on this play-through. In the first game, I had deliberately avoided reading anything whatsoever about the game, and had fun just stumbling around and discovering stuff. For example, I had completed the entire Urn of Sacred Ashes quest prior to setting foot in Redcliffe, just because I wandered into Haven and kept on going forever. For this game, I'm focusing on bringing my party together first. After Ostagar and Lothering, my first destination was the Circle Tower. I wanted to pick up Wynne; for the type of character I wanted to play, she'd be a much more compatible companion than Morrigan would.

The Circle Tower quest plays out a bit differently as a Mage than it did when I was a Dwarf Thief. That's another of the awesome things about this game: the Origin Stories aren't just a source of initial stats, and they aren't even a different set of introductory levels, but they're real character choices that affect the flavor of the rest of the game. When Seberin had arrived in the Circle Tower, he didn't know anyone; Kiriyon is on a first-name basis with almost everyone, and has existing relationships with them all, from the templar with a crush on her to the First Enchanter in her debt.

Oh, yeah: in my origin story, I had decided (after some agonized reflection) to turn down Jowan and Lily's request for aid; I actually thought that Lily was trying to corrupt him, and was lying about seeing that he was destined for tranquility. (I had apparently totally forgotten about Jowan from my first game, and wouldn't realize until reaching Castle Redcliffe that he was the same character - if I had, I would have made my decision much more quickly.) I then went to the First Enchanter and shared my concerns; he asked me to assist them so they could be caught in the act. I hated being put in the middle like this, but felt my duty to the Circle outweighed my friendship with Jowan; especially since I didn't feel too invested in the "friendship." (In contrast, in my dwarf origin story I felt VERY protective of my sister, and that ultimately played an enormous role in my decision to back Prince Bhelan.)

So, anyways... the Knight Commander is always a bit of a prick, but he grudgingly admitted that I was following orders and didn't blame me much for Jowan's escape when I saw him again. Wynne happily joined the party. I made the mistake of replacing Leliana with Wynne for the Circle Tower. Well, a marginal mistake... I've done a lot more reading about DA:O recently, and one of the things I've learned is that people tend to do very well by loading multiple mages into their party. So I was vaguely thinking that my party loadout might be Kiriyon (specializing in entropic magic), Morrigan (specializing in environmental magic), Wynne (healing), and Alistair (tank). For combat, that works out beautifully... but unfortunately, nobody in that party can open locked chests. It's pretty frustrating to pass container after container that you can't open. And, while you can swap out your party in the first part of the Circle, once you encounter the Abominations you're stuck with the group you have.

I think that most of my major decisions in this game will probably be the same at my first; Seberin usually ended up making the "good" choice, he just wanted to steal as much gold as possible while doing it, while Kiriyon will be relatively altruistic in her pursuit of fairness. So, Kiriyon defeated Uldred and spoke out against the Rite of Annulment, ensuring that the Circle would regrow and participate in the fight against the Darkspawn.

After the rogue-less mini-fiasco, I re-juggled my companions. My standard traveling group now is Kiriyon (offensive magic), Leliana (theoretically an archer, though in practice she ends most fights with dual daggers out), Alistair (tank), and Wynne (healing). Other than Alistair, that's a totally different build from my first game, and I love how different the fights feel now. In my first game, Seberin was a Stealth-heavy backstabbing Rogue; Alistair was a poorly-built tank; Sten was a strong offensive warrior; and Morrigan split healing and offensive magic duties. Those fights tended to end successfully, but I used poultices pretty frequently, and they would often take a while, especially when I was fighting a large number of weak enemies. In contrast, in my current game fights are often over VERY quickly - sometimes a single Fireball from Kiriyon is enough to wipe out a little army - but my characters also seem to die more quickly. In particular, when we're ambushed in narrow spaces with AOE attacks, my low-CON characters sometimes go down before (a possibly dazed) Wynne can bring them back up. We're very good against lots of weak enemies (hooray for AOE!) and against bosses (hooray for Crushing Prison!), but fights against multiple mages can turn into a high-stakes quick-draw affair. I'm really looking forward to Wynne learning Cleansing Aura, otherwise I'll be using more Injury Kits than I'd like to admit.

My next stop was Warden's Keep, the cause of so much anguish in my first journey.  I went here mainly because I wanted to get the Power of Blood abilities; I had mis-remembered how these work, and thought that I would need to invest ability points in them, so I wanted to pick them up early so I could invest them. It turns out that you actually get the abilities, not just unlock them, so I could have done it at any time.

It was still good, though... I like this quest for many reasons, especially the extreme moral grayness on display (is it right for a Gray Warden to get involved in politics to overthrow a tyrant? is there ever an excuse for summoning abominations?) and the chance to see into a critical historical period within Ferelden. I ended up following pretty much the same path as before: I lied to Sophia about my intentions, then convinced her to seal the rip in the Fade, then spared Avernus's life and convinced him to continue his experiments without using living subjects, then killed Sophia. Last time, I had exited the Keep too early; once you leave, you can't go back in, and so I had missed the special sword you can find, Asturian's Might. This time I was careful to stick around and explore until I discovered it. I can't equip it on Alistair just yet, but it looks pretty promising.

Following this, I went to Redcliffe; not to get a new companion, but to unlock the Blood Mage specialization. (You can only unlock this if your player character is a Mage, so it was the one specialization I hadn't unlocked in my first game.) Man, this is such a fun sequence! It's kind of a nice premonition of the allied war that comes at the climax of DA:O (which in turn was a cool early version of the epic galactic alliance in Mass Effect 3): you need to travel through town, discovering resources that can be used to help protect the village, recruit new fighters, improve morale, etc. Once your preparations are done, you defend against the undead corpses invading from the castle. I was pretty determined in this game to keep everyone alive, and was delighted to pull it off without too much trouble (though, granted, with frequent pausing). The first section, with the knights, was super-easy: my people crowded in front of the flaming barricades; Kiriyon kept up Inferno in the slope leading down to the barricades, or tossed a Fireball in when it was down; and Alistair and Leliana easily cut down the few weakened corpses who stumbled through intact.

The harder part is the fight in front of the chantry: it's a big melee, with enemies arriving from multiple directions, and a hodge-podge of militia swarming around in the square. Here, the barricades are actually kind of a hindrance: there are multiple openings, so you can't easily keep bad guys from getting in, but the barricades can keep your spells from crossing in or out. I mostly let this fight proceed using AI Tactics, but kept an eye on the militia's health bars so Wynne could toss over manual Heals when someone got low. The toughest guy to keep alive is Lloyd; he died in Seberin's game, thanks to the way he runs around and attacks everyone, but in this game I was able to keep up with him and take down enemies before they could kill him. Hooray! (Also: Boo! I still can't buy his tavern!)

Coming in through the secret passage via the dungeons, I met Jowan again and was reminded of the role he plays in this quest. As usual, the game supports a pleasingly broad array of situations and responses. In my situation, he was justifiably angry since I had lied to him and betrayed him to the Circle and Templars; I imagine that he's more appreciative if you support him outright and are swung up in the same trap as him. Anyways, I could be apologetic, or vindictive, or matter-of-fact. I opted for a fairly tough reaction: Kiriyon is compassionate, but blood magic is incredibly dangerous, and Jowan's actions had put far too many lives at risk. Not to mention that he was working for Loghain and had poisoned my ally! Still, I did choose to free him from prison, warning him that he would need to help undo the damage he had caused.

Man... the scene with the possessed Connor and an enthralled Bann Teagan is really creepy; so whimsical on its surface, with the heavily armored grown man capering about and laughing maniacally in service to a little boy, but so very disturbing for the very same reasons. I broke the spell (with some relief; I couldn't remember if there was a way to finish the fight without killing the Bann) and then got ready to eliminate the demon. Like my previous game, I decided to do this the "best" way by recruiting the Circle of Magi to put me back into the Fade where I could battle the demon, thus saving Connor's life. Since I'd already saved the Circle, it just took a round trip to get that support. Only a mage can ordinarily enter the Fade; in my first game, I'd sent Morrigan (who has some really amusing interactions with the Desire Demon), but this time Kiriyon could go herself; some time it would be interesting to see whether you can actually send some of the other options the game presents, like Jowan and the First Enchanter. I doubt they're playable characters, and I wonder if they just accomplish the task, or fail in it (or maybe just refuse to go).

I love dreams, and I love games about dreams. Lots of players seem to hate the Fade, but I really dig it, both the long excursion during Circle Tower and the short visit in this quest.

Initially, I made the deal with the desire demon to learn blood magic; then reloaded and made the "real" choice of fighting her. Although it's a bit incongruous with my character, I am seriously considering giving her the Blood Mage specialization at level 14.  Shapeshifter has never seemed like a useful specialization, and I never even use Morrigan's shapeshifting abilities. (Mages are crucial, and transforming into an animal removes the mage from your party.) Arcane Warrior seems interesting, but doesn't really fit my playstyle; I want to wear robes, and hang back, and toss fireballs at bad guys. I dislike the lore for Blood Magic, but it actually sounds pretty useful; I do have trouble with running out of mana during long fights, and appreciate being able to tap Dark Sustenance. While I don't have a ton of health, blood magic could be very useful for getting out of tight spots.

Continuing my companion-acquiring quest, I then did the Stone Prisoner sequence to pick up Shale. I'd forgotten just how funny Shale is; she may be the most amusing character in the party, which is saying a lot. I'd initially been planning on using Alistair as a tank, but I'm now at least somewhat considering Shale; unfortunately, she loves squashing puny humans a bit too much to fit in with my party. (That said, I am pretty sorely tempted to grab Shale just so I can make an all-girls party of Kiriyon, Shale, Leliana, and Wynne. It's too bad that there aren't humanoid female fighters in DA:O. I loved my all-girls party in BG2 of Sebrina, Mazzy, Chloe, Imoen, Viconia, and Nalia; and my Mass Effect 1/3 all-girls party of Shepard, Ashley, and Liara; and my Mass Effect 2 party of Shepard, Samara, and Miranda.)

With Shale in tow, I'm currently doing Orzammar. Shale has a ton of unique dialog for this area, so I'm swapping out Alistair for her during this (long!) quest. Along the way I'll be picking up Oghren, which I THINK will be the last character I need.

Orzammar is very different as an elf than as a dwarf. Interestingly enough, I actually get treated with more respect now; dwarves don't generally care for surfacers very much, but they genuinely admire Gray Wardens. When Seberin came back, his brand ensured that he continued to be looked down upon (not, uh, literally) and he had to work extra-hard to gain their approval.

Let's talk about romance, shall we?

Alistair is so needy! I felt like I was doing a really, really good job of holding him off... the game gives ample opportunities for you to flirt with him, all of which I studiously ignored. Since I plan on keeping him in my main party, I did want to make sure his affection was high, so I stayed on friendly terms with him (being positive, rolling with his jokes, etc.) while never calling him "handsome" or anything like that. It seemed to be working fairly well, and I'd gotten him up to 60+ affection without triggering the romance. I think I finally messed up after giving him his mother's locket, though. There's a fairly long, involved conversation you have when giving this gift. Throughout it, I stuck to my standard friendly-but-distant attitude. At the end, though, there were just three options for me to choose from: something like "Because you're special to me," and two put-downs (I think one sarcastic, one not). I agonized on this choice for a while, specifically because I was worried about starting the romance, but eventually decided that "special" could just mean, like, a special friend, and picked that. Big mistake! Next time we chatted, he was handing Kiriyon a rose. D'oh! I actually thought that I made it out of that one all right, having Kiriyon let him down gently, and was pleasantly surprised to finish it with a +1 approval. I made a huge mistake and quick-saved here, then was horrified to see that the following conversation had a VERY ANIMATED Alistair looking to take things to the next level. I let him down gently. Bam! -19 Approval. Ouch. I reloaded my quicksave, and chose the more direct rejection. Freakin' -76 approval! Ouch ouch ouch. I sighed, bit the bullet, and went back to the -19. It'll take a little while for me to get back into his good graces, but at least that arc is over. I do kind of wish there was some clearer indication of what choices would trigger a romance, so players could avoid ones that they don't intend to enter.

I'm pursuing Leliana again for this game. That makes me happy, since she's such a great character. I'd initially been slightly bummed at the thought that I would be "repeating" the romance from my first game, and wished that I'd retroactively stuck with Morrigan when I was Seberin. In practice, though, I've been pleasantly surprised at how different the flavor of the romance is now. I guess I'd been kind of used to repeating romances in Baldur's Gate with the Tweak Pack's "Can't Kill Romance" settings, where romances play out exactly the same even if the PC is very different, which had HILARIOUS results when my female Elf mage was romancing Viconia. (I had to pretend that she wasn't calling Sebrina 'Male' in every other conversation.) Thanks to the wealth of dialog in DA:O, I got lots of acknowledgment that our situation was different: different from female to male, from dwarf to elf (there's a particularly interesting conversation wherein she inadvertently insults your race while talking about her experience with elves in Orlais), and from thief to mage. I've completed the Andraste's Grace gate of the romance, and will probably head to Denerim after Orzammar to wrap up the Marjolaine storyline and fulfill the romance.

The incident with Alistair has made me a little gun-shy about Zevran. It's kind of a moot point right now, since his approval is only around +15 and probably won't rise until I find some more precious metals to give him. He seems to be more laissez-faire than Alistair, though, which will hopefully make it easier to avoid romance or reject him... so far he's broached the subject in general terms a few times, and doesn't react negatively when I emphatically turn him down, so hopefully that will continue to be the case.


My last couple of posts on Bioware games and Ultima has gotten me thinking a lot about western RPGs in general. This is hardly groundbreaking, but here's my thesis:

There's no modern franchise today that has inherited Ultima's legacy. Instead, we have two successors: the Bioware fantasy RPGs and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls RPGs. Each of these modern franchises has taken an element that was pioneered by Ultima and made it even better, but is missing the element possessed by the other franchise.

When I think back on Ultima games, two things stick with me. First and foremost is the world: even the earlier Ultima games, which are absolutely ancient now, were astonishingly broad in scope and deep in detail. I keep bringing this up, but the amazing thing about Ultima was all the STUFF in each game that had no connection to the main plot but that contributed to the sense that you were inhabiting a fully-realized world; your story was important, but it was just part of what was happening; the universe doesn't revolve around you. For example, you never, ever need to visit a farm in Ultima VI. BUT, if you DO decide to wander around outside the city walls north of Britannia, you may find yourself in a field. Perhaps it's a field of cotton. If it's daytime, a farmer will be there harvesting his crop; you can talk with him and learn about his job. If you like, you can pick some cotton yourself. You can then wander down to Trinsic and find a weaver. You can sell your cotton to him; or, you can borrow use of his loom, and spin the cotton into cloth. You can then take this cloth to a tailor in Minoc, and sell it to him, or use some sewing equipment he has and make your own clothes. There's an ENTIRE ECONOMY in the game, not one that's based around adventurers collecting rat tails, but one that's based on raw resources, value-added skills, supply and demand. This economy doesn't really matter, but if you want to participate in it, it's there for you.

Along the same lines, Ultima games had a really vast landscape. Again, Ultima VI is a great example: you could just stick to the major roads to get almost anywhere you needed to go, or even use your Orb or the Moonstones to teleport various places. But, if you wanted to strike out into the woods, you'd find a whole lot of trees, some forest clearings, some wild animals, maybe an occasional ruin or two. None of this was essential, but it was all THERE.

In retrospect, the framing device for the Ultima games makes a lot of sense. Most games start with an introduction depicting you, a human on Earth, going through some portal and entering Britannia. In many ways, that's what those games were: a portal into a new world to explore, not just a game to beat.

The second aspect of Ultima that I really enjoyed was the conversation system, and even better, having companions with interjections. After a few games in their company, I came to really like Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre. They have recognizable personalities; Dupre was brave and respectful, while Iolo was gregarious and had a sharp sense of humor, and Shamino was quiet and kind. When you wander around, they'll sometimes speak to one another; when you address another person, they might have something to add to your conversation. The only thing better than exploring a fully-realized world is doing it in the company of friends.

Bioware has done a great job of taking that companion system and elevating it to a new level. Their companions are deeper and more interesting than the Ultima ones. In the world of Ultima, everyone is good, just in different ways; Bioware rarely has purely good characters, with just a couple of exceptions (Mazzy and Keldorn come to mind), but most combining admirable and deplorable characteristics. Bioware companions tend to have complex backstories that take a while to unravel. They have fraught relationships with other companions; just try keeping Keldorn and Viconia in the same party for a while, or pleasing Alistair and Morrigan simultaneously. Ultima's companions mostly commented on the action, but Bioware companions can frequently guide the outcome of encounters or open new paths for you to explore; for example, having Viconia in the Underdark can help you bluff your way through a few meetings with Drow. And, of course, romances are practically a Bioware invention. All in all, Bioware's complex characters greatly increase the emotional impact of their games, and add immensely to their replay value, since the flavor of a game changes immensely depending on whose company you experience it in.

The area where Bioware is relatively lacking is in their world design. Well, maybe not "design" - the look and the depth of their worlds is usually excellent - but they don't have nearly as broad a canvas as Ultima did. I think this is a deliberate choice that Bioware makes. They focus on a few specific locations, and try to make them as lush and interesting as possible, then simply cut out all the stuff between those locations. Many gamers who hate journeying will love this approach. (Mass Effect 2 has a great Easter egg conversation on the citadel about this - something like, "Games used to be better when you had to remember to drink water, and traveling anywhere took four hours in real time.") I really miss it, though. I love Ferelden, and I would really enjoy being able to feel like I was IN Ferelden. Instead, I only get to glimpse a handful of the coolest places within Ferelden, and maybe see a few locations in passing when I'm ambushed while on the road. The last Bioware game I can think of that had anything even close to Ultima's unified world design was the original Baldur's Gate, which at least had lots of wilderness areas that connected the major sites of interest. Ever since then, all their games have had a few locations and instant travel between them.

So, who is carrying the banner for the unified world? Bethesda. Much like Bioware has exceeded Origin Systems' groundbreaking companion work, Bethesda's modern environments have put Ultima's maps to shame. It's an incredible experience to, say, be wandering up Gnoll Mountain, then suddenly stop, turn around, and gasp in astonishment at the beautiful landscape below you. You can wander a little to the left or the right, and see slightly new vistas. You know what it feels like? It feels a little like when I hike up mountains in the real world on weekends. Elder Scrolls are such COMPLETE games: any single thing you can see while you're on top of a mountain, you can walk to that thing. It's all there. It's fully-realized. (Similar props go to the Fallout games, for similar reasons.)

Where Bethesda falls short, in my experience, has been with your companions. (Disclaimer: I haven't played Skyrim yet.) Bioware games tend to be about assembling a team, and then doing awesome stuff with your team. Elder Scrolls games are about you becoming an ubermensch: you might start as a particular class, but by the end of the game you'll most likely be wearing powerful armor, wielding powerful weapons, blasting powerful spells, picking locks, and doing everything else that a party would need to do. The Elder Scrolls games that I've played do occasionally have "followers", who will follow you around and help in combat, but their stories are nowhere near as rich as those I've come to expect from Bioware.

So, why am I thinking about this now? Two reasons. First of all, my geek fantasy is that Bioware will revive the Ultima franchise and layer their high-quality stories and characters onto Ultima's rich mythology and vast worlds. I have no idea if that will happen, and stuff like the map of Britain makes me think that they're going to be taking it in the opposite direction... but we'll see!

Secondly, I'm very, very excited (and nervous) about what Dragon Age 3 will end up being. It seems like everyone acknowledges that DA2 was a failure, and so with DA3 we could either see a return to the strengths of DA:O (highly customizable player characters, companions we can dress up like dolls, strategic combat, unique environments, world-changing decisions, etc.), or it can evolve in a new direction. One rumor that's getting a lot of air lately is that DA3 will feature an "open world." Now, I don't know exactly what they mean by Open World; I'd LIKE to think that they're thinking of something like Skyrim or Ultima VII, but it's certainly possible that they're just referring to a less-linear version of the standard Bioware exploration system. Once again, though, if there's any ways that Bioware could keep the depth of character that they're so good at, and set those deep stories in a broad, internally consistent and intricate world... well, that could pretty much be the best game ever.

It also might be a pipe dream. Bioware's inclinations in recent years have been moving towards more cinematic games. Having a cinematic game requires a more tightly controlled environment, and it would probably be a huge challenge to, say, allow cut scenes to play out in any arbitrary location. Bioware is definitely capable of making incredible games while limiting their locations.

As long as I'm rambling about fantasy RPGs and Bioware... I've been really digging Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, and enjoying the combat in Dragon Age: Origins, and those things have combined to make me wonder what a similar style of co-op team-based fantasy combat might look like. I don't have an answer, but I do have some thoughts!
  • I've actually done something a little similar in the past with Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, a co-op hack'n'slash RPG for the PlayStation 2. I remember enjoying it; it was much less story-based than single-player Baldur's Gate games, but I don't need as much story in multiplayer.
  • The combat for DA:O is actually very similar to that of a fantasy MMORPG like World of Warcraft. Maybe having fantasy MMOs means there isn't as much of a need for multiplayer?
  • I'm reminded of CLANG and Neal Stephenson's comments that today's video-game interfaces are fair approximations of modern and futuristic weaponry (press a button to fire a gun), but awful approximations of medieval combat (move a mouse to swing a sword). Pressing buttons and waiting for cool-downs probably wouldn't feel as immersive and exciting as the fast-paced survival combat of ME3 multiplayer.
  • But, I think the deeper specialization that you get in fantasy RPGs could lead to some really awesome gameplay. That's part of why people love traditional pen and paper RPGs so much: you can be, say, your party's rogue, and be really good at being a rogue, and fulfill a specific niche that really helps out your party. There's still some flexibility that you can get in a fantasy party, but you seem to have stronger archetypes (dedicated healers, etc.), which means that the flavor of the game could change a lot based on your character class and other party members.
  • I just get really happy when I think about a ME3 style co-op multiplayer game for the Dragon Age universe. You could have settings like fighting darkspawn in the Deep Roads, storming or defending a castle like Redcliffe, fighting demons in the Fade (that would be AWESOME!), defending against a bandit ambush while in the wilds. You could also keep objectives like Mass Effect: break into a safe to get money (similar to the Hacking/Upload mission), escort a messenger to safety, etc. And keep the race/class matrix: you can be a Dwarf Thief, an Orlesian Bard, a Qunari Warrior, etc. Keep giving experience and gold. You can level with abilities like in DA:O, using trees appropriate for each class. I think the unlock system for ME3 would work fine. Your items would include one-time consumables (Health poultices, Acid flasks); mission-long consumables (poisons, flaming arrows); new character unlocks (Qunari Reaver, Orlesian Assassin); upgradeable weapons (Gray Iron Greatsword, Silverite Greatsword). You wouldn't need ammo dumps, but maybe you could have a Lyrium Vein or two so spellcasters could quickly recharge their manna. Have some unlock system between multiplayer and singleplayer similar to ME3 so there's an incentive for SP gamers to at least try out MP: like, after winning 10 matches you unlock a unique weapon for SP, or taking a class to level 20 and promoting them will unlock their specialization in SP. With all these similarities, though, the feel of combat would be quite distinct. ME3 is primarily ranged combat with a few melee-optimized classes; DA:O would probably be a fairly equal balance between ranged combat (mages and archers) and melee-range combat (warriors and dual-wielding rogues). 
And, just one last comment to close out this incredibly long and disorganized post: I've commented a few times before on how lucky I was in some ME3 MP matches when I was playing with a whole group of 4 engineers, and was convinced that we were screwed, but ended up being incredibly successful games. Turns out, that wasn't such a fluke after all. I'm used to the necessity of party balance in fantasy RPGs: as previously noted,  you pretty much always need a balance of healer, rogue, and fighter to succeed in a fantasy RPG, and I'd assumed that you need a similar balance in MP of biotic, tech, and combat. However, that's not necessarily the case! ME3 MP is very much about developing synergies between team members, and while those synergies can sometimes come across multiple classes, they can also arise within the same class. Specific to engineers, one advantage I'm just now starting to appreciate is that of the "tech burst". Basically, if an enemy is hit by one tech power (like Overload), and shortly after hit by another tech power (like Incinerate), then it sets off an AOE around the target that further damages it and can damage or kill nearby enemies. I've now gotten to the point where I can set of Tech Bursts on my own (thanks to my focus on powers and my 200% cooldown rate); but it's a lot easier and quicker if I'm with other Engineers, since if I see one of them use a power on an enemy, I can immediately follow up with another power to set off the burst. Once everyone is doing this, you can clear a room of low-level enemies in a shockingly short amount of time. I now think that the ideal party might be something like three Engineers and one Infiltrator - having the Infiltrator is still important for the "activate beacon"-type missions and to do emergency revives. Of course, there really is no such thing as an "ideal" party - with good players who can work well together, there's a wide variety of successful strategies.