Thursday, February 14, 2013

Golem Hunt

All right, this one will be shorter…

I conclude my journey through Dragon Age: Origins' DLC with The Golems of Amgarrak and Witch Hunt. As I've previously noted/complained, Witch Hunt was the first expansion I did after Origins, only to later discover that it's actually supposed to be the last. That's mildly frustrating on a couple of levels. There's absolutely no in-game guidance I was able to find anywhere that described the order in which you're supposed to handle the expansions; I eventually found a cogent description from a Bioware employee in their forums, but they can't expect everyone to trawl through threads to find this sort of information. It's also a bit weird from a story point of view, since I think they actually did a good job of making the three additional adventures (Awakening, Golems, and Witch Hunt) independent from one another: each of them would refer back to things you did in Origins, but there was virtually no connection between expansions, so story-wise it would make sense to handle them in any term.

This probably wasn't a big deal for people who were religiously buying each new piece of content as it came out, but it's quite annoying for someone like me who specifically bought the Ultimate Edition to take a character through the complete set of games, only to find too late that I'm doing it wrong.

The one factor that slightly cheers me is that, of the three, Witch Hunt was the fastest and easiest to play through. I think my initial play-through was somewhere on the order of three to four hours; that was with a weaker character fresh out of Origins, and I definitely took my time with combat. After beating Golems with my Awakening character, I was at a stat-capped level 35, and more importantly, I had already learned how to best use the new abilities and specializations from Awakening. As a result, I breezed through the game in a bit under two hours, even while watching most of the cut-scenes and dialog.

But, I shall refrain from getting ahead of myself: let's start with Golems. Golems is an unabashed dungeon crawl. There's a bit of story and some new companions, but the focus of the game is clearly on combat; to a lesser extend, it also rewards exploration and problem-solving. I'd say that it probably has even less story than previous Bioware dungeons like Durlag's Tower and Watcher's Keep. It isn't a BAD story, certainly, but it also doesn't break any new ground lore-wise, and is a bit thinner than the meaty plots in Origins and Awakening.

That said, there is something to be said for the intense focus of a dungeon crawl; there's a real sense of claustrophobia and dread here, which I rarely experienced in the more wide-open worlds of the earlier installments. Imagine the section near the end of the Orzammar quest, and extend it for a bit longer, and you'll have an idea of the tone here.

I'd read before that Golems has difficult combat, and boy, were they right! Most of the other games have multiple fights with easier enemies, then periodic tougher fights against bosses. In Golems, almost every single fight you endure will be a challenge. Practically every enemy is a Lieutenant or higher, and it isn't at all unusual to have a fight against multiple Boss-level enemies. (One particularly exciting/nasty battle has THREE bosses, plus additional lieutenants, all of whom hit very hard. That was the only time in any Dragon Age game that I've ever needed to kite.)

I was stat-capped coming into Golems, and I never actually lost a fight, but I had to pay much, much closer attention than I have since very early in Origins. I carefully cycled between AOE approaches, crowd control, and direct damage; in some fights, it worked best to kill off the weakest enemies first and work my way up to the more powerful ones; in other fights, I had to focus on the biggest threats; in still others, I had to keep multiple enemies engaged simultaneously to thwart their ranged or magical attacks. It was nice to not just absent-mindedly run through the same combat rotation over and over again, and instead carefully monitor the battlefield, frequently muttering "Oh, shoot!" and frantically healing my party while adjusting our strategy.

Sadly, while the fights are very entertaining tactically, they were useless from a gaming perspective. Since I had already reached max level before starting the expansion, I couldn't gain any experience from my kills; and since enemies almost always vanish after death, I couldn't even get new equipment, not even for my companions. That was a little frustrating… I haven't done any exploits or anything to get this much experience, and grinding is impossible in Dragon Age anyways, so they should have known that players would be that high, and at least let you gain a few levels in the expansion. Probably not introduce new abilities, just let you fill out your tree even more.

I shudder to think what these fights would have been like if I wasn't a mage, though. Actually, that's kind of a problem for both expansions: in Witch Hunt, you're kind of screwed if you aren't a rogue (since there are a fair number of locked chests and doors with no means of entry), and in Golems, you'd probably screwed if you aren't a mage. This is SLIGHTLY mitigated by one character who has some limited mage-like abilities, most notably healing and revival, but certainly no substitute for the utility of a dedicated mage. If you AREN'T a mage, I hope you imported a character who was carrying tons of poultices and potions. You'll need them.

Speaking of importing with items… it's weird. You keep all the items that were in your inventory, but none of the items your companions were wearing. (Unless your companion rejoins your party, but that only happens with one person in Awakening). And, while Awakening had a ton of stores selling a variety of very powerful items, Golems has absolutely no shops, and Witch Hunt has just one, which sells a couple of useful items, but no weapons or armor. So, it's basically impossible to significantly upgrade your new companions' equipment, UNLESS you happened to be carrying some high-level gear in your unequipped inventory when you beat the previous game or expansion. I imagine that makes it hard to balance the game's difficulty.

Oh: I don't think I addressed this in my Awakening recap, but gold is VERY useful. I initially kind of regretted burning all my gold to get experience from the Arl's army, since there's so much great high-level expensive gear in Awakening. By the end, though, I was able to get everything I wanted to buy, and even bring along several hundred gold into Golems. Golems is weird, since you can't buy anything, and most enemies don't drop any items, other than the occasional random trash like Frozen Lightning. In Witch Hunt, when I got to the store, I knew I would never have any use again for my precious gold, so I went on a shopping spree, snapping up the awesome new runes and the Master poultices and potions.

Combat in Witch Hunt is infinitely easier than Golems. It's much more similar to the fights in Origins and Awakening, and there are fewer of them in general. The final battle is the only one that's particularly hard (though another fight might be tough if your main character isn't a healer), and even it paled in comparison to almost any of the fights in Golems.

Witch Hunt is definitely more story-oriented than Golems; you learn a chunk of new stuff about the world, get to tease out some interesting historical mysteries, and (most importantly) briefly reconnect with one of your old companions. I don't think that there are technically any new environments - you revisit some of the same locations from Origins and Awakening, and even when the maps are new, they're clearly recycled textures from other existing areas - but I did enjoy having the travel component, and at least a token nod to non-linearity. (Let's call it bi-linear.)

Hmm…. I was gonna talk about the plot under "mega spoilers", but honestly there isn't THAT much to say, particularly in comparison to Awakening. Instead, I'm doing my standard screenshot annotation, which talks through the story and my opinions on events. In comparison with the last two albums, these are positively svelte: Golems had a paucity of cut-scenes and thus few things that felt worth grabbing, while Witch Hunt has a bit more but still far less than Awakening. As always, enormous spoilers are scattered throughout the albums.

I doubt that I really need to give any buying recommendations; the Origins Ultimate Edition is already so cheap that anyone who is curious about these games will likely pick it up with all the expansions, and if you like Origins, you're going to play all of these. If I were somehow forced to rank the quality of the DLCs, in order of enjoyment, it would probably look something like this, from most impressive to least:
  • Awakening (insanely good, probably as much content as everything else combined)
  • Warden's Keep (excellent in-game benefits, offset by some unfortunate bugs; terrific lore that foreshadows some of the themes in Awakening)
  • Leliana's Song (largely driven by my appreciation for the title character)
  • Witch Hunt (provides some tantalizing context for events in Origin)
  • Stone Prisoner (love the village, don't care too much for the companion but do really like the lore it reveals)
  • Return to Ostagar (short and mildly interesting)
  • Golems of Amgarrak (fantastic fights, but would have loved more stories or puzzles)
  • Darkspawn Chronicles (cool concept, but makes me feel ill)
To be clear: I do recommend playing all of them at least once, even Darkspawn Chronicles; there isn't a bad game in the bunch. And now I have a comprehensive character who has experienced everything Origins has to offer, ready to seed the creation of a new adventure in Dragon Age 2, should I ever choose to do so!

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