Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before

I decided not to buy _Dragon Age: Origins _about 6 months ago, when I saw their teaser video on YouTube.  It can only be described as, quite possibly, the dumbest piece of marketing ever created.  It’s so sophomoric that even an actual sophomore would be embarassed to be seen watching it. Here, have a taste:

Yes, apparently Dragon Age: Origins is “the new shit”, and I decided to take them at their word, because, really, with all these good games around, who needs to play with shit?

Alas, my will was weak, and I have been working hard and convinced myself that I could afford to take a risk on a game that I probably wouldn’t like.  And, anyway, it’s Bioware.  How bad could it be?

For Bioware, for those of you who don’t know, is sort of the Michael Bay of video games.  They can take any subject matter and turn it into a game which fits their format.  Each game they do takes place in a completely different milieu, yet each is more or less identical, from a writing standpoint, to the other.  You can predict the dialogue choices in a Bioware game before you finish watching the cutscene.  And you know what?  There’s no shame in that, not really.  Sometimes you want to curl up with a novel that doesn’t challenge you or stimulate you intellectually: you just want something to read at bedtime that’s going to entertain.  Bioware makes the videogame equivalent of that game.  They have made it at least 8 times now.  They will keep making it until humanity is destroyed by the Robot Holocaust (note to Bioware: I have a pitch for an RPG that takes place after the Robot Holocaust.  Protag is strong, silent type, of mysterious origins, orphaned, with an ambivalent, sometimes inscrutable set of ethics.  I’m thinking Bruce Willis, maybe Julia Roberts.  Lots of heart. Call my agent.)

I bought the game for Windows, because everyone tells me games on Windows don’t suck anymore.  And I have to say, it’s worked out really well:  every night, after I’ve been playing for about an hour, the game crashes to the desktop, and that’s when I know it’s time to go to bed.  Everyone wins!  My comments here, I’d like to emphasize, are based on my ongoing playthrough of the game.  I haven’t finished it yet.

Apparently inspired by the media hype the sex scene in Mass Effect generated, Bioware has –  somewhat understandably – doubled down that bet in Dragon Age.  This time around, the game’s motif is blood, and plenty of it; even the opening splash screen is draw in a fountain of blood.  The most annoying thing about reading other people’s comments about Dragon Age is the misuse of the word “mature”.  I know people aren’t doing this on purpose just to annoy me, but sword-and-sorcery stories with lots of hell-spawned demons and blood pouring out in great gouts in every scene are not “mature.” Terms of Endearment is mature.  Fantasy stories about dragons, sticky-uppy-things swords, and hidden super-powers are adolescent escapism, even if you dye them blood-red.  I’ve got no problem reading stories like that (or playing games about them!) but let’s call it what it is. (For some reason, the term “adult” as in “adults only” doesn’t bother me in the same way, perhaps because of that term’s longstanding association with X-rated movies.  “Mature” to me implies a certain high emotional bar which Dragon Age has not, at least not so far in my playthrough, passed).

LelianaPose--article_imageThe game is so committed to gore that it borders on the ridiculous. My favorite example is that, by default, “persistent gore” is turned on. This means that after your characters kill some hungry refugees (no, really), they’ll be covered in their blood for a while. This extends to the cutscenes. So you’ll suddenly cut to one character asking another, thoughtfully, “Where do you want to be in two years? Did you ever look at your thumb? I mean, really, really look at it?“, and both have about a liter of blood spattered all over their faces and clothes. The effect is unintentionally hilarious.

The screenwriting is great, and the writing is atrocious.  By this I mean that the dialogue in the game is fine, even superior.  The conversations are as believable as the scenario allows, and the voice acting (modulo some dropped accents) is top-notch.  But the overall plot arc is hackneyed and cliched. At any opportunity, given the chance to do something unexpected or to revert to an overused trope, the game chooses the predictable. When, early in the game, you’re introduced to a certain character in a cutscene, he’s so transparently the Super Secret Surprise Bad Guy I was amazed they didn’t just give him a Snidely Whiplash moustache and have him say “Mu-hu-hu-hu-haaaaa!” after each line.  That might have been more subtle than what they actually did. Earth to Bioware: yes, George R. R. Martin’s books were surprising and fresh when they first came out, but we have read them.

Putting aside issues of presentation, my major objection to Dragon Age is the lack of thought that went into the combat system.  This system is going to please some people, and irritate or surprise others.  The past three Bioware console games (KOTOR, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect) all gave lip service to their engine’s Dungeons & Dragons origins, with a pretension to modeling tactical combat.  In reality, as long as your character was kitted out right (and not doing it right took effort), nearly every battle was trivial.  The games were basically excuses to watch your characters kick some righteous ass.  And, based on the sales numbers, this is what people actually want to play.

_Dragon Age _hearkens back to the days of the original Baldur’s Gate, where each combat is, if approached incorrectly, a deadly risk. If you play at any level above Easy, you will find yourself constantly pausing combat, issuing orders to all of your characters, letting time run for a few seconds, then pausing again and issuing new orders. To try to alleviate this, Bioware has implemented a sort of Special Ed version of the “gambits” system from Final Fantasy XII. You can issue a wide variety of “standing orders” to your troops to try to have them act on their own, without your orders. Here’s a table of some of the behaviors you can create.

Health is low | Drink a potion, then rush the nearest enemy like a suicidal maniac.
—|—
Being shot by arrows | Use “shield” ability, then rush the nearest enemy like a dope.
Leader is incapacitated | Rush the nearest enemy like a schmuck.
Enemy spellcaster visible | Rush the nearest enemy like a moron.

Basically, Bioware has put this system in place to try to shift some of the responsibility for everyone in your party being an utter and complete retard who probably can’t go to the bathroom by themselves without help. But, since it isn’t flexible enough to actually prevent their retarded behavior, in order to win battles you’ll immediately discover the “Hold/Move Freely” button. This is the button which lets you toggle your character’s behaviors between “Look, just…just don’t DO anything, OK? Just stand there. Just…good. Good. I’ll bring you back an ice cream sandwich.” and “OK, go wander off into traffic and die, durrrrr.” Really, they could have set the button on the “hold” behavior by default, and then labeled it the “Click Here To Ruin Your Game” button.

Now, you may at this point be saying “Well, hey, tactical combat? That sounds pretty good. Doesn’t it? I mean, peterb, aren’t you the guy who likes X-Com and Jagged Alliance?” The difference is that in those games, the tactical combat is precisely as detailed as it needs to be, and in fact the overall larger story arcs of those games are an excuse to enjoy their well-designed tactical combat systems. In Dragon Age, the tactical combat is a poorly implemented bore, and is a distraction from enjoying the plot, which is why everyone is playing a Bioware game in the first place. I never say to myself “Oh boy! More combat!” in Dragon Age. Instead, it’s just the annoying thing that is in my way.

My summary, for those of you who want it boiled down, can be reduced to these two points: