Bored and Lonely in Middle Ear^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Ferelden

I decided to quit playing Dragon Age today. Actually that’s not right. I really decided to stop playing on Sunday. After three fourths of a day at work, I had come home to unwind for a couple of hours and throw fireballs at creatures from the great below. I was in the Dwarf city of Moria… no wait, it was called something else. Anyway, having run across the map about a dozen times to talk to all the anonymous people with sketchy British accents that I had to talk to in order to actually trigger the opportunity for fireballing, I was making my way through the dungeon. The trip was going pretty well, and in due time I had burned, frozen, shocked and otherwise pummeled several dozen criminals into submission. I went back to my quest giver to get my reward, and he told me to walk back across the map to fetch the next in what had become an nearly endless series of macguffins.

Dutifully, I soldiered on and passing through the next door to the next area I found … another dungeon 15 times larger than the one I had just left. At this point, the depth of my quest stack ™ had just been pushed to about 5 or 6 before I could escape the clutches of the Dwarves and get on with my life. It was too much. At this point I decided to stop.

I should have known that this is how it would go. Over time, the Bioware games have developed an overall air of sameness to them. It doesn’t matter what the setting is or who the characters are; the arc of the plot, the larger organization of the game world, and the low level mechanics of the gameplay all have that Bioware feeling to them. You really only need to play one of their games, and the first one you play will inevitably be the best. I played KOTOR first, and have not really enjoyed any of the games made since then quite as much. By the time Dragon Age came around, I had convinced myself that I’d leave it alone.

Sadly, a weekend flu with a lack of football to watch wore me down, so I picked up the game to pass the time. In the early parts of the game, you play an “origin story” for your character and then you take part in the battle near Minas Tirith, no wait, it was called something else. In retrospect, at this point the foundations for everything bad about the game had been laid. It’s the standard Bioware checklist:

1. Reams and reams and reams of seemingly endless voiced dialog. You can’t do anything in this game without engaging in a heartfelt and deeply philosophical discussion about the ethical and emotional implications of the fedex quest you are about to engage in. Even worse, you can’t just hit the A button and skip the voice track. It’s like Bioware is so proud that they spent all that money on VO studio time that they want to make sure you experience each and every microsecond of their painstakingly crafted dialog. Overall, Bioware is entirely too enamored of their own content, and needs to hire a ruthless editor. More on this later.

2. The quest stack ™ problem. After the initial setup, I set off on my main quest. The game told me I could pick any one of three or four areas, except that’s really a lie. I picked area A, where I was to convince the human allies to band with me against the great evil. After a few hours of dialog it became clear that to finish area A I really had to go to area B first, which is where the game really wanted me to go in the first place. So I did area B, which led one more level down the stack to area C, and then back to A, and then over to D and E and then finally I was able to finish the questline in area A. Meanwhile, I probably wasted at least 20% of my time just running around on the map to push and pop areas on and off my quest stack.

My gripe here is simple. What they have tried to do here is hide the fact that they’ve built a long dark hallway. But they’ve done a bad job of it. It’s clear that the game plays better in a particular sequence, yet they put up this pretense of player freedom anyway, and all it does is to annoy.

One note: for those who have played the game, area C in this sequence is probably the most interesting in the entire game. Too bad I just wanted it to be over at the time so I could get on with my life.

3. The Tank vs. the Mage. In Bioware games, I always think I want to play a Mage, but really I just want to play a Tank who just smashes people and can take basically unlimited damage. This isn’t really a problem with the game. I just thought I’d mention it.

4. Rock’em Sock’em Retardo Robots. The combat in this game is excruciating. I’m playing on the Xbox, which certainly makes the situation worse. However, if you factor out those problems, there is still this fundamental truth about about the combat: the AI does not work, which makes the pseudo-realtime nature of the engine your enemy rather than your friend. Your characters rush into the heat of battle and inevitably find themselves burnt to a crisp or otherwise humiliated.

The tactics system is obviously meant to ameliorate this problem, but it is too limited and too tedious to manipulate (at least on the Xbox) to really be of any use. The truth is that this game wants you to spend every single round moving every single one of your pieces around the board one at a time. And that’s really what you want to do to, because if you don’t your pieces have a way of running headlong into the battle without thinking. And then they die. Since this is what they want, and this is what you want, they should have just built the system to be round by round in the first place. As an alternative, they could go talk to the people at Square, who implemented something much better than this for Final Fantasy 12.

My other complaint about the combat is the unpredictability of its difficulty. Multiple times in this game I’ve strolled through areas, having little or no trouble with the ambient combat, only to be crushed by a single random encounter in a random room that looked just like all the other rooms. This started happening less when I realized that you could cast fireballs through doors and then just listen to the enemies burn. Still, that seems like cheating.

5. Content, lots of content. Make no mistake, this game is full of content. Everywhere you turn there is something else to look at, something else to do, and someone else to talk to. Unfortunately, hardly any of it is actually all that interesting. There is the standard set of Bioware NPCs who insist on talking to you or themselves as you try and make your way from battle to battle. All you really want them to do is just shut up. There are the various quests that involve walking from one map to another to talk to dozens of people just to find out that you were supposed to go to somewhere right in the middle of the map in the first place. And there are the dungeons that meander around uselessly just to provide you with a few more rooms with baddies in them so you can grind the levels. Finally, there are the dialog scenes. As I said before, you can’t turn around in this game without engaging in ten minutes of dialog. In addition to delivering a nearly endless stream of standard High Fantasy speak, the dialog scenes provide one single enjoyable distraction.

Bioware made a curious decision in this game to animate the characters in the dialog scenes with exactly the state they have in the game. On the one hand, this seems like a good idea. Your costume and equipment stay consistent. There is no jarring discontinuity as your shotgun turns into a pistol because that’s how they animated the cut scene. Oh wait, that’s another game.

But Bioware took this a bit too far, I think. I was making my way through Rivendell, no wait, it was called something else. I happened to win a battle with a fireball which, due to friendly fire, had caused several of my party to catch on fire. The end of the battle triggered a cut scene, which meant that I had 10 minutes of dialog in front of me. So I sat there talking to the enemy that I had just vanquished while all of us were still engulfed in violent flames. It’s not every day you can engage in an earnest and emotionally moving bit of dialog while on fire. Kudos.

6. The Loot Machine. The loot in this game is uninspiring. You’d think after killing some high lord of the Darkness you’d get something better than a round wooden shield. You also need to carry a useless thief around to open the chest to find out that all you got was a small round shield. Unfortunately, half the time the thief is not even high enough level to pick the locks. But, it doesn’t matter anyway. If you try and get too much stuff you just run out of inventory slots. My advice: just leave it all alone.

I will continue my plea with RPG designers to get give me a bit green button on the screen somewhere that instantly turns all the loot into gold, after also optimally equipping my party. You don’t have to use the button. It’s just for me.

I should not have been surprised that I’d have these problems with the game. I knew what I was getting into when bought yet another Bioware RPG. Still, more than any other game they’ve done, Dragon Age feels to me like fan service. This game was clearly built with a mandate to placate the desires of the people who want to relive the glory days of the Infinity Engine. The fussy combat mechanics, glacial pacing, and unending exposition are all hallmarks of that classic RPG experience. It’s no surprise that I’ve given up on Dragon Age because I have up on all the Infinity Engine games too, except the one that didn’t have that much combat. But even Planescape got bogged down at the end. I’m shutting down Dragon Age before it gets to that point. I did my thing, and had my fun with the fireballs. I’ll just leave it at that.