Dragon Age

I’ve been playing Dragon Age moderately obsessively for the last few days (since I found it selling for $40 at Target just after I finished Liberty City Stories).

Dragon Age is virtually a direct descendant of Dungeons & Dragons, which is a little sad because Bioware has been struggling to escape from the D&D vortex, on and off, for over ten years. Given that they’d prefer not to pay Wizards of the Coast royalties for a D&D license when most gamers buy stuff for their logo first and foremost, they have designed their own game rules — essentially an even more annoying variant of the Mass Effect game rules with a fantasy “skin”.

If you like Mass Effect (I did) you may like Dragon Age (I do) — although Dragon Age is considerably uglier in most respects than Mass Effect (I suspect that, at a low level, the current generation of texture compression schemas available for console programmers is not as sympathetic to gritty detailed “fantasy” textures as it is to the cleaner “Star Warsy” graphics in Mass Effect). Personally, I loved the look of Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic and think that when Bioware jumped up to the next level of graphic quality (NWN2, et al) they made the mistake of going for too realistic a look, and have never recovered. So far, of the “current generation” Bioware games, only Mass Effect doesn’t look like ass. At least with Bethesda — their games have always looked like ass.

First of all, Dragon Age is pretty hard (and I’m only playing on “normal”) — in both the “challenging” sense (a lot of the bad guys can do a lot of area effect damage really fast, and there are lots of stunning and immobilization effects) and, unfortunately, the “annoying and tedious sense”. The combat system is very fast paced (it’s exactly the same system as in Mass Effect, and conceptually similar to everything Bioware has done since Baldur’s Gate), and I would frequently find myself pausing every second or two and going through entire fights character by character making sure everything was OK. For one fight — so far — I switched down to “casual” difficulty because it was such a pain to win (I think I made the mistake of attempting a specific side-quest way earlier than the designers intended). A few fights I’ve had to repeat half a dozen times to get through. One fight I’ve been unable to win and set aside for “later”. (Hint: it involves a dragon.) And it doesn’t help that many potentially deadly fights tend to be against humans, and it’s hard to tell whether the four thugs you’re fighting are a nuisance or Death Incarnate. Once you get past the early quests you really can’t afford to treat any fight casually.

Unfortunately, I’d say that much of the time the reason combat is difficult is that the UI is often infuriating (e.g. when you target a lot of spells you drop out of command mode — argh!) you can only control one of your four party members at a time and the Artificial Stupidity is pretty damn strong (e.g. the AIs have absolutely no cognizance of AoE spells, and will cheerfully charge at enemies sitting in the middle of earthquakes and lightning storms; similarly, they will cheerfully walk into marked traps the moment a fight starts — which often means hitting “Load Game” immediately as half your party goes down in a fraction of a second). In essence, the only way I’ve found to win tough fights is to switch to “hold” and micro-manage everyone’s positioning, which slows fights to a crawl (even though in “real time” most fights are over in very short order — very much not like D&D). A micro-managed group is around 2-5x more effective than just letting your idiots fight on their own.

Unlike Mass Effect, money has so far been very tight, which means I can’t afford to deck my characters in cool equipment. That said, there seem to be far fewer gear upgrades than Mass Effect, so the endless shifting around of gear because you found a slightly better assault rifle has been substantially reduced (also, gear is much less interchangeable, so the fact that Bob got a new mace doesn’t tend to have so many ripple effects). And, yes, it’s another case “try to save the world while cobbling together enough cash to buy healing poultices”. At least, in this case, the reason most people are selling you gear is that they don’t know the world needs saving.

One thing I really like is the idea that a character taken out during a fight is “injured” rather than “dead”. Once the fight is over, they get up again — somewhat the worse for wear. (They need special healing to recover — well you need to click an “injury kit”.) This avoids the conceptual morass of the guys who’ve been raised from the dead thirty times in the course of their careers — but would play better if the game really treated them as “injured” rather than dead (not representing them with a skull icon would be a good start). Frankly, I’d have preferred the fights to be a little bit easier, but the consequences of injury to be much worse (e.g. you might have to go to a special healer to get patched up). In one dungeon I ran out of injury kits and each injury became a serious problem (well, at least conceptually — I didn’t really detect any major downside to carrying injuries) — if the entire game felt like that, then fights could be hard without frequent wipes being nature’s way of telling you those guys were pretty tough.

Second, while Dragon Age is no more conceptually advanced than Bioware’s first RPG (Fallout) the setting is — by fantasy standards — pretty original, the writing good, and the quests interestingly designed. The voice acting is merely OK, though. Long-distance travel in Dragon Age is handled exactly as in Fallout (enter world map, click on destination, dot moves across map — zoom in to small generic location for random encounters).

In terms of quest complexity and moral gray areas, Dragon Age is perhaps the worthiest successor to Fallout that I’ve played (including Fallout 3). For example… Spoiler Alert! (Select to read.) I’m currently less than half-way through (as far as I can tell) and I’m currently trying to get the dwarves to join my alliance, but to do this I need to solve their succession crisis (which appears to have at least two possible outcomes) — and I’ll need to figure out which guy I want to back and then how to back him. (I usually tend to be “goody two shoes” in RPGs, and I’m trying to play selfish and ruthless, but the dwarvish caste system is irking me so I may end up erring on the side of niceness yet again — although, interestingly, the guy most likely to tear down the caste system appears to be more of an asshole.) The point is, this is not a distinction with no difference, and the setting is engaging enough for me to care which path I pick. End Spoiler Alert.

Third, as I have already implied, Bioware have done themselves no favors in the game design department. As in Mass Effect it’s very hard to figure out exactly which skills are useful, and unlike Mass Effect there are way more of them (instead of having one skill with N levels which gives you special benefits at certain levels, you get sets of four distinct abilities which are thematically related, but each completely independent), so you tend to waste a lot of skill points. (And I don’t particularly want to read “guides”, use cheats/walkthroughs, or restore from save constantly.)

There’s a huge amount of repetition and flavorless redundancy in the spells and abilities (e.g. shield pummel vs. shield bash vs. overpower vs. assault — all basically the same thing with different cooldown timers — I might add that the abilities often seem to have effects that make no sense relative to their name, e.g. “riposte” is that another “whack + stun” ability, not a counter-attack following a parry). Often you’ll be motivated to get a new ability not because it adds anything new but simply because it’s just like some other ability you have, but on a different cooldown timer — which is just stupid since you’re already limited by stamina/mana and execution time. (Why is it faster to cast two lightning and two freeze spells than four of one or the other?)

And finally, unlike Mass Effect which had three orthogonal character classes (soldier, tech, and psy) and then three hybrid classes, Dragon Age has ditched the “hybrids” — you just get warrior, rogue, and mage (i.e. the same classes with a fantasy skin) — and you can specialize each class to resemble pretty much any typical fantasy cliche you like — rogues can be bards or assassins, mages can be healers or shapeshifters (no necromancers though), fighters can be paladins, berserkers, etc.. I do like the fact that there’s one caster class that can be anywhere on the dps/buff/heal continuum you want, rather than treating the healer and mage as distinct and then giving them a huge overlap, but I don’t see why fighter and rogue couldn’t be similarly blurred (especially since it’s exactly what I will play in virtually any RPG when given a chance).

On the whole, I’d say that the original Fallout had the best game design (especially for character development) Bioware has done thus far. The problem with the system devised for Dragon Age is that it’s way too complex and non-orthogonal to grok given the time investment. (It’s not like an MMORPG where you’ll be playing the game for six months and (a) have the desire to figure out whether it’s better to spend a point on “slam” or “smash” or “butt-whack”, and (b) you probably have some mechanism for switching your points around if you change you mind, and (c) a bunch of game designers are employed full-time to keep things balanced.) To provide a simple example: you will often have the choice of several different spells which all do single-target damage, but no clue as to which one does more, is harder to resist, has longer range, or stuns as a side-effect (and each opens up a new spell which makes choosing even harder). For a more complex example: you will often have a choice between reducing stamina/mana costs, increasing stamina/mana regeneration, or getting a whole new ability with a different cooldown timer. And then there’s the “mode” system (you can be in one “mode” at a time) which makes everything even harder to analyze.

Contrast this with Fallout et al where you could opt to “be tougher”, “shoot faster”, “shoot more accurately”, etc. (And there’s nothing remotely like Fallout’s “perks” which were one of my favorite features.)

You do get a wide variety of NPCs to play with and can at least sample what’s possible — it seems to me that a lot of the replayability (if there is any) will be out of a desire to create a character with a less fracked up skill tree the second time around. It is also annoying how specialized a character has to be — if you want your fighter to be a tank you’ll need to burn so many skill points in shield skills that you can’t switch to a two handed sword and wreak havoc when the mood takes you. (At least not at level 12.)

As an aside, I’d have to say that the obsession with specialization in RPGs — it started in computer RPGs but has bled back into paper– really ticks me off. I’m sorry, but a good fantasy story doesn’t involve a guy who is so specialized in tanking that he can’t use a bow. Gandalf wore chainmail and wielded a sword (as did Turjan of Mir). Conan could sneak and climb walls. Fafhrd could dual wield and the Gray Mouser could cast spells. How did we get from this inspiration to guys who obssess over threat generation, mitigation, avoidance, and hit points? And it’s not even a game balance issue since you can’t use your shield skills when you’re wielding a two-handed sword, and when you’re sneaking or climbing it doesn’t really matter that you’re a kick-ass musician.

If you’re a computer RPG player the chances are you already know you will or won’t buy Dragon Age because you either do or don’t like Bioware’s stuff. So the bottom line is that — relative to other Bioware offerings and adjusting for time and technology — it’s up there with Fallout in terms of back story, writing, and plot, but the game mechanics are annoying and the graphics are meh.