Saturday, 13 February 2010

Game Review - Dragon Age (Late Impressions Edition)

Dragon Age is big. Really, hugely, massively big. Bigger than a big whale balanced on the shoulders of an even bigger whale who has put on some weight. This is a fantasy RPG that attempts to be every bit as epic as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

You take on the role of one of six origins, human noble, dwarf commoner, dwarf noble, city elf, Dalish elf, and finally, mage. Each origin has its own unique beginning to the game where you learn the ropes of combat and abilities whilst suffering some heart rending tragedy which forces you to leave home and join the Grey Wardens. The origin stories do a marvellous job of setting the scene and providing you with a unique political viewpoint of Ferelden. A human noble will have a very different view of the world to a Dalish elf, for example. The origins serve not only as a functional tutorial but also as a taster of the moral choices that you’ll be making later in the game.

Your character becomes a member of the Grey Wardens, an elite unit of warriors charged with saving the world (yes, just like the Spectres in Mass Effect.) It’s a trope that serves well within the setting and provides the impetus and motivation to save the world from the coming Blight. The Blight is an invasion of hideous monsters (the Darkspawn) that rise up from the subterranean depths of Ferelden (the fantasy land you inhabit) causing misery and destruction wherever they roam. The Blight is led by a demonically possessed dragon which must be put down in order to stop the rampaging Darkspawn army. In order to achieve this not insubstantial objective you’ll need to wander the length and breadth of Ferelden recruiting forces for your own army as you go.

Cue visits to remote locations such as an extensive underground dwarf city, a forest populated by elves and werewolves, remote castles and fortresses, and a sprawling capital city. The design of each zone is unique and contains some stunning views of the local landscape. It’s a pity that although attempts have been made to add unique wrinkles to each race and location, it’s pretty standard fantasy fare. Dwarfs live underground, elves live in forests, and humans live in vague approximations of medieval villages and cities. Dragon Age doesn’t try to subvert genre expectations; it creates a familiar but engrossing fantasy world and is largely successful.

Combat is tough, especially so if you choose not to include a mage in your four man party. Mages provide the usual assortment of ranged damage, healing, ability buffs, and crowd control. The robed spell flingers are absolutely essential to your progress through the many combats dotted throughout the game. It is essential that you use tactics if you play at the default difficulty setting, the game facilitates tactical thinking via its pause and play system which will be familiar to any players of previous Bioware RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate. For those who haven’t, you can pause combat at any time, issue commands to your party members and then unpause to see the results. Combat occurs in real time but can be paused at any point in order to issue commands. There is also a new tactics feature which allows you to set default behaviour and commands to your companions. Tired of manually activating all of your fighter’s abilities? You can use the tactics tool to set the character to switch on his abilities at the start of a fight, have him use a health potion when his health drops to a certain level, or give you a hug when the Darkspawn kill one of your loved ones. One word of warning though, ranged combat tactics seem to be hard to instil in your companions, they have a tendency to draw a blade as soon as anyone gets even slightly close, despite what you may have told them to do.

Alternatively, if you don’t want to play with combat tactics you can set the difficulty to Easy and breeze through fights with little effort. This may be an attractive option to some as the sheer amount of combat in some areas (especially toward the end of the game) can get a little tiring. It certainly doesn’t take anything away from the story if you decide to make things easy on yourself and reduce combat difficulty. If anything it’ll stop you from getting fatigued in some of the more combat heavy areas.

Dragon Age doesn’t have a morality system as such. This means that every quest involving a moral choice can be resolved without the game judging you by adding or docking points on a morality bar. However, this new freedom to make any decision without judgement is hampered by the reactions of your comrades. Some of your followers will approve of heavy handed tactics and harsh decisions whilst some prefer the softly, softly approach. Your decisions and dialogue choices will either improve or reduce your influence with your buddies. If you increase approval high enough, your pals will gain access to stat boosts and offer side quests. So far so good, but then the game introduces something that makes a mockery of inter party diplomacy – gifts. You see, your followers are very shallow, very shallow indeed. Did you offend someone in your group by constantly kicking puppies and thrashing peasants? Why not offer the offended party member a shiny bauble? They’ll instantly forget what a massive idiot you are. It’s a shame that the game works so hard to create relationships via dialogue options but cheapens it with this slightly ridiculous gift system.

Another thing that bugs me is why the hell do people drink poultices in this world? I guess Bioware wanted to use a different word than potion but they could have at least chosen a word that was accurate. You place a poultice on a wound, you don’t ingest it.

Minor carping aside, Dragon Age is a fantastic piece of work. I spent about 80 hours wandering around Ferelden and enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. This is the best fantasy RPG of recent years, and is sure to be regarded as a classic in future lists. I’m looking forward to how Bioware will develop the Dragon Age franchise, especially in light of the huge positive reaction to the RPG statistics lite approach of Mass Effect 2. Will a Dragon Age sequel retain its stat crunchiness or will it drop some of the stats and inventory management to become a more streamlined experience? Ultimately, I don’t care how many statistics are in my game as long as the high standard of roleplaying storytelling and decision making is retained. Dragon Age is the nerdier, acne ridden cousin of Mass Effect 2 but that doesn't make it any less remarkable and absorbing.

Oh, hey! The game only costs £14.99 at right now. Give it a try.

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