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.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Game Review - Mass Effect 2 - Also Things What Happened In My Game

This is going to be a gushing review. Absolutely gushing. Sickeningly gushing. So gushing you'll wonder if you've come to the right blog. Look at the image above, it's pretty kick-ass and that's what Mass Effect 2 is all about - kick-ass moments. I'm not talking vacuous Michael Bay moments (although there are explosions and gunplay aplenty), I'm talking emotional, impactful, kick-ass moments. Moments that had me cheering one minute and cringing in anticipation the next. This is the thing, Mass Effect 2 is possibly one of the most engaging game narratives ever created. HYPERBOLE ENGINE ENGAGED.

Look above these words, it's Shepard in the Afterlife. He's obviously dead. OR IS HE?

Mass Effect 2 begins with a fantastic opening sequence. Part cut-scene and part interactive, the game opens with a bang and engages you emotionally from the outset and provides you with sufficient motivation for the rest of the game. After this introduction you can make changes to your Shepard if you've imported him/her from the first Mass Effect. You can then change class or alter your ugly face. I still have the PC that ran the original game and so my save game was still available but I understand that this may not be the case for most PC gamers, so I recommend this site if you want to import a Shepard close to your own experience.

I could waffle about the story but I don't want to spoil anything - well, apart from at the bottom of this post where I'll be throwing spoiler bombs around as I reminisce about my experiences in the game. The story is such a joy to experience fresh that I wouldn't wish to spoil anything for anyone. The main storyline focuses on Shepard's efforts to hire a Dirty Dozen-esque collection of space bastards in an effort to defeat a new, terrifying enemy. It's a story you can play through pretty quickly if you just want to recruit squad members and blast off into the unknown. But I don't think anyone would want to do that because each squad member has his/her/it own quests which are all engaging stories in their own right. As in the first game you can roam around your ship, The Normandy, and chat to your crewmates, each time revealing something about each character until eventually they'll ask for help in some serious matter they'd like to resolve. Even the sidequests are all different this time - gone are the cookie cutter space dungeons of the first game. This time sidequests all take in unique environments and include their own little narratives.

Conversations can be influenced by your rank in Paragon or Renegade alignment. As you make decisions in the game your Paragon and Renegade ratings will increase. It's up to you where most of the points will fall. I admit that I played as a Paragon Shepard but when I maxed out my Paragon rating I did start to choose Renegade options to spice things up. What makes the morality of Mass Effect great is that there is no black and white morality. Renegade Shepard wants to save the universe just as much as Paragon Shepard, it's just that the Renegade version acts like angry Jack Bauer at the beginning of season two of 24. A new feature in ME2 is the Paragon/Renegade actions that you can take during conversations. Paragon actions involve saving lives whereas Renegade actions involve sudden, hilarious violence. They're a fantastic addition to the Bioware school of conversation.

Combat is much, much better than in the first Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 is now an efficient shooter that, for me, matches the twitch shooting thrills of Gears of War. The tropes of the third person shooter are present, chest high walls for cover, firefights in areas filled with said walls, enemies that dart between the walls, and melee enemies that induce terror because cover does absolutely no fucking good against them and OH MY GOD THEY'RE SCREAMING AND MOANING AS THEY APPROACH! GET THEM OFF ME! Sorry. To spice things up, you are now equipped with a host of powers, for example, Soldiers can slow down time to line up a perfect shot and have different ammunition types to suit any occasion. Other powers such as invisibility and telekinesis are available depending on which class you choose. Your squadmates are fairly competent as semi-autonomous allies. You won't need to frequently pause and issue commands as they'll generally go about the business of butchering your enemies with little input from you. They're even capable of using their powers without encouragement and spout one liners as they do so (Mordin has the best lines here).

So the story is all kinds of wonderful and the combat is greatly improved but what about the RPG elements? Well, they're downsized. But I would ask the question, "what do you consider to be RPG elements?" Because if you mean stats and numbers then that's roll playing and *role* playing. ME2 is a fantastic role playing game because it presents you with characters and decisions that are immersive and engaging - not because you're armed with a +5 shotgun. Think back to the first game, did you really enjoy managing your inventory? Do you miss sorting through tens of items, converting them to omni-gel and selling them to the crew member who refused to just give you stuff? The tedious number crunching is gone, now when you find a new, superior, weapon you just equip it. No fuss, you just do the sensible thing and pick it up. You no longer have to buy weapons and armour from one of your own crew, now you research better technologies and use elements hoovered up from nearby planets to fund the research. Once you've created the new item, it's available for use straight away. It's a lot less tedious and fits into the fiction of the universe.

Character progression is slightly simplified from the first game but is no less interesting. You will have only a handful of powers to choose from and only a certain number of points to spread amongst them. You can specialise some powers and will need to make the decision as to how you will focus your abilities. It's not dumbed-down, it's just more simple and elegant. Gone are the largely meaningless numbers and levels, now the numbers are crunched down into 4 levels of skill in each power.

I love this game. I think it can be completed in about 20 hours but I invested just under 50 because I didn't want to leave. The final hour of the game is thrilling and the decisions made will obviously cause repercussions in the third game. I can't wait to see what Shepard does next.

Okay under the load screen I will be discussing my experience in the game. DO NOT READ ON IF YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE GAME. I'm serious, people.


Oh man, that last mission.

I passed it with flying colours. Only I didn't. You see, nobody died on my team (because I am great) but my entire crew, including the cute and lovely Yeoman Kelly was pulped by the Collectors. I was horrified that my attempt to explore every square inch of the galaxy had led to the death of my favourite minor character. Dr Chakwas survived and she asked why I took so long. Commander Shepard gave some platitude about needing to be ready before going on the suicide mission but I knew the truth - I was dicking about looking for easy credits and XP that I didn't need. I've never felt so guilty in a game. What really killed me was my return to the Captain's Cabin after finishing the game and finding my fish tank full of dead fish. Fish that Kelly used to feed. *sob*

Bioware tricked me. Normally the plot will say that you only have 24 hours to save the universe but will then allow you to tit around to your heart's content. Only this time it doesn't apply, the longer you take, the more crew members die. I have since gone back and replayed the conclusion to the game and saved Kelly because I want her to appear in ME3. But man, that image of dead fish will haunt me for a while yet.

I also rejected Tali's romantic advances, and felt like an utter bastard. Her reply was along the lines of "Of course, why would you be interested." It broke my heart. Of course I was kind of interested but I'd already pimped Shepard out to Yvonne Strahovski. I mean, come on, it's Yvonne Strahovski! Tali's dejected response was heart breaking. But let's face it, I couldn't figure out how we'd get up to any inter species hanky panky anyway - Tali lives in a special suit which stops her from dying of the common cold. A romantic dalliance would be all kinds of unhygienic.

In one scene I took a Renegade action, thinking it would be oh so cool and hilarious. The only problem is that I felt like an utter dick afterwards. In one mission you encounter a few scared Salarian construction workers and one of them pulls a gun on you. The Renegade action button appeared and I duly pressed it thinking that Shepard would disarm the panicking alien. What he did was punch the scared guy out and then made a pithy comment. I was shocked. Shepard was acting like a big, dumb, jock, bully and I'd told him to do it. The other Salarians looked more frightened and worried than ever but unfortunately I couldn't select "Apologise profusely" as a conversation option. Man, I'm such a dick.

I didn't learn my lesson from the Salarian though, as later on in the game I wanted to extract some information from a young street hood called Mouse. Mouse was reluctant to give up some information on an assassination and when the Renegade option flashed up, I took it. I punched the poor kid in the face and threw him to the ground, he instantly gave up the information and I felt like a bully. This time there was an apology option but the kid brushed it off and limped away, blood covering his face. Man, I'm such a dick.

Those moments were depressing for me but one moment made up for it all. A moment that had me laughing like a mad man. I headbutted Worf in the face. Michael Dorn was moaning and talking smack, the Renegade option came up and I headbutted him. It was so unexpected, so brilliant that I couldn't believe what just happened. That memory more than makes up for all the poor decisions I made.