Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review of Dragon Age: Origins

First: Dragon Age: Origins is a great game and a great RPG. Full Stop.

I don't believe in listing what is good about a game, however. I myself tend to read only reviews that tell me what is bad. In my opinion you get a better understanding about what is good this way as well.

I played DA:O as a male human mage. The class and sex I typically play in most RPGs. I tried an elf before, but their childish look didn't suit me. I like to play old men with beards and all elfs looked like 16 year old humans.

The story puts me into a juvenile as well. I don't like that, but have become used to it over the years. Is there ANY RPG at all where you don't start off at the virtual age of 18?

I was impressed with the start. I really started as a mage - not a warrior who fights with magic. There come the Origins, I guess. And so far I really liked it. Later, when I had played through it, however, I tried all the other origins as well and found that they didn't add to replay value at all. They somehow demystified the whole thing, which is bad. I always stopped at the point where the stories merge, which is after half an hour, max.

At normal difficulty the game is said to be quite difficult. I still started and played completely at 'hard', because I wanted to suffer 100% damage of my own AE spells. I don't like this cheating at normal mode where you only suffer 50% damage.
I also found the game to be well balanced at hard mode. I didn't try 'nightmare mode'; hard is indeed sometimes hard - as it should be.

The reason why I found the game to be balanced at hard mode might be that I started with a mage and always had at least Morrigan (mage) in my group at all times. Later I actually had three mages in the group of four. I like mages and magic.. but this also makes the game a lot easier.
While I basically agree that magic should be more powerful than a sword, I doubt that was the intention. It's probably just bad balancing of the mage class - and especially their healing spells.

Problem is well known: Mages are the only characters who can heal, and most difficult battles take a lot of time and therefore are designed around healing. Now, since there are no enrage timers, and mages can increase the mana recharge rate of other mages, it's rather trivial to cut through the content with three healers and a tank. Something I sometimes did, because it was faster. Yes - faster, because this way I didn't need to pause the game every few milliseconds. It's a little bit stupid - especially, because I actually didn't want to be a healer, but a blood mage (real evil and real good at making damage in this game).
(Remark: I do not support artificial enrage timers at all, but a few credible ones could really add to the game!)

If you don't have enough mages or don't have them heal, you need potions .. a lot of potions. Firstly that is expensive, secondly it is stupid. The tiny cooldown for the potions is not shared with other healing potions. Therefore, you are chain-drinking different types of potions as a tank and somehow try to keep aggro at the same time. It's a potion-rotation. Expensive, stupid and not immersive at all. Ever tried to drink something while somebody hits you? Ever tried to do it with a shield and a sword in your hands?
I needed the mages at this difficulty setting to allow my tank to actually fight the enemy and not pause the game every few milliseconds to have him drink a potion.

Alternatives, like kiting with cone of cold are exploits, in my opinion, and they don't work with the 'real' bosses. Just like many cool things don't work with them. Bad design. Don't introduce abilities that need to be nerfed once in front of a boss, just because they suddenly turn out to be too powerful. Just because WoW does it doesn't mean it's good!!

And while I am at it: How immersive is it to cast a spell that creates a gigantic fire tornado that really looks like hell on earth, but after it fades nothing is burned?
In my opinion, mages at early levels shouldn't be able to cast a spell that looks like that and once they are able to cast it they shouldn't do that in a wooden building. I don't think it hurts to tune the animations back or make them look more powerful with you leveling up. Is it actually hard to add some code of fire/smoke moving in a building/cavern and some effects of it on your breathing? There is a lot of stuff in my opinion that is not only fluff, but could add more strategy to the game while not too hard to implement. Especially not in a single player RPG.

Tanking and aggro.. Hi World of Warcraft!
In DA:O characters with heavy armor automatically produce more threat and are automatically attacked by enemies first. Is that helpful? Yes. Is it stupid? Yes. Is it a solution? If you like to fix things by breaking them, yes.
It works - the game is fun - as long as you don't think about it. A good starting point for developers who want to try to break out of the holy trinity of tank/heal/dps might be to look at real life - just an idea.

Just get rid of this whole threat-thing, but let the characters do, what every reasonable guy does if he is attacked: Defend himself and don't turn the back towards an attacker. If there are attackers all around you, try to escape to a better strategic position or die trying, because even the greatest hero dies if you put any weapon into his back.
If you miss the strategic depth in that scenario, just use 5 seconds of your valuable time to think about why the 'reserve' in medieval war is staying outside of the fight at first and doesn't move around on the battlefield following move orders of the commander.

Moving on, here is my biggest issue: Why the hell do they all love me and want me to lead them???
We are talking about an RPG, aren't we ? I want to be immersed in the story! How well can I become immersed in the story, if at every step there are guys and girls who absolutely love me without any reason whatsoever??!

There is the extra cool and extra self-confident giant, called Sten. He doesn't really like me in the beginning, but when I start talking to him his first words always are: "What can I do for you?"
If you think that is completely credible, I'd like to suggest you try that with your real life (or MMO-related) friends. Tell me how they react, please!

Why can't I have people join me when our interests are shared and split up again when they are not any longer? If you really want these 100% loyal friends accompany me, then please give them a really good reason, like being my brother or something similar.

This leads to the most stupid limitation there is in Bioware games: You are only allowed to have a group of max. 4 people! WHY??

Because otherwise the battlefield were too complex? I agree. Yes, I do. It's not a good idea to give me more then 4 or 5 people. But the way to enforce this is just so damn annoying! It's easy to think about in-story ways to actually enforce it. I just don't understand why I have 10 perfectly loyal 'friends', but only three of them can come with me.

In the beginning I decided that I first need a tank. Then I need myself, I also wanted to keep my dog around me, because it's kind of cool. Then I needed a rogue to open closed doors and chests and then .. well .. Actually I also wanted to take a few other characters along, because they are cool. But I wasn't allowed. I ended up with never taking my dog with me although I really liked to have a dog!!

Later I sometimes skipped even the rogue. I had a tank and three mages. After the level was cleared I switched to the rogue and opened all locks in the area. Is that cool? No, it is stupid. 100% stupid. Don't blame me of min/maxing!! What I do is absolutely reasonable, credible and is what everybody in real life did, if for some godly reason he was limited to a real-life group size of four.

Chain-opening locked chests I realized that the most powerful items are never locked away. Only trivial trash is locked away. The designers seemed to have wanted chests and lock-picking, but they also didn't want to force rogues into every group. Therefore only cheap stuff is locked in chests and locked doors are really rare.
The solution could be so easy:
1) Let me bash/burn locked doors and chests - especially wooden ones!!
2) Don't put locked chests in the most stupid places you can think of, like somewhere in a town.
3) Let the NPCs actually carry the keys! Do they also lock pick the chests whenever they want to access them??

Related: Don't arbitrarily put barrels or big 'containers' into the landscape that contain some completely trivial ingredient for a potion nobody ever brews. Is looting itself meant to make me happy? Hey, I might be a little bit crazy and play CRPGs, but I'm not that daft!

Back to the characters: In a good fantasy story people
- don't follow you and declare you openly their leader without a really damn good reason.
- They only follow you until there is nothing more to gain.
- They don't behave like in bad TV shows, but actually are grown-up.
- They actually sometimes have a mind on their own and try to lead as well. oops!

Gaining a 100% loyal friend should be an achievement and managing to get trustworthy people follow you should feel like:
'Great!', and not like
'Get to my camp where I collect people like you'.

I have to admit that Zevran actually is not completely loyal and tries to kill me twice. That's nice, but why do they always have to be that extreme?

Ok. Let's move on to the world:
I like the world they created. There is a lot of background story that feels fresh in my opinion. It also feels quite large while you're at it. Once you're through, however, you realize how small it actually is.
The deep paths, that the dwarfs dug over millennia, are the home of the dark spawn, the big bad enemy of the story. But after you cleared 5 medium-sized levels they are clear of enemies and even stay so until the end of the game. I'd love to venture into the deep paths and explore them, find treasures and stuff .. that's not the idea of this game.

While World of Warcraft is gigantic and the levels have almost no depth, DA:O is small and has a lot of depth. Without randomly generated dungeons, however, I doubt I will ever get size and depth in one game. Diablo had the right idea, but puts to much emphasis on 'slay 10^x enemies with one special ability'. That can be fun, but it's not good for an RPG.

This is a cheap trick! To 'balance' the economy they just make the merchants sell at 100x of the price they buy for. Perhaps better than severely limiting the money the traders have or even just limiting the max they pay for one item, but still stupid.
How to fix that? Just look at real life! A few hundreds years ago merchants didn't have a trillion of items in store. They still needed to be able to move it! And when they were killed, the stuff could be robbed, btw.
If not everything you find were extra magical and extra expensive (when sold by a merchant), the desire to buy that armor that is only available in this very big town could drive you forward.
Actually, riches are said to be one of the things that motivate adventurers. Not in DA:O. Here, money is an artificial construct that is credible only to children of age 5 and lower. For everybody else it is just frustrating.

Merchants don't need to have every weapon that has been designed in store. It's perfectly alright if they have just one or two!! It even adds to the atmosphere if you update from a medium wooden hammer to a bigger wooden hammer that is better balanced. Doesn't always have to be highly magical!

If you couldn't carry 100+ items (no matter the size and/or weight) designers could offer you the items of your slain enemies. So many times when I started as human, some guard would attack me and I looked forward to loot and use the hammer they used against me. But they only had some trash on their corpse. Why? Because the 5-year old who plays DA:O likes to manage the gigantic inventory?

Items become better while you level; their material changes. At level 20 everything you find consists of dragon bones. This is .. not credible and certainly not immersive. It is possible to improve this: Don't let items dominate the power of a character, but let the skills (and spells) dominate. Don't add a thousand 'magic' items, but just a tiny little amount. Players will forgive you the return to non-inflated, immersive, credible, reasonable items.
Extra-heavy weapons can still depend on a character's strength and thus enforce some quasi-level restriction.

Do I become more powerful while playing?
That's a hard question. What I can say is that I gain more skills. As a mage I gain a lot of spells. That's good. But do I become more powerful? Does my fireball do more damage at level 20?

Actually: I don't know. It's not just that the enemies gain power proportionally to me, I don't even see the damage my fireball does!! I can switch it on in the options, but the numbers are tiny, many and vanish too fast to be seen or even remembered. If you want to make players more powerful by increasing the numbers, look at World of Warcraft where I can see what damage I do.
I'd suggest, however, to make me become more powerful by gaining and improving skills and spells alone.

Do they really need to scale with my power? Can't the deep paths be more dangerous than the elfen-forest? The developers don't do this, because they don't want a linear game. If areas had enemies that didn't scale in power to match yours, that limited your choices of where to go.
While it might be immersive and credible that the strongest dwarf in the arena beats the crap out of you at level one, some players seem to have a problem with that. Well, I wouldn't. I had a problem with me beating the best fighter of the dwarfs being 5 minutes in the game (playing the dwarfen origin)! Maybe that's just me, but I wondered why I actually play, since I already seem to be the best fighter on the planet at level 1.

Side Quests:
For some unknown reason developers think that every game needs to have a zillion so called 'side-quests'. That's a trivial task you try to complete while you ignore the main story. In games where the main story is actually about time, like a horde of evil creatures conquering the land, side-quests don't work. Well, they shouldn't work, because we are older than 5.

At least I am and I cannot understand why I can move from one end of the world to the other a hundred times (takes about 3 clicks and 10s loading time) without the time actually moving forward! How am I supposed to get the feeling of a huge fantasy landscape, let alone to be pressed for time, if I can jump-teleport from one end of the world and back and again and again?
I agree that it is a hard problem to solve, but I disagree that developers therefore should ignore it completely! Bad enough you need to allow me to teleport around the world, don't force me to do it to complete these stupid side-quests, while the enemy is approaching! I'd really like to think he is approaching, but it seems he waits for me. Well, thanks for killing my immersion!

It cannot be so hard to create a main story that needs 100 hours of time to play through. Nobody needs these side-quests. Not so many! I even started to accept all of them without reading and found out that I seem to have been expected to do it this way. That's despicable game design that somehow managed to become the norm; even in single player RPGs!

Except for Morrigan, the princess and Zevran the story is absolutely predictable. Alistair's story is surprising, but feels highly artificial. I'd also like to have a few more explanations for why the 'evil' commander (forgot his name) retreats in the beginning and let's the king die. His character is central to the story, but not presented well (detailed) enough. There's much potential there.

I'd love to actually be able to become king myself, help the darkspawn, hunt down Morrigan and her child, but I guess that's really too much to ask. You are there to be the hero and have no choice in that.

The part of the game I enjoyed most was the first part up to Ostengar, the first battle. That's about one hour no more than 5 if it's your first time and you're very slow and read everything. About 10% of the game, no more. In this part people die, who you wouldn't expect to die, and your party doesn't treat you as the leading hero like they do for the rest of the game. Interestingly this part is also 100% linear.
Question: Perhaps a CRPG doesn't so much have to be non-linear in the order of the areas you visit, but rather in the choices you can make?

Finally it certainly wouldn't hurt to present the darkspawn in more detail. The lore is there and well developed up to a point. There's certainly a lot of space for one or more sequels.

DA:O is for single player RPGs what WoW is for MMORPGs: Well done. The developers don't try to fix past mistakes and bad workarounds, but seem to think that they found the best way to design a game and just concentrate on doing it well. They succeed at this mission.

I am convinced that more competition and thus innovation were good for this market.