Friday, January 6, 2012

Game Review - Dragon Age: Origins

Game Review - Dragon Age: Origins

Score +12/-8

Dragon Age: Origins is a fantasy role-playing game that emphasizes grey "moral choices" and a wide variety of custom events based on race, background, and previous choices in the game.
+- There's nothing particularly special about the story here, but there's also nothing clearly bad about it either. If you've played enough games, the overall plot and events will be boringly familiar to Neverwinter Nights 2 and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
+++ The artwork is very good, especially in the character face generation engine, which can produce faces better than many custom drawn characters and CG artwork. Three points here for: General artwork combined with resource management to maximize the use of it; excellent face generation engine; and an attempt to make every character (of easily about 1000) you might encounter unique. If they could only have combined superior facial and body language (Freelancer still has some of the best) they would earn another point.
+ The soundtrack by Inon Zur, combined with some powerful scenes and the occasional excellent dialogue options, make for extremely emotional moments in the game. Two exemplary ones are the endings to the Human Noble and Dalish Elf origin stories.
- Dragon Age: Origins suffers from the classic problem of how to challenge high-level characters and using the "wrong" solution. Like Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and many other games, they use internal scaling so that even the basic grunts you encounter in the late game will have very high-quality arms and armor plus superhuman abilities. Why does every mundane archer and their dog have the supernatural ability to shatter an arrow into an explosion of shards? This is particularly disappointing when Dragon Age: Origins also has an internal system of ranking enemies according to importance, with "Critters" and "Normals" at the low end. They could easily have aggressively capped the progression and/or abilities of low-end creatures to low-tier powers, or maybe even no powers for Critters. At least in Neverwinter Nights 2 you had actual monsters and epic situations. Here, there's no excuse. It's the same story as in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: After a certain level, your basic bandit can be sporting gear worth thousands (why are they still mere bandits?) and an epic skill level.
- Associated with the above -- and the same problem as in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion -- is the problem of quest rewards. If you complete a quest and get a reward at a low level, typically when it is more challenging, you often get a unique lower-tier item reward that doesn't scale up with you and doesn't therefore become useful in the later game.
- Magic needs more playtesting. In many games, mages are at a severe disadvantage. Here, it's balanced out a bit with spells that give you space or protection from outright melee. They could have left it at that and strengthened those spells to make them more reliable against bosses. Instead, they overpowered bosses to walk through just about everything.
- At the same time, some magic is overpowered because of indirect fire. Except for encounters where your party is forced into a tactically disadvantageous position because of scripting, in general you can stand behind a wall and throw down a devastating magic barrage. When one or two spells (e.g., Storm of the Century) become the solution to every fight, something is severely broken.
- Skills, spells, and talents need more playtesting. Some are comparatively worthless. Others, like Stealing, were actually broken in later patches.
- The character development is very limited compared to its peers. Equipment is also not very interesting. The end result is that fights start to look very much the same and there is a huge temptation to use the console command killallhostiles to save time. They are, thankfully, generally quite short.
- Forced events and oversights from forced events need are annoying. For example, dialogue causes you to turn off certain states (e.g., Blood Magic, Shapeshifting). When it is immediately followed by combat, you start at an unexpected disadvantage and have to wait out a cooldown time.
+ There is a strong attempt to have a rich and alive world, with extensive history and strong racial differences.
+ The game does not, in general, shy away from more mature themes like racism, rape, death of significant characters, and the death of others based on your choices. It's not so "sanitized" as other games.
+ Talking and quests in lieu of straight combat is generally awarded comparable experience and reward. Sometimes it is the only way to get a superior reward or future outcome. This corrects an imbalance that has existed in many games where killing everyone tends to be clearly the best outcome in character improvement and loot.
+ The so-called moral choices need to be more aggressively scripted. The dilemmas aren't presented strongly enough (e.g., accept a token amount of money or let your childhood friend be raped) and the outcomes are not particularly significant. Some severe events occur in the Human Noble and Dwarven Noble origin stories, but the later outcomes are too tame to be realistic because it would have deviated too much from what would happen with the other origin stories. Some choices have limited impact later. There's a moral choice to make at the time, but without significant repercussions, it's wasted effort. Still, that they attempted it at all sets the game apart from many others and is worth a point. Some events have a wide array of potential and contingent outcomes that are nice to explore.
If you want to play through the various backgrounds, and see in-game the differences in events based on race and origin story -- without having to replay the game several times -- you can try our mods / console commands to change race and background.
+ Getting and playing extra content actually has an effect, and playing the game has an effect on some of the extra content. For example, your relationship with Morrigan can (albeit in a token way) affect some of the dialogue and events in the Witch Hunt DLC.
+ Companion influence system similar to that in Neverwinter Nights 2, but better realized with more and deeper dialogue. Also lots of party banter between  companions, and deeper and more interesting companion histories.
+ Fewer but interesting monsters with a deeper integration into the game world. Some monsters, such as dragons, are very well done in artwork and animation.

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