Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dragon Age: The Ultimate in Replayability

This post contains potential plot spoilers for Dragon Age:  Origins and Dragon Age:  Origins--Awakening.

My character, a female elf warrior.

So I finally finished playing Dragon Age the other night.  I would say it took me about a month and a half to play through the game itself (Dragon Age:  Origins) and the expansion pack (Dragon Age: Origins--Awakening).  I forgot to check the actual hours played log, but I get about somewhere between 2-5 hours of gaming in on most days (usually it's a solid 3), so make of that what you will. 

This was a bear, but oh man, it was a pretty fun bear.  For me, hands down the most important thing about a role playing video game (RPG) is the story.  If a game doesn't have a compelling story that keeps me wanting to find out what happens next, then there's no reason for me to play it all of the way through, now is there?  Of course, two of the key elements to a compelling story are world building and character development, and Dragon Age excels in both of those areas admirably.  More on this in a bit.

Game play itself, is of course, also very important to making a successful video game. I am sure there are all kinds of definitions of what makes up good game play, but for me it boils down to how quickly the controls/actions in the game become intuitive.  I tend to give most PC games a little more of an adjustment period on this front (past the initial "training" portion of the game) because I am still getting used to keyboard/mouse controls versus a joystick/game controller.  I had years of not being very good at console games under my belt before my husband ever convinced me to try a PC game that wasn't Zoo Tycoon.  Of course, even with my learning curve, I have still jumped head first into PC gaming in the last year or so.  My poor console games are sitting sadly in their coffee table cubbyholes wishing someone other than the baby would take them out to play once in a while.  But I digress.  My thoughts on PC versus console gaming are fodder enough for their very own post, I think. 

Back to the game play in Dragon Age.  I would definitely give this a thumbs up.  It probably helps that three of the five PC games I have played prior to Dragon Age (Star Wars:  Knights of the Old Republic, Star Wars:  Knights of the Old Republic II:  The Sith Lords, Portal, Mass Effect, and Mass Effect 2) were made by the same company (Bioware), and a fourth was made by an offshoot of that company.  But either way, I was able to pick up the controls fairly quickly and figure out how to access/use the items in my inventory, read the codex entries, find my active quests, and level my characters with relative ease.  Actually, once I got used to it, the character leveling process in this game is probably one of the best I've used so far. I don't know if that is because I am finally starting to figure out how I should be leveling or if it was actually a really good design though.

As far as combat goes in the game, however, well, I will admit I had to change the difficulty level to "easy" pretty early on and may have left that setting stand for the rest of the game.  Again, I am not sure if this was a reflection of the game itself or of my skill as a gamer.  I hate needing to put a game on the "easy" setting, because it does feel a bit like cheating to me, but with this game, I kind of needed it.   Even with the difficulty level turned down, there were still some places where I felt overwhelmed, though I will admit there were also many places where I could totally feel the "easy" kicking in and wished for a bit more of a challenge.  Having played through it once though, and having a better idea of how the leveling works and which skills/spells/specialties do what, I am looking forward to making it through the next time without readjusting the settings. 

The only aspect of the game play I really have to complain about was the maps.  They weren't even that bad, I just felt like they didn't give the level of detail I would have liked, especially compared to some of the previous Bioware games I've played.  I really think it is more that I didn't so much care for the artistic choices they made with them than that they were bad maps though.  But given the consistently insane amount of detail throughout the rest of the game, crappy maps are a price that I am perfectly willing to pay.

The basic story of the game is this:  The land of Ferelden has come under a Blight--a plague of darkspawn controlled by an archdemon.    Your character is drafted into the Grey Wardens, the military force specially charged with fighting darkspawn and ending the Blight.  Shortly after you join the Wardens, however, there is a battle with the darkspawn in which not only does the nation's king die, but so do all of the Grey Wardens save yourself and one other, Alistair.  

Alistair the Grey Warden

Together, you and Alistair must help reunite Ferelden in the wake of the king's death, and assemble an army to fight off the darkspawn horde so that you can slay the archdemon and end the Blight.  Piece of cake, right?  Of course, no one expects the two of you to do this alone.  So along the way you pick up many allies, forming a fairly formidable party.  

Morrigan, a witch of the Wilds.

Leliana, a member of the Chantry and former Orlesian bard.

Sten the Quinari

Wynne, a mage from the Circle of Magi.

Zevran, an Antivan assassin.

You get a puppy!  A mabari hound, I named mine Sirius.

Oghren the dwarf.
The story continues in the expansion pack, Dragon Age:  Origins--Awakening, and gives a nice little epilogue to the events of the main game.  You should, of course, import your character from the main game into the expansion pack, it's just silly not to (for one thing, you start out at a higher level, with more money, and with most of your inventory from the previous game).  In Awakening, your character has been sent to Vigil's Keep in Amaranthine to take over the lands forfeited by the traitorous Arl Howe during the events of Origins and to serve as the Warden Commander for the about to be rebuilt (by you) Grey Warden forces in Ferelden.  You quickly learn that while killing the archdemon did indeed end the Blight, it did not, unfortunately, cause all of the darkspawn to retreat.  Many of them are still roaming Ferelden (and Amaranthine in particular, of course).  Through the course of the game, you find out that some of the darkspawn have become sentient and there are two different factions, led by the Mother and the Architect.  It is up to you to rebuild the keep, recruit more Grey Wardens quickly, and to put an end to the darkspawn threat once and for all.  Your good pal Oghren is back for the new adventure, as well as some new friends.

Anders, an apostate mage.
Sigrun, a dwarf.

Justice, a spirit from the Fade pulled into this world by a demon.

Nathaniel Howe, trying to redeem his family name.

Velanna, a Dalish mage.
A large part of the game is, of course, developing relationships with the different members of your party.  As you gain their trust and loyalty through your in-game actions, companion quests open up for each character.  In addition to earning their approval or disapproval through your actions, you can also gain influence with members of your party by giving them gifts.  Throughout the game you'll find many items in stores or while looting that are designated in your inventory as "gifts."  Some of these might hold special meaning to party members--which you won't know unless you actually take the time to talk to your party members.

This is the first game I've played with the gift mechanic.  I was kind of annoyed by it at first (I may have given several items to the wrong people before I figured the thing out), but looking back now, I do like the idea of it.  The big advantage is that it allows you to gain approval with members of your party even if you don't ever actually take them with you on quests.  I, for one, tend to figure out a specific group for my "main" party and then only use those characters unless the story requires a different configuration.  This way, I still got to get to know the other characters, even if I didn't want to use them in my group.  That was nice.  (It also opened up their companion quests without taking them with me all of the time, allowing me to rack up more XP and therefore reach a higher level).

I think that by far the coolest thing about Dragon Age though is the fact that it lends itself to well to replayability.  I've already mentioned that I want to play it through again on the "normal" difficulty setting, but I also want to try out both the Rogue and Mage classes.  I might try it as a human, instead of an elf, and I might play through as a guy instead of a girl--I have a feeling that final conversation with Morrigan before you face the archdemon goes a lot differently if you are not a girl!  Honestly, I'm curious to see how the relationship dynamics with every character change based on your class/race/gender.  

Yeah, I know,  a lot of games give you this kind of versatility--I've been pondering a replay of Knights of the Old Republic as a guy for a while now, because then I won't feel so compelled to put up with Carth's whining--but Dragon Age went an extra step on this front.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, while you are given many options for your character's background, you actually start the game in the same place no matter what you choose.  You (maybe, depending on the scenario) get a little blurb about what incidents shaped your character based on your choices, and often dialogue options will come up based on your background, but you still always start the game in the same place regardless.  Dragon Age, however, has six different starting points.  The class and race you choose decides where you start the game (and the events are further shaped by your gender, I am sure).  For example, I chose Warrior for my class and Elf for my race.  This gave me the choice of my starting points:  City Elf or Dalish Elf.  Had I chosen Dalish, I would have started off with the traveling elves, and I am sure my interactions when I met up with them later in the game would have been quite different.  I chose City Elf, and so started in the Alienage in the city of Denerim, and got to have my wedding interrupted by the Arl's spoiled son.  This then had an effect on my game experience later on when I returned to Denerim and was tasked with solving some unrest in the Alienage--and gave my character a chance to be reunited with some of her family. 

On top of the chance to have at least six different game experiences, there is also quite a bit of downloadable content (DLC) for the game available.  I didn't purchase any of it this time around because I had the expansion pack, but I have already decided that when I do my replays, I will want to invest in that DLC to add yet another dimension of "new" experiences to the game.  They've even added a quest where you can go hunt down Morrigan after the original ending to find out what came from that pre-battle discussion.  Which, yeah, I totally want to do.  Heck, I might buy that at some point and play it through with my original character, just out of curiosity.  That plot twist just caught me off guard, and I want to know what happened, dang it!

So all in all, I would definitely say I am a fan of Dragon Age.  I thought Mass Effect had tied Knights of the Old Republic for my favorite PC game thus far, but (and I hate to say this, being the Star Wars fangirl that I am), I am pretty sure Dragon Age blew them both right out of the water.  While I am pretty sure I will play KOTOR again, I know I will play Dragon Age again, and multiple times.  Heck, after I got well and truly done playing, I got right on the internet to see if there really was a sequel in development, or if I had only imagined hearing that.  Not only is there a sequel, it's already scheduled for release (March 2011), and available for preorder.  In fact, if you preorder it through one of Bioware's approved vendors before January 2, you automatically get your version upgraded to the signature version for free, with lots of extra goodies.  So, um, yeah, I went ahead and preordered.  Man, I am psyched for March!

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