Monday, November 23, 2009

Dragon Age comics

Artist Aimo on DeviantArt has several nicely drawn and funny Dragon Age: Origins comics and other illustrations in her gallery. I recommend taking a look, and I hope she keeps it up! (Though actually playing the game is probably taking as much of her time as it's taking mine.)

The earlier comics featuring the player character faceless with a hood are from before the game actually came out, and I saw in some of her comments that she was using information gleaned from the forums and teaser videos to make the characters accurate before it was possible to play them.

Later comics feature the player character as a female dwarven noble, as that seems to be her favourite of the three characters she illustrated in this drawing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Epic dungeons

I officially love Dragon Age. The elven ruins were already impressive, in size, depth, detail, and story. After a long period of games with disappointingly short dungeon runs (though modders did much to rectify those), it was refreshing to have such an in-depth experience in the vanilla game. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I went to the Circle Tower. You know a place is huge when you can't finish it in one sitting, even on a weekend! Not only was it large in scale, but it introduced numerous new and very fun gameplay mechanics, challenging fights, and another puzzle! Another challenge was getting acquainted with a new party member that I picked up at that location, and how she worked into the party dynamics.

I went there mainly because I was constantly running low on mana potions. Vendors only sell a couple, and very rarely do any sell lyrium dust with which to brew my own, so I went to the obvious place to hopefully pick up some more. I was not disappointed. You can get an unlimited supply of lyrium dust there, so I bought up 3 full stacks of 99, and went back to camp and stocked up on about 100 lesser and normal strength mana potions. And it's a bloody good thing I did, too, because as I said before, that dungeon was unimaginably massive, and I would have been seriously crippled in the many boss fights there if I didn't happen to have an ample supply of potions on me (as well as health poultices). In fact, I might have hated the dungeon if I weren't adequately prepared. But as it stands, it was an extremely positive experience, and I hope there's another on that scale yet to come!

The same vendor at the Circle Tower also sells some very nice gear, if you can afford it. I bought a new mage hood there, though I already had the best mage robes I could afford from the Wonders of Thedas in Denerim (Tevinter Mage Robes, pictured above, with +5 spellpower, +4% spell resistance, and +1 mana regeneration in combat. Nice looking, too, and not really robes at all). When I've saved up enough, there's an even better outfit yet to buy there.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Party camp chest mod

Before I forget, I should mention this very useful mod that I've been using. Indispensible, in my opinion. It adds a storage chest to your party camp site, where you can add and remove items at will, rather than requiring you to carry all your possessions with you at all times. This was apparently written by a Bioware programmer on the side, judging from the description. So far, it works perfectly. I installed it, and the chest appeared in camp near Leliana. I've stored many things in there and retrieved them later (for crafting, etc.) with no troubles.

Things change, opinions change

It looks like I'm out of "tutorial mode" now. Once I left Lothering, I accidentally found the Dalish elves I was looking for (for the main plot) in the first place I happened to wander into on the map. I'm thinking maybe I wasn't supposed to go to that place first, since even with my rogue at level 3 (of 4) for lockpicking, she still couldn't open 2 or 3 of the locked chests in that area, and a lot of the loot is armour or weapons that none of my characters' stats are high enough to use yet. It also had quite a few tough boss fights, including a couple that I chose to leave alone for now, after wiping on one of them once.

Speaking of Lothering, here's a tip. Don't move on until you've wrapped things up in Lothering. And maybe you won't have to go back to a several hours old saved game like I did.

Sacred Ashes trailer vs. the actual game

Some of my preconceptions of certain characters in the game were strongly influenced by the Sacred Ashes trailer. As I discovered, there were some minor differences. First of all, none of the characters look the same between Sacred Ashes and the actual game. The video shows Morrigan, Leliana, Sten, and a generic man representing the player character. The most notable difference is Sten, who looks like a normal man in the video, with a very expressive face, while in the game he's a hulking giant with a permanent scowl on his face. (He makes a good tank, BTW.)

What the trailer does show accurately is the abilities and tactics of the game. The player character calls out orders and tactics to the other party members, calling Sten to push his way through a line of enemies with brute force, calling Leilana to shoot a hurlock "emissary" (mages who will seriously damage your party unless you take them out early) before engaging other forces, etc. I have seen many of the spells used in the trailer in-game as well. And I notice at least one line spoken by Morrigan ("Let's end this,") is something she says occasionally during fights.


And that brings me to Leliana. I've completely changed my opinion of this companion. I initially disliked her because of the way she was portrayed in Sacred Ashes, and because I knew she was a sister in the Chantry (you know how mages feel about the Chantry's templars). Also wasn't looking forward to having a nun in the party. Morrigan, I thought, was more my style. When Leliana showed up in Chantry robes and started blathering about "The Maker", she looked like a priestess. I took her on anyway, just in case I needed her for something, with a vague intention of leaving her in the camp most of the time so she wouldn't irritate Morrigan.

So once I had her in my party, I saw what skills she had available. She wasn't a priest, she was a rogue! A rogue with the Bard specialisation, and most of her combat points in archery. So I got her out of those ridiculous Chantry robes and gave her some leather armour and a good bow, and she became a permanent part of my party. Especially nice are her pickpocketing, chest-unlocking, and trap-detecting/disarming talents. Turns out her religiosity isn't even the same kind as the Chantry. She's more of a "the beauty of the world is what I call 'god'" type of person. I told her I liked her version better than the Chantry version, in one of the dialogue scenes.

After I picked up Sten, I ended up with a more or less permanent party of Sten, myself, Morrigan, and Leliana. The more I learned about her personality and her past, the more I liked her, and her French accent is endearing. (Leliana is pictured here with Eshaye's alternate face for her, which I mentioned in a previous post.)

My only complaint is that she doesn't sing enough. She should have a lute or some other instrument as part of her default gear, in my opinion, or maybe there should be some equippable lutes or guitars in the game that increase the effectiveness of the bard songs (the ones that buff party members or disorient enemies).

Personality-wise, she's a perfect match for my play style. While Morrigan basically disapproves of everything I do, Leliana always approves. She's kind and feminine. I will not be hardening her personality.

Party dynamics

One thing that makes this game so interesting is how much things are different depending on how you begin the game, certain choices you make, and even your party member selection. While just running around the world, the party members just start talking to each other, and depending on who you have in the group, the conversations are different. Morrigan and Sten have a very amusing rapport going on, not to mention Morrigan and Leliana. Before I picked up Leliana, Morrigan and the dog had a few funny chats as well. They also occasionally speak up if you're entering an area they know, or they'll give their opinions of the area.

And then there are the player's conversations with NPCs. Occasionally, and again depending on who you've picked for your group, your party members may speak up and add to the conversation, even opening up different paths of dialogue if they happen to be previously acquainted with the NPC.

Things like that really add to the atmosphere and a good playing experience, and makes you wonder what would be different if you played differently. Since I prefer to play as a mage, I had been thinking I would never get to see the unique content for the other classes and races, but since you can control any character in your party just as you control yourself, and can level them up and choose their spells and talents, it wouldn't be much different if I created a warrior or rogue character. I could experience the unique content, and still play as a mage once I pick one up for my party.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lothering Heights

I've arrived at a town called Lothering as a pit stop for supplies before venturing out to some major cities. I really have no idea where I am at this point as far as the story goes, so I can't tell if things are progressing slowly or quickly. If this were a book, I could tell just by looking at the difference between the number of pages on the left side and right side, or if I were watching a movie at home, I could tell by glancing at the elapsed time vs. total running time. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, because I certainly don't want it to end any time soon, and I'm taking things at a leisurely pace. It's just that the game still seems to be in tutorial mode, getting me used to different party combinations/abilities and different numbers of people in my party.

I only wonder because the battles are still pretty easy, even the "boss" battle that was shown in the game previews, so either it's still easing me into the combat mechanics and will increase in difficulty with time, or I just need to switch to "hard" mode. This is why I haven't yet installed patch 1.01: it makes both Easy and Normal modes easier, so I wanted to get a feel for how hard "normal" was before the patch. After having been playing for a while, I can say that I definitely don't want it easier than this. I'll try it out in Hard mode and see how it feels.

The game continues to surprise me with its plot twists and its "anyone can die" approach to storytelling, which I will not spoil here (at least not without a spoiler block warning about it). It's as if the more obvious plot elements that it goes out of its way to foreshadow are just there so that you're not expecting the real plot twist later.

Dialogue options

It's hard to please everyone when writing dialogue choices for the player to use in conversations with NPCs, especially given the 3-5 (maybe up to 6?) slots to which they seem to be restricting themselves, as well as the expense and space requirements of recording responses to every choice with the NPC voice actors (my #2 reason why I don't want voice acting in my games). It may not be as consistent as this, but it seems that they try to give options for various attitudes, so that you can play whatever character alignment you have in mind. Something like "polite/trusting, friendly/compassionate, neutral/uninformed, cynical/rude/possibly evil" on average.

This can cause some problems, of course, since sometimes you can tell someone's lying to you, but the "good" attitude would have you just blunder into their ruse, while you come off as a cynical bastard if you approach the matter with due skepticism. Also, sometimes an option may appear to be meant as a friendly joke, but the NPC may react badly to it, as if you meant to insult them.

But, it's hard to complain about such a thing, as I know from personal experience how hard it is to write branching dialogue.

Texture mod

In a previous post, I had referred to an issue with some low-resolution textures in the game, which I expected would be taken care of quickly enough. I've found one mod called HD Textures that makes an attempt to improve these particular textures, by blowing them up and then adding detail overlays to hide the blurriness -- details like scratches, wood grain, grime, etc. There are about 28 of these in the package (not counting material mapping on the same textures). I've seen the revision of the infamous wagon in-game, but I'm afraid it needs more work, especially on the edges where different materials meet, which are still obviously blurry, and on diagonal lines where jagged artifacts from the low resolution are evident, but it's a good start.

I also installed a "Less Blood" mod, as I had done for Oblivion, to get rid of the ridiculously excessive blood spatters that cover your character after a fight, which take forever to fade away (if they ever do). Come on, carry a rag and wipe off your faces, people! I realise blood is a major theme of this game, but my sense of aesthetics prevails in this case.

Leliana's new face (and Morrigan's too)

I have been using Eshaye's cosmetic mod for Leliana's face, which is very nice, and I see Eshaye has made several additional versions of Morrigan's face as well. I haven't tried those, but first I need to make some tweaks on my own version. Some things about it are bothering me in the game, now. I won't delete the old version, of course. I'll put them both up in the same place.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Morrigan cosmetic mod

Note: This post is deprecated, as it contains outdated information and opinions. See this post instead.

Deprecated post: Click to display/hide

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- First impressions

Dragon Age: Origins took its sweet time in getting to me. I didn't realise how impatient I'd become for it, or else I might have chosen a faster shipping method. It arrived with the disc out of its holder (the button in the middle of the DVD case), with half of the holder broken off and rattling around in the case. Irritating, but the disc showed negligible scratching, so I just removed the inserts and put them into a new, unbroken DVD case and moved on.

Hard drive space is at a premium on my computer, so I looked for a way to install in "minimal" mode as many games I've played in the past can do, leaving any movies, voice files, etc. on the DVD to save space, and access it (or cache it) from the disc when needed. Since you need the DVD in the drive to play anyway, seemed like a logical thing to add. Alas, no. There is no advanced installation option beyond choosing your installation folder. And it would have been nice if it could have shown me that before making me enter my CD key. But never mind.

An hour later, I had cleared off enough space to install it and have a reasonable buffer for mods, saves, screenshots, etc. (Fallout 3 was one of the casualties of this disk cleanup.) Of course, these games wouldn't be so huge if it weren't mandatory for all games to include fully voiced dialogue, which I don't care about. And don't get me wrong, the voice acting in this game is well-done, it's just that I prefer to read the lines rather than wait for someone to speak them. The main character doesn't speak aloud; why is it necessary to make everyone else? It reminds me of the 90s, when so many studios had been making 2D animated movies, and then all shut down because Pixar was kicking their arses at the box office, and they thought "I guess people only want 3D movies now!" (It couldn't have been the fact that Pixar was making good stories instead of a bunch of insipid Broadway musicals, of course.) But I digress.

The gameplay

This is the first time I've ever played a party-based tactical strategy RPG game. But I've played turn-based strategy games as well as WoW, and I watched a couple of gameplay videos for Dragon Age, where people explained what they were doing and why, so I knew what to expect -- enough so that I could see what someone was doing wrong in one of those gameplay videos: The player didn't equip his party (made his mother fight bare-handed the entire time), didn't focus fire on one enemy at a time, and didn't prioritise the enemies (allowed archers to keep shooting his party until he finished with the enemy's heavily-armoured mêlée fighters) -- all things I learned from fighting as a team in dungeons in WoW. The player also did not use any of Dragon Age's specific features, allowing you to take control of any of your party members at any time, pause the combat to consider your tactics or to give specific commands to the party to execute while you take control of another, or to get weaker party members out of the way to bandage themselves or use a health potion, etc.

So, armed with that knowledge, I loaded up the character I had pre-created with the downloadable character creator, and began the game from the specific human female mage origin story (hence the "origins" in "Dragon Age: Origins").

I played on "normal" mode, which was said on the forums to be equal to the console version's "hard" mode. But until I get into some world combat, I don't think I can really judge the combat, as it was probably intentionally easier during the origin story, which functions as a tutorial of sorts. But a tutorial with great plot and characters! More on that later.

The combat was just as I saw it in the videos, so the learning curve was minimal. Judging from mine and from the human noble gameplay video I saw, It's probably the same basic progression in all other origin stories -- you begin with some simple combat with no companions, then you pick up your first companion a bit later, and then later in the story you get to play with two companions, all with different abilities and specialties, and then it bridges you into the main campaign.

The lore

The game is full of world-building lore. I picked up more written material than I've had time to peruse so far, and talking to everyone gives you a lot of background information. I'll go over a bit of the general lore here in regard to mages, inside a spoiler block, and also in a separate spoiler block in the next section I'll discuss some interesting aspects of the story.

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

This spoiler involves background story information learned during the human mage tutorial section.

The story

While I don't know exactly how many ways there are to complete the origin story, I came across many places where it seemed like things could have gone very differently if I'd made a different choice. Indeed, I went back and replayed part of it to test this, and found entire areas that I hadn't found before, and as a result I ended up with a different set of friends and enemies. Who knows whether this will come back to haunt me later in the game?

I'll talk briefly about a particular instance from right at the beginning of the game, just during the initiation ceremony (The Harrowing). I'll stop before I get to any plot twists, but I'll put this inside a spoiler block anyway.

Spoiler: Click to display/hide

This spoiler involves background story information learned during the human mage tutorial section

Later choices would seem to have more long-term consequences, not to mention the ability to select party members with various specialties and customise their tactics (and skills?).

I didn't really hear much hype about the choices and consequences in Dragon Age, but they definitely beat the rather superficial (and highly hyped) moral choices in Bioshock. And it beats the rather obvious karma system from Fallout 3, which depicted me first as an angel, and eventually as Jesus just for playing the game as I normally would. My understanding of the system here in Dragon Age is that your choices affect other characters opinions of you, and since they all have different values and preferences, a single action on your part can have very different (or subtle) effects on each character that is involved.

Movement controls

The controls seemed rather awkward at first, since the mouse didn't control "mouse look" as I usually expect it to, and the keys are different for movement from other games I've played, until I discovered by accident that the mouse can control camera look by holding the right mouse button while doing it, and holding both buttons makes you run, just like in WoW. So movement controls are actually very simple and easy to use with the mouse alone. You're limited on how much you can zoom in on your character, though, so my screenshots don't have the kind of framing I'd usually like, but maybe there are some keys I haven't found yet, or some kind of command.

The graphics

From what I'd been reading on the forums, I was expecting much worse. The graphics are mostly very good, though there are admittedly some low-resolution textures on some items, mostly notable when a dialogue scene has a character standing right in front of one, and you can see the huge jagged pixels on it. But these seem to be few, and should be an easy fix for a mod.

That's all the first impressions for now. Now to resume playing!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins -- who offered the better deal?

Today, I preordered Dragon Age: Origins, on the last day preorders were available, to take advantage of the preorder bonuses.

Before I get into the details of which options were available to me, and why I chose the one I did, let me first state that I was pleased to see the announcement that Dragon Age: Origins does not include the vile, accursed SecuROM DRM which has been the deciding factor in which games not to purchase in the past. Their decision to use a simple CD check played no small part in my decision to buy this game. In my experience, DRM schemes such as encrypted content, SecuROM, and older methods, do absolutely nothing to hinder hackers, who provide cracked versions of the software, most commonly on the very same day the software is released, despite the best efforts of the publishers to prevent it. These publishers spend who knows how much money in research and development or licensing fees for these DRM methods, the cost of which is inevitably passed on to the legitimate, paying consumers, and which provide frustration and grief only to these selfsame legitimate, paying customers when they mistakenly prevent them from playing. Pirates, meanwhile, enjoy the software stripped of all its nannying.

As was posted in the aforementioned link:

We’re happy to announce that the boxed/retail PC version of Dragon Age: Origins will use only a basic disk check and it will not require online authentication. In other words, the retail PC version of the game won’t require you to go online to authenticate the game for offline play. We have chosen not to use SecuROM in any version of Dragon Age that is distributed by EA or BioWare.

It was a fine day when iTunes removed the DRM from their catalogue, and it seems that it is also a fine day now that EA has elected not to use SecuROM in its newer games.

Digital Download, or Retail Box?

Now, this copy protection may not have even been an issue had I chosen to buy the game via Steam or Direct2Drive. I've purchased from Steam before, for Half-Life 2, and it caused no problems when playing mods made for HL2. My understanding from the TES Nexus forum about Direct2Drive, however, is that the D2D version of Oblivion (and perhaps Morrowind as well) does not work with some (or all?) mods, so I didn't even consider it as an option, even though I don't know for sure if mods also wouldn't work for the D2D version of DA:O.

Oftentimes, I buy retail box versions of games for the sake of having a physical souvenir, preferably with some nice box/disc art and a printed manual. But there is also the advantage of being able to find the games years later, in the dusty, hazy future, and reinstall them to enjoy anew, perhaps with the aid of an older OS emulator, long after the demise of Steam. Unlikely to happen? In the fullness of time? From dust it came, after all, only 6 years ago. To dust shall it not one day return? But the discs will outlast any change in management, scaling back of services, corporate mergers, or bankruptcies. A lifetime guarantee is only a promise during the lifetime of the company, not the customer. But I digress. And how!


So, the first criterion was that the version I purchased must be amenable to mods. The preview videos make much of Dragon Age's moddability via its included toolset, saying it includes content and resources that aren't even in the game, and citing its power, flexibility, ease of use, and ability to do "anything", including making your own in-game cinematics. Even if the game itself sucks, mods will make this game worth owning.


At any rate, Steam and retail box both seem fine for mods, so the next criterion is price. I found the retail box available for preorder for slightly less than Steam's price. This much I don't understand. Isn't the cost of distribution for Steam lower than that of manufacturing and shipping physical copies? If so, why aren't they passing the savings on to the consumer? Steam loses this point. This is why I still buy more music on physical CDs than buying individual mp3s on iTunes. An entire CD is usually cheaper than 2 or 3 iTunes tracks.

Bonus content

Both delivery methods I evaluated offered some standard bonuses in common, as well as bonuses not offered by the other side. Common to both were The Memory Band (a ring which adds 1% to Experience Points and one skill point), Blood Dragon Armor (unspecified high protection in combat, and will also be usable in Mass Effect 2), and The Stone Prisoner (an addon which adds a golem companion to the game, with a new quest, new areas including a village, items, etc.)

Exclusive to Steam was The Wicked Oath (a ring which adds +10% to critical strike damage, improves armor penetration by 2, and adds +1 to combat stamina regeneration).

Exclusive to the boxed version was a discount on a future video game purchase, and The Lion's Paw boots (which add to armor, dodge, and evading missiles stats). I had thought that the boxed version also included a cloth map, but this was apparently only in the Collector's Edition.


My selection was the boxed version. The only thing offered by Steam was an in-game item that should be easily recreatable with the toolset anyway (if I so desire), the box version is cheaper, and I get my souvenir. If I were more in a hurry to get the game, I might have been more tempted by Steam, but as Neuroticfish once said, "ich habe keine Eile."

Now, as for the first thing I would like to see in a mod? Fix Morrigan.

Concept art:

In-game version:

Not the same thing.