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!

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