Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ruminations on Dragon Age: Origins vs Baldur's Gate

This first section contains a few spoilers for the end of Dragon Age: Origins. Skip to the next section header, where I get into the comparisons, to avoid them.

Much belatedly (a year late, by my reckoning), I decided to go on and finish Dragon Age: Origins (I can't keep just calling it "Dragon Age" without the "Origins" anymore, since there's the expansion Awakening, and Dragon Age 2 coming out shortly).

I had left it just after the Landsmeet, with several unfinished side quests. I wasn't happy with the way the Landsmeet went, since I hadn't managed to "harden" Alistair. If I had, I would have been able to convince him to leave Logain alive. Now, I wanted to see that bastard dead just as well as he did, but I really liked the alternative Riorden presented, in making him a Grey Warden. That way, we'd have had someone to sacrifice against the Archdemon, if he even survived the joining ritual. Really, I couldn't understand why we weren't recruiting a whole army of Grey Wardens, since we were down to 3 in total, and we knew we had to have at least one left alive to kill the Archdemon. Those are not very good odds!

I also disagreed with the whole conceit of keeping the ritual secret for the reason of "Well, who would go through the ritual if they knew it might kill them, and it would shorten their lives?" Come on. Patriotism and honour alone would ensure people lining up around the block to go through the ritual.

Well, in any case, I think Riorden gave a slightly better excuse -- that they didn't have enough archdemon blood to recruit more Grey Wardens en masse, since either Howe or Logain had confiscated their supply, and perhaps destroyed it.

So, because he wasn't hardened, Alistair ignored my protests and chopped off Logain's head in front of his daughter. There went the marriage plans.

To harden Alistair, you have to go through his companion quest, which involves finding his sister in Denerim, and I hadn't been able to find her house, despite tediously running around the Market District many times. I don't know why, but it finally triggered when it was too late. A previous save made just before going to the Landsmeet allowed me to fulfil his quest, but unfortunately I still wasn't able to harden him, because you have to wait for him to strike up a followup conversation in camp afterwards, and if you've progressed to just before the Landsmeet, Alistair won't engage in normal conversation -- he'll just say something about the upcoming meeting without allowing you to say anything to him.

So, the thing that kept me from finishing the game all this time was that I wanted to try to get my preferred situation. So I went back even further to a much older save, all the way back to the brilliant side quest where you have to escape Fort Drakon (a refreshing and occasionally humourous quest, depending on who you select to handle it). After that, I succeeded in hardening Alistair, and thus I would be able to convince him to set aside his lust for revenge for the greater good with Logain.

I probably would have played it the rest of the way through like that, except shortly after I took care of Alistair, the game started crashing -- a lot. It crashed upon opening doors, passing by certain areas of the marketplace, or even opening my inventory. It became unplayable. I tried many things -- updating my graphics drivers, removing all mods, using low resolution settings, and even ultimately uninstalling and reinstalling, and only patching up to 1.02, instead of 1.04. But nothing worked.

The problem must have resided somewhere in that particular earlier save file, because the other one from after the Landsmeet worked fine. So, regrettably, I gave up my perfectionist plans and decided to just continue on without Alistair marrying Anora and with Logain dead. There were still some occasional crashes between then and the end, but those problematic segments of the game (such as the part where Riorden tells you to select the party you plan to take to fight the Archdemon) were able to get through when I lowered the graphics settings (returning them to normal after those glitchy points).

Luckily, even without Loghain, there was an option given to allow you to avoid any Grey Wardens having to sacrifice themselves to kill the Archdemon, and that was thanks to Morrigan's Sexy Ritual, which Alistair appeared to enjoy greatly.

Time played for my main character's save (not counting reloads and backtracking): 145 hours, 48 minutes.

The end game sequence was well done, I think. There were several places where all your companions file past you one at a time to deliver last-minute interactions, before the battle and before the end of the game, and it made for some much nicer resolutions than BG's "okay, you killed the bad guy -- the end!" approach. That's one place where I think DA:O was a clear improvement over Baldur's Gate 1.

Dragon Age: Origins as it compared to Baldur's Gate 1

These two games were made 11 years apart, but it is fair to compare the two, since DA:O was hyped by its creators as the "spiritual successor" to Baldur's Gate.

The biggest advantages DA:O has over the Infinity Engine games are its full 3D graphics (which, though they have their faults, are masterpieces compared to the 3D models in Planescape: Torment), and the fact that it has a developer-made modding toolset, whereas the Infinity Engine modding toolsets had to be made by fans reverse-engineering the formats.

The graphics come at a price, though, and that is in large size and slowness. The loading times are often terrible, perhaps worse the further you progress in the game. Combined with DA:O's tendency to often begin some important cutscene or plot-important dialogue setup directly after loading screens meant that I couldn't just get up to go do something else while it loaded, even though there was usually plenty of time to do so.

Moving around in the game is at a fixed speed, with no way to speed it up to eliminate the tedium of walking around as the Infinity games had. Even the simple act of pulling up the inventory screen has a noticeable delay, whereas with BG it was instantaneous. The graphics also may be to blame for the reduced number of NPCs in the game, to avoid overtaxing the CPU with too many NPCs walking around. Oh, it's better than Oblivion, which had ghost towns that they called "cities", but Baldur's Gate was brimming with NPCs walking around, giving little comments, and making the place feel alive. Taverns were packed with people walking around or sitting at tables, making drunken comments. By contrast, at the Gnawed Noble Tavern in DA:O, I counted a total of 3 occupied tables (and an overkill of 3 waitresses to serve them).

I'll try putting some of the pros and cons in bullet points.


  • Slower than BG (in gameplay and loading times)
  • Bigger (in hard drive space/RAM terms, not scope of story)
  • Obsessed with blood
  • Humour is too...restrained. Most of the comedy seems more like gallows humour rather than comic relief. There are some exceptions.
  • Fewer races to choose from (7 race options in BG, three in DA:O, and soon to be one in DA2!) I have a whole post in progress about the evils of "metrics" in "streamlining" games.
  • Fewer spells
  • Too much automation for rogues (automatic lockpicking, no careful selection of where to put skill points for rogue skills, etc.)
  • Reduced dialogue options
  • Lower population in towns
  • Auto-resurrecting party members. This is a con because it takes away from a lot of gameplay and world richness. In BG, you would have to either be a powerful priest, or have a resurrection scroll, or go to a temple and pay a priest to resurrect your party member. It made fights much more intense and challenging than in DA:O, where if even just a single party member survives the fight, the rest will stand up again and just need to use an injury kit.
  • Following from that, along with making health auto-refill, this made the temples pretty much useless window dressing, since this alleged Maker didn't seem to grant the priests any actual powers (I noticed this the first time I accepted a "blessing" from a Chantry priest, and nothing happened), and they didn't need to offer any healing services or resurrection services, nor even identification of magic items (all of which they did in BG), since there were no unknown magic items that needed identifying.
  • The fact that there was only one organised religious group (those following the Maker and Andraste) further detracted from the richness of the world, where BG had dozens of distinct temples.

Other criticisms, such as the ugly hats and poor selection of clothing for mages, don't really belong in this list, because I'm only comparing it to BG here, and you can barely even see the gear on your characters in BG.

[As an aside, I hear that in Dragon Age 2, you're not even going to have a selection of gear for your companions. They say they want to make each one unique as a character. Never mind that usually, characters even in TV series (which may make use of the "limited wardrobe" trope), tend to indicate their progression and rising competence with a change in their personal appearance. (See Growing The Beard and Important Haircut.) I'm glad they're releasing a demo to try, because what I've heard about the changes sounds like they've removed almost everything that attracted me to DA:O in the first place, and which made DA:O my first ever preorder game.]


  • Full 3D, mostly good looking (and what is not good looking can be improved)
  • Excellent expandable toolbars. Put whatever talents, abilities, spells, or consumables you want on the bar, in any order.
  • Superior spell and talent system, with indicators letting you always know who's doing what, what's still in progress, and what the cooldowns are
  • Preparing to use Area of Effect attacks (such as certain spells, or grenades) shows a circle indicating range of the blast, who will be affected, and whether you will have to move to hit that spot
  • Many more active warrior actions (in BG, warriors basically just hit, hit, hit, or used the same kind of items anyone else could also use)
  • More active thief/rogue actions, too
  • The mana system with mana potions may be a pro or a con -- a con since it makes the game much easier than BG's Vancian magic system, and makes mages even more powerful and useful than in BG, but I'm calling it a "pro" just because it eliminates some of the tedium.

Overall, despite the darker overall colour scheme and the predominance of mud in Ferelden, as well as the more limited spell and playable race selections, Dragon Age: Origins seems to be the best modern game that I know of which can be modded to have more Baldur's Gate-style adventures. Modding can also take care of the lighting and colour schemes, and as we see from excellent quest mods such as Mengtzu's Classic Week, modding can also revive the feeling of fun and humour that were so prevalent in Baldur's Gate, but much muted in DA:O.

Personally, I find the pros and the cons to almost evenly weigh each other out, despite me finding more of one than another, and I'd like to think that some of the shortcomings will be remedied by modders. (All of the story, humour, and graphical critiques can be modified by modders, at the very least.) Additionally, based on what I've seen, DA2 may be sufficiently different that a large number of modders will stick with DA:O for modding, and continue the community projects that have been showing much promise (especially if DA2 does not include a toolset). In the meantime, there are still hundreds of hours of Infinity Engine games for me to enjoy: Baldur's Gate 2 and its expansion, The Icewind Dale series and its expansions (which I've been playing), and Planescape: Torment (which I've also been playing).


  1. Just wanted to encourage you to post about your thoughts on playing Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale - I've really enjoyed your posts on Dragon Age and Baldur's Gate!

    I hope you'll really enjoy playing BG2 - it really, really pays to be a mage (or sorcerer) when you reach the higher levels and get to play with spells like Spell Trigger (which lets you casts multiple spells at once) and Simulacrum (create a weaker duplicate of yourself to fight alongside you)!

  2. I'm always glad to hear someone's enjoying my travelogues through these games. :) I had originally started composing my Planescape notes as part of this very post, but it became too rambling and unfocused, so I decided to reserve the Planescape notes for its own post.

    I should probably write out the rest of my impressions thus far and continue them in several posts as I did for BG, or just finish the text of my initial impressions and begin with those.

    I actually just finished a little detour from PS:T, playing another game to its completion. I knew it was a short game, so I decided to just get through the rest of it so I could get back to the really good stuff. I probably would have just left it sitting on the hard drive unplayed if I stopped where I was. Notes for that game will probably follow the first PS:T post.

    Icewind Dale will take a bit longer to write about, but I'll just say here for now that it's a great game so far, and probably the most technically well-tuned Infinity Engine game of the lot (at least of the ones I've played), despite the lack of recruitable NPC party members. (The Icewind Dale NPC mod takes care of that omission nicely, though.)

    I'm really whetting my appetite for BG2, and I'll most certainly be a sorcerer. I'll probably be importing my sorcerer character from BG1, though tweaking her a little bit as I planned before, taking a few points away from some stats to boost my Wisdom. I'll probably start playing it right after I finish Planescape: Torment.

    Comments are always welcome!