Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More Dragon Age: Origins

I mentioned earlier that I was planning on going through the rest of the origins in Dragon Age: Origins that I hadn't played through yet, as well as trying out some quest mods. I started up a Dalish elf rogue, and enjoyed the origin story very much. And it makes me realise how much more depth this game has than DA2. Each origin that I play reveals more about the world and how it all fits together. I had no idea until now, for instance, that Merrill from Dragon Age 2 was also in DA:O. The focus of the origin was the discovery of some ruins which contained some kind of portal/communication device in the form of a large mirror. Is this the same kind of mirror that I've heard is involved in the Witch Hunt DLC?

The only origin left for me to play is the dwarf commoner, and I wonder what new perspective I might gain from that one.

But in the meantime, I've discovered I really like playing as a rogue, and ended up playing beyond the end of the origin at Ostagar, and have actually gone through Redcliffe, stopping after fending off the undead attacks. From there I headed to Denerim, because that's where the Community Contest 7 quest mods begin. But before I began those, I found an NPC I'd never seen before, named Slim Couldry, offering rogue-specific quests! As a mage in my first playthrough, I had never encountered this character, and I'm not sure if it's because I was a mage, or because I hadn't had Leliana pick any pockets until after getting to Denerim. In this playthrough, I had picked some pockets in Lothering, so it could have been either that or just the fact that I'm a rogue that triggered his quests.

His quests were pretty simple for the most part. Pay him increasing amounts of money for increasingly lucrative thieving opportunities that simply don't exist unless you have the quest. I went through all that he had available, though he said he was planning on getting more. I don't know if he'll really have any more in the future, but I'll check. They may be related to my level, since the last one was actually very tough -- fighting a warehouse full of Arl Howe's men to get the cargo they were guarding. It's the first of the thieft quests that actually involved violent crime, but it is Arl Howe's crowd we're talking about. When I say this one was tough, I mean it took me 4 or 5 tries to do it successfully (without being wiped). This was the toughest fight I've experienced yet in this playthrough, and I'm playing on Hard with two dual-wielding dagger rogues (Leliana and myself, with Leliana specialised as Ranger for the animal summoning), Morrigan respecced to mostly entropy plus the ice line, and Alistair on sword and board. The first time around, I used Sten as the tank, and had 2 mages (myself and Morrigan), and Leliana using bow and arrow.

Not all roses

Despite how much I like DA:O compared to its limited competition in the current market, there are still some issues which are very annoying. I mentioned the frequent crashing in my last Dragon Age post, which had not been a problem during my first playthrough. That's a strange development that I don't understand, but I have found a couple of workarounds that dramatically reduce the number of crashes.

First thing is to add a command switch to the game shortcut to force it to use DirectX 9. The switch is "-dx9". I'm not sure how much this helps, but it doesn't seem to hurt, and I use it combined with the second fix. The second fix apparently must be done while the game is running, each time you run it. Start the game, then switch to Windows task manager, find the "daorigins.exe" process under the Processes tab, right-click it, choose "Set affinity", and set it to use only one core (like "CPU 0"). It doesn't seem to reduce the performance of the game (most processing is probably in the GPU anyway), but the game's stability is markedly increased.

On my last session, I forgot about doing this, and I loaded up a game as normal. When it loaded, the first thing I did was to check the inventory to see what I had equipped, and it crashed immediately on trying to show the inventory. Starting the game again, and doing the same thing resulted in another instant crash. Then I remembered to set the CPU affinity to a single core, and it worked without crashing again.

I'd love to know of a way to force it to always run like this without having to manually change it each time while it's running.

The other, non-technical issue with the game is perhaps a design choice. There are many combat encounters that force you into dialogue before the hostilities begin, once you get close enough. This happens regardless of whether you're in stealth mode, and/or have the rest of your party waiting back down the hall in another room. Suddenly, the game teleports everyone right into the middle of the ambush, kicks your rogue(s) out of stealth, cancels any spells that were in progress, and shows you walking casually up to talk to the clearly dangerous, threatening NPC and his army (or showing you and your party charging in recklessly and stopping short in apparent surprise at the enemy, as if you hadn't been scouting ahead in stealth mode). Forget positioning! Forget preemptive tactical strikes! Forget even having your weapons out and ready! If the game decides you should have a little chat first, there's nothing you can do about it. You can't even use a preemptive ranged AoE attack against the group, because they're immortal until you talk to them!

Contrast that to the Baldur's Gate games, which don't restrict your attacks in this way. If you're sneaking around in a dungeon, and you find the boss, and the default action when you click on him is to initiate conversation, you don't have to. You can instead sneak up behind him, click the "attack" button, and make a preemptive strike. You might miss out on interesting information or even a quest if you do that, but so be it! It should be your choice.

Not having looked into the settings in the toolset, I don't know if this is hard-coded into the game engine, or if there's a flag the quest designer can set to prevent forced dialogue from happening if the player is invisible, or prevent it from teleporting everyone else into the room, etc. Seeing how well some mod quest designers have been able to script encounters, though, I'm pretty certain there must be a way around it, even if it is hard-coded.

Combat issues

Speaking of problems with stealth, I'm also not happy with the mechanic that rogues can't enter stealth if the game thinks they're in combat, unless you get the "combat stealth" talent. I'm not talking about situations in the heat of battle, where you'd just vanish in front of an enemy's eyes, but a situation where you've cleared out a whole room full of enemies, but you find you're still "in combat", because there are some enemies in another room behind a closed door that's never been opened, who can't see you and do not suggest they're alert to your presence! (This is possibly caused by the enemies in both rooms being defined as part of the same "team", which all aggro at once.) I think you should be able to enter stealth mode whenever you're out of view of enemies, like in Baldur's Gate, where if you could just get around a corner, you could lose a pursuing attacker.

But perhaps it wouldn't be a problem if we could just tell the game that we're not in combat anymore, in those situations. Or, it would cancel combat mode if you got far enough away from the enemies. It's especially annoying since the game doesn't let you save if you're "in combat" either.


Rangers can summon animal minions, and mages can summon skeletal warriors, but these summons disappear on any area transition. This ranges from entering or exiting a building, to simply walking from one section of a forest into another. This shouldn't happen (especially in the latter case).

Even worse, the forced unsummoning causes the summon ability to trigger a cooldown period. Ridiculous! Not only has my minion been taken away for no reason, but now I have to sit around waiting for the cooldown to expire so I can summon it again! Either that, or I have to look out for area transitions coming up, and unsummon my minion ahead of time so it'll be off its cooldown by the time I cross the threshold.

This works all right for the ranger, but the mage can only raise a skeleton from the remains of a recently killed enemy, so it really screws the mage.

Dungeon design

Did they hire the ghost of Sarah Winchester as house designer?

In general, Dragon Age dungeons seem rather uninspired, at least in the vanilla game without DLC. Instead of being unique spaces with personality and purpose, they rather seem to be just a jumble of tileset corridors with an occasional large room for bosses. No regard for architecture, no logic in design, and almost no spaces that make you stop and simply admire the place. Not having seen any of the DLC aside from the Stone Prisoner, I can't say whether this is improved elsewhere.

I'll highlight a typical example, as shown in this screenshot. This isn't a cave or a mine, which could have such a rambling structure, but a supposedly abandoned house, with a badly-hidden secret door leading to this random sequence of rooms and hallways. Imagine how much real estate this building must occupy! Is land that cheap in the heart of Denerim?

Bioware used to be pretty good at making unique, interesting interiors which had believeable floor plans, as I highlighted in some of my Baldur's Gate posts. When I say "unique", I mean that each "dungeon" should be a noticeably different experience from another, with its own special flavour, to make these places appeal to the players' sense of exploration and discovery.

Nevertheless, despite all of these various criticisms, I still consider DA:O to be the best overall choice for designing a Baldur's Gate-style quest/adventure mod in a modern engine. I must say, though, that I've very recently become aware that Neverwinter Nights 2 has the elements that I found missing in Neverwinter Nights 1, and I understand it has a very large set of resources to build with, so I'll be investigating that soon, as well.

Quest mods

Speaking of which, I'm also enjoying some excellent quest mods, including the two quest mods from Community Contest 7. Spiders and Knives is a good one to start with, since it's pretty short and straightforward, adding a couple of new quests and locations and an NPC with a fun personality to Lothering. Eye and Shadow is good for Mengtzu's creatively orchestrated and challenging boss fights, set in a beautiful new location from one of the previous community contests.

Now I'm playing an even bigger treat: Dark Times: The Confederacy of Malkuth, Act 1. I'm not sure exactly how large this mod is, but if I take the new world map as an indication, I should call this an unofficial expansion pack, or even a sequel! I had many hours of play time racked up doing quests around the first town before the world map was unlocked, and when I saw it for the first time, a huge smile came to my face at the prospect of more hours of enjoyable gaming to come.

I don't think I can adequately communicate how enthusiastic I am about this mod. It has everything you could possibly want in a Dragon Age expansion. 32 new locations, many new NPCs and 3 new party members, lots of personal stories and side quests, new factions to join or fight, new loot and artifacts with background stories, new unlockable character specialisations, possible new romance(s), and some really heavy-duty moral choices to make.

Some areas need some polish -- mostly in spelling, a missing mesh or two, and some various bugs, but this in no way casts a shadow over the incredible overall job this team did with what I've seen of it so far. They've accomplished a great deal, and I'm very happy to know that they're working on a second act.

One very interesting thing here is that they seem to have cracked the 4-member party limit. Multiple times I've been joined by one or more NPCs, and although they don't get their own portraits on the side of the screen like other party members, I am nevertheless able to access their character screens, level them up as I like, add and remove equipment, adjust their tactics, and even directly control them. I wonder if the Baldur's Gate Redux team could use this kind of system to allow a full Baldur's Gate 6-member party in their mod.

There are numerous other quest mods that I've saved and I'm eager to try out, from some well-respected names in the modding field. It's also been somewhat inspiring to try my own hand at it.


  1. Hey there!

    I still haven't played this game. Will try to only get it after I actually finish the ones I have at home.

    Wanted to know if you heard/played this mod for Oblivion: I haven't yet, it is on my list of so many things to play. Sounds interesting, so the link is there if you wanna check before me.

    I also changed my little blog and will erase the old one. It's this one now:

  2. Well, I know you like WoW and other MMOs, so I would relate the gameplay of Dragon Age to you as a slightly smaller WoW party experience, except you can control the entire party (or set the party tactics to handle the other members for you). And of course conversation goes beyond the "accept quest" button.

    Yes, I do know of Nehrim, and I have it saved for future play. It seems like it might be an improvement on the Oblivion experience, with its changes to the gameplay to an XP system. I don't know anything about the new story or setting aside from what I saw in the trailers, but I expect to give it a try at some point.

    I'm watching your new blog already. ^_^ I even commented on one of your posts there, too, the "Long list of games". I haven't read those LotRO posts yet, though.

  3. So you'd relate it to like in Final Fantasy where I control a whole party? I recall some PS2 game with LOTR theme that had something like that too. But all of those games are on "rails", no real decisions to be made. I read little on Dragon Age and always stop reading when it seems I might read too much. But the impression I get is that your decisions do weave a story, even though with certain limitations.

    I STILL haven't been through that project of mine to play Oblivion without the portals. I hated them. I never finished the game, but I recall having a lot of fun exploring and raiding bandits, or just visiting some forgotten village. So... it's on the list.

    Oh yes I recall you commented on that entry about the -other- list. I envy you, horribly. I couldn't play Black Prophecy, but I love the feel of being in space. I just can't drive and shoot.

    I am a horrible off topic person... well, I have way too many games right now, but I know I can come here once I pick up Dragon Age and just look for the tags :)

  4. To be honest, Black Prophecy's controls and weapon feel weren't as satisfying as single-player space games like Freespace 2 or Darkstar One, and there seems to be quite a bit of grinding to advance to more systems and unique quests, and that's why I haven't played for a long while. I'd like to try Evochron: Mercenary at some point.

    I haven't played any of the Final Fantasy games, so I can't say how it compares to DAO. But I do know FF is turn-based, and DAO is realtime with pause, so the way I play is to position my party, give them all tasks, and let them do them, manually setting new tasks on specific characters as needed.

    The questline in DAO is fairly freeform in that once you get to the first town, the world map is opened up and you can visit any of the four main quest hubs in any order you like, opening up additional side quest hubs as you go, and there are at least 2 ways of dealing with the overall "problem" to solve in each of those locations. The side quests are optional, but I play for the quests, and there are some fun character-based dialogues and story elements that you can go through depending on who you pick for your party and how you treat them, and what kind of social skills you've built up.

    Anyway, yes, these pages will be here in that future time that you might try it out. :)

  5. Hi, I found your blog through your posts in the Bioware Social, great blog, just the things I like I think Im going to read everything all the way through Morrowind as Ive been interested in starting a playthrough (loved Fallout 3/NV but kinda meh to Oblivion), anyway thanks for this great blog, if you ever want help for a module give me a shout in the BSN (though Im a n00b so, maybe no).

  6. Glad you like it, Pizza! As far as help goes, I don't think it would be a good idea to collaborate with anyone on the mod I'm working on, because I'm going for speed, and I don't think anyone would want to volunteer for such a pace. I'd encourage you to try this same kind of challenge yourself, though. More mods is always better. :)