Just the other day I finished my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins and I must say that I loved it. I previously wrote that I was disappointed with Mass Effect and suspected that Dragon Age may be similar. Fortunately, Bioware did very well this time. Dragon Age did deliver all the entertainment it promised, and lived up to the hype – at least in my eyes. What I remember most about Mass Effect were the extremely boring side missions, and my annoyance with certain plot elements. On the other hand, Dragon Age in my mind, stands out as a great story with memorable characters and interesting plot twists. Mass Effect is a decent but flawed game – Dragon Age is an experience. This is precisely how I remember KoOR and Jade Empire as well. Awesome digital adventures.
Of course the game is not devoid of flaws. The most often cited criticism is that it is very generic. That it is a re-hash of rather bland Tolkienesque fantasy setting with an old played out story. A hero must save the world from an invading horde of inhuman monsters. You can’t really argue with that – that’s what the game is about. But I wouldn’t hold it against it. Let’s face it – some types of stories and settings just work. That’s why we go back to them time and time again. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you tell a story. If you think about it, there is actually a limited number of stories you can tell. If we really put our minds to it, we could break all books and movies ever made down to few dozen tropes, themes and plots – the storytelling building blocks if you will. The originality comes not from inventing new blocks, but from using the ones you have to build something worthwhile. You can experiment and arrange the blocks in unexpected way hoping to build something interesting. Or you can put a lot of effort in building a traditional but stable and reliable structure, and then finish it by adding a lot of interesting detail.
This is exactly what Bioware did fror Dragon Age. While the setting of the game is fairly generic, it is not entirely unoriginal. There was a lot of work done to actually make the game world seem alive, and bigger than it is. There are deep conversation trees from you can learn about the world’s history, neighboring countries and their customs, ancient legends and etc. And while the game uses very standard set of playable races and professions, they differ from the standard Tolkien template. Let me give you couple examples here.
In most Fantasy Elves are more or less “the awesome race”. They are tall, proud, stuck up – but they have very good reasons for it. They are simply better than humans in every way. They live longer, they are more agile, more limber, smarter, better at magic, more beautiful, more cultured, better at arts and crafts and etc.. They just radiate awesomeness. Not in Dragon Age. Bioware does something unexpected here and decides to portray elves as classless rabble – a fallen race which has no land, no status and is struggling to preserve the little culture and old customs they have left. They are much like Gypsies, or perhaps Native Americans. Those elves who live among men are treated as inferior race. They live in gated districts called “alienages” usually in poverty and often near starvation. Guards posted at the gates are there more to keep the elves from venturing out to the city and causing trouble, rather than from defending them from xenophobic city folk. Only lucky few that “make it” and manage to find jobs and homes outside the alienages – and even among those, large numbers return after their possessions have been robbed, and their families were ran out of town by lunch mobs.
Some elves leave human cities and try to reconnect with their roots. Still, their way of live is not easy and full of danger as well. Having no land of their own, the only place where they can live are dangerous forests and wastelands far from human settlements. Of course these places are also homes to dangerous beasts, bandits and other lawless men.
Mages got a very similar treatment. In most fantasy settings, magic users are powerful individuals that are both feared and respected. In Dragon Age, they are all essentially indentured servants of the Chantry – the equivalent of the Medieval church. Because of their power, and danger of being possessed by demons (who prey on magic users) all those who show magic talent must go live and study in the Circle of Mages tower. The tower is the only place where they are allowed to learn and practice their craft – and is heavily guarded by Chantry Templars. No one is allowed to leave the tower, unless they have a special dispensation. Furthermore, the Templars are authorized to execute any mages that show signs of possession and in worst case scenario “clense” the tower by sealing it off and killing every one inside. Needless to say, it kinda sucks to be a mage.
Do you see what I’m talking about here? Details like this make the setting feel new and fresh. Same goes for the plot. Once you finish your Origin Story and the Ostagar section, it looks very similar to KoTOR or Mass Effect. You have a map with a few locations you can travel to. In each location you will have to undertake a series of quests which will culminate in a major boss fight. It is very formulaic, yes – but not completely devoid of unexpected plot twists. Each location has an interesting storyline of its own, and you will sometimes be asked to completely re-evaluate your position and your involvement in the conflict by the time you reach the final boss.
The order in which you pick your locations is up to you though and it will affect how the game unfolds. In some of them you will be able to obtain rare items, in others you will meet new companions. For example, visiting the tower of mages early on will allow you to recruit a healer who will be a great help in major boss fights. If you skip Lothering village you may not have access to a Rogue character, preventing you from opening some locked doors and chests. These characters will also sometimes butt in and add their own input to important conversations with NPC’s.
All of this helps to create an impression of a fairly open ended world and flexible storyline. Of course if you play the game more than once, you will notice that this is not necessarily the case. The story is very linear, but that didn’t really bother me. I knew I was playing a Bioware game so I didn’t really expect to have a sandbox setting or anything like that. This gameplay mechanic worked for Bioware for years now, and I don’t really see the a need to change it. If the story is good, I don’t actually mind the linearity.
I was pleasantly surprised that the game had no karma system. You know, no slider that shows you how good or evil you are at any given time. God, I hate that game mechanic but almost every single RPG title released recently had it. Oblivion had it, Fallout 3 had it, Mass Effect had it. It almost seemed like there was no escaping it. Fortunately Dragon Age skipped it, and I think it was for the better. It gave it the much needed moral ambiguity and made a lot of the choices you make in the game much more interesting. I said it before, and I’ll say it again – every time you hand out good/evil points for moral choices you dumb down the game. There is no escaping it. For one, you must design dialog trees in such a way that they clearly express you malicious or benevolent intent. Two, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. Once you have this system in place, you tend to get into a habit of constructing every dialog and every quest around it. In Dragon Age, your choices don’t affect your imaginary karma bar. They affect your relationship with your companions. If you choose to do something they do not approve, they will like you less. If you do something valiant, brave or follow their suggestions they will like you more. Well, except Morrigan who is a bitch and as a rule she does not approve of anything you do. She likes gifts though, so if you keep giving her random shit, she will fall in love with you before the end of the game despite never actually agreeing with your decisions.
Of course if you leave a particularly squeamish companion (or Morrigan) in the camp, then you are free to do whatever you want. They just won’t know about your decisions, and will usually never find out or ask about it. Unless if course it pertains to them in which case they might ask, and you have an option of lying. For me this is a more realistic, and much more entertaining than a stupid karma slider.
I want to keep this initial post spoiler free for those who haven’t finished the game. I will have another post somewhere down the line where I will talk about the end game – and it will be clearly marked as spoilerish. So please don’t discuss any major plot twists in the comments.
I will eave you with this question: which were your most and least favorite companions? I was particularly fond of Alistair and Leliana. I played with a male Dwarf warrior the first time around, and I really liked how he and Alistair became buddies and used to joke around by the campfire. I also liked how he tried to talk my character out of the brief fling with Morrigan. Speaking of whom, she was not only a witch and a bitch but also rather shallow and vain to boot. I showered her with gifts to offset the fact that she hated every single thing I did, gave her a few compliments and she basically threw herself at me. I have to say though, that despite being super annoying most of the time, she sort of grew on me. I actually laughed when she gave me a ring that allowed her to stalk me after I got her relationship bar to 100. The relationship with Leliana on the other hand was much more rewarding – probably because you had to work at it. It seemed to develop gradually. Also, Shmooples FTW. I was also fond of Wynne who sort of became a mother figure for the whole company.
My least favorite characters were probably Zhevran and Sten. The elf was just slimy, and I didn’t trust him. It also didn’t help that he kept hitting on my character despite me telling him to cut it out. Sten was just… Standoffish and distant. I never really took him along anywhere because I was playing a strong tank myself. I also didn’t really give him much gifts because Morrigan sucked up everything I didn’t save up for Leliana or Alistair. So he never opened up to me, I never did his quests and just allowed him to stay in camp and brood.
Shale looked like an interesting companion but I didn’t buy any of the DLC’s. Besides, I don’t think I would use him/her/it much due to the fact that I already had a tank character and also, having a companion who can’t use regular loot would be a waste.
How about you? Did you like the game? Did you hate it? Who is your favorite and least favorite character.