It's been a while...I haven't had anything new to play for a while. But now I do! And now let's talk about it.
Alright, so I'll be honest: Bioware and I have not been on good terms lately. We had a lot of fun back in the day with Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter, but we had a pretty bad falling out with Mass Effect and it's been hard to keep in touch since then. But people have been telling me Bioware has cleaned up lately and is getting back to doing what they do best, so I girded my loins and gave Dragon Age a tumble.
Let's cover the plot first. The story takes place in Ferelden, a country on this planet, where the darkspawn, a race of mindless, evil sort-of undead monsters (it's not really explained WHAT they really are) are amassing for the fourth Blight, which is when the darkspawn discovered an archdemon (ancient dragons of yore, corrupted by dark powers) who takes control of them and leads them to cut a swathe of death across the lands. Only the Grey Wardens, warriors who take the taint of the darkspawn inside them in order to sense them and fight them, are able to fell the archdemon and end the Blight for good. The Origins part of the game lies in the six origin stories available to you. These are based on your race and class, and there are six total: the Human Noble, the Magi, the Dalish elf, the slave elf, the Dwarven Noble, and the Dwarven casteless. Each one sets up your characters individual story, and each one brings you into the ranks of the Grey Wardens.
As I've obviously revealed, there are three races for you to chose from: human, elf and dwarf. Each has their strengths: humans get an all-around stat boost, elves get better mage stats, and dwarves get solid warrior stats. Interestingly, dwarves cannot become mages, due to where they live. Their exposure to lyrium, a sort of magical ore, makes them resistant to magic, but unable to use it themselves. Anyway, you then pick from three classes: warrior, rogue and mage. Each of these has a skill set of combat abilities they can chose from. There are 4 different combat styles you can pick: dual weapon fighting, weapon and shield, two-handed weapons, and archery. Unfortunately, archery is essentially useless because ammunition is not only rare, but you burn through it really fast, it isn't as powerful as melee weapons, and even on the occasions where you CAN buy it, it's expensive and usually not enough. Warriors get access to all four styles, while rogues can only access dual weapons and archery. Meanwhile, mages can pick from four schools of magic: primal, creation, spirit and entropy, each one with 16 spells, which means that as a mage, you have a ton of options to pick from. Too bad most of the spirit and entropy spells kinda suck. Oh, and on top of all of this, there are also class specializations you can learn, 4 for each class. Each one of these gives you four more abilities to learn unique to the class, as well as giving you a stat bonus related to the specialization.
Combat is a simple enough process. You target the enemy you want, and you move over and attack it. The system occasionally has strange ideas about where you should be positioned, though, and sometimes it was a bit slow about starting my attacks. Also, the AI rogues will not position themselves for backstabs, so you need to do that manually. There are tactics you can set up for your allies, which are much like FFXII's Gambits, but I found that my mages tended to always burn through their mana in a matter of seconds. I'm still not sure why, so I'm wary to say anything definitive about it. I also want to make a note here about equipment. One kinda cool thing about armor is that almost every armor piece is part of a set, and if you wear the full set of a suit then you get an additional bonus, like a boost to dodge, armor, or stats. On weapons, though, DA falls flat. Bioware seems to have forgotten that there are more than just swords in melee weapons. Almost every weapon is a sword. There are daggers, of course, and greatswords, and then there are very few axes, a handful of maces, and even less great axes and mauls. This is a trivial complaint, but I like to have a choice when I gear up for battle what implement of death I might wield today.
I should make a note here about the characters. There are only two main characters who have to join your party: Alistair, a human warrior, and Morrigan, a human mage. Aside from them, there is a fairly large cast of people, though everyone else is optional and some take some effort to get into your party. There's Leliana, a female human rogue, Zevram, a male elf rogue, Ohgren, a male dwarf warrior, Wynn, a female human mage, Shale, a golem from DLC, and the dog, whom you can name whatever you like (I named him Barkspawn). There are more characters for sure, but I missed a few.
Since I've mentioned DLC, I want to talk about it for a moment...now, I can understand why people and designers especially must like DLC. It allows them to put a little more into a game that they weren't able to get into the finished product, either due to time or just hadn't thought it up yet. But the actual presence of DLC I find offensive, because it allows them to give us a piddly little extra for a larger price than it's worth, and it only really benefits people who buy the game late. If you play through the game, finish it, and then start a new game, only to find that there is DLC for the old game, it means you have to get back into the old game, sometimes starting a new game all over just to play that extra hour of extra content. DA offends me even more because it had 3 items on the DLC list WHEN IT CAME OUT. This is not making a proper game, this is determined laziness. Unless the disc was actually packed so far to the brim with content that they seriously couldn't fit the extra 100 megs of quest, there is no reason why they couldn't include this in the game. "Oh, they want to nickle and dime us for the content", you might say, and normally I would agree with you. But here's the cincher: when you buy the game, you get codes for free downloads for two of the three contents. Does anyone else see the problem here? There's clearly no good reason why they couldn't have included it. Oh, and just for the record, one of the DLC costs $7, while the one with Shale costs $14. WTF.
Now that I've entered into Rant Mode, it's time to talk about my issues with DA. Combat is fine. Like I've said, you need to do any positioning manually, so you're better off taking control of the rogue of your party and letting the AI take over the others. But if you play a rogue, you play with the dual weapon style...end of story. Archery blows ass. This is more annoying because your good rogue, Leliana, comes with skills already put into archery. So you basically can't make her into a decent fighter because those skill points have been wasted. Zevram has points into dual wield, but he has none of the actual rogue skills (trap disarming and stealing), so basically with him you get a sub-par warrior instead of a solid rogue. So basically, in order to have a good rogue, you need to play as one yourself. This means that you get stuck with either Morrigan or Wynn for your mage. Wynn is great, she has all her points put into healing and buffs, but she always runs out of mana right away. She burns through it in an instant. Morrigan is geared towards attack spells, but her specialization, Shapeshifter, is so useless it might as well not be there. It may just be because I wasn't paying close enough attention, but Morrigan always seemed to be fairly ineffectual. Plus her role in the storyline as a whole is meaningless until the very end of the game, which bugs me since in promos they talked about how she would be a major character...but Alistair is the one who gets the spotlight. And well he should, because he's an awesome character.
Voice acting is REALLY good. It's a huge improvement from Mass Effect - people put emotion into their words, and they do a good job of convincing you that you should care about them. I'm not so keen on the character models while you talk to them, though. Everyone stands stiff straight and stares at you while you speak, and it's a tad unsettling. They will occasionally walk about while talking, but it's always in the same motion, no matter who it is, and they return to their original place when they finish like they're drawn to it. I appreciate the attempt to make them seem a bit more natural, but most of the time it feels awkward. Also, they give terrible speeches...seriously, any time someone is standing before a crowd and giving some kind of inspiring speech, I cringed. One other thing that bothered me that they should not have changed from ME was the fact that your character never speaks. You get to pick and chose your responses, but you never hear your character speak.
This ties into my main problem with this game. Bioware wants DA so badly to be Baldur's Gate III. You can feel it with every passing moment, from the world to the characters to the silent protagonist to the combat, everything about it screams BG. But they failed to understand one thing about BG that made it such a great game, and that is including the illusion of choice. BG was a fairly linear game, and there was nothing wrong with that. You had a clear start, middle and end, and you always knew were you were going and why. DA's origin stories, while good in their own right, disassociate your character from the story. Sure, your story may be cool and explain how to came to be with the Grey Wardens, but after that it has no real measure of import to the main story. I played a Dalish elf, and I was hoping my story would have some kind of effect...but it didn't. There was one brief moment where it came back, but it was so meaningless and trivial that by the time it happened, I had forgotten what it even should have meant. On the other side, while you could make whatever character you wanted in BG, your story was still the same, and it allowed you to have greater impact on the story. The oither 'illusion of choice' is in the dialogue trees. DA does better than ME by usually including more than just a nice, mean, and neutral answer, but the excess answers are meaningless. They might as well have only had those three, because the extras give you the exact same replies.
My other issue is with the story. The actual storyline itself is really good - great, even. Sure, 'stop the rampaging evil' isn't much of a story, and while the game hints that there is more to the darkspawn than what we know, we never actually find out what that might be, but as I said before, characters do a good job about making you care for them. My problem lies in the execution of the stories. Almost every story starts off really well: you arrive somewhere with a task in mind, and you're presented with a problem and are given hints as to how you might solve this problem and what your options are, and every time it really sets the mood very well. But after the initial setup, the game falls apart, like it doesn't know what to do with everything it's been given. The pacing is just atrocious. Two examples stood out heavily in my mind: the first is when you arrive in this mountain village, cut off from the rest of the world, to look for this urn. When you arrive, you speak with the guard at the front, and his harsh tone and ominous words really set the scene for what could happen in this little town. The whole atmosphere is really well-laid out, and it has a genuinely solid creepy feel to it. Then you enter the first house and the creepiness is thrown out the window because the 'secret' of the town is right fucking there in the main room, right next to the goddam dinner table. It's not even behind a door! There's no suspense or building on the atmosphere, they just thrown it in your face and let it hit the floor as hard as it can. Then you run around inside a mountain for and hour or two, killing wave after wave of monsters until you reach the end. The second example is the dwarf city storyline, where you show up and get pulled into the politics of the city. Starts off good, where you have to sift through intrigue and deception and figure out who really is the best king, but as soon as you perform one task for one person, the other one is completely cut off from you and will stab you on sight. And then you run around inside a mountain for a few hours killing endless waves of baddies until you finally reach the end. Sound familiar?
I think DA really had the chance to be an excellent game. It's by no means a bad game, but it is sorely lacking in crucial areas. The pacing, the building, the explaining...too much of the game is left unsaid, and without any chance of figuring out why. The main antagonist is set up to be a really solid bad guy, one who you can actually sympathize with and not just hate, but we're never given a reason for his actions and he comes off as just a paranoid maniac. It's implied that several of your characters have questionable morals, but the only one who really shows this is Morrigan, and even then she's pretty easy-going about it and will let you walk all over her. You spend far more time fighting than you really should in some areas, and it takes so long that it's hard to keep track of what you were doing. And aside from the main storyline, there is very little side-questing to be done. What little questing you can do is almost always confined to the area where you get the quest and tends to be little more than 'go here and talk to this person', repeated ad hoc until satisfied. And the rewards for most quests are so trivial it's a wonder why you would even bother. You can get the best suit of armor in the game pretty much as soon as you have access to the world map, and once you get it then you can get the best sword in the game. And just for the finishing touch, the final boss is not so much a challenge as it is a battle of attrition. I'd like to be able to play through this game again and try out the other classes, but for the time being I'm going to have to put this game on the shelf. Still, if you liked BG, then you'll enjoy this game.