Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dragon Age: Heresy

I’m sorry that I’m hopping on the bandwagon to post about Dragon Age. This post will not300px-Alistair be like others, though. Other bloggers have slobbered all over themselves as they’ve pointed out all the great features of DA:O. This post is heresy.

Everyone is in love with Dragon Age. I’m not.

It’s a good RPG, though it certainly doesn’t move the genre forward in any sense. I get a feeling of déjà-vu with much of what I see in Dragon Age. Everything feels familiar. It’s all good, but it feels too much like a trip back in time.

At first I was stunlocked by the very strong execution of traditional RPG elements. Then the game DPSed me to death with conversational weirdness overkill and combat that went from exciting to blah.

This review of Dragon Age’s downsides will be presented in the form of three suggested titles that were unfortunately rejected by Bioware during their brainstorming sessions.

Talk for an Age: Unyielding

Evizaer: “Oh, my lady, I see you’re not a refugee like the others. Allow me to tell you a little something about myself. In West Philadelphia born and raised in the playground is where I spent most of my days…”

Choose your response:

- “Don’t you ever shut up?”

- “I hate elves.”

- “Chillin’ out back and relaxin’ off, coolin’ off, shootin’ some B-ball outside of the school.”

- “I’m going to reference a moral framework that only came into vogue within the past two hundred years of a planet vaguely similar to our own, even though that framework didn’t exist in the time similar to ours.”

- “I’m afraid of strangers.”

- “I’d best be going.”

Dragon Valley: Uncanny

The graphics are good enough.

There’s plenty of detail in character models, but they still manage to be just barely off enough that I feel like I’m taking a tram through the uncanny valley. I see facial expressions that don’t match up with what’s being said. I see a lot of minor details that throw me off.

Bioware have gone very far towards getting their mannerisms and expressions perfect, but have fallen just short. I notice it in almost every conversation.

Dragon PAUSE

My primary gripe is with the combat system. I thought they’d come out with a system more interesting than the D&D systems they co-opted for past games. Nope. They made a system significantly more boring. Thankfully, you’re only exposed to the smorgasbord of uninteresting character growth options once every few hours. You’ll spend the rest of the time navigating dialog trees and pausing the game repeatedly as you stunlock and DPS your way through tactically dull battles.

If the game wants to be hard, it should provide the player with precise control.

You can only give one precise command to each party member at a time. No command queuing? Seriously? I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place: I can either give commands one-at-a-time to my party members manually, or I have to use a really wonky and insufficient scripting system passed off as “combat tactics”.

“Tactics” allow you to be the AI programmer and configure the heuristics for how your characters behave in battle. It seems like it should be a good idea, but the game is too difficult for it to be particularly useful. And when you try to give manual commands while its active, some annoying things can happen.

The combat isn’t helped by the enemies being as uninteresting as the terrain. The vast majority of the battles are not particularly tactically interesting, but are difficult. I found myself repeating the same tw o or three steps each battle, and I had to micromanage my characters to pull off my strategy. It was effective, but boring. And I didn’t see a more fun alternative.

The terrain boredom is exacerbated by the fact that the game’s pathing is not good enough. Beautiful environments path poorly. The game is hard, so find myself trying to position my party precisely where they need to be in order for my AoE attack to hit the right enemies. Sometimes characters will cut through enemies, sometimes they’ll walk around in a nice, gentle arc. Either way, I always feel like I’m surprised with how characters move in combat. That’s very bad.

Dragon Age has some of the elements of a tactically stimulating game, but it’s far from as good as it should be.

So What?

  • It’s a good game despite the flaws I’ve mentioned.
  • Buy it if you like RPGs.
  • No need to wear your rubber pants, though.
  • Don’t be a fanboy.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

Speaking as someone who hasn't played the game yet (I know, heresy on my part as well)....

Why do you think everyone else is giving it undying praise? The only other negative comment I saw was on a discussion site (I think Slashdot) where someone complained that the perfect set of characters, in their opinion, made the game hard; they said they had a tank, a healer, a debuffer, and a nuker. Other people criticized them for treating it like an MMO (witness a variation on the holy trinity in that setup).

So, why are people gushing about it? Is it groupthink where people feel the need to support one of the last few companies able to make giant RPGs? Is it a serious lack of alternatives that makes a game like this seem wonderful? Is it that you've been spending so much time thinking about game mechanics that you've peeked behind the curtain and know that it's just a frumpy old guy pulling some levers?

Interested in your thoughts.

Borror0 said...

The points that you make in "Talk for an Age: Unyielding" and "Dragon PAUSE" are the problems I have always had in every BioWare games that have ever come out: each time, the choices left to us are ludicrous and the combat bores me.

The combat is the worse offender because, like you said, we're exposed to it for the greatest part of the game whereas the dialogs are a rarer occurrence. It just don't see what's supposed to be so fun about it.

Rather, it feels a downgrade from every other combat system that they could have picked from but the micromanagement combined with continually pressing pause to gain advantage is just maddeningly frustrating.

I have not played Dragon Age yet (which, I guess, makes me doubly heretic) but I assume that those points of contention will also be mine when I do get to try the game.

Like Brian, I'd also like to know why you think people like this game so much. Personally, I have never been able to perceive what is supposed to be so good about BioWare's games.

Unknown said...

All I can really say is that what I've read about the game sickens me. I think most of the praise is just hype that'll die down. The game just looks gory and punked. I've never cared for Bioware's junk, not since since trying NWN long ago.

Crimson Starfire said...

Interesting view point Evizaer. I can see where you're coming, but I'm not entirely in agreement. The scripted dialogue options are not always as you say. I've clicked some replies which I new would end badly and was surprised where they took me. I'm not sure what you expect? Technology is not good enough for a free form response-recognition system and it beats the hell out of a WoW style quest text box. Dialogue must be scripted and it pays to keep the number of response options to five or so in order to streamline gameplay.

As for the pause based combat and shonky AI tactics/pathing, I haven't had much of an issue with it. I only use the AI tactics as a back up, as I prefer to micromanage combat through pausing. I'm pretty sure the game wasn't meant to be played in real-time.

"You’ll spend the rest of the time navigating dialog trees and pausing the game repeatedly as you stunlock and DPS your way through tactically dull battles."

A lot of the encounters do play out the same way, but some of them require heavy micromanagement. I definitely wouldn't call them tactically dull. The no command queuing definitely sucks, but it also makes the game more challenging. You can't just sit back and click the 'attack button', you need to pay close attention to everything that is happening, and react appropriately. I find this to be a strength, not a weakness.

I have had a few problems with pathing, especially with my Rogue, but it hasn't cost me any battles. Every so often I get annoyed when I click somewhere that is considered 'off-limits' and I get a 'meep' sound, but again I don't feel it takes away from the gameplay. I just click around until it connects. The majority of the time, I drive my character with the WASD keys anyway.

Sorry to sound like a fan boy, but Dragon Age seems fine to me. As you say, it brings nothing new to the genre, but I still feel as though I got my money's worth. Isn't that what counts in the end? My only real gripe is that the game isn't multiplayer.

Mr. Sam said...

Just found your blog, it's great. Came across it in an attempt to show my friend just how terrible Alganon is without actually writing a post of my own.

Also, I just finished my first playthrough of Dragon Age. Have to say that I agree with all of your critique. I can't tell you how many hours I spent paused so that I could cone of cold my enemies correctly. The no action queing makes everything take much longer as well. Overall though, I feel the game is great.

Anonymous said...

The rarity of a good single player RPG certainly plays into it. I mean, if DA came out around the same time as Fallout3, Oblivion, and The Witcher all came out (lets pretend), I don't think it would stand out nearly as much. Now compare it to the single player RPGs released in the last 3 months, and well, yea, it looks real good.

But even on it's own merits, it is a quality experience for those who enjoy that style of game. It's got a very solid story, the dialog is above average (I disagree that the dialog tree structure is as formulaic as you make it sound, especially for the important conversations), combat seems balanced enough given all the options (although CoC is stupidly OP, you don't HAVE to abuse it), and graphically it looks great on my system.

It's not perfect, but compared to the rest of the single player RPG landscape, yea, DA is without doubt a standout title, and hence people are excited by it.

Drevarius said...

I had similar feelings about this game. I actually liked the way dialogue was done. Granted, you had few options and few of your dialogue choices actually impacted the game, but it was at least more interactive in dialogue than a great number of RPG's before it.

I'm a huge fan of character customization and class systems, but the choices made on character customization hardly affected gameplay. A dual wield rogue is almost identical to a dual wield warrior. I can only come to the conclusion that combat was rushed through development as much of the time spent producing the game was probably done for the animations in streaming dialogue. Kind of a paradox since combat is where all the player time is spent... I could be wrong, point is combat lacks variety where dialogue does not.

The dialogue choices only give the player the illusion of choice, the story is predetermined by the game dev, with only slight variations. That is my biggest story gripe. Very linear, not dynamic- a matter of taste really.