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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Complaint With Dragon Age: Origins

For the record, I did finish Knights of the Old Republic, so I at least thought I knew what I was getting into with Bioware's epic fantasy RPG Dragon Age.

And some spoilers here, but I'll try to keep it vague.

And Dragon Age is quite epic. It's riffs off of the general fantasy cliches pretty well, spins a pretty good story and manages to put the player into some interesting ethical and moral decisions along the way. I do, for the record, think that Dragon Age is a well done, solid game that offers a great deal to many players.

I also think there's this really odd underbelly to it that nobody is really talking about. And it is pretty core to the game mechanics.

And the basic problem is this: this is very difficult game to get right the first time through.

Why? Well, one is a basic constraint of interactive, non-linear story telling. Because you don't know where all the potential characters might potentially be ... it becomes difficult to map out your party makeup.

This wouldn't be that big of a deal ... but because NPC's auto-level unless they are in your party, by the time you find certain NPC's they may have a completely different makeup then what you need.

However, the number one cardinal sin you can do in this game is auto-level your own party. If you are own anything but Casual, you'll need to be leveling specifically to the needs of your party tactics, figuring what operations you need to manually control and adjusting the AI scripts for each character as you go.

And I tell you this - because ... nobody told me. I've auto-leveled constantly because I've only paid any attention to my own PC. And I haven't even done all that well on my own PC because I'll occasionally try out a skill or whatnot and realize it wasn't really what I needed. Or, as some people point out, you'll find an NPC eventually that can do it better. So my assassin/duelist rogue is something of crossbow firing, melee master and healer.

Which is actually still not all that bad. I'm actually not complaining here that Dragon Age has some annoying core mechanics because the game is hard. People - I've been playing games since you had to restart the game because you didn't have lives left.

Before save games. Castle of Wolfenstein hard. Get out your graph paper and map your own damn map hard. Get me? I know hard. You young ones of the Xbox generation do not get to come to me and lecture about hard.

My complaint is that Dragon Age is horribly, awfully, and rather inexcusably ... inconsistently hard. Case in point: I ransacked an entire tribe of werewolves without much problem. Then I got beset by a random gang of bandits which killed my entire party in seconds.

Or cleansing an entire mage tower with all it's demonkind. To then get ravaged outside of my camp by wolves. Oh sure, the entire battalion of darkspawn under the sloth demon's sway ... no problem. But wolves ... there's a problem. Excuse me?

See, I didn't want to read up on this game. I just wanted to play the game. And because of that, I've played it most of the way through doing many, many things wrong. And the game gave me absolutely no indication that I was doing anything wrong ... because I was winning every fight. Sure, I'd have to reload from time to time and my party - but I was accomplishing missions left and right.

So how was I supposed to know that I got 90% of the way through the underground of the Dwarven kingdom, making my way through legions of darkspawn only to get to a boss fight I could simply not mathematically defeat. At this point there was no recourse but to walk all the back out, recamp ... and try again.

Which also, did not work. And in reading up on the battle, I could see why. I hadn't invested in Area of Effect attacks. I didn't stock up on grenades. My strategy was largely melee, using my rogue to lure in groups of enemies where they'd get quickly dispatched by a wardog and a dwarf with a nasty disposition. And so when I get to a boss who can kill melee fighters with one kill and I don't have enough healing options to outlast my feeble missile options ... I was pretty much cooked.

Bioware was essentially punishing me for not showing up to a class, when I didn't even know there was a school in session. And it was really punishing. I spent hours trying to get through this fight on Normal, until I finally caved and just went to Casual. Many players may not have hit this point, just by making a few different key decisions.

The gap between casual and normal is oddly intense. There is no friendly fire (not that I cared - no AoE or grenades, remember?). You get a massive attack and defense bonus. Enemies are weaker. I've chewed through every battle since then. Sadly, it's almost boring. But since nobody at Bioware seemed to want to pay attention to pacing, to this idea that if you want to slap the player around ... rough them up a little bit before you really hit them hard - I don't think I have much choice. It's either that or restart, because this boss fight was so on the opposite end of entertainment that it was very nearly a shelf moment for me. If there was no casual mode, it would certainly have been.

And my follow up complaint is that I'm not entirely sure "micromanagement" equals "tactics". In fact, I'm pretty certain they don't. I applied many tactics during my course of playing the game - that was not my shortcoming. My shortcoming was not micromanaging nearly every aspect of every character. I wanted to a play an RPG - not one of those games where you control the roster of a soccer team.

There's a lot of great things about this game, and many other people have written about them. The uneven difficulty and the heavy emphasis of micromanagement (made even more painful in the console version) has been brought up on several smaller sites and blogs, some of the major reviews completely overlook this aspect. And it's a key flaw in the game.

So my advice to you - either read up on the game, extensively (there are even strong suggestions out there about the best order to play the area), before playing it - or suck it up and play it on casual - or at least be willing to change the difficulty before getting into a head-against-wall kind of situation that I found myself stuck in.

Good game. By far, not a great game. Actually, I'll have a whole other post on Dragon Age versus Demon's Souls which will really annoy the Dragon Age fanboys and girls of the world. But that's for a different day.


Joe Tortuga said...

I'd say I've played Demons Souls and Dragon Age: Origins about the same amount of time (5 hours or so). I'm certain that I died and was forced to restart many many more times in Demons Souls than DA:O, yet I never felt punished by it.

DA:O failure is so often sudden and complete, and maybe I don't want to micromanage every little thing,but if I have to, that's a failure. Particularly when the game seems to imply I don't have to.

Unknown said...

I'm actually in the process of replaying KOTOR, and I gotta say, I'm a huge fan of the auto-level. I've gotten to the point with RPGs that I don't want to know what the mechanics are. I just want to explore the game, and have my fighters kick some butt, my rogues be sneaky, and my other guys doing their things.

Josh said...

@kiyote23: Yeah, I'm pretty sure I picked up the habit during KOTOR. Dragon Age really frowns on it and BioWare didn't seem able to find a middle ground. The middle ground, I think, is manually flipping between Normal and Casual at a whim.

Which is better than restarting, I guess.

@Joe: Agreed. Demons Souls warns you right out of the gate, and you learn early that the grind is part of the core mechanic. You play, you grind, you get past parts.

DA has the opposite trend. It actually coddles you far too long, and then beats you over the head. The end result is a massive feeling of de-empowerment if you get caught in it.

Duncan M said...

I played the entire way through on Normal while auto-leveling everyone except myself. I only got stuck once: I went off to face the bad-ass dragon cult as my second major mission (after leaving Lothering). This was obviously a mistake because I failed to catch the clue that I needed to head to the mage tower so I could get my healer.

The problem isn't the auto-leveling. They've done a good job of giving you one of every specialization(just about). You just have to mix and match your party to your tactics (as long as you can stand those characters). The problem is that in a non-linear game there is a pretty strong need to do things in a particular order without anyone telling you what that order should be.

Sure you can get through the game without a healer. Or you can re-spec Morrigan as a healer (with a buttload of micro-management). But the game gives you one, if you want. You just aren't told that until you stumble onto it.

Oh, and I don't think I used grenades or much in the way of AOE stuff at all. Or poisons. Or traps. Or a lot of the extra "tactics" stuff. Might have had something to do with being unable to get a bird's eye view or manage movement orders on the Xbox.

Josh said...

Curious as to how you might have made it past the Broodmother on Normal without AoE or grenades or manually levelling, though I assume your main PC might have been a mage or otherwise talented missile class. What I found is that I had a lot of useless melee skills and not nearly enough healing power to make it all the way through (though I got very, very close several times) - even with Wynne on board.

In general, I wasn't a fan of grenades or AoE ... because I had such a melee intense strategy (pull, pound, repeat). So perhaps my mistake was not so much auto-leveling but not developing a decent ranged portion of the party - but again, it works fine 90% of the time.

However, the order of missions is a big corresponding factor of this and the game doesn't do a good job of pushing the character in the right way.

Duncan M said...

I was a rogue/melee class with a heavy focus is stabbing people in the back. I had Wynne (some AOE, mostly buffs and heals), Shale (tanking), and Oghren (madly killing things lots).

Although I did the Broodmother stuff almost last, so I was fairly high level by the time I got there.

Josh said...

I didn't have Shale, I wonder if he was immune to the BroodMom's grab and kill. The mabari was, but didn't have the overall HP to make much difference.

Oghren was annoying death-friendly when I was using him. He died all the time, and ran into that stupid tentacle move in seconds, even when I was trying to use "tactics" to keep him out. If it wasn't for the story, he would have looked a lot like Sten very quickly.

However, as a good example of Bioware's inability to tweak for scaling - if the Broodmom just didn't have that stupid instakill move, it would have been a lengthy but completely plausible fight. It reminded me of that bad Dungeon Master habit of needed a fight to be just one more thing difficult.
I have no idea why Oghren was so useless to me - I haven't read that to be the case elsewhere.

Josh said...

So it is also possible that the complaint could be refactored "Bioware lets you dig your own grave" ... as it is possible I just should have been warned that I was slogging through to a fight I wasn't really supposed to be ready for ... still a side to the same design flaw to me though.

Duncan M said...

That's how I would put it. It's exactly what happened to me. I got almost to the end of the Ashes of Andraste plot arc when I hit a wall that could only be surmounted with higher level characters.

Several days (in game and out) later I returned to a temple mostly empty of enemies and an NPC who had be patiently waiting for me to finish inside.

What do NPCs do while they're waiting around for you to finish your quests?

Josh said...

The Andraste plot is what should have warned me about how BioWare had setup the game. (SPOILER ALERT). I really, really, really wanted to kill Kogrom and do my own thing, but whenever I encountered him - my team couldn't focus solely on him enough to take him out.

So I read up a bit (largely because I didn't want to retread through all the empty halls) and found that post-Gauntlet he was more or less by himself. And so we took him down like a chump then.

But, point being ... I had to read up online to get to there. This is actually part of a large issue I have with several RPG's. I don't want to read up on the best strategy, or build, or preference, or in which order the game should be played, or who should be in what party - I just want to play it.

According to BioWare that seems to make me casual - though I suppose in some ways it's lazy? Because I should just empty out the easy parts of the dungeon, then wander some, come back, etc.

Just sounds like a bad golf joke to me. A good walk wasted.