Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) A Critical Review of its Weakest Elements
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Bioware's latest RPG effort, Dragon Age: Origins has some weak links that I'd like to discuss.
**No plot specific spoilers**
Dragon Age: Origins did so many things right, and in some cases demonstrated such mastery over their craft, that it may have been to their detriment. Almost all the reviews I've read or watched have been predominately positive (which is probably because it is a good game that they want you to buy). However, I was a little surprised I did not see this coupled with the criticism that seemed so obvious to me and my group. So, instead of reiterating the numerous things this game did right, because there is so much of that out there, I would like to primarily focus on the elements of the game I found lacking, weak, or in need of polishing.
In light of full disclosure: I played the game, finished the game (difficulty: Hard), on the XBOX 360, and for the most part loved it! So now that the fine print is out of the way, let's get crackin into this review!
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See what the Dragon Age: Origins Fans have to say about this article
- A Forum Thread at Bioware about this article: Dragon Age: Origins - A Critical Review of its Weakest
Join in the discussion, or just check out what the fans of Dragon Age: Origins are saying about this article. I chime in on some clarifications, and even the Bioware Veteran, and lead writer for Dragon Age: Origins, David Gaider chimes in.
Choose your own adventure books for adults, but games, made by Bioware
Much of any experience is weighed against expectations. This fact alone could have also been working against Dragon Age. I expected the perfect game. Why? Well, it's a next generation, Medieval Fantasy RPG, created by Bioware, who has a proven track record and ties with original D&D titles, and was heavily prefaced in anticipation with things like: advanced tactical combat systems, intricate character interaction and involvement, and a story we all expected to blow us out of the water. RPG Nerds all over the world have been hoping, and praying, for years, for that game. I wanted Dragon Age: Origins to be it. But, in this critical review you'll learn why this game is sadly, not it.
Oddly enough, the story is one of the weakest part of this game, for sure. Now, let me clarify.
There is a pretty cool "origin" feature, which means the first hour and half is going to be different based on the type of character you choose to play. Pretty cool. Then, you're launched into the main Story Arc. There are several instances throughout the story where dialogue and events are slightly altered to accurately reflect your origin story. It is the main Story Arc in Dragon Age that is so weak.
The Flashbacks are cooler than the movie/book!
There are not really any flashbacks in this game, and it is not a movie, or a book, but the title to this section reflects a common pitfall in story telling - especially in the Fantasy genre. In the Fantasy genre you have to have a world. Worldbuilding is a huge and daunting task that you end up putting a lot of work into. So what happens? Well, naturally you want to tell everyone about the world. How do you do that? With exposition, narrative summary, or in the case of Dragon Age, a lot of exposition, and most of the gameplay.
Most of the gameplay in Dragon Age is spent in sub-story arcs that have little or no bearing on the overall Story (Recliffe, Brecillian Forest, Frostback, mage tower). Granted, each one of these stories are very interesting, and very cool, but are structured in a way that seriously takes away from the main drive of the game; The Blight.
Turn to page 214 or 172 ...
You died. Ha! Just kidding. You guys remember those books? The choose your own adventure books? Well, that is kinda how these Bioware games feel to me a little. They have an opening scene, then the middle of the game is a choose your own adventure book, then you play the end-game scenario which is modified by some of the various choices you made earlier.
Subsequently, each encounter feels very binary: are you going to do A, or B with this event? One might be good, the other might be bad, or it might be very gray, where neither looks very good but you have to choose. Either way, this redundancy in gameplay decisions had the opposite affect on me that I think Bioware was intending.
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Dragon Age is Medieval Fantasy RPG, well, not really Fantasy, but more Medieval ...
By now you probably think I hate the game, or think it sucks. I really do not. I enjoyed it very much. But that doesn't mean I'm going to reserve my criticism, especially when I saw SO MUCH potential. Plus, I felt like this article needed to be written. So much of what is out there about Dragon Age is all praise and flowers, and doesn't really seem "real".
Just uttering the word conjures into the mind, magical landscapes, wondrous environments, mystical creatures and societies, and the possibility to bend imagination into shapes previously unimaginable. Sadly though, Dragon Age: Origins does not capitalize on the possibilities of fantasy, at all really. Maybe that was Bioware's intention, I don't know. The closest this game gets to fantasy is: magic, some monsters, and a couple pretty cool sequences.
This game, environmentally, really feels like Earth 2 + Magic, but 800 years ago.
Let's see ... we have a human township, one forest, a couple caves, a temple, some ruins, one mountain, an underground Dwarven city, a mage tower (human), another human township, lots of churches, some buildings, a castle, some plains ... and well, that's it really. Hell, that doesn't really feel that fantastic to me. Feels well, very underwhelming and ordinary.
A note on the underground Dwarven City or Orzammar: A fellow Hubber mentioned he felt this zone was rather fantastic, and groundbreaking in comparison to other games. That might be true, but from a fan of the Fantasy Genre (Table Top, Games, Book, Movies, Etc ...) Dwarves living in a massive underground (inside a mountain) city is well, pretty dang standard : /
On the flip-side, it may have felt like Earth 2 + magic, but man they did a good job of bringing that world to life through legend, history and characters. One thing that is for certain, is that they did a superior job of making the locations, the NPCs, and the events feel real. Everywhere you turn there is telling of legend, and history, and codex entries. Unfortunately, it just all felt really, well ... ordinary.
So it's definitely Medieval, and it is definitely an RPG, but I'd say putting it in the Fantasy category is more out of necessity than because it truly lives up to, or pushes the genre.
What's the superior platform to play Dragon Age: Origins?
Drag Age Origins Tactics are really ... well, "ok".
I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on gameplay mechanics, or graphics, or any of the stuff that you've heard a millions times, but what type of review would this be without at least a brief mentioning?
The tactical strategy engine on the XBOX 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins is almost completely broken. Some of the most fundamental and basic commands you could issue are just simply absent in this version. For instance: Move there, Marching Order, Flank, individual hold positions, change camera elevation (perspective), and avoid friendly fire - are completely absent. It's crazy, but true.
I will note that the "move there" command, and the "change camera elevation" are both present in the PC version, from what I hear.
The gameplay mechanics are pretty good, but DA:O is a pretty buggy game on the 360. Also, there are a couple of decisions they made concerning the skills (called Talents in this instance) that I would have done differently. The one coming to mind now the "combat stealth" talent for the rogue. If the rogue is engaged in one-on-one melee combat and has high stealth stats, he can literally disappear (actually becomes invisible). Personal taste: that should not be possible without the aid of some sort of item, like a smoke bomb or something. It is just a little too over the top. Also, crafting potions in combat, and then chaining said potions in mid-battle seems a little - "eh, ok ..." to me also.
"Wait, wait, wait, hold that sword for a second ... oooooh yeah that's a good potion. Wait! Not quite ready yet, gotta rub this balm on my-- ooooohh yeah! Okay. We can resume. Rar!"
Dragon Age: Origins ... And all that could have been ...
And all that could have been ... Anybody get that reference? Oh well.
Dragon Age: Origins did a lot of things right, but a little too many things wrong. And when all of this is put in the modern Bioware / EA perspective, it certainly seems like DA:O falls short of what I consider to be: reasonable expectations.
Big, HUGE! But, kinda small, now that I think about it ...
The game is super massive. Hundreds of side-quests, a myriad of possible character interactions, plot choices, and various endings and scene outcomes, but in the same light it feels strangely small: Go here, here, and here, to unlock the boss fight, then win. Even if you skip the majority of the side-quests, even with near instant over-world traveling, it still feels like the pacing in the game is very sluggish (50+ hours).
A book without page numbers ...
But, I guess it is pretty hard to tell a compelling, cohesive, story when you're not numbering your pages. I get that. [edit: this sentence has been removed by the author: "I felt it was unnecessarily harsh"].
Dragon Age: Origins is either very focused, and I'm just looking for something else, or slightly confused, like a young adolescent, is getting lots of sleep, and eating like crazy so it can be a really good <INSERT THING HERE> when it grows up.
Was that too harsh? I hope not ... Like I said earlier. I didn't want to reiterate some gushy article about DA:O. There are plenty of those out there. If you can't handle the truth? Leave some hate mail. No big deal. If you can handle the truth? Sweet! Leave some love mail.
Be peaceful on your way,