Must Try Harder is a new grumpy feature here at BeefJack, where our writers dissect a game that – for them – came so near yet so far in terms of hitting the mark. First up, Saul Alexander looks at Dragon Age: Origins – a game which scored 9.5 out of 10 at BeefJack, but for Saul had a few shortcomings.
Dragon Age: Origins did so many things right. It did enough right to garner almost universally positive reviews and a 91 on Metacritic. I got at least 40 hours of play out of it, and enjoyed the bulk of those hours. Yet I still feel it was a letdown.
In the lead-up to its release, I did a decent job of managing my expectations. Though I loved the Baldur’s Gate games, and this was billed as their spiritual succesor, there were several things that held me back from getting hugely excited. The first was BioWare’s peculiar pre-release advertising campaign. The combat videos with Marilyn Manson screeching in the background and the video emphasising the awkward sex scenes made a lot of BG fans nervous. But more fundamentally than that, Baldur’s Gate was a long time ago. The conversion from 2D to 3D has scuppered more game franchises than I care to name, and I’m now in the habit of expecting less than great things when a series from my childhood is reborn using modern technology.
Still, I came to the game with an open mind. I had an unusual experience playing it, as I was living with my cousin at the time, and both of us were playing simultaneously – me upstairs and he down. From time to time we would convene to discuss the game. While he has broader tastes than I, my cousin gets very passionate about games, often to the point of obsession, and this was (at first) the case with Origins. I’ve no doubt that his reactions intensified my own, although in general we agreed on most things.
My first reactions were mixed. For the uninitiated, Dragon Age comes equipped with six different openings – origin stories – depending on your choice of character. I played a city elf warrior, and thought that my origin story – where my sister is kidnapped and raped by the oppressive humans – was handled quite well. It was enough to draw me in, although my cousin got a far more intriguing origin: journeying into the mysterious Fade dimension with his mage. The amount of effort poured into Dragon Age’s beginnings is extraordinary, but I can’t help but feel it unjustified. After the first few hours, everyone is playing the same game, and the origins didn’t seem to have as much impact on the later stages as they might have.
Early on , the obvious weakness of the Origins was the combat. Not only was it far too hard (until a patch sorted out the wayward difficulty settings), but it wasn’t particularly balanced or tactically interesting. For a game that insists on throwing so much combat at you, this is a problem. I understand why computer-based RPGs are so combat heavy: the origins are in the biases of Dungeons and Dragons, and it is a very easy way to extend play-time with minimal design work. World of Warcraft has made a fortune on this basis. But to me, a long-time fan of pen-and-paper roleplaying, this kind of game deserves so much more than mediocre, repetitive fighting. But I’ll come back to that.
What was good about the game? Quite a few things. The story was great, mostly. Even though the over-arching narrative was generic, many of the sub-stories were original and engrossing, and actually allowed some measure of player choice. But what really shone were the characters. It was a genuine pleasure to interact with your party members, to delve into their secrets, help them with their problems, and even attempt to seduce them.
I’ll admit, I had a thing for Leliana. Her fragile faith and unusual French accent just made me weak at the knees. I spent lots of time buttering her up with gifts and following every positive thread of conversation. I was heartbroken when my cousin announced he’d got her into bed with his female character. Leliana was a lesbian? I guess we were destined to be ‘just friends’. Sigh. (According to the Dragon Age wiki, Leliana can actually be romanced by both sexes – but in any case, she rejected me for whatever reason).
By this time, I was some 40 into the game. Having played through the night a few times, my cousin was further. He crashed and burned first, but I did soon after. The most fundamental problem with Origins is this: it is simply too long. I’d got to the point that I’d gathered all of the armies I needed to combat the Generic Evil, bar one: the dwarves. I headed to their buried city and did a few basic quests. And then someone (surprise, surprise) told me I had to head into the mines in search of … whatever it was. I knew (because my cousin was already doing it) that this was going to involve a lot of pointless fights with Darkspawn. And I just stopped caring.
I’d gone as far as I cared to in my relationships with the party members. If I’d got to the ending, I would have pushed through, even though I suspected it would be extremely unimaginative, just another battle with a Big Bad. But the idea of spending hours more on uninteresting battles turned my stomach.
My cousin’s total devotion had been tranfigured into a frustrated rage. I only felt an emptiness. Bioware had carried us so high, but now we crashed to the earth.This was not entirely unexpected. I thought Baldur’s Gate 2 suffered from the same problem, back in the day. I remember having to force myself through the final few sections, losing my engagement with the characters and storyline.
I’m one of those who preferred Planescape: Torment to the BG series, and I would have been much more interested to see a ‘spiritual successor’ to that particular brand of strangeness. Obviously, the generic fantasy of BG is an easier sell, and there’s nothing wrong with that if the writing is strong and there are a few original twists thrown in. The early stages of Origins managed this, but it just couldn’t be maintained. If I’d been in charge of design, I would have cut at least 50 per cent of the combat. This would have pushed the storytelling to the fore and reduced the fatigue caused by the overlong play-time. Better yet, I’d only have battles when they’re important to the story. Above all, this is the lesson that I wish RPG developers would learn: conflict is meaningless when it doesn’t add to character or story.