Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dragon Age Origins: Disappointing Nightmare

Dragon Age: Origins: Wishing it was a movie

As a fantasy rpg buff, I was eager to get my hands on this game.  I love dragons, and elves, action and adventure and when I received Dragon Age: Origins as a present I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into another epic world of dark fantasy.  So I stepped out of the stunning landscape of Cyrodiil, and into the war-torn lands of Ferelden.  Unfortunately, I was soon wishing I’d stayed in the creation of Bethesda.  What follows is an explanation of why.  Welcome to my venomous review of the Xbox 360 version of Dragon Age: Origins. 

First: to the good things about the game: its presentation.  Dragon Age is a stunning game in terms of its awesome cinematics, excellent voice work, great script and story, and brilliant music. In short, Dragon Age: Origins has first-rate presentation.   The cinematics create for very visual and exciting battle scenes.  This is essential in any good action/adventure game and here it is handled very well.  The voice acting is also stellar, chief among them Claudia Black contributing her talent.  The game has a pretty good story – it’s one of great adventure across the land, gathering allies against a powerful enemy, and a decent script and although the player character never has any voiced dialogue the interaction between some of the characters, especially Morrigan and Oghren, is very humorous.  This light-hearted aspect is always welcome and it’s definitely a positive part of the game.  As for Dragon Age’s music, composed by the award-winning Inon Zur, it is truly epic fantasy music, perfect for the settings in the world of Dragon Age. 

Dragon Age’s graphics are not too bad; however they are not really up to par with other titles on the console.  I have to admit the armour of the characters is superb and really looks great.  I suspect that the PC version looks a hell of a lot better.  The AI for your companions is pretty good, and apart from occasionally getting stuck in rocks, separated from the party by tree roots and other minor glitches it’s pretty much what you expect from this type of game. 

A special word must be given to the character customisation and origin stories.  These are quite good because there are quite a lot of customisation options and the character’s backstory is different depending on what race (Human, Elf or Dwarf) or class (Warrior, Mage or Rogue) you choose.  These are the primary reason for replay value in the game. 

Now to the not so good things about Dragon Age: its presentation.  Dragon Age is a cinematic game, but while cinematics usually make for a good game, they can be a problem as well.  The trouble with cinematics is that they take control away from the player.  Too many cinematics and the game starts to become more of a movie than a game.  Cinematics that are too long make the player itch to get back to the gameplay.  If the cinematic is not exciting, and is basically dragged out with lengthy dialogue sequences, it becomes very tedious to watch – especially if you can’t skip them.  This is certainly the case here, and in a game filled with side quests, it really does let the game down.  Is it really necessary to have a cinematic almost every time you want to approach an NPC?  I don’t think so.  Dragon Age is less of a game and more of a film with some action in between the cut scenes. 

Another turn-off with the presentation is the amount of lore in the game.  While this is still a good thing, making for a rich and detailed fantasy world, I can’t honestly see players stopping every five minutes to read vast lengths of text on their screen.  The amount of lore is ridiculous; almost every single creature, character and item in the game has some text attached to it.  Dragon Age doesn’t really apply its lore very well to the game world; although you can learn about the characters by interacting with them and through the story, you learn about the world mostly books and documents you find in the world, which results in a lot of screen-reading, which wastes a lot of playtime.  Exploring the world itself is occasionally satisfying as Dragon Age has a diversity of landscapes; however invisible walls are everywhere (to the extent that sometimes you can’t even walk across a log.)  The game is not truly an open world and you can only travel to certain areas once they’re unlocked.  You cannot continue to play once the storyline is finished (plus there’s no music once the credits roll – now that’s what I call slack.)

In addition, a lot of things in Dragon Age are blatant rip-offs from other fantasy worlds.  For instance, the material known as Dragonbone is straight from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire series.  Although there are notable differences in Dwarven culture from J.R.R Tolkien’s Dwarves, the architecture is almost exactly the same and does little to differentiate the two franchises.  This is the same for the Daelish Elves.  There are differences between them and the Wood Elves of many IPs, but not enough to say ‘Hey, these are really something new and fresh.’  In the fantasy genre it’s hard to come up with a completely original idea since so much has been thought of before; however it seems like the designers of Dragon Age have put almost no effort into thinking about how to make their fantasy world different, like as if they couldn’t be bothered making any changes so they simply copied and pasted everything from somewhere else.  There is a serious lack of imagination and creativity in the Dragon Age IP, even the name ‘Darkspawn’ reeks of amateurism. 

Something else which I think is absolutely dreadful is the behaviour of NPCs in settlement areas.  Sometimes it is horrendous.  From a fully armoured knight on his hands and knees polishing the floor, to a harlot with the same ‘come folk, look at my wares’ animation as a blacksmith, NPCs are pretty much abysmal in Dragon Age.  In addition, practically every settlement has the same ambience with nonsensical sounds resembling a person muttering gibberish – no effort has been made to have ambience with actual talking in the background.  While some of the side quests are fun, some of them are just plain stupid, and others are broken, meaning they’re not actually able to be completed. 

The combat in Dragon Age is perhaps the worst combat system I’ve encountered in a video game.  It is awful.  While I actually prefer real time combat, and that’s what it is here, this is not visceral, primal combat where you swing your sword and blood spills.  You have only 3 buttons to assign skills to, and that doubles to 6 when you hold down the right trigger.  This is a game designed for PC, not Xbox.  With so many skills to choose from its actually very time consuming and tedious trying to work out which skills to assign to which buttons.  With a keyboard this might not be such a problem since you have a lot more buttons available.  As for the implementation, upon using a skill, the character moves to the target and attacks – it’s a point and click system – a system that works for the PC, but certainly not for a console.  This auto attack is just not realistic – this is a game where you give commands and your avatar carries them out, it completely removes the player from being immersed in the game.  Moving the left stick interrupts any commands you’ve given as this is the control for movement.  This makes controlling your character even worse.  And there is micromanagement: combat slots, strategies and tactics – there are several slots that you can use for pre-assigned skills.  This is terrible.  It’s very tedious to work out due to the number and complexity of the skills available and there are several different strategies which your character can use in combat, which I simply could not be bothered with because it meant reading all the lengthy descriptions.  On top of all that, you have to work out the strategies/tactics for 3 OTHER CHARACTERS.  This takes ages; I think I spent about 10 minutes working out what I wanted my companions to do in combat.  This is not what I want on a console rpg; I want to start fighting right away.  Micromanagement is good for PCs, not for consoles.  Then, when the fighting starts it’s pretty much the same every time: your characters stand in place hacking and slashing, casting spells or whatever.  When an enemy is killed the character rushes over to another enemy and does the same thing.  While the camera isn’t top down, it still feels too drawn out and I felt I was not close enough to the thick of the fighting.  Numerous times throughout the game I was bored out of my mind as my party was assaulted again and again by countless waves of enemies.  All in all, it’s a pretty broken combat system.  In fact, I would rather use a turn based system like that of Final Fantasy XIII, where it’s fast and graphically superior.  The enemies in the game are pretty varied, but they don’t justify having a combat system such as this one.  Dragons don’t fly around, simply fighting on the ground in a hack/slash fest, and it’s only at the end of the game in the final battle where the dragon actually fights like you’d think a dragon would fight.  This provides a slightly more fun battle where your character is using war machines against the dragon.  But overall, I was glad to get out of combat and back to the boring, lengthy dialogue sequences. 

Dragon Age: Origins is a pretty broken and unplayable game, at least on the 360.  While it is presented well, it just doesn’t hold up in terms of gameplay.  While the ultimate game would have a great story as well as great gameplay, if the gameplay is rubbish then it doesn’t matter how good the story or characters are, players are going to put the game down.  Dragon Age fails because its combat mechanics are crap, and a fantasy game with crappy combat in a war-torn setting is doomed to fail.  I find it bizarre that the same company that developed this game also made Mass Effect, which I enjoyed immensely.  Dragon Age: Origins would make a great movie, done correctly, however it makes for an appalling game.  I would not recommend it to anyone, so I’ll be giving it a measly 5. 

1 comment:

  1. Personally I didn't think the ratio of cinematics/gameplay wasn't that bad...but then again I've played Final Fantasy X