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Dragon Age Day#1: Nothing to Say but WoW

Today is Day 1 with Dragon Age. I got this game because I generally liked Mass Effect more than I disliked it, and wanted to see what the stepping stone would be to ME2. Also, I haven’t played a true fantasy game since World of Warcraft, and I thought is was time to see where the console genre was. Short answer: cloning Blizzard.  Certainly  the beginning of Dragon Age is just single-player WoW with more dialogue trees and better cut scenes. Oh, I think I can safely say now that I could never see another traditional sword-and-sorcery narrative again for the rest of my life and not care a whit. Jury’s out on Dragon Age still, but Mass Effect 1.5: The Medieval Edition this is very, very not. Spoilers within.

I’m playing Dragon Age on my 360. This makes it particularly interesting that the very first thing that happens when I’m past the opening developer credits is that the game asks to login for EA and Bioware. Huh? I thought this was an Xbox. I have my gamertag. What else do I need to register for? It’s not at all clear from the boxes, but I’m just starting so I’ll play along.  Of course, this means entering my email address and password into that awful on-screen keyboard the Xbox has, and of course I have to do it like five times because my email address is already registered with one of these people and I can’t remember what password I used. And on top of that there’s an EA and Bioware products opt-out right in the middle.  Maybe I’m being unfair here, but boy does this leave a bad taste in my mouth.  I eventually give up and don’t register so I can actually start play.

The game prologue starts with prophesy about how I brought sin to heaven; it’s some made-up poem and it’s not bad. There’s a very nice illustrated series of symbolic images telling the story of how a circle of mages tried to usurp heaven, and were corrupted as a result. These dark ones then returned to the earth to attack the humanoid races and were winning until a group called the Gray Wardens stopped them. Now the Gray Wardens are largely forgotten, but the few who still exist worry about the return of the dark ones. It’s all dwarves and elves and castles and dungeons — totally cheesy fantasy stuff. Honestly, we’re not much more than a piece of invisibility jewerly away from Lord of the Rings here. I mean, is there anything interesting left to do with dwarves and elves any more? The narrative is nicely rendered and the animations are fine, but core content is so stale that you’re kind of wondering why someone didn’t throw it out already.

Prologue done, it’s on to character creation. It starts with stats. There’s a main menu where you choose gender, race (human, elf, dwarf — yawn), and background (dependent on race). It’s a dumb interface, because you can’t preview the effects of an option unless you choose it, which means if you don’t like it, you have to cancel a selection and select again. We solved this problem, guys –update the model on mouseover/cursor hover please.  I choose a human and reluctantly a mage — magic in a game like this is either the most interesting choice by miles, or truly terrible. Mages only get one choice of the six backgrounds, so I take that background and move on to my character’s appearance.

It’s a typical menu based, feature-slider kind of creator. This one is particularly ridiculous, with sliders for things like neck thickness and nostril width. I can’t imagine that I’m in a very small minority of players who has no idea what to do with these things. We’re not all artists — please just give us a pretty set of characters to choose from. Maya does exist if all you want to do is tweak a model. Anyway, I succeed in creating a male character that isn’t totally hideous and get on to the skill and spell choice. In both cases, there are a lot of options to choose from without much info on how to do it, but I guess that’s standard for RPG. I take a skill in persuasion, and two spells: a healing spell and a group stun. And now twenty minutes in, THE GAME!

We start in CS in a tower of mages. Here, the templars watch mages for corruption and keep them safely quarantined for their apprenticeships. To leave apprenticeship, students have to pass a Harrowing in which they  go into the Fade (a dream-realm) for a challenge against a demon which will either defeat and posses them (which will lead the Templars to kill them when they awaken) or be overcome.  The character model that I made is in this cutscene, which is nice for connecting me to the game, but oh are these characters uncanny-valley creepy. This is kind of the worst I’ve seen in a while; I am actually grossed out at times.  Anyway, my character CS touches some illyrium or whatever they call the magic gem in this fantasy world, and goes to the Fade.

I get control with a third person perspective with an health mana interface in the upper left and a set of actions mapped to the controller buttons in the lower right. There’s something familiar about this, but it doesn’t hit me yet.  I’m running around this weird 3d landscape, following a mini-map. Along the way, I get into my first few fights with some enemy will-o’-wisps and spirit wolves. The combat is basically clicking on an attack from your selection and waiting for it recharge. OH GOD, I REMEMBER NOW. This is WORLD OF WARCRAFT. The position of the interface, the automatic hits, staggering of attacks and recharges, the damage numbers rising off of the characters. I mean, the over-the-shoulder perspective even looks like WoW. Have I been out of RPGs that long? Have all of them turned to this horrible, wait-for-recharge grind? There is nothing else going on in at least this early combat – it’s a completely uninteresting slog. Oh that is a disappointing realization. If this game is a WoW grind, I am going to last maybe four hours before I give up.

Eventually, I encounter NPC called Mouse, who claims to be an old apprentice who never got back from the Harrowing and learned to shapechange into a rodent to protect himself. The dialog here is a fairly traditional tree structure. I make some choices that seem to be arbitrary which leads Mouse to talk about some other stuff, but I’m glazing over from all the cheesy circle-of-mage, fantasy stuff.  Anyway, he agrees to join me and warns me that we will encounter other spirits. I run a bit further, and find some health potions (clicking A on highlighted environmental features to search them). Eventually, I run into a Spirit of Valor. He has weapons to offer, and I get another dialog tree. The choices here are a little more interesting, and I do feel like there’s a game here in picking the right option. In this one, there’s a series of choices I’ve gotten because of my decent Willpower stat, and I use them to get a free weapon by bullying the guy with morality. It’s not bad, but I do think it’s not as interesting as it could be. Not sure why — there’s choice, but it’s not as fun as I expected. I’ll keep watching that.

I also meet a sloth demon, who I convince in dialog to challenge me to a riddle contest in exchange for teaching Mouse to shape-shift into a bear. The riddle contest is pretty straightforward; it makes me feel pretty clever to get three riddles in a row, but I think having the multiple choice answers in front of you makes it quite easier.

After a bit of aimless wandering, I realize that I can find the main demon on the map, and I navigate with Mouse in bear form in tow to confront it. It’s a Rage Demon, and it claims that Mouse was helping it by luring apprentices to their doom. Mouse stands up for me, saying that I am stronger than the others. Fight ensues. It’s a WoW fight, and as such, there is nothing compelling about it. I get through it the way I got through 20 levels of WoW, by clicking on whatever spells/action was recharged at the moment. The demon goes down while my back is turned, which is maybe the best symbol of this fighting mechanic I can think of. With the demon dead, Mouse and I talk. I choose to say that the battle seemed to go too quickly, and Mouse gets defensive and says it’s because I’m so powerful. Mouse also suggests I let him enter me so that he can leave the Fade, but I confront him, and surprise, surprise he turns out to be the actual demon. He commends me on not falling for the trick, but warns me that I must always be vigilant against the forces of corruption.

I come to in bed back in the tower in conversation with another apprentice that I’ve never met but my character knows. He’s pissed that I won’t tell him about the content of the Harrowing (he hasn’t done it yet), but I talk him back to being calm. There’s all of this stuff about what happens to mages who don’t Harrow and Tranquility, but it’s late and I don’t care about this jargon. He eventually tells me that I need to find some other guy, and I leave to run around the tower. Eventually, I decide that I’ll finish this fedex que…I mean, important narrative bit tomorrow.

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4 Responses

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  1. Matt says

    “We’re not all artists — please just give us a pretty set of characters to choose from. Maya does exist if all you want to do is tweak a model.”

    Well, to be fair, the effort of tweaking a model from the game in Maya and then re-importing it is probably way, way more complex than 99% of the gaming public can handle, myself included. The massive slider-your-face interface seems to be pretty standard in RPGs these days, although I recall Mass Effect giving you both a pre-made character and the cheap cop-out “randomize” button. Personally, I find that I tend to make 3 different types of characters as a result: 1) the original creation when I just experiment, 2) the most disgusting-looking creature I can think of so if a romantic sub-plot develops it’s the equivalent of “Knocked Up” or any of the standard Hollywood Beauty-and-the-Frumpy-Guy takes, and 3) myself, or an idealized version of myself allowable within the limits of the system.

  2. admin says

    I know, I know. I exaggerate quite a bit when I say it’s like Maya. But these are artist’s tools. It is far too easy to make something horrific with this much adjustability if you don’t have an eye for it. I just don’t see why I need fine grained control that i can screw up when I could have pre-made characters that are definitely good-looking.

  3. Douglas Yee says

    Nick – I suggest you try a different character background, just to see some of the differences. Out of all six origins, I found the Mage origin possibly the least compelling (though the Human Noble Origin is pretty standard “my family was betrayed and murdered” fantasy fare).

  4. Heath says

    Dwarven noble background was probably my favorite… though again it falls into some very standard fantasy rotes.

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