Sunday, January 08, 2012

In Which The Warlock Ends an Age...

As I've mentioned a few times over the past few entries, I finally managed to play through Dragon Age: Origins--the BioWare-developed fantasy opus, billed as a spiritual successor to my beloved Baldur's Gate series, which I still have installed on my laptop.

I've been hesitant to write a review for DA: O, though, because my feelings towards the game have been more than a little conflicted.  While there's been a lot to love in the game, I can't help but feel that certain changes could have really put this game up over the top.

Building my Dwarf Warrior
One of the best things about DA: O comes from its titular origins--depending on your choice of race (Elf, Human, or Dwarf) and class (Warrior, Mage, or Rogue), your character's quest against the Darkspawn began with an opening interlude, centering on your character's family.  Deciding to play the "dwarfiest dwarf ever", I settled on the Dwarven Noble opening, in which I was the second son of King Endrin Aeducan, and was swiftly embroiled in the byzantine turmoil of dwarven ascension politics.  Finding myself on the receiving end of a brutal backstabbing, I was exiled to the labyrinthine Deep Roads and fought my way to an encampment of Gray Wardens, whom I ended up joining.

Playing as a Warrior, I swiftly gravitated towards two-handed weapon talents...and promptly cleaved my way through the game.  Even without a shield, my main character was a juggernaut of destruction, simply hacking through most enemies.  The "darkspawn"--a not-quite-orc, not-quite-undead horde that swept across the continent of Ferelden--simply posed little challenge. Even my basic "auto-attacks" dealt upwards of 100 damage per swing, felling enemies with a single slash.  Often, combat simply meant switching between targets as I faced one, then another, then another...occasionally whipping out a multi-target slash when surrounded, or a high damage ability when facing a major foe.

Even "red" enemies, with increased hit points and special abilities, were little more than meat sacks ready for me to hack through.  While the game itself was artfully developed, the enemies grew...well, boring.  Some true weirdness in a dwarven tomb was a welcome change, fighting against the hideous "Broodmother", but monsters like that proved to be the exception, rather than the rule.  Similarly, the trip through a corrupted mage tower was suitably icky, but that section was marred by a lengthy (and mandatory) puzzle section, which frustrated me much more than it entertained.

Morrigan and Leliana:
Two of my lovely companions in DA: O
The strength of a BioWare game, however, comes from its character writing.  And, truly, the developers did not disappoint on this front.  In amongst my numerous NPC options, I gravitated towards the sarcastic (though somewhat naive) warrior Alistair, the cynical mage Morrigan, and a "recovering" bard/assassin named Leliana, with whom I began a fledgling romance.  I found myself constantly talking with my NPCs, hoping for new dialogue options or a new sub-plot.  Since playing on the "Ultimate" edition, my game came pre-loaded with an additional option to play with--the golem Shale, whose barbed commentary was utterly hilarious.  While I would have liked to see a few more NPC-specific side-quests, the sheer depth that DA: O has in terms of followers make it worth listening to every cut-scene and dialogue.

Honestly, would you trust someone
who looked like this? 
Unfortunately the plot itself didn't quite hold up to the high standard set by character development.  A bog-standard fantasy plot, you find yourself betrayed at the outset of the game by a moustache-twirlingly evil advisor to the king, as he bids for control of the throne.  Surviving a vicious darkspawn attack, you find yourself assembling a cadre of allies--mages, elves, dwarves, and humans--to help dethrone the usurper and stave off the darkspawn invasion.  Naturally, each of these factions has their own problems, which it's up to you to solve, if you want their aid in the coming coup and war.  While this plot is structurally sound and full of great NPCs--including the elven warden Zathrian, who made me want to cleave my PS3 with a broadsword out of sheer rage--it's nothing particularly new or innovative. 

The brooding Jon Irenicus,
voiced beautifully by David Warner.
I think it's the lack of a solid villain that keeps DA: O from really achieving greatness.  In Baldur's Gate II, we were treated to the simultaneously sympathetic and aggravating Jon Irenicus, whose dialogue absolutely stole the show in every cut scene he was present in.  Irenicus was voiced by the spectacular David Warner, who may be best known for voicing Ra's Al-Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series, lending Irenicus a cultured menace perfect for villainy.  Dragon Age: Origins simply doesn't have a villain of that calibre.  While Teyrn Logain--the aforementioned usurper--is meant to fulfill the villainous role, he simply doesn't have enough screen time to develop properly.  It's hinted that Loghain feared a foreign invasion and lost faith in the current king, leading him to try for the throne, but Loghain simply lacks the development to feel fleshed-out.

Despite my nitpicks, I really enjoyed my time through Dragon Age: Origins.  Immediately after completing the main campaign, I found myself playing through "Witch Hunt"--a downloadable "epilogue" based around the fate of Morrigan, my sardonic mage companion.  I'm already planning to make it through the expansion pack "Awakening" over an upcoming holiday weekend, as well as picking up Dragon Age II.  While reviews of DAII are mixed, its smaller-scale plot and more dynamic gameplay may be more up my alley.  We shall see, I suppose!

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