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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Videogame: DragonAge: Origins

So, I'm going to expand this blog to include fantasy video games because I found a crunkin' awesome one.  This game will knock your socks off.

I was waitng for the next big fantasy game to come along.  I'm sort of retro in my video gaming.  This is because of a general technological lag in equipment, and the fact that I'm fully employed, in grad school, and engaged to a Ph.D. student.  This does not leave much time for video game playing.

So you know where I'm coming from, some of my favorite fantasy and fantasy related video games include Heroes of Might and Magic III, the entire Final Fantasy franchise from Final Fantasy II on up., to Final Fantasy 12. I also like strategy fantasy games like Age of Empires and Age of Mythology.  And of course, the entire Baldur's Gate series. 

So on to DragonAge: Origins.  When I finished classes this summer, I wanted some innocuous fun during my time off.  I checked list after list for the best RPGs.  I wanted something current, but I wanted to stay away from online video games.  Why?  Without diverging too much: time for videogames, is time for me, and me alone.  I am NOT looking for any interraction with the broader populace. I have an active social life, I don't need friends online.  This is not to disparage people who do--merely expressing a preference.  I was exceedingly disappointed when Square released Final Fantasy 11 as only an online game.  That's right--you can't actually even play it without going on line.  I was very much afraid that DragonAge would be a game like that.  The game does in fact have that capability, but it has an undeniable throughline that is completely playable without the internet.  What a relief.

I'd also heard that there were some difficulties with the PC version of the game.  Employees of both GameStop and BestBuy who raved about the game, both suggested I buy the console version, and stay away from the PC.  Had I an XBox or PS3, I may have done so.  But I got a new computer just a year ago.  I purposely spent twenty bucks extra for a nice video card, and fifty for extra ram, but my machine is by no means a performance whore.  I wouldn't even know how to make a gaming machine.  As it is, you'll be glad to know the game plays absolutely fine.  The Wiki for DragonAge has reported on some general programming bugs, but they have not made the game in anyway unplayable, unlike my attempt at playing the more recent Heroes of Might and Magic, which required seven different patches to play.

So onto the FFF

Note:  I haven't finished the game, I was too excited to wait.  And I rarely get to finish videogames, which require a skill and tenacity that simple reading does not.

1)  Character:
So holy neato!  You don't just play one character in DragonAge Origins.  When you start, you get to choose one of six different story lines.  The quests are largely universal, but the dialogue changes for each character.  You can choose from three races, two genders, and the choice of a Magi, creates a wholly different storyline.  I chose the story of a Dwarf Commoner.  So, I can almost guarantee that many of the developers who worked on Baldur's Gate, also worked on DragonAge.  Much of the informational dialogue is written in the same way, and, the controls and view points are very similar.  One neat thing about DragonAge, is that you can zoom in on the character and play it first person, from any perspective.  I don't particularly like the claustophobic nature of first person shooters, so I tend to operate at the three quarter level, but when I want to see a detail of the scenery, it's nice to be able to zoom in.  As in any video game a la Baldur's Gate, or any role playing game, you get to choose the sort of dialogue you want.  You can be a buttface, but you can also play really good characters.  This is bad for me, but good for the teenagers out there who are angry at the world.  I've never wanted to play a player character who was evil.  Even being cruel to imaginary creatures is difficult for me.  As someone who enjoys writing creatively, I can only write nasty characters with the personal knowledge that I fully expect to be writing their comeuppance one day.  (For an example of my creative fiction, tune in to my Eagles Landing blog.)  So you get to choose your own character.  That means that your main character is slightly less enjoyable than the npcs  (non player characters).  NPCs never leave character.  And players are inconsistent, and since you get to choose their story, less fascinating than having a traditional yarn.  Why is that?  Well, I hate making decisions that matter in my own life.  The responsibility of having to make them in my videogames isn't a joy, it's one more burden.  What that says about me, I don't know.

However, the neatest part of DragonAge is that you can play up your NPCs allegiances.  You had a similar capacity in Baldur's Gate, by gaining or losing reputation points.  If you had a bad rep, "good" characters would decline to join your party, or would fight other members of the party.  DragonAge has expanded on this.  You can even sleep with some of your fellow NPCs if you say the right combination of words over the course of the game, and give them the right number of gifts.  All of which leads me to another opinion of video gaming.  Teenagers and gamers will have the endless hours necessary to unravel all of the game's secrets.  Regular Joe's will not.  I will probably not buy another video game in a year or two.  And in that time, I might finish this game.  If I do, I will probably play it again as a different type of character.  No way am I going to get through this game six times.  Maybe six years from now.  But six years from now I'll have kids of my own, and even less time.  So it's nice that the game has increased playabilitiy, but it's also nice to have a plethora of online experts providing guidance on how to complete certain quests, and which gifts will make the NPCs take their clothes off sooner. Some of the characters are really enjoyable, like Morrigan, a witch, or apostate, who is pretty hot, and also pretty contrary.  Other characters like Alistair provide excellent comic relief and great side quests that really help develop the story.

2) Cliche:
So this game bears a lot of resemblance to the world of Tolkien's Middle Earth.  This in no way inhibits the story.  It gives the game a certain visual feel.  You can almost see Peter Jackson's fine visuals in the opening cinematic sequences of the game.  Likewise, the main races are humans, elves and dwarves.  That pretty much ends the cliche.  Ironically, given the religious nature of Tolkien, there was little reference to classical religion in the Lord of the Rings.  DragonAge origins, has an entire religious system that bares striking similarities to Christianity, while also providing excellent critiques of organized religion overall.  God is known as The Maker.  I like simple names in fantasy, multi syllabic names is often a deflection from real content.  They actually use a real group of religious knights, The Knights Templar, to provide a really neat counterpoint to magic.  But I'll get to that.  One Tolkien cliche avoided is that the villanous Darkspawn, though divided into races that look suspiciously like Orcs, Goblins, Giant Spiders, etc. do not come from different lands or tribes, as they did in Middle Earth.  There is a unifed enemy, emerging from the Earth, but also from an alternative demension called The Fade.  These creatures are called demons, and are controlled by an arch demon that is said to resemble a dragon.  This is a wonderful example of how, a popular cliche (The Dungeons and Dragons cliche), is given new life.  Even more fantastic is that as the game progresses, the character can even elect to become a demon, and/or sympathize with demons, who really just want to leave The Fade, and enjoy a more tactile pleasurful existence as a mortal.  One memorable scene occurs with a Pleasure Demon, who has seduced a knight Templar.  You can kill her, and him, since his mind is utterly controlled, or you can let her and him go, on the premise that he knight has let himself be seduced and that he and the demon really are leading a brief but intimately pleasurable life.  Such moral gray tones provide a rich tapestry for the game's story to develop.  Rest assured, the demoness will kill her host, but the knight's fantasy is quite humble, a wife and a loving family-things that are forbidden by the holy vows that a knight makes on entry to the society.

3) Scope:
Honestly, I'm still learning about the scope of DragonAge.  The World Map is quite large, but so far, only a few areas are playable.  These areas have provided many hours of gameplay so far.  The game does include a number of brief histories, again, much like Baldur's Gate, called Codexes.  These insert a great deal of depth, history, vision and possibility into the story.  And again, unlike a paperback, a popular videogame can simply use an expansion pack to enhance and enlarge gameplay and story.  But the history of the land is fairly dense, the individual characters have full histories, born in certain cities, living and growing in others.  I'd say the game has impressive scope.  Also, in the Jordanian strain of fantasy--that scope is hinted at straight from the beginning.  This means that as the game grows and expands, the history and story presented will feel more integrated, and less ad hoc, than say, the Seeker series by Terry Goodkind.

4) Magic:
So the system of health and magic is a huge departure from other fantasy games.  Each character has a set number of hitpoints and magic points, that grow, as the character grows his stats, again using a D&D cliche, of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and several other factors.  In combat however, as the fighter uses special abilities, or the mage uses spells, it takes away from stamina, or spell points accordingly.  That's standard stuff.  What isn't standard is that, once the battle is over, both health and magic regenerate.  So rather than carrying hoards of potions, you end up carrying maybe a dozen, and than waiting between battles.  This provides some downtime in play, but given the complex operation of the characters, changing armor, equipping weapons, reading codexes, this merely provides another sort of gameplay.  The type of spells used is fairly standard, but there is a greater emphasis in delaying and stunning spells.  Since the characters do not attack in real time, meaning you can't simply hit the x button twenty times in a row to attack twenty times, delaying other characters attacks provides a real advantage on the field of battle.  Likewise, certain spells have cool down periods, ranging from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes, whereby you'll have to wait before you can recast.  Above I alluded to the history of magic in DragonAge.  In DragonAge, magic is regulated by the Templars.  There appear to be two types of magic, regular, and blood.  Blood magic seems to be far more powerful, hence the appeal to evildoers and other teenagers, but it requires ritual sacrifice, hence the prohibition.  Mages who are regulated, report to an organization called The Circle.  Though the agency has a veneer of self governance, the real power are the Knights Templar, who govern the grounds of the tower and can call the Rite of Annulment if the mages go bad.  And there is a very real possibility of that.  Another really neat part of the system is that, all mages are vulnerable to being controlled by Darkspawn still trapped in The Fade.  One of the main story quests relies on one such character.  And you, as player character, get to decide, do you support the Templars unilaterrally and say that the danger posed by mages should be erradicated before people are harmed, or do you believe that some mages are innocents and that all innocents should be protected?  And that choice affects the entire storyline!  How cool is that?!

5) Theme:
As mentioned above, the overall feel of the game is Tolkienesque.  There is a desperation to the Order of The Grey Wardens, your character is one of them, in that the land has on many occasions been affected by The Blight, and on each occasion it has cost more lives to repell.  The Blight by the way, is the name for the darkspawn invasion.  The Grey Wardens exist to fight The Blight.  The theme reeks of Tolkien and Baldur's Gate--but as stated previously--it doesn't detractgameplay, it only serves to enhance it.  Those tropes help to color what your eyes already see, and fill in the gaps on the places on the map where nothing seems to exist.
I love this game, and would recommend it to any serious gamer, any "lite" gamer like myself, and also to casual fantasy lovers, looking for some time away from their eReaders and paperbacks.

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