Back to the Dragon Age

In this special Expansion Pack edition of the Game Tours, I make something between a Return Trip and a New Journey. I’m returning to the well-worn land of Ferelden and to some very character advancement and combat mechanics, but with a whole new cast of characters, a new portion of the realm to explore, and a new lead taking the helm. It’s Dragon Age: Origins: The Awakening (or Dragon-Age-Colon-Origins-Colon-The-Awakening, following The Rule of Two or More Colons.) Game Tours would like to take the opportunity to remind game developers everywhere that there is such a thing as too much branding.

As I wrote not-so-briefly in the dying days of my previous blog, Dragon Age is a game that belongs on PC. I wrote this having forced my way through the PS3 version of the original game. And forced is the operative word. The payoff of the game’s final decisions and conflicts was well-worth it, but playing Dragon Age without the ability to pause the game and hand-assign actions to each of your party members is almost like playing Call of Duty without the ability to manually reload. It’s definitely do-able, but you’re placing a lot on faith in the AI. Worse still, Dragon Age, rather than attempting the admittedly difficult task of programming an AI that was competent without being perfect, pretty much leaves it to the Player to program her own AI, through the use of the tactics screen. This would be fine, if the combats were simpler (and I don’t mean difficulty, I mean complexity here.) There are too many abilities to assign, with too many highly specific situations in which they might be useful. Furthermore, as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to nest logic, which means it was difficult to determine when certain commands would come into play. Would my healer character check whether the creature was a boss before he checked whether he was low on mana or after? This is vital to know if you don’t want your healer chugging mana potions during fights against grunts. The game, especially in its more complex fights, really requires situational tactics, and I found the tactics screen, for all its attempts at comprehensiveness, lacking. I ended up spending a lot of time later in the game, when the difficulty ramps up in some truly punishing boss fights, dying, tinkering with tactics for ten minutes, dying again, tinkering some more with tactics. I spent more time “scripting” my companions than fighting the battles.

So the first thing I did when I loaded into the PC version of the expansion pack (having finally gotten a PC copy of the original game) was turn off the tactics for all my characters entirely. Well that’s not true. The first thing I did was make a Rogue, with the Ranger specialization and a focus on pets, archery, and poison-making; i.e., the most micromanagement-intensive character I could think of. But once in-game, I turned off tactics.

I have died three, maybe four times total since starting, including a couple deaths on one brutal boss fight, but the difference is, when I die it’s because of something I failed to do right while managing my party in the heat of battle. When I die, I learn something about how I ought to play the game.

There’s a fight against a pair of drakes where you get about two seconds of reprieve while they fly in the air, and I learned by the second try that that was my very brief window to top off my characters’ health and revive anyone who’d fallen. I’ve also gotten into fights I wasn’t prepared for where things have gotten hairy, but I’ve managed to react to the situation and hold on. It’s simply not possible to be reactive on the console version. Switching between characters takes too long without the benefit of a pause button and a mouse and the tactics system is, by its very nature, not reactive. The best comparison to playing Dragon Age on the PC with tactics off is controlling your own raid in World of Warcraft. In fact, I have my tank, my dps, and my healer and my job is to make sure they’re using the right abilities and staying out of the fire.

My feelings on the rest of The Awakening are still in formation. The dungeon crawls are sharp, but the main plotline hasn’t made much of an impression. It so far avoids getting too bogged down in long uninterrupted bits of talkyness (I’m glaring at you, Lothering), but I haven’t experienced the new characters well enough to pass judgment. Still, the act of playing the game is such a joy compared to my experience of the original that I think I’ll be staying a while, and maybe even planning a return trip to the original.

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