Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Favorite Video Games: Dragon Age: Origins

If there's one game that could best my love for Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, it would be Dragon Age: Origins.  Though BGII has held my top spot for years, Dragon Age comes close to daunting that love - and at any given moment, if asked which I would pick for my favorite, it would likely depend on the day.
I spent years after the completion of BGII wanting another sequel, hoping that the developer would return, give us more to the story and to the world.  Yes, we got the expansion in Throne of Bhaal, and yes it did wrap things up nicely.  But I had never come close to loving another game more.  So when I discovered that BioWare was, indeed, developing another RPG - one described as a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate - I was intrigued.
The more I read up, the more I was convinced I would love to try it.  But even at its release, I hesitated; I had never before played an M-rated game, and didn't know how much I would go in for it (even now, the R-rated films I watch are few and far between).  For another, my sad little computer only contained but a mere graphics chip, and the only assurance I had that it might handle the technical beast that was Dragon Age was that it was able to run the character creator - a kind of techno demo in itself.  And of course, the issue of money - if I'm going to spend $40 on this game and don't love it, will I regret the cost?

But I went for it anyway - because I really, really wanted to try it.  And looking back, I can honestly say it's the best $40 I spent, possibly ever.  Even with all the other games I've poured hundreds of hours into (like the Mass Effect trilogy, Mario Kart Wii, and Super Mario Galaxy) none has quite so dominated my time and thoughts and passion as this one.
The story is often cited as being pretty standard, particularly for the genre, and while that's true, I still maintain that it's a very well-told version of a story every RPG fan knows.  Unknown lowlife joins ancient order and rises from obscurity to defeat larger-than-life evil that is sweeping the land.  It's familiar stuff.  But the path getting there is anything but.
First off, I love the different origin stories (and I hope BioWare tries even more with this in the future).  It's not just, teenage boy wakes up in the middle of a storm that will shortly kill his loved ones sending him out into the world on the path of revenge; every one of the six stories is distinct and well-developed, a different foray into the varying worlds and cultures and races of Ferelden - and even dealing with the classism and racism running rampant in these societies.  What's more, the origin story, in turn, will influence the main campaign.  People treat your PC a whole heck of lot better if you're a human noble, rather than a Dalish or City Elf.  And every one includes a reunion with a pivotal member from that story later in the game.  Is the killing of Arl Howe just another step on your path to confronting Loghain?  Or is it personal, an opportunity to bring down the man that overthrew and executed your parents?  When you free that elf from prison, is it just another NPC that's grateful for your presence, or is it a reunion with a long-lost cousin?  It's a great way of giving so much variety in a game that is already chock full of it.

Of course, the story turns on one of its most pivotal, and surprising, moments near the beginning - when Loghain, in the battle against the Darkspawn at the outset of the game, turns and leaves the battlefield, taking his army with him, leaving the King and all the other Grey Wardens to die.  He then pins the king's death on the Grey Wardens - meaning your character is now no longer tasked only with defeating the Archdemon to stop the Blight, but also maneuvering the political machinations of Ferelden's elite, on the run and facing a possible civil war.
Like the best of BioWare games, this one has a memorable cast, sustaining the developer's well-earned reputation.  Combined with the approval/disapproval (the only measure the game gives to morality) and the option for romances, every conversation with Alistair or Leliana or Morrigan can not only teach you more about their character, but turn the tide of your own relationship - and in some cases, the entire gamestory.
Of course I love the story, and I love picking and choosing my different decisions to work out the variety of combinations they can result in - I can side with the Templars over the Mages, kill Connor, romance Zevran, alienate Alistair, spare Loghain, make Anora queen, watch Alistair leave my party and then sacrifice my own PC in defeat of the Archdemon; and that's just one example.  Multiple decisions can, especially when combined, go down multiple different paths.  And while the Archdemon's defeat is always guaranteed, how you get there, and how the political landscape of the country looks afterward, can be pretty dramatically different from one playthrough to the next.

But above it all, even with my love for the story and characters, it's the combat that really clinches it for me.  There is no single other game where I have enjoyed the combat system more; to my eyes, they took a lot of what was working in Baldur's Gate and made it better.  There's a more standard use of stamina/mana, a smaller and more manageable array of spells, well-designed skill trees, four specializations for each of the three base classes, and a ton of armor, weapons, and runes to be discovered.  And I have never gotten more enjoyment out of the stat-tweaking and careful leveling up for my characters.
What's more (I believe I said this when discussing my love for Baldur's Gate II) BioWare is the only developer I've encountered that does real-time party-based combat.  And with the option to disable the AI and micromanage all of the characters in battle, along with the isometric camera, every single combat encounter is a pleasing experience - because I have full control of how I approach the challenge, and the game gives me enormous amounts of freedom in the task.  It's the most strategic and tactical system I've ever played and I adore the game alone just for this.

I think I also love this game because I've never had another that completely swallowed me whole; at least not in the same way.  In the three months it took to complete my first playthrough, I would have 5-6 hour play sessions (which is really unusual for me, as I can usually only do one task - even reading, or watching a tv series - for only a couple hours at a time); and it's not an exaggeration to say that if the house had burned down around me, I would not have noticed.  I have never been so enraptured with a game - so thrilled with each new environment, excited by every surprising step in the story, and thrilled to tackle every new combat challenge.
Really, if there's a perfect game, this might be just about the closest one for me.  Its gameplay and storytelling are both sublime, and the balance of each in relevance to the overall experience, along with the expertly crafted walk-the-line between linearity and non-linearity, creates a magnificent experience.  Especially for someone like me, who will never stop loving these huge fantasy worlds and medieval settings.  The only criticism I feel could be lobbed at this game is the graphics, which have never been BioWare's strong suit.  Many of the environments are beautiful, but character models are awkward and stiff.  But at the same time, it's a testament to BioWare's talent that it doesn't matter much - because most the major characters are so well-written and acted, that they come to life no matter what.

Beyond that, my first playthrough is something I look back on with an enormous amount of affection - because it was such a welcome (and relieving) surprise that the game not only turned out to be better than I hoped, but completely shattered a lot of my own expectations about gaming.  Even now, there's nothing I remember so clearly as the simple joy of exploring the ruins of an Ancient Temple, dedicated to the Prophet Andraste, and delving into the Deep Roads in search of a lost Paragon.  For me, it really doesn't get better than that.
I'll also add that this applies primarily to the PC, which is the definitive version of the game - in large part because the isometric camera, quick bar, and hot keys make for a much smoother and more strategic experience.

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