Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dragon Age Origins review

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Dragon Age is a thorough testament and related love letter written to no lesser of an inspirator than the mere beauty of party based role playing gaming, summoning hyper-traditional, yet cleverly satisfied aspirations to enrich the genre it seeks to worship with ultimate consent and fervent determination. While the title does meticulous work at presenting the portions of its own world the main storyline unfolds along, Dragon Age's inherent nature is more of an - ultimately - linear kind, as the player's path is entirely constrained to the main story arcs the developers present.

Note: a nice attribute of the game is the option to add downloadable content to the core experience. This is something that may exhibit tremendous potential in the future, provided the developers will release a software kit fans could construct new locations, characters and quests with.

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As you will see, Dragon Age is a game of three major portions and consorting sequences: exploration, communication, extermination. The player arrives to a certain location, learning that there is imminent danger tainting the scene and vicinity, and it usually is up to the party to eliminate the threat via the traditional RPG conflict management of putting an efficient end to the dire existence of all abominations cultivating ill will in the nearby quest areas.

Dragon Age really is the prestigious title Baldur's Gate, now realized in three dimensions. The camera is strictly constrained according to various sticky principles, perhaps a bit more constrained than what true flexibility would demand. On the other hand, this kind of rigor undoubtedly adds a certain kind of palpable extra seriousness to the game, along with the message that the title does not really care if you like the way it presents its charms and challenges. When all is said and done, Dragon Age gives you the option to experience its world both from a tactical-, and, from an exploration point of view, each suitable to offer fluent gameplay functionality, let alone the mere variety these two primal modes are able to entertain the deeper tissue of the game, which, ultimately is: tactical combat. Tactical combat which is nothing short of epic.

The title's presentation values, while enthusiastic, are relatively inconsistent, tainted by occasional design flaws and - staggeringly enough - utter lack of imagination. Dragon Age particularly shines in its written areas, as the textual information you collect in the game's Codex, is of literary quality, inviting you to read an effective Guide to the world you are about to be immersed in. Yet, a design flaw is right there to mock a possibility which was unacceptably banished from realization: where are the illustrations? Where are the illustrations? Do I need to ask everything twice? Do I need to ask everything twice? What is the reason that I can read about a Revenant and enjoy quality shivers stalking on my spine, but I can not see an illustration of the creature?

The game presents open areas and dungeons, the latter elements usually delivered as sub-locations, accessible from the open areas. These regions of healthy-, yet far from vast perspectives are nothing less and nothing more than safe havens the player can familiarize herself/himself with the local folklore and the present situation in. As hinted, the initial setup usually is a dire one in the world of Ferelden. The game has the noticeable narrative tendency of inviting the party to locations that promise no good, yet - paradoxically enough - promise all of it: fight, experience, loot. Dragon Age uses a strict, calculable formula in order to deliver a motive to the player. Once a new location is reached, a sequence of thorough exploration is about to entertain/fall on the narrative. These segments are not reduced to area scavenging though, in fact, they are more reliant on - usually - one sided interaction with the local Non-Player Characters. While this is an acceptable method of building up the story, the inherent formula of

"You! YOU will be the Leader of the Resistance!"

becomes super-evident along the road, as you will hardly hear anything else from a Non-Player Character than an account of how terrible a day it is indeed, due to the rampant presence of nearby abominations unconceivable to mind and psyche.

Dragon Age does an acceptable, yet, usually far from stellar job at realizing its notable locations, occasionally parching to surprisingly uninspired settings, just to make one endure below-average hack and slash action taking place in an ineptly constrained "toy-forest." The Dalish Woods sequence of the game is a proper example, in my opinion, of how the title showcases its thorough understanding of relentless cliché abuse and uninspired environment design on some - and some, only - occasions. What about Orzammar, the Dwarven City? There is this public informant, shouting the news to the locals. Well, too bad Orzammar did not see anyone walking around, except for the party. Solution: the informant shouts all day long to the grating he is placed in front of. Have you considered - talking - to someone? Pun: intended.

As hinted, the player soon will see that the game has its coherent, nevertheless relatively limited awareness of two kinds of places, and but two kinds of places, only: dangerous places, and very dangerous places. There are some very-very dangerous places in the game as well, but they are located in the Fade, thank the Maker for that. The major difference between a dangerous place and a very dangerous one, is that the dangerous place is but an information base telling you how TRULY dangerous the very dangerous place will be, provided you are foolish enough to cultivate the thought of intersecting with their shady vistas. These locations are the practical dungeons the fights will take place in, and they usually are accessible from the introductory location, which will be suitable to harvest all the gratefulness in the world from the locals upon ascending from the dungeon as primal savior of the scene. What makes a very dangerous place a spatial construct worth its title and reputation? The answer is simple, and the one the game truly shines massively at: fighting.

Before examining the fighting system though, let us see how Dragon Age delivers as a narrative accomplishment, with keen curiosity focused on dialog work. Not surprisingly, yet quite welcomely, Dragon Age has an immense amount of spoken lines in it, and, while this review will not address story elements as result of the purpose of keeping the new player's experience unblemished, it will claim the liberty to offer a cautious suspicion on how eleven out of ten Dragon Age characters suffer from the unfortunate condition consensus regards as borderline personality disorder.

Clarification: interaction with party members is of - theoretically - great importance herein, and an element of the game that supposed to bring steep entertainment value to the fray. On various points along the plot, the main character you personify will encounter Non-Player Characters that are ready to join your rankings, effectively making Player Characters out of them. You can command up to four Player Characters at the same time, usually assembled upon exiting from the camp locations that are safe havens suitable to upgrade your characters, equipment, and be immersed in dialog with your current allies. This, of course, is not the only opportunity you can cultivate discussion with the Player Characters: you can do that at any time you want, at any place you want, provided the character you want to discuss with is a member of the current party configuration. At the camp site, all characters are available, though.

Dragon Age has a relatively limited set of interpersonal channels to offer dialog and related moods along, but, fortunately, it does everything conceivable with the communicational tools it chooses to model and deliver. First and foremost, the game has its "serious" tone and related register, by which each character - let it be Player or Non-Player - is ready to resonate her/his background story and current situation, which is an acceptable method to address the world locations and consorting conditions they are from and/or subjected to, giving you an account, impression of a certain place of the game world you are not necessarily to experience tonight, but, it certainly is more to hear from those at least, than to be left with narratively idle character models with no relevant thoughts to share.

This serious tone is enriched by Dragon Age's noticeable intent to smuggle irony into the mix, something it fortunately excels more at than it fails miserably with it. The most ineptly realized aspect of all communications taking place in the game, is that which is characterized by deep emotions though, as this is the exact spot the characters are ready to exhibit their borderline personality disorders on, delivering radically realized, super-clumsy facial expressions of abusive effect crave, making you feel helpless for not having the dialog option:

"Have you considered talking to someone?"

Fortunately, Dragon Age delivers quite a few memorable Non-Player Characters to enrich your rankings, but, in my opinion, the so called "good guys" of the game are but testaments of - sorry about that - ineptly presented emotional superficiality, waiting to be addressed so they can spill all their spiritual content on you without remorse. You will like them though, and this is the main idea. You will like them for not being able to.

Alistair. This is too much to take for you. You should end this. Now. Secretly, silently. Wait - you want me to do it for you? All you got to do is ask, you know that. I'm here for you. Always.

Clarification: while the game attempts to offer seemingly relevant twists to character interaction through the dialog work, your options to go deeper along a particular communication channel, are much scarcer than what the game frequently suggests to you. There are myriad occasions when your unfriendly reaction to a particular problem/inquiry will not yield different result than the one you end up with if to play as the benevolent hero archetype. Though there are some plot spots you could exhibit a more significant temporal influence on consecutive happenings by making a decision which is not that of the aforementioned heroic archetype, in reality, these decisions will resonate on a very short scale, and you will swiftly find yourself on the same narrative spot the game wants and NEEDS you to be at, with but a couple of short references echoing your previous decisions - if at all.

But, the ultimate relevancy of these dialog based sentiments is fragile at best, as the vast majority of gameplay time will be characterized by explicit conflict management. Delightfully enough, the primal form of conflict management of the game is to spill blood and spill loads of it. This is not only great fun for the whole family, but it summons the oldschool-, yet timeless Baldur's Gate style of fighting in three dimensions.

Whenever a combat starts to unfold, you are free to pause the action at any time in order to work out a strategy. This is something you will spend a massive amount of quality time with, as the game has the fruity tendency of presenting enemy lines that are rather challenging to prevail against. To be quite honest, in other prestigious games, like Star Wars - Knights of the Old Republic for example, it is common practice to grind down 90% of the enemies by doing little else and little more than pushing some buttons around, but, in Dragon Age, you surely will fail if you refuse to employ and enforce a strategy. The tactics you choose to be reliant upon in a fight, truly equates to the respective differences between glorious triumph, desperately fought struggle, and: plain failure. Fortunately enough, Dragon Age measures challenges with rigorous sobriety, emphasis on rigorousness: it is easy to assume a fight as an encounter which is hopeless to prevail in, and regard the challenge at hand to be nothing more than a difficulty spike, and, as such: a flaw in the tissue of the installment. For example, there is a segment in the game in which you need the defend a small village from invading undead hordes. If you do not first convince NPC soldiers to join the fight AND you fail to keep an eye on them - meaning: heal them during the fight - then it is very likely that you will fail epically in this particular sequence. But, if one is careful about keeping as much of the soldiers alive as possible, then the sequence in question may actually seem easy to accomplish with minimal-, or, with no casualties at all.

The game, of course, is heavily reliant on good old character and inventory management, and you probably will spend a healthy amount of time examining the contents of your backpack for one or two presents you could offer for all the fans around. Luckily enough, there is a nice row of empty hotkey slots per character you can assign Skills, Talents, Spells and Items to at your will, making it easy and comfortable to have a go with the particular style of playing you think you may find success with. The combat itself really boils down to three particular aspects: melee combat, ranged combat, and spells related combat. Naturally, you want to handle your characters in a fight according to their respective character classes. As such, fighters will be your meat grinders, while your mages will heal and aid them, with keen emphasis placed on entertaining the baddies around via all possible - and, of course: effective - magical means accessible for you at the given time.

Dragon Age sports a pretty sanely balanced spell tree, making spells more of a nice palette of extremely useful accessories than immediate instruments of a radical verdict of instant stopping power. Spells are the most effective when used in harmony with other means of existence molestation. A nice and successful Vulnerability Hex spell, for example, will make sure that the ice arrow your rogue shoots out AND connects with, will cause extreme discomfort on the target affected by the spell in question. There are a couple of spell combinations, as well: while the palette of combos is not extremely rich, there are quite a few nice tricks you can pull off under your sleeve, especially if your party configuration sports multiple mages.

It is quite possible to lose total control in the fights, the main reason for this, is that it is not easy to GAIN it, at the first place. This total control of dictating how and where the fight takes place is of essential importance. Once you lose the ability in a fight to dictate the place and means, then the tide of battle is about to turn away from your favor utterly, so it is of essential importance to keep your mages at a safe distance from the meat grinder, or, to ensure their safety through magical means. When your fighters are busy protecting your mages, then it is not the collision you want to participate in, as the price you will pay for it is much steeper than the price worth to spend: as such, you want to be able to protect the fighters WITH the mages, instead.

The effective Dragon Age gameplay time which is out of the fruity boundaries of dialog based story exploration, is primely based upon consecutive fights and the consorting despoliation of the practical dungeons these collisions will take place in. The duration of the fights is oftentimes pretty long, yet the game chases these minutes away like seconds, as you will spend those with exhibiting steep attention and meticulous care on how possibly you could prevail at the given fight with the most optimal results harvested. Dragon Age nevertheless sports a very steep difficulty factor, oftentimes delivering a combat experience which is nothing short of epic qualities, indeed.

With its number of - in my opinion - not particularly fortunate screen estate decisions spoiling an otherwise intact interface structure, Dragon Age comes to you as a title of solid playability. As for these minor discomforts, the player, for example, is forced to cycle through her/his characters by the molestation of one particular arrow to reach the desired character she/he plans to conduct modifications on. This is a delicately weak decision from the developers, though they probably had the idea that it is only good if the player has a chance of being subjected to other character sheets than the one she/he is currently looking for.

With its story featuring traditional high-fantasy motivators, yet delivering quite a few remarkable additional qualities shaped out of delicious, darker tones and moods, Dragon Age weighs in as an acceptably solid narrative accomplishment, occasionally tainted though by brief periods of being encumbered by its own mass and being proud of it. As it stands now, Dragon Age is a healthily thick, interactive adventure book written by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, - this was a metaphor, mind you - coming to you though through multiple mediums stimuli can register along, particularly excelling at giving its players rather steep challenges on the battlegrounds.

Never forget and do not take the notion lightly that Dragon Age DARES to kill you, and it WILL. Winning a combat in this game demands focus and properly placed attention, making you notice upon collision completion that you spent the last thirty minutes in an entirely another world. Summoning this intimate immersion is the primal agenda and operational field of every single CRPGs, and it also is one Dragon Age claims to itself with dainty, yet lethal fingers. As noted, what the game delivers in the form of fighting is nothing less than epic, and, as such, Dragon Age necessarily weighs in as an accomplishment that has a super-solid understanding of what it ultimately is about.

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