Friday, 30 April 2010

Early thoughts on Dragon Age: Origins

So after months of waiting for Game to get a copy of the Dragon Age: Origins special edition, I was getting pretty fed up. I noticed that there was an easter sale going on, and spied a cheap PC copy. Frustrated with Game's nonsense but not wishing to punish the very cool, competent lads who work there, I decided to just purchase the normal edition. Most of the SE content requires an internet connection anyway, and my gaming rig doesn't have access. Ah well.

So, Dragon Age. One of the things that I was most looking forward to in the game was the origin concept: depending on which race and background you choose, you have an entirely unique prologue-tutorial level to start off in. There are six in total: human noble, human/elf mage, dalish elf, city elf, dwarf noble and dwarf commoner. So far, I've done four prologues: Taranaich (heroic human noble warrior), Astracles (evil human mage), Brogan (heroic dwarf noble warrior) and Betty (female dwarf commoner rogue... Yes, Betty). I haven't yet done any elf background since I really am not a fan of the D&D style of elves, but there are a few mods out there that I will probably utilize to make this more fun for me.

Out of the four, I think the dwarf noble background is the best. It's a drama of politics, machinations, scheming and betrayal, though there's still plenty of fightin' thrown in, and the story is actually pretty involving. There's some fun overlap with the dwarf commoner storyline, making me wonder if Betty's running about in the slums. The mage story starts off interestingly, though it just isn't as involving as the dwarf noble one. The human noble is pretty tame in comparison: not only is it cliche-ridden, but it actively references said cliches (on killing rats in a kitchen: "Killing rats? This is like the beginning of those silly old adventure stories I used to read!") Calling attention to cliches doesn't impress me in the slightest: breaking from them does.

Speaking of which, the game as a whole is drowning in Bog Standard Fantasy Land. Rivalry between lithe nature-loving elves and industrious stout subterranean dwarves, high medieval milieu, dragons a-poppin', a horde of evil misshapen monsters that must be stopped at all costs, only you can save the world. It's like almost every high fantasy story ever written, and every high fantasy game ever released. There are some nice variations: elves are a downtrodden underclass, dwarves are now Klingons instead of vikings, and myriad small ones. Apart from that, though, it's business as usual, and that's very irritating, especially when Bioware itself has already done it pretty well in their Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games, not to mention Red Studio's The Witcher. Also, despite what Bioware says, this is totally a high-magic setting. I'm talking fireballs, lightning strikes, magic missiles, what have you. Totally high-magic.

I just can't help but wonder why Bioware didn't choose to do something really original. They did a decent job in Mass Effect. Why couldn't they have put a new spin on the dwarves like they sort-of did with the elves? Heck, why have elves and dwarves at all? Why not come up with another fantasy race that people rarely use for games - mythology, folklore and fiction is inundated with them. There's always been a prevalence of human shaped-and-sized, or slightly bigger/smaller, in these games. Why can't I play a giant, or a dragon, or a centaur? Overlord let you play as the Sauron-esque master of darkness in a fantasy world: I'd love to play the dragon, swooping over terrorized villages, torching forests and farms, tearing open castles, stealing maidens, gathering treasure for my horde. That'd be cool. Or even ignore established folklore altogether, and come up with something completely different.

Then again, Bioware seem to know themselves that people prefer the familiar over the unusual. People just can't get enough of the whole "save the world from an ancient unknowable evil horde" story, the generic races, the established rules of magic and swordplay. Games which think outside the box - like Planescape: Torment, where you have a talkative floating skull as a party member and follow a very twisted plot - just aren't as likely to succeed among the target demographic. Yet there are exceptions: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had alien fauna, bizarre architecture, and all manner of original elements, yet it was a bestseller on PC and Xbox. This made its sequel, Oblivion, a great disappointment to me, as the things which made Morrowind stand out for me were replaced with yet another high medieval milieu, albeit one well established within the world.

Science Fiction games seem to be more successful in general, though Mass Effect has many antecedents in the world of literature & video games. I guess fantasy fans are more conservative than daring science fiction fans, which explains why I tend not to get along with the former and a lot more with the latter. Even if they do look down on Tolkien & Howard when they shouldn't, the bastards.

In any case, that's part of the wonder of mods. I've downloaded a goodly number of modifications for the game, and intend to use them to warp the game in ways it was not intended. There are tons of them; alterations to appearance, new items, new stories. Perhaps the one I'm most interested in trying out is the Appearance Shifter, which allows you to change your character's appearance to that of almost creature in the game - animals, skeletons, undead, demons, monsters.

Perhaps my fantasy of being the dragon isn't so distant after all.

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