Sunday, December 26, 2010

Game Review: Dragon Age - Origins (Part 1)

Note: This review has grown to the point where I've decided to split it. Part 1 is Introduction/Setting

Well. It seems my plans to resume a more regular review schedule have been utterly derailed, as I spent November and some of December in an intense playthrough of BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins.

Make that two playthroughs, actually.

So... where do I begin?

I actually had "Dragon Age" installed on my PC about six months ago; I'd put off playing it because I couldn't risk distractions during the concluding phase of my graduate project. But BioWare games have intrigued me for quite some time, specifically RPGs such as "Knights of the Old Republic", "Mass Effect" and "Dragon Age" where the player's ability to determine various courses of action supposedly leads to a more immersive role-playing experience.

In fact, one thing I enjoy about these "Western" RPGs is that, in theory, I'm able to formulate my character before starting the game: if I want to play the part of an honorable hero or a self-serving prat (or something else altogether), I can make those choices consistently throughout the game and emerge with a coherent character arc. It all depends on the extent to which the game world and the plot accomodate my decisions.

My first experience with a BioWare game didn't quite produce the desired result. I saw "Knights of the Old Republic" as a way to resolve an old beef I have with the "Star Wars" franchise: my player character would be a powerful, intelligent female villain. The Anti-Daala, as it were.

Unfortunately, being a "Star Wars" game, choices in "Knights of the Old Republic" are largely based on a simplistic moral binary: you're either roleplaying the Jedi equivalent of Mother Theresa or the Sith equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. And the game practically requires you to embrace one extremity or another, since the efficiency of talents such as Force Lightning and Healing are directly proportionate to your position on the Light Side/Dark Side scale. As a result, playing a villainous character meant making truly despicable decisions - appropriate for the cartoonish Emperor, perhaps, but not for the type of character I wanted to play.

"Dragon Age: Origins" is a much more subtle and flexible creature. I should note that I'm doing a great injustice to a very complex and intricate story by summarizing, but for brevity's sake it goes something like this: the kingdom of Ferelden is on the brink of destruction following a disastrous defeat at the hands of the vile darkspawn. You and another survivor are the last remnants of the fabled Grey Wardens, and you are tasked with assembling a new army and stopping the darkspawn incursion before they devour the entire realm. Naturally, every possible source of aid is currently neck-deep in its own troubles: the forest-dwelling Dalish Elves are under constant attack by a mysterious clan of werewolves, demons have overrun the Circle of Magi, the dwarves are a breath away from civil war and the human knights of Redcliffe have scattered across the land seeking a mystical cure for their dying leader.

Broadly speaking, that's all par for the course with RPGs: you have to solve other people's problems before they'll help you. But what's truly great about this game is that there are multiple solutions to the major quests, and unlike "Knights of the Old Republic" these options aren't based on morality per se, but rather a sort of cynical pragmatism versus idealism. For example, after a long trek through the underground ruins of the dwarven empire, you discover the Anvil of the Void, an ancient artifact capable of forging powerful golems. The Anvil's creator begs you to destroy it, as it requires a constant stream of living sacrifices to do its work. What's more, you may have a golem in your party that has described to you, in vivid detail, what basically amounts to an eternity of servitude. On the other hand, preserving the Anvil means the golems' raw might will benefit both you and the long-term survival of the dwarves. There may very well be a moral component at work, but it's not at the heart of the dilemmas you face.

Exploring Ferelden (and, by extension, the world of Thedas) was something of a marvel to me, as it's a world that defies the preconception of fantasy as simplistic literature. Unlike Middle-Earth or its derivatives, the existence of evil is treated more like an incurable disease than a tangible threat: the darkspawn and their corrosive Blight are beaten back again and again, but can never truly be eradicated. Ethereal demons from the dreamlike Fade can possess anyone with the slightest magical inclination, at any time, for any purpose. And there is no traditional solution to any of these problems, no keystone that instantly results in the enemy's destruction. This lends much credibility to the moral ambiguity permeating every aspect of the storyline: the thought of executing innocent mages should seem absolutely reprehensible, until you realize that there are no preventative measures that can be taken against possession. And since mages are arguably the most powerful class, both in story and game terms, the possibility of wiping them out "just to be safe" isn't something that can be set aside so easily. But is their current situation - a lifetime of virtual imprisonment within the Tower, under constant guard by the templars - any better? There are no easy or "right" answers, which ultimately means that the player's choices really count.

Ferelden's rich history is communicated to the player primarily through various Codex entries scattered across the world. Even the apocryphal material makes for pleasant reading, though some pieces of information (ie: the more detailed summary of Andraste's crusade and her death, or the profile on high dragons) can prove unexpectedly vital. You can certainly understand the plight of the elves better if you learn what really happened to them, and one of the major villains in the game becomes somewhat sympathetic in light of what the Codex reveals about his past. It's not an ideal scenario, since you're not likely to pause the game in the middle of a fight to read five paragraphs about the creature trying to crack your skull open, but it's far superior to twenty-minute infodump cutscenes.

The player is actually able to experience a part of the world before the story properly begins: character creation includes a choice of five possible backgrounds, depending on race/class. These serve as "prologues" to the main narrative, and are set in various regions across Ferelden, some of which you'll revisit during the major quests. Aside from informing how your character is perceived by others (a human noble is treated differently than a city elf or a dwarf commoner), these prologues also help root your character within the setting. You'll recognize NPCs who participated in your first adventure, who may have even fought at your side. While the world itself isn't much changed by your decisions, you may still find yourself more emotionally invested and immersed in the game. It's a clever device, and it works well enough that you'll probably find yourself creating new characters just for the different initial scenarios.

It's also worth noting that various DLCs add new locations and sub-stories, most of which are seamlessly integrated into the overall narrative, but I'll be reviewing those in a different segment.

Ultimately, I think what I most appreciate about the world of "Dragon Age: Origins" is that it actively resists many of the tropes and conventions that have become overly familiar and stale. The foundations are the same: humans and elves and dwarves learn to set aside their differences and unite against a common enemy, one that just happens to be a faceless horde of monsters. But once you're drawn in, the subversions become more and more evident, and what you're left with is an incredibly compelling world that breaks the right rules and upholds others.

Thedas: a great place to visit. But you wouldn't want to live there. Seriously. Everything wants you dead. Yes, even that. Especially that.

Next segment: Characters/Gameplay