Monday, November 16, 2009

So, Dragon Age...

I'm an RPG guy. I love games that tell epic, sweeping tales using the player as a fulcrum on which to move the story. It wasn't always this way. I'd say the first RPG I really got into was Final Fantasy 3. 6. The one before 7. I stuck with the Final Fantasy series as the basis for judging all other RPG games until things started to quickly slide downhill with Final Fantasy 8, finally reaching shit-spelunking depths with Final Fantasy X-2. I think with the translation to the 3rd dimension we began to see the cracks in the JRPG formula and how pretty much everything was lost in translation for anyone who was not either Japanese or held an unhealthy obsession with all things Japanese.

And so I began exploring the world of Western RPGs more fully, and found there was a lot to like on the home front. But things never really reached the height of RPG love I felt with games like Final Fantasy 7 and Suikoden. We came pretty close with a lot of Action Adventure games like Legacy of Kain, The Elder Scrolls, and games in the Baldur's Gate line. But I never got as into those games as I had in my beloved JRPGs. I was a man without a genre, forever trying to make excuses for the bad JRPGs or the mediocre WRPGs.

Bioware is changing that, though. Knights of the Old Republic was a better Star Wars experience than anything Lucas has done since The Empre Strikes Back. It had its flaws, but it was a huge leap in the right direction. Mass Effect was also great, but it was so over written that it was difficult to get into as a game.

And along comes Dragon Age, a game I barely even knew was releasing until I was bombarded with internet advertising a week or so before release. To say this game sold me on the ability of western companies to make good RPG experiences would be a vast understatement. This is the kind of RPG I've been waiting for ever since I gave up on JRPGs during the PS2 era. It's engaging, epic, grand, and you will easily lose yourself in it if you give it a chance.

Let's put it this way. When I play my console games my wife usually sits next to me and knits or browses the internet. The game world is so interesting that she created her own character and now plays when I'm at work, or we trade off so she can play too. My wife is not a gamer. She plays the kind of games that you mostly just fuck around in - like Plants vs. Zombies or The Sims, or the digital crack that is Civilization IV. To see her wrestle with the controls of a console game and focus all of her intellect on how best to specialize her character is a beautiful thing, and only a game as captivating as Dragon Age would have ever drawn her in like this.

So far I've created two characters, and my wife has created two characters. We've probably poured a combined 100 hours into the game easily, and neither one of us has gotten particularly close to 'beating' the main campaign.

Now the game isn't without its flaws. My main problem is that it was clearly designed for the PC and inexpertly ported for consoles. This feels like something of a betrayal to me. I mean...this is Bioware! They make awesome console RPGs! Every game of note they've made began life on a console and was later made to work for the PC. Now their pièce de résistance comes and its better on the PC! The reasons for this are many, but primarily are due to how complex the combat can become. On my mage character I have probably around 15-20 spells and abilities that I would like to access quickly during combat. Using the Xbox controller, I can only quickly use 6 of them. The others I have to access through a cumbersome menu system that pauses combat and slows things way down. Clearly I was meant to have a clickable hotbar to be able to access these things. The other reason is that on a console you are restricted to one viewpoint. You can't zoom out, strategically select party members, and easily issue individual commands. It doesn't eliminate the joy of the combat system, but it does make me wish they had maybe adjusts one or two more things to make combat more fluid for consoles.

In the end though, Dragon Age is a game that I think everyone can find something to enjoy. From the gamer who's been playing RPGs since the early 90s to the casual player who just likes a good story, most people will find themselves sucked in.

For me, it really is the Western RPG I've been waiting for.

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Who The Hell Do I Think I Am?

Austin, Texas, United States
I've played games since my brother got an NES in the late 80s, and I'll play them until I'm a crusty old man. My opinions are based on those 20 years of experiences, and my own ambitions as a game artist and writer.