Matt Chat 42: Dragon Age Origins

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This week, I look at Bioware's new Dragon Age: Origins, a smash hit to join the ranks of earlier hits like Jade Empire and Knights of the Old Republic. Dragon Age: Origins is a dream come true for many fans of older, more tactically-oriented RPGs, though we're still far from the turn-based micromanagement of games like Pool of Radiance or Wizard's Crown. What I particularly like about DA:O is the emphasis on characters' feelings--which include romance and "adult situations!" Enjoy.

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SelZero (not verified)
Hell yeah!

Thats what Im talking about... have a great break :)

Chris Kennedy
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Thanks, Matt

One of my friends that lives in another city picked this game up and found himself quite addicted to it. Since I couldn't just drop in to check it out, I appreciate you making this video. Trailers, etc are one thing, but Matt Chat really does feel armchair arcade-esque. "Everyone take a seat and let me tell you about this game..." Everyone then gathers around the fire burning in the fireplace, and Matt tells a story...errr...plays a game.

I don't really have any input for this game, however I do have something to ask -

Is there any particular reason you have the book "Mystery of the Maya" facing the camera?

n/a
Rowdy Rob
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I almost bought the game today!

Great Matt Chat. In fact, I almost went ahead and bought the game today while shopping around, thanks to Matt Chat. Heck, I might just go ahead and get it anyway.

The main reason I resisted purchasing it was because most modern PC games have unholy DRM/protection schemes, and I've had very bad experiences with these in the past. Heck, I won't even reinstall Google Chrome because of their evil "Google Updater" that always runs in the background phoning home (I used to have three instances of that updater always running for some reason!!!), tying up my bandwidth and slowing my machine down.

Well, anyhow, I've just read that DA:Origin's copy protection/DRM isn't that bad, so I probably should have bought it anyway.

I do have some questions about this game, though. First of all, it is clearly a modern update of the "Baldur's Gate" system, but apparently is NOT based on the AD&D license. Since the BG battle system was so heavily based on AD&D rules, how deep is the DA battle system compared to the BG/AD&D system? Obviously, battles are controlled the same way, but the rules may be profoundly different, affecting battle tactics.

Second of all, does the game begin with an exciting, draw-you-in-immediately pace, or is it a slowly-building plot, ala Baldur's Gate? The slow beginning of BG nearly killed my interest in the game within the first couple of hours.

Finally, is there any COLOR to the game? Everything I've seen, graphics-wise, make the game seem like it's pure darkness, gloom, and gray. The look may serve the plot somehow (I wouldn't know), but I like to see some beautiful scenery once in a while too.

Anyhow, that's all I can think of. Thanks for the great episode. From what I've seen, Dragon Age:Origins looks very much like a single-player version of WoW, interface-wise!

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Matt Barton
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Thanks, guys. I guess

Thanks, guys. I guess there's no reason "Mystery of the Maya" is there other than I like the choose-your-own-adventure books a lot.

The game has some good scenery, including lots of outdoor scenes (such as an elven forest). I don't know if I've seen anything as epic and jaw-dropping as you might find in something like Far Cry 2 or Oblivion, but it's definitely not ugly and boring. There are problems, especially with loading times (at least if you have the graphics cranked up). Just entering a building can take 20-30 seconds or longer to load, and by that time a lot of momentum has been lost (despite the cool loading screen with blood soaking through a map).

Combat is detailed enough, with a leveling system very similar to WOW, though instead of putting points into skills you just learn new ones each level. Personally, I prefer the AD&D system the best. NWN really nailed it; I'd like to see a return/update to that type of system. What I do like is that occasionally (and often by surprise) you get a special sort of in-game animation, such as the rogue jumping up on an enemy and stabbing his knives into it. These unexpected moments really add some realism and heighten the game's appeal considerably.

One thing I'm not happy about is the magic system. Since you're often fighting foes in very close conditions, you hardly ever get to use your AOE stuff (fireballs, etc.) yet there are so many of them. Other spells, such as chain lightning, take a long time to cast. Really, the only spells I've found useful are the freezing ones and of course the healing magic, though you can often get away with lots of cone-area spells like fire and lightning. In general, though, I'd never play again as a magic-user and discourage others from doing so. I think the game would be lots more fun with a rogue or warrior. I'm really sore that I'm not getting those satisfying moments when you really blast apart enemies with magic or do some truly spectacular stuff. In short, magic in this game is rather "blah."

The bottom line is, if you're going to enjoy this game, it's because of the story and the characters. The gameplay and audiovisuals are good, but not the sort of thing that's going to compensate if you don't enjoy the story or can't get into the characters.

n/a
clok1966
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Excellent game no doubt

Excellent game no doubt about it. But as you mentioned its a bit on the "hard" side. You can pick the wrong spells and make it dang near impossible. Some of the battles are incredibly hard compared to the ones around them prior too and after them. The game isnt linear so its easy to pick some harder missions early. This is a game that frustrated the crap out of me because of poor spell choices and then going back and picking different ones made it much easier. I have been playing RPGS since the early 80's and this one is tough. I think it may have just a tiny bit to much micro mangagment for me. But as its such a great game I can live with it. I must say the "pay to play" addons is a sore spot. They taunt you with them, and the game 'almost" feels like you have to buy them.

Wonderful game!

Rowdy Rob
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I didn't buy "Dragon Age: Origins"

"Dragon Age: Origins" was sold out at the store I went to, so I just bought "Elder Scrolls: Oblivion" instead. I've never played that game before, so I thought it might be a good RPG warm-up before I order DA:O through Amazon or something.

Well, after playing Oblivion a bit, I decided to hold off on Dragon Age.......

"Oblivion" is a different type of CRPG than I am used to playing. It has more in common with games like "System Shock 2" or "Deus Ex" than "Baldur's Gate." It is more "first-person-shooter" than traditional CRPG, and I think I like it! Well, 20+ hours of play seems to indicate that I do like it. And it made me wonder what constitutes a "computer role playing game."

Traditional CRPGs tend to involve micromanaging "parties" of characters, or even an individual character, based on stat-based, tactical gameplay. This, of course, has its own cerebral, imaginative charm. They are played from a "god" perspective, like the various "Sim" games, where you control a character (or a series of characters) from a third-person perspective. And in this case, you're not just concerned about "yourself," but you are caring for a series of characters.

Oblivion is more about providing the "you-are-there" role-playing experience. Rather than simulated "dice rolls," you actively participate in the first-person battles, swinging your weapon or shooting arrows at the click of the mouse. In this respect, it is more like "Doom" than "Final Fantasy XXXIV." Being a single-character experience, there are no parties to manage, and all NPC's seem to do their own thing beyond your control, as they would in real life.

Where most CRPG's, Oblivion included, seem to fail is in the "slogging" aspect, as in traveling from place to place. The dungeon sequences in Oblivion are cool, but travelling across the countryside is generally a "slog," in that I'm just wandering around with no action. This feeling is especially acute in towns, where I'm hunting around for certain shops or people. While exploration is cool in general, it just seems to take too much time to find that particular person or place you're searching for, probably the bulk of the gameplay. It is in these sections that I get bored. I find these feelings to be generally true of most CRPGs. There is no "DM" to control the pace of the game.

So what is an RPG? Well, when I was "DM'ing" my own pen-paper-dice "Dungeons and Dragons" campaign back in high school, my goal was to immerse the players in the world, and in their own characters. I'd played several D&D games where players said things like "My elf monk is going to ask the shopkeeper to cut him a break," or something like that. They were playing in "third person." I wanted something different in my campaign. I wanted the players to CREATE characters and BECOME their characters. I was looking for a bond between the player and their character, which would make my plot all the more involving.

And it worked. Some of my friends objected at first. "You mean I can't play my 17th-level chaotic-evil magic user in your campaign????"

"Nope. New, first-level characters only. And no evil characters."

"That sucks! I'm not sure I want to play your campaign!"

But play they did, and after they BECAME their characters, I had the best D&D campaign going! Unfortunately, my campaign never reached the end, where I had a very "Return-of-the-Jedi-esque" conclusion imagined for them (a year before RotJ came out; Lucas ripped me off!). Unfortunately, my main players did stupid things like move away or get girlfriends, ending their involvement in my campaign. :-)

What does this all have to do with CRPG's? In my opinion, the goal of an RPG is to immerse the player in the fantasy and allow them to imagine him or herself as an alternate person. That was my goal as a DM, and I even bent a few official rules give my players this feeling. I felt that this feeling contributed to the excitement of "role playing." Traditional "stat-based" tactical CRPGs require a LOT more imagination to achieve this, seeming to me to be more "god" game than RPG. On the other hand, the FPS-style gaming of Oblivion seems to lack a lot of the imaginative flexibility of a "stat-based" RPG, but gives the player a lot more of the "you-are-there" feeling.

Then again, even in pen-paper-dice ("ppd") RPG's, combat is handled in "stat-based" turns based on rule tables and dice rolls, so traditional CRPG's is actually closer to the "ppd" RPG's in this regard.

Ok, I realize this is somewhat of a heavy discussion right before Christmas! Just thought I'd put a few thoughts out there.

And don't forget, this territory is covered very much in-depth in Matt's book, "Dungeons & Desktops," a book that's required reading if you have any interest at all in CRPG's.

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Matt Barton
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Oblivion vs. Dragon Age: Origins

I've played both games (and also Morrowind), as well as brief stints though Daggerfall and Arena. Hell, I even played a bit of Redguard and that other game they put out (telling I can't even remember the title). However, I'd strongly recommend Fallout 3 over Oblivion. It's a better game in every way, at least in my opinion.

But, anyway, sticking to the Oblivion and games like it. The big problem for me (and the same with Morrowind) was the "level by doing" system. It amounted to me standing around clicking a button to cast a spell over and over, level, get another spell, click, click, click. It all felt very raw and numerical--mechanical, in fact. Everything had the math sticking out rather than carefully integrated into the gameplay (I prefer most if not all of the math and number crunching to take place behind the scenes, not staring at me in the face). The random item generation and all that is pretty obvious as well. To top it all off, the game doesn't scale worth a crap, so pretty soon you're superman and easily defeating enemies. On the positive side, I found it easy to get around (love the mounts), and the graphics were of course spectacular (in my opinion, the graphics are the easiest things to get right nowadays if not always).

DA:O is a much different style of game. I've already described it, but it does have its faults, too. I've in fact put finishing the game on hold while I work on building up my characters in WoW. I was hoping that the characters and story arcs would keep the game more interesting than what WoW or an MMO had to offer, and it did at first. It may sound silly, but what's really draining the game for me are the long loading times. They're just long enough to make you think about going to do something else. They're compounded by the very difficult battles; it's very easy to wipe and thus have to reload a level. Also, they actually copied one of the annoying things about WoW--managing lots of items. It pisses me off. At least in Mass Effect and KOTOR you could carry as much as you wanted (it was flawed as well, but I preferred that system to this one). Now, you're limited to a certain number of items, and it always seems to be filling up. This means either abandoning treasure or going back for it (bleh). I'd also like a bit better AI. True, you can assign tactics to your party, but I'd love to see what the computer recommends for each tactic slot rather than doing most of them myself. Perhaps that's just laziness on my part, but it takes time studying all the possibilities. All the characters seem to suffer from low mana or stamina pools, so you only seem to get to use a few special attacks per battle anyway. Whine whine whine, bitch bitch bitch. :P

n/a
adamantyr
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Dragon Aged

I got this for a Christmas gift... even got the Collector's Edition. I've been playing it the last two days, and it is an engrossing game... mostly. And now for the criticisms!

The cloth maps they include with these games are CHEAP. The threading is coming loose at the edges, and the general feeling I get is they're just throwing it in for the sake of having one. It's good the tradition goes on, but when the map is already in the game, and the actual map feels like it could fall to pieces if you play with it to much, where's the fun in that?

The first option I messed with in the game is I turned off persistent gore. I mean, wow. Yes, the old swords and sorcery novels had battles where they described the heroes "bathed in blood", especially Conan stories, but there's a world of difference from reading it and SEEING it. The fact your characters keep talking like there's nothing amiss is especially disturbing... even in Hollywood they'd be trying to clean it off a bit!

The incredibly drab color set doesn't help. The game is a colorless world of light tones; why is the place called Redcliffe when the cliffs aren't even RED? Have the artists ever been to the American Southwest? I've also noticed the textures and 3D artwork are similar to Mass Effect. In ME, the glassy and unmoving quality of the textures fit the genre. In DA:O, it breaks my sense of immersion. Clothing seems "painted" on and doesn't move, leather has a plastic look to it, and so forth. The fact you spend a LOT of time staring at these textures because of extensive dialogue doesn't help.

As far as writing and plot goes, I can definitely tell they've been reading George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" series. Which isn't necessarily good... I like Martin's writing, but his books are so unbelievably dark and depressing, I wasn't able to continue reading them after awhile. To me, good swords & sorcery is more like the writings of Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard, with the weirdness of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

In particular, they're really beating that "dead horse" theme of betrayal rather hard in the game. Twice in the opening we've had presumably loyal and friendly NPC's turn out to be backstabbing treacherous weasels. If this was the pattern in a D&D tabletop game, the players would start systematically slaughtering every NPC they find, "because they'll just betray us later".

I find combat a total mess. In particular, I agree with Matt that I'm a bit lazy, and I don't like that I have to program tactics for my companions to be any use. I usually just wade in and react only as needed. I'm sure this will get me killed sooner or later. The fast-moving plot sort of makes you "in a hurry" to get to the next part, and the fact you can't do this because combat is so bogged down in heavy tactics is frustrating. And WHY did they not make it turn-based, if they wanted this level of complexity? Being able to pause and issue orders is not enough.

All in all, I'd have to say that while Bioware is still producing the best mass-market CRPG available, it's not all that it could be. I recently picked up an XBox to play around with the XNA platform, and I'm already thinking "I could do a better one than this". Maybe not with the graphics power, but with far better playability. Hm...

Matt Barton
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Yes, now that the new has

Yes, now that the new has worn off a bit, I can definitely see some faults in this game I didn't see before. I personally don't mind the graphics; I don't enjoy them as much as WoW's Azeroth, but they're not offensively bad or boring (IMO). Then again, since graphics *are* the easiest thing to get right in a game, I would have liked to see the sort of jaw-dropping stuff we got in Oblivion or Far Cry 2.

I also find the controls a bit wonky somehow; or perhaps it's the camera that's a bit fidgety. In any case, I find myself wishing they'd just copied WoW's interface exactly, which is one of the easiest 3D games to control. I'm thinking that it's mostly just that the characters are a bit tall somehow; if they were a bit more squat, they'd be easier to control. By the time you get the camera zoomed out enough to see, you're always fighting with a wall or rafter or some such. It wouldn't have hurt my feelings if combat mode featured some abstract grid type situation or even a top-down or isometric view mode. That said, the battles LOOK great, with lots of special animations and such.

I now think that not having the computer suggest tactics for all available slots is a terrible fault. I love being able to tweak and edit things, but it's just a pain to have to do so many yourself. It wouldn't have hurt my feelings if the AI was so great I didn't *have* to mess with it at all; just focus on playing my character. As an alternative, I would have liked to create my own party members; perhaps create three and rotate an NPC in and out of the party. Actually, I *do* wish they'd just gone with the standard 5-person party, with a separate cleric and mage. I know WoW really pushes this idea of a cleric as a priest in cloth (no armor), but I strongly prefer the old AD&D cleric with full armor.

n/a
adamantyr
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Party on... or not?

Actually, Dragon Age has me questioning the value of a party-based CRPG.

When I played a party of characters in the old days of CRPG gaming, extra characters were good. You had more attacks, inventory space, and diversity of character development. The complexity of tactical combat would occasionally mean that a party was more trouble to use; consider that by Ultima V, a common strategy was to play the game with only the Avatar alone.

The modern era of Internet games and massive-multiplayer has changed the dynamics. I think that's one reason MMO's are fun to play, but the majority of players are solo. They enjoy the option of playing with someone else, but they don't NEED it. And I think that's where the market is going to veer eventually... smaller private server systems or even self-hosted game servers with small player counts. Parties, in this case, become more like a SIM or a tactical turn-based battle game... which isn't quite the same thing as a classic CRPG.

Anyway, in DA:O, the party is such a trial to manage in combat, I just don't find it fun. Maybe it's just not my kind of "gaming fun time" to pause, set up a bunch of different attack options, unpause, watch, pause again... Or worse, sit down and design complicated scripts for my NPC's to follow in combat. This reminds me of deck design in trading card games... I don't like spending time PREPARING to game, I like to GAME!

What I'd have preferred is that the NPC's really act like real people with their own strategies and tactics. Stronger A.I., basically. It's odd, but in some ways, I get the feeling Dragon Age was built using a lot of pre-existing technology at Bioware, and they didn't feel inclined to spend more time in this area. Too bad, really.

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