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Problems with Dragon Age & What Not To Do In Dragon Age II

Monday, August 9, 2010

I’ve been addicted to playing Dragon Age: Origins for the last five months or so.  I’ve already completed the game with one character, a City Elf Warrior (isn’t she cute?!), and I’ve just started going through the Awakenings expansion pack with her; also, I’ve begun a new run through Origins itself with a Dwarf Commoner Rogue (Bob Seger vs. Gary Coleman’s condition).  I have a Human Noble Mage in mind for my next character.  Obviously, if the game weren’t great fun, intelligent, and with multiple possible routes through the story depending on your choices, I and millions of others would not be so addicted to it eager to play it multiple times, as we are.

But as great of a game as it is, there are still a lot of issues with it, issues which — aside from the technical things fixed by the update patches (which themselves have some issues, but anyway) — could really have been avoided, and things I certainly hope do not find their way into the eagerly anticipated Dragon Age II, due out next year.  Some of these things are so basic that it really baffles me how the designers got them so wrong, and others are just some preferences of mine as to how I like my RPGs to swing.

First, the ‘real’ problems.

Setting

I found that throughout, given the way things were designed, you don’t really get a good feel for the actual geography of Ferelden.  You might find it surprising that I say that, given that over the course of the game you’re constantly criss-crossing back and forth across the map, but that very method of travel is in fact the problem: you don’t actually do much questing.  You rarely find any actual new places, and, when you do, it’s within the context of the dungeoneering that you do; any time you’re travelling cross-country, it’s through ‘known lands,’ and all you do is watch your progress on the map.  What does it look like along the road from Lothering to Redcliffe?  We don’t know.  How does the Brecillian Forest appear from afar?  Sorry.  The Bannorn?  No real clue how it’s special or unique.  You never see stuff like that.  There are hardly any establishing shots at all, except for a few at the beginning (Ostagar, for example), and what this does is make things feel very disconnected.  I didn’t get a feel for the world in the way I think I should in an RPG (aside from the copious amounts of reading material on offer).  I hope they have more basic visual establishing stuff like this in DA:II to bring the world more to life.

Enemies

One of the biggest challenges for any game designer is enemy AI.  If you make them too dumb, then they just end up as hackable fodder for the player, and that’s pretty boring; if you try to make them too smart, well, that’s still hard to do, and it might not work properly.  Some companies still resort to just doing the whole ‘enemies just do more damage and take more hits to kill’ on harder difficulties — they don’t actually act any differently.  DA unfortunately suffers from a bit of this (not entirely, but enough to be noticeable).  I found that most of the time enemies simply swarm you (except for the archers), and if you’re willing to take the time you can easily lure one or two at a time to where your party is waiting and pick them off like flies.  Good tactics, yes, but after a while it gets a bit repetitive and stale.  Employing traps certainly does make things more interesting, but they take so long to set up and then it’s all over in five seconds.

Also, I found there wasn’t a lot of enemy variety.  Sure, each of the main quests had its own particular beasties, but outside of that it’s just darkspawn, darkspawn, darkspawn (which is also most of Orzammar, too).  And with only four main kinds of darkspawn (and not that many ogres), well, yeah, it gets old (and when the PS3 darkspawn trophies don’t work, you don’t even get that extra reward for taking the time to hack through them all).

Glitches

It’s fairly buggy; not enough to affect gameplay most times, but in a lot of ancillary stuff.  Again, if not for the ability to release patches online, the game would have been a huge technical failure.

Another thing, and I don’t know if this is technically a glitch or what, but I hate the fact that bringing up the radial menu lets you see through walls (not to mention being able to open chests through walls too — huge fuck up there).  I mean, this is just plain dumb, and it takes the fun out of it because I can, either purposely or accidentally, find out ahead of time info that I shouldn’t have.  This is the thing I hate the most, actually, and I really don’t know why it hasn’t been fixed with any of the patches.

Now for the stuff that’s just personal preference.

Experience

This is also a tricky one — any avid RPGer is going to have his/her preference about how experience is tallied.  In DA, all party members earn experience regardless of what’s happening (so, people who die in combat still get exp. points, as well as people left in camp).  I guess the thinking was that certain characters would get ‘left behind’ and stay weak if they weren’t used.  But for me, I say fine.  If you choose not to use a character, then that character should stay weaker because, intuitively, that character has done nothing to get earn experience and get stronger.  It’s a basic logic thing.  And if a character dies in combat, why should s/he earn experience?  They spent half the time sprawled comatose on the floor (although you could argue they ‘learned from their mistakes, I suppose).  Having characters need to be in the party and surviving to earn experience actually gives you motivation to both use them all and try to keep them alive; there are times where I just let someone die rather than waste a health poultice because I know I’m going back to camp soon and can just heal them there for free — if I had to keep him/her alive to ensure experience progression, it would make things more interesting.  But this actually points to one of the biggest weaknesses of the game . . .

Party Size

Why only four?  Why make it possible to recruit up to nine or ten characters if you can only use four at a time?  At first I was excited every time I got someone new, but then I just found that I ended up using the same people because I had developed good tactics with them, and when I tried to switch new people in, things didn’t work out as well (plus I find Sten to be practically useless).  Plus, if you play as a warrior, you’re at a huge disadvantage because you basically have to bring a mage and rogue with you at all times, which leaves only one opening in the party for choice.  If you’re going to have that many playable characters, then six should be the minimum party size, and there should be missions where you can split your people up and have them do separate tasks (there was a little bit of that in DA, but not much).  This is a huge thing I hope gets remedied in DA:II

Okay, finished with that.  Some of the tiny things that could have been better have already been fixed in Awakenings — stamina draughts and armour runes, for example; plus, it has more of that classic ‘RPG of discovery’ feel to it so far (but maybe that’s just because it’s in a new area of Ferelden) — something that I hope gets carried over into DA:II.

Also with DA:II — I hope Bioware is crafting some sort of massive, connected, epic narrative here; I hope that this new Hawke character is going to somehow be vital in stopping Blights to come, and that he/she will meet up with your DA character at some point, which could lead into DA:III . . .

Well, that’s a bit too far in the future to worry about.  Basically, I just hope DA:II isn’t a bunch of filler designed to stretch things out unnecessarily to make money.

If I think of anything else that bugs me, I’ll throw it into the comments.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, August 9, 2010 9:49 pm

    A note on the bugs — some of them weren’t Bioware’s fault, but were caused by Sony’s PS3 system updates (famously, one knocked out the game for almost a month before they could get it working again).

    One wishes Sony could do a better job making sure their software doesn’t completely incapacitate its system’s games.

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