Every so often, maybe once a year, there's a game that stymies me. Often, this game is made by BioWare. The current culprit is Dragon Age: Origins. Before we get to the opinion part, first I want to lay out some facts.
- This game has apparently been in development for at least five years.
- I never heard of it before about two weeks ago.
- I cannot look at a message board or Twitter stream without drowning in praise for the game, along with in-depth discussions of tactics.
Let's start with an admission: I am not a smart man. Oh, I know some fancy words, and I quote only the most highbrow cartoon shows,* but when it comes to mastering new systems and making long-range plans, I am less than useless. It might be stubbornness more than anything. When my party gets wiped out in Dragon Age, my usual response is to rush right back into the scrum, pressing the "attack" button more forcefully this time. This is obviously not the way you are intended to play.
But how the hell are you supposed to play? The game doesn't teach you. It lets you unlock a lot of powers and abilities, and it explains what those activities do in the most obscure and inscrutable of ways. This doesn't seem to be a problem among interfriends, whose earnest discussions about aggro and pulling are both easy and free. I, well, I don't know what these words mean in a practical sense. People and video games who employ them so casually do not make it easy to find out.
I want to enjoy the big-picture stuff that makes Dragon Age so appealing. Sword-and-sorcery is not my favored domain, which leads to a dilemma: One one hand, it's lazy and unfair to criticize a game for its genre. You wouldn't criticize Madden for being a football game, or Call of Duty for being a military shooter. On the other hand, if you didn't like football games or military shooters, what could convince you that those were better-than-average examples of their types? It's okay not to like a genre or a style of game, but not to damn them for existing.
Even so, I was cruising along with Dragon Age for a little while, not loving it or even really enjoying myself, but at least progressing. Then, when my party got wiped out at one point, I selected the default continue option. I didn't even read the menu; I just hit A when it came up. I think it said something about loading my last save, or last checkpoint, but whatever it said, I expected to start back at the area I'd entered most recently. I certainly did not expect to be transported back in time about an hour, before I'd accepted several quests and finished one or two others. Suddenly I was back in the middle of a pitched battle I'd easily won the first time through, and for some reason my party no longer seemed up to the task. We were getting slaughtered. And some significant progress was lost forever.
This is the kind of thing that's a dealbreaker for me. I can see how the depth of a complex RPG like Dragon Age can appeal to other people, even if it doesn't appeal to me. What I don't understand is how a game that can make that egregious and basic an error is supposed to make me want to join the club. The same thing happened in Mass Effect: I reached a part I couldn't seem to get by, but because of the checkpoint and auto-save system, as well as the quest structure, I couldn't leave the area, either. I must have thrown myself at it a dozen times. Finally my choice was either to start a new game or give up. I gave up, and spent several weeks afterward smoldering, especially as I read all the glowing chatter about the game online.
Ultimately I'd be quite happy to live and let live if I didn't have to review the game. I want to believe that it might be valuable for some readers to get the perspective of a non-RPG guy, but that seems kind of stupid on its face. Whose interest does it serve for me to write a review that says, essentially, "Hell if I know?" The angle will have to be the high barrier to entry and the dedication required to wring enjoyment from the game -- dedication I lack -- but it doesn't necessarily feel fair to slap a low-ish number on there. It feels definitive, and if there's one way I know I don't feel about Dragon Age, it's definitive.
*"Since we're all going to die, I feel there's one more secret I have to share with you. I did not care for Dragon Age."
"Did not care for Dragon Age."
"How can you even say that?"
"Didn't like it."
"It's like the perfect game!"
"This is what everyone always says."
"Explain yourself. What didn't you like about it?"
"It insists upon itself. It takes forever to get into it, I... You know, I can't even finish it. I've never even finished the game."
"How can you say you don't like it if you haven't even given it a chance?"
"I have tried on three separate occasions to get through it, and I... I have no idea what they're talking about. It's like they're speaking a different language."
"The language they're speaking is the language of tactical role-playing, something you don't understand."
"I loved Final Fantasy X. That is my answer to that statement."