Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dragon Rage

Above: Finally, somebody had the balls to make a hot mage.

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.
So all those things are true. Dragon Age is sitting pretty with a Metacritic score of 91 for the PC, 89 for the PS3, and 87 for the 360. Obviously this is not just a good game, but one that people are passionate about. Folks have been waiting for Dragon Age, and now that it's here they are embracing it and laying wet sloppy kisses on its cheeks. And, like the guy who shows up to the wedding in a polo shirt and jeans, I could not feel more out of place.

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."
"What?"
"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."
Cf.

43 comments:

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, some people are RPG fans, and some are not.

I dabbled in RPGs throughout the 80's and 90's and never really GOT them until the original Baldur's Gate.

I went from being a total turn based strategy, simulation, and action adventure nut to being an RPG nut.

Maybe you should just stay away from them?

Pete said...

Uh....give it another shot? You can also tweak the difficulty either higher or lower...y’know, just in case. I’ve heard of many reviewers actually needing to do this at some point. However, it is possible to keep at it on normal, but I think you need to adjust your tactics settings. Just having an archer or a mage casting from afar helps a TON.

I will concede that they did not explain this facet of combat very well at all.

And I’m sorry about your saving fluke. That happened to me once early on, and I’ve vowed to never let it happen again.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, if you insist on playing the game here are a few tips:

1) If a Blood Mage is killing your party focus on that enemy first. If playing on the console select all party members by pressing both bumpers simultaneously and then attack that enemy that's giving you the hardest time.

2) If overwhelmed select the entire party and then draw enemies out. Let them follow you into another room so you can kill those ones off before returning to work on the rest.

3) Save as soon as you've completed something that you don't want to do again. Save often! Like every five minutes!

4) You can also tell your party to hold position if you want to move forward with a rogue to use stealth or disable traps.

5) Switch to the mage so you can give commands to heal, buff party members, or revive fallen members.

6) Tweak the tactics.

Pete said...

Gary, I know those tips are intended for Mitch...but you've helped me out as well. Thanks!

yanamal said...

some of your problems seem to come from making assumptions about the game based on your console gaming experience.
For example, relying on autosaves instead of saving neurotically yourself after every significant action.

It's true that the tactical RPG naturally has a high starting learning curve, because there are so many things to consider all at once. On the other hand, Baldur's Gate was one of my first games ever (well, that and Betrayal at Krondor) and it is what made me a gamer, so it can't be that inaccessible...

Maybe Gary is right, different games for different people. I, for example, was and am a huge math nerd. that may have helped.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Pete, you're welcome.

I am playing Dragon Age on Normal difficulty and it can be extremely tough. Battles that seem impossible can often become much easier just by focusing on the biggest threat.

I'm sure there are other players with much better tactics then myself but I am definitely progressing and very much enjoying the game.

Mitch Krpata said...

Those are excellent tips, Gary. I will give them a shot. Thanks.

Gyshall said...

You must not be very good at video games.

Mark said...

In my experience, Bioware's always been pretty terrible at checkpointing.

I still love their games, but it is a source of frustration for me to actually have to think about saving when so many other games have it figured out marvelously.

You reviewed Final Fantasy XII fairly positively, what did you think of combat there? Dragon Age's tactics screen shamelessly copies most of XII's gambit system, removing some of its annoyances (having to purchase conditions such as "Enemy health <40%" ).

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mark,

Bioware doesn't really check point at all. They do some auto-saving but that isn't meant to replace the user saving for themselves.

And in all honestly I think FF XII borrowed heavily from previous Bioware games. If offered pausable real-time combat which is what Bioware has been doing since the late eighties.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Sorry, 1990s, not eighties...

I'm old. Very old.

Michael said...

I can't comment on Dragon Age, but your Family Guy quote was awesome. It has totally tricked me into thinking you are a smart man.

Mark said...

Oh, I'm under no impression that Bioware's auto-save system is meant to replace user saving - I'm just annoyed because I don't understand why it isn't. I don't believe I should have to remember to save just because I'm playing an RPG.

Mark said...

Good gosh, do I sound terribly entitled. Still, I already can't tell when it auto-saves, so it may as well do it more frequently.

Mitch Krpata said...

Little things like auto-saving and checkpoints are important, more important than I think a lot of people give them credit for. Needing to manually save often is really a relic of an older time, and is an impediment to enjoying a game. Just because you can get used to it doesn't mean you should have to, or that it's the best way to go about things. At best it's an annoyance, because it's unnecessary, and at worst it can be debilitating.

As for the FFXII comparison, Mark, I seem to remember wresting control from the gambit system more often than not and just playing as though it were turn-based. You can do that a little bit here, too, but honestly it's a much simpler problem wherein I'm not understanding the value of things like making my character look fearsome.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Mitch, check points are essential in action games where inventory, characters, and story are transient.

A big Western RPG like Dragon Age Origins has a world where hundreds or even thousands of variables are at play. If you relied only on checkpoints, you'd never be able to go backwards in time and try something different.

Mitch Krpata said...

I'm loving the knowledge you're dropping in this thread. That explanation makes a lot of sense, but I still don't see why it wouldn't at least give you the option of returning to a save state upon loading a new area and then dying. Of course maybe it did do that, but it wasn't the default option. I wasn't even thinking of it, because, as others have mentioned, it's just not standard for console games, especially the type I'm used to playing.

Pete said...

I'm pretty sure you can load any previous save when you die...

Mitch Krpata said...

If you've been remembering to save!

Gary A. Lucero said...

The default is to load the last saved game, whether that's a manual or auto-save, it doesn't matter.

The game does not save for you unless you see it doing so. I'm sure there's a rhyme and reason for when/why it auto-saves, but I don't know what criteria they use.

Kirk said...

I'm among the camp that adores this game.

My instinct is to defend it, as it represents exactly what I want in games and rarely find. It has complex systems. It has challenging moments. It rewards thoughtful play. It's long and
(so long as you're having fun) provides great value.

However, I fear that it lacks broad appeal because it is an homage to an outdated method of game design. It's a new IP with an old pedigree. It's punishing
to those who aren't veterans of its systems. It's mom's lasagna made just the way you liked it for those that are. Line of sight doorway cheese is an old favorite among my crowd, and it's quite homey.

The check-pointing is a valid and fair criticism. I've taught myself
to obsessively use the quick save button in all games that have one. It isn't fun and shouldn't be necessary these days. If I want to save to redo something, then I could have a quick-save and regular save system that works outside of the auto-save. At least there is an alternative method as opposed to being forced to find a save point somewhere though.

I also have to agree that it does do a poor job of teaching you how the systems in the game work. Given the length of the game, there really should have been time to introduce them better. For someone unfamiliar I'd expect episodes of thrashing and frustration. "Press "\" for tactics!" during the load screen is hardly sufficient explanation or motivation.

I sincerely hope that it finds an audience. I've missed these games in their absence. I badly want this game to succeed because if it fails, it will probably be the last of its kind.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Kirk,

Your points are valid but I think this game is targeting those of us who are looking for a complex, challenging game.

A game like Mass Effect is hoping to target someone who wants a more casual experience but I think Bioware is really stuck making games that appeal to hard core RPG players.

I don't think I'd want them to change.

Kirk said...

Hello Gary,

You are correct that it's a hard-core western rpg'ers game at heart. I don't want them to change the core gameplay or difficulty either. It's pitch-perfectly tuned to me. However, Mitch does have valid criticisms regarding auto-saves and tutelage that could damage its broad appeal.

I love that they made a game for us Gary. I just hope there are enough of us around to justify catering to our needs in the future. Happy adventuring!

Kirk

Mitch Krpata said...

If internet chatter is any measurement of a game's possibility, then Dragon Age ought to do just fine. Just look at this thread! No guarantee of that, though.

elpflasa said...

A few quicks thoughts from someone who LOVES this game and has a giant man-crush on Bioware as a whole. I love the depth of the game world and the astonishing time and effort put into the world (see the prequel novel and the fantastic history/sociology in the Collector's Edition Game Guide), and I love the depth of the tactical options that are available (though admittedly, the 360 graphics are really assy/PS2 quality). BUT, I do think you have some genuinely valid points, Mitch, especially from the perspective of a non-hardcore RPG gamer.
I'm used to saving every few minutes so as not to lose too much time (I think I got up to a few thousand save points in Fallout 3), but the average gamer may be used to autosaves and have the same kind of reaction as you. And while I understood the interface and various systems in the game, having been a long time RPG fan, I can clearly see how a RPG novice would be completely overwhelmed due to an almost complete lack of a reasonable tutorial.
This might not be a problem if Bioware was aiming at a "hardcore" audience (sorry for using the H word, as I really LOVE your taxonomy of gamers, Mitch - see, you ARE smart!)but I've seen ads for the game on football broadcasts, and they are just blanketing Comedy Central with ads. While I'm hoping for nothing but success for Bioware (more money for them equals more games for me), I worry that if a lot of non-RPGers see the ads and buy the game, they will be unhappy about the experience (as you were) and not play/buy any more RPG's.
Sigh.....anyway, waddaya gonna do?

Errol
Miami

Gary A. Lucero said...

I think a lot of people bought Knights of the Old Republic, which Dragon Age is quite similar to in many ways, and they probably didn't like it (my brother didn't, and he is a very casual gamer) and Bioware did just fine.

Not saying this won't backfire on them but I'm hoping it doesn't.

Scott Gunsaullus said...

Obviously, you were "playing it wrong!" [laugh]

Rallion said...

Gary, it seems like it mostly saves right before you hit a "difficult" part.

As a person who does play like a PC gamer, hitting the quicksave key every 4 seconds, it doesn't bother me, but I definitely see how a person who doesn't do that would get very annoyed -- the autosaves seem to ALWAYS have you in a tough situation.

I do agree with those saying that the game could use more of a tutorial. It took a long time for me to realize how useful striking from behind was, for example. I also feel like the tactics system could use a little bit more explanation, or maybe even just some redesign: it bothers me that a number of the default behaviors do not flee AOE traps, and at one point I had a lot of trouble that could have been avoided had I realized that.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

What amazes me is that people could play this game on a console. I'm no PC fanboy, I love my consoles, but surely this is a PC game if there ever was one. I understand the way the combat works has been tweaked for Xbox 360, but still, I just don't see it.

This game needs to be played like a classic hardcore squad-based tactical game, or like the old isometric RPGs that Bioware were such a crucial part of. From what I can see, the way the Xbox version works just doesn't allow that, and without the right control interface you're never really going to get your head around the way this game works.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Daniel, problem is PC RPGs died with the death of Black Isle Studios. I wasn't a big fan of the original Neverwinter Nights, I don't like Diablo, and I don't really care for most of what has come out on the PC in the last several years.

So I became a console gamer. I did buy Dragon Age for the PC but honestly, I'll mostly play it on the Xbox. I don't play hardly anything on the PC anymore.

And the game plays remarkedly well on the 360. It's much better than the original KOTOR or Jade Empire in terms of controls and character development.

Daniel said...

I agree that CRPGs are pretty much dead; I happen to think Neverwinter is a rubbish game and I don't understand any of the praise either of its instalments got, and although Fallout 3 has its value I don't think it should ever be called an RPG.

Like I said, I'm not a PC fanboy, and if you find that the game's Xbox 360 version plays well then that's great, but from where I'm standing playing (and loving) Dragon Age, it's so hard to see that someone can have the same wonderful experience, particularly with the complex combat, on a console.

Mitch Krpata said...

It's definitely an extra degree of difficulty playing on the 360, as I'm doing. Even just for little things like navigating the menus. Well, especially for little things like navigating the menus. A mouse cursor would do wonders there.

I've really got to think everybody who commented on this thread. I went in last night with a new focus and a few tips from you guys, and managed to break through where I'd been before. I still don't love the game -- at this point I don't think that's going to happen -- but at least I'm closer to getting it.

Mitch Krpata said...

Er, "thank" everybody.

Kirk said...

PC gaming has seen better days. Unfortunately it's my favorite platform to play on.

Haven't played the console version, but I would imagine it's much tougher. I can't imagine playing this without the action bar and mouse with the scroll wheel for zoom. Mouse and keyboard feel like its native interface, unlike many modern games that feel shoehorned into the PC. If it is equally fun, then it is a triumph of console UI design for the genre.

GregT said...

The traditional Western RPG is a study in minutiae. It's a genre where weighing one weapon against another, obsessing over slight tactical adjustments, and carrying around backpacks of loot is not incidental to the gameplay, but is in fact the gameplay itself.

To this end the process of saving one's game can be seen as not an interface issue but as an actual skill intended to be tested. The player is being asked to assess the course of the plot and judge when they will need to save; saving too often results in time wasted in menus but saving too little results in lost progress. Also, in a game offering multiple outcomes to key events, it's asking players to deliberately assess when they have done something so desirable that they want to keep it no matter what happens from that point on.

What's happened, of course, is that other genres have developed the Western RPG has picked up their traditions and now we have a mainstream RPG that's simultaneously trying to claim the gamers with experience in this tradition, plus a new wave of console gamers. There's inevitably mixed expectations and it may be Dragon Age doesn't find the perfect balance. But I don't think it's hard to understand either that the save system is a deliberate choice, or why it's a deliberate choice.

Gary A. Lucero said...

GregT, I think that's a great explanation of the psychology of the Western RPG gamer.

And as I continue to play Dragon Age, and continue to see my party die time and time again, I realize this could never be a game for the masses.

Bioware really does seem to cater to a particular audience.

Yéti said...

I loved the "Family Guy" quote !

Now I'm gonna read the article...

Yéti said...

Well...

First I want to say that I can see the link between Dragon Age and FFXII but the Gambit system is so much better than the poorly working tactics system.

Anyway, aside from the amazing dialogues, stories, and all the reading-stuff you find on your way, Dragon Age is a lousy RPG, filled with outdated gameplays ideas and mechanics.

BUT, it's so good to play ! It's old, it's outdated but it's just pure honey in my hands.

It's strange how sometimes we can just erase a game's issues just because it reminds you an old chef d'oeuvre.

Tom said...

Know I'm late on this one, but what you wrote struck me as being quite sincere and straightforward, especially when considering some of the responses.

I've been a Bioware fan for ages, and I've beaten Baldur's Gate 2 several times. So when I reach a difficult point in Dragon Age, I sit back, assess, and approach the situation differently, with an entire Baldur's Gate-created body of knowledge behind me. I learned how to play this game from BG 2, and when I see someone else play it (my brother), I'm struck by how obtuse it often is.

Listening to him play this game is like listening to someone get their teeth pulled. Almost every single decision enrages him, and he still loves the game. So thanks. Maybe I'l llisten to his complaints more now.

Gary A. Lucero said...

Even on the console Dragon Age plays very much like Baldur's Gate. You can use some of the same strategies and everything.

It's kind of odd...in a good way.

Ryan said...

The problem with the "tactics" system, from my perspective, is that Bioware is essentially asking you to write code -- but without giving you the first clue as to how the underlying programming language works.

For example, after finding if/then condition "n" satisfied and executing the associated tactic, does the game logic start over at condition #1 or does it move on to condition "n+1"? Bioware doesn't tell us.

Anonymous said...

The tactics system is crap, but this is not really a problem. Either you play on easy/normal, where it's not needed at all and all the fights can be won using auto-attack, or you play on hard/nightmare, where micro-managment of all party members is a necessity.

I do agree that the checkpoint/save system is baaad. It's likely an artifact of BioWare's PC roots. More than once, I lost more than an hour of progress just because I'm not used to manually saving on the PS3...