Friday, January 1, 2010

A fool and his money are soon parted.

So Street Fighter 4 was on sale for $10 on Steam.

This is the third time I have purchased the game, which is more than a little sad. The launch copy was traded in after I destroyed my first arcade stick in a fit of rage.

But that is a story for another day.

As promised, here is part one of the Dragon Age review.

Dragon Age, at one point in time, was a title that allowed me an excuse to maintain a moderately powerful PC. It was coming out eventually, it was going to be exclusive to the personal computer, and it would be a crime not to play it, so I had to be ready. Sometime between when it was announced and now it came to light that it would not be PC exclusive, that the throbbing heathen masses of console players would have access to it. Bioware assured everyone that the quality of the two versions would as close as possible, and I believed them. Why shouldn’t I, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect are both excellent, why should I not expect the same from Dragon Age? Of course, because November is an evil month, Dragon Age arrived and it ended up at the end of a very long line of games. When its time came up I forsook my now significantly behind the curve and oft ignore PC in favor of a larger screen and more comfortable chair. Having mostly insulated myself from others opinions, I had no idea that this was a mistake. Dragon Age is a PC game, it is best played with a mouse and keyboard on a cramped desk flanked by half crumpled Mountain Dew cans. Forcing it onto a console has done it no favors. I have put to many hours into it to turn back now, so the game I started will be the game I will finish, but I can’t help but feel like I am missing something.

There is certain amount of control that I have come to expect from games based around pen and paper mechanics. Success can hinge on using the right spell at the right time or getting the tank to pull bad guys in the correct direction, so being able to control individual characters actions on a very granular level is required. Dragon Age is a single player game, but the player is by no means responsible for a single character, so the fact that corralling your party into doing what you intend is incredibly difficult is unforgivable. It is possible to pause the action and jump between characters to issue new orders, but only one order can be in the queue at a time. This forces a great deal of switching from person to person if there are specific targets that you want to attack in specific ways. It may sound nitpicky, but when not killing the opposing mage first means eating status effects and direct damage for the whole fight, things need to go as planned. It should also be noted that this particular fault is not specific to the console version. Both Dragon Age’s place far too much emphasis on setting up friendly AI tactics, which are like Final Fantasy 12’s gambit system but more complicated. I want to control my party, I don’t want to write a series of if/then statements and hope that they remember what to do and when to do it.

Combat annoyances are not limited to just controlling the action, unfortunately. Seeing what is going on is very limited as well, and this is specific to the TV based release. Players on the XB360 or PS3 are limited to an over the shoulder camera view much more fitting for an old school final fantasy game than a game that requires actual thought to succeed. There is a reason that there is an isometric view in pretty much all of Bioware’s PC releases up to this point: there is a lot going on and you need to be able to see all of it. This shoulder cam worked for Mass Effect because the combat was, to be blunt, much simpler. In Dragon Age it leads to camera fighting shenanigans usually reserved for movie licensed platformers and being pelted by archers and mages from off screen. It sounds backwards, but by ‘consolizing’ the camera and not touching the combat things just don’t fit together as well as they should. I have read that the console version has had the combat difficulty toned down because of this, but even on the normal difficulty a surprise fight can often lead to defeat. Save often and don’t try to play a bow based rogue if you are looking to have an easier time of things.

As soon as the fighting stops, thankfully, all of my complaints go away. Dragon Age has the same dialogue tree system that has become a requirement of western RPG’s. This time around the good and bad choices are not as clean cut as light side/dark side, which makes for some honest ethical dilemmas. For example, in one mission you are given the choice to either messily sacrifice a mother to saved a demon possessed boy or kill the boy and spare the mother. Neither option is exactly the right one, but a decision must be made and it is up to the player. Afterwards NPC’s will react in very well written exchanges and you can plead your case if they disagree. There is no morality scale here, no absolutes, and the characters and story are much more involving because of that. NPC’s have hours of interactions between both the player and each other, making party shuffling good for more than just maximizing damage output. Much like Mass Effect there is a fair amount of romance possible if the player chooses to take a break from chasing darkspawn to chase something else. I haven’t gotten past first base with anyone yet, and probably won’t because both female characters are more than a little annoying, but it feels much less forced than previous attempts. NPC’s take time to get to know, and I have gotten to like a few of them in the twenty or so hours I have put in so far. I assume it will only get better from here, or that they will all die and it will break my heart, but I am prepared for both.

It is a good thing that the party characters sound good and speak intelligently, because quite a few of them really aren’t much to look at. Dragon Age feels about a year behind other titles in the graphics department. I suppose this makes sense; it has been in development for around six or so years and is using an internally built engine, so it is suffering from a bit of Duke Nukem style ‘out of date before it comes out.’ The character models themselves don’t move very well, which can be distracting and occasionally funny in cut scenes, but it is never out and out offensive; I just expected better. Most of the enemies seem to have escaped the ugly stick, and this goes double for the larger ones. It should come as no surprise that Dragon Age has dragons in it, but I was not expecting the very first one I ran into to be so terrifying. There was a cut scene of it flying to the top of a mountain, which looked really good, but when I antagonized it and the damn thing swooped down and promptly kicked my ass I was stunned. If dragons were real, this is what they would look like, and this is how much ass they would kick. After my three companions were wiped out I tried to simply flee. The dragon, who would have absolutely none of that pansy nonsense, jumped up into the air and landed on me. This may have been the highlight of the game so far, and I didn’t survive it.

As negative as I sound about Dragon Age, it still has monopolized all of my gaming time for several days and will do so until the game is done. Please note that I am referring the game that is on the disc; zero day downloadable content is serious bull shit and not something I will encourage. It is not the complete package that a Bioware title usually is, due at least in part to my own foolish choice of platform. Good combat will usually make or break a game for me, and the fact that I am willing to wade through it to get to the next plot point is impressive; I just wish it were all that enjoyable. I will finish Dragon Age, then be back here with updated impressions, as I am really not ready to apply a number to what I think about it, mostly because at this point I just don’t know. I love it, I hate it, then I blame myself for ignoring my old friend under the desk that has become little more than a file server for MP3’s that I never listen to. Check back in a week or two for a final review, we will see if I make up my mind by then.

A week or two will now be tomorrow.

Oh, and MagnaCarta 2 just hit the second of two discs in only 15 hours. They just don't make them like they used to.

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