Wednesday 14 July, 2010 18:13
The other day I finished the DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS expansion that I got for my birthday, DRAGON AGE: AWAKENING. I had fun with it, but wouldn’t call it particularly in-depth or eye-opening. It felt more like a postscript to the original game rather than an actual continuation of its story. Barring the fact that you could choose to import an existing DRAGON AGE character (or alternatively create a new level 20 one from scratch), it might as well have been a stand-alone product.
Still, imagine my excitement when I quit the game only to discover that DRAGON AGE II had just been announced. Talk about percipient timing! There’s not a massive amount of information available about DRAGON AGE II yet, barring a rundown of a few of the key features, some artwork and a handful of off-the-cuff comments from Bioware employees on the official forums, but it seems pretty clear that the developers are intent on shaking things up with the sequel. Or, as Rock, Paper, Shotgun puts it, “Mass-Effectification”. In other words, DRAGON AGE II is appropriating a number of key features from Bioware’s concurrent MASS EFFECT series of games, perhaps most notably a fixed protagonist, whose appearance, class and gender can be altered but who has a fixed back-story, voice and personality.
Bioware’s reasoning behind this is clear: to enable them to deliver a more “cinematic” gameplay experience. “Cinematic” is a word that tends to be overused in relation to describing computer games (also overused are various stylistic techniques that the designers assume are cinematic but in reality are nothing more than third-rate, third-generation knock-offs of shots or moments they liked in the latest summer blockbuster), but it absolutely applies to the MASS EFFECT games. At times they do genuinely feel like interactive movies with their dramatic camera angles, fully vocalised dialogue and even the occasional subtle facial gesture. They succeed in doing this primarily because of their limited cast of characters and, just as significantly, the limited options for the customisation of said characters. Yes, you can give your Commander Shepard a snazzy haircut and you can choose which set of genitals are concealed under that spacesuit, and you can choose how to respond to certain situations, but you’re ultimately playing a prefabricated character that you get to tweak rather than define.
The original DRAGON AGE took an entirely different approach. Although your character came from one of a selection of pre-determined “origins”, they were essentially a blank slate that you could define as you saw fit. Male, female, human, dwarf, elf, noble, commoner, warrior, mage… the number of combinations was impressive, and there were plenty of opportunities for you to shape the character, his/her relationships and the world at large. All this, however, came at the cost of immersion. Because the world of DRAGON AGE is so large and densely populated, there is a considerable amount of repetition among its inhabitants. You’ll see the same generic haircuts, outfits and animation cycles being repeated constantly, and if you’re not careful it’s possible to design a player character who is virtually indistinguishable from one of your sidekicks (my first PC, a female elven mage, unintentionally turned out to be a dead ringer for the human rogue Leliana). NPC dialogue is fully voiced but, because of the quantity of different responses at your disposal, your own character’s voice is never heard during cut-scenes or conversations. Hell, no-one even refers to your character by name due to the fact that you create that for yourself. The characters of MASS EFFECT actually do a passable job of resembling real people. The characters in DRAGON AGE talk, move and look like mannequins.
That in itself is not necessarily a huge problem. The two series had different goals. MASS EFFECT’s was to tell an immersive cinematic story, and it did so at the expense of player freedom. DRAGON AGE’s was to provide the player with a sprawling world in which they could affect real change, explore every nook and cranny and engage in conversation with hundreds of different characters. It, however, did so at the expense of both immersion and visual realism. Both have their strengths and weaknesses and I like both a great deal, but ultimately I’m one of those people who, despite a preference for the combat mechanics of DRAGON AGE, actually found myself drawn into the world of MASS EFFECT more and ended up caring far more about its characters than the lifeless puppets of DRAGON AGE and their limited array of shared animation cycles.
A lot of other people, however, are up in arms. They liked the fact that you could play a human, a dwarf or an elf in the original DRAGON AGE. They liked the fact that you could give them a name of their choosing. They liked the fact that they could select from a variety of origins and continue to define the character through their ensuing deeds. I liked it too, and I think Bioware were justifiably proud of the level of player choice they allowed - the “origins” system was, after all, one of the major selling points in their promotion of the game. To renege on all of this for the sequel, railroading players into a character with a fixed name, origin and race, might seem like a regression. As much as I liked the freedom DRAGON AGE provided, however, I can’t help thinking it would have worked better if they’d kept the combat mechanics but taken a more MASS EFFECT-like approach to characterisation. It seems that I may well be getting my wish.
In case you’re not convinced, allow me to remind you of the PC RPG scene’s glory days in the late 90s/early 00s. Back then, Bioware and publishing/development partner Black Isle Studios created a variety of games based around the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules system and Bioware’s Infinity engine: BALDUR’S GATE I and II, ICEWIND DALE I and II, and PLANESCAPE: TORMENT. Although using almost identical mechanics (and, in the case of BALDUR’S GATE and ICEWIND DALE, artwork), they covered a wide range of different play styles, from the no-nonsense dungeon crawling of ICEWIND DALE to the primarily dialogue-driven PLANESCAPE: TORMENT, with BALDUR’S GATE effectively occupying the middle ground. ICEWIND DALE allowed you to create a party of six “blank slate” characters from scratch. In BALDUR’S GATE, you created a “blank slate” player character, but everyone else you met was pre-fabricated and fully-fleshed out, à la DRAGON AGE. In ICEWIND DALE, everyone, including the PC, we pre-fabricated. Which of the above is widely considered to have provided the most satisfying, immersive narrative? (Clue: it wasn’t ICEWIND DALE.)
PS: excellent summary of the currently known facts about DRAGON AGE II: http://greywardens.com/dragon-age-2-facts/