First Impressions — Dragon Age: Origins (PC Version)

Full Disclosure

First, I received a free copy of Dragon Age: Origins when the folks marketing the game for Bioware asked me to review it, but of course, this will not impact my review.

Second, the only Bioware game that I’ve played at any length is Neverwinter Nights.  (I’m not even talking NWN2 — I mean the original.)  We have copies of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic around, though I’ve never played them myself. (I believe my husband has.)  In anticipation of Dragon Age, I did pick up Mass Effect on Steam and played for several hours.  So, I can make some superficial comparisons there, but nothing more.  I certainly know of Bioware’s reputation for strong storytelling in their RPG’s.

Third, I am primarily an MMO player and my primary MMO is World of Warcraft.  I have played a few other MMO’s recently and dabbled in some puzzle games, but I have not put solid playtime into a single-player RPG in more than five years.  My thoughts will likely be most useful to those coming from a similar background. Below are my first impressions of the game and I’ll likely put together another review after I have played through it in its entirety.

The Grey Wardens and the Darkspawn

There is evil rising in your world, the history of which is nicely set up in the opening cinematic.  Standard hero story set-up, but it’s neatly delivered.  I liked the style and tone.  I still rewatch this as each of my new characters begins their journey.

Character Creation

In choosing your character, you first pick the gender and race (human, elf, or dwarf), and then an available class for the race you chose (warrior, mage, or rogue).  There are some limitations consistent within the game world.  Only humans and elves can be mages, for example.  There are a total of six backstories to play through, so in a few cases, you’ll have some say in your character’s origin.  Were they a commoner or a noble, for example?

After this, you choose your character’s appearance.  Dragon Age has a realistic art style, with customization that allows you to finely tune your character’s facial features right down to the width of her jawline. You can’t change the character’s body type at all, but if you like, you can give them a giant forehead, jutting chin, and beady eyes. Just scrolling through the preset appearances will give you an idea of the diversity possible.  For each of mine, I started with one of the presets and tweaked it to my liking.  (I didn’t go with the beady eyes, but one of my characters ended up with a prominent forehead and a bit of a chinbutt.)

A warning, too. You are selecting the shape and shading of all your character’s features by candlelight.  I chose what looked like a nice healthy skin tone for my elf rogue when I was creating her.  When she got out into the light of day, her skin was so light that it looked like she was running around in a white bodysuit.  Same with some of the makeup on the women. What looks subdued in the creator is often much brighter in the game itself.  My mage has some very unfortunate green eyeshadow.

You can preview the character creation experience by downloading the files linked here.

Story and Character Context

I have played through all the origin stories now and I think they’re pretty well done.  You immediately get a sense of who your character is through conversations with characters that already know them.  Right from the start, your character is interacting with friends, mentors, and/or adversaries.  I have heard some complaints about the originality of the stories themselves, but I thought they were fine. Fairly typical birth-of-a-hero stories, but each compelling in their own right.

As you meet new characters and learn about the world, information is collected in a Codex, accessible through your Journal where your quests are also kept.  There is a lot of collectible information.  I’ve found that in some cases, you can still get the info in your Codex even if you skip the conversation.  You do not have to have the same “What are the Darkspawn?” conversations with every new character, for example.  If you speak with the character that would have given you that info, very often you end up with the story in your Codex anyway.  In your Journal, there is also a conversation history if you want to go back and review all the choices you made in conversations.

From what I have heard, Bioware RPG’s are notorious for putting your character in situations where they are forced to make difficult choices.  Betrayal seems to be a common theme, sometimes with devastating consequences. I can’t say how much most of it effects the overall outcome, but I found myself caring about the NPC’s enough to get swept up in it, wondering who to trust and whether I was doing the right thing.

No Going Back

My husband and I made a character and played the game together for a few hours one evening.  Knowing I’d play quite a lot on my own, I let my husband “drive” and make decisions about what the character said and did. When one of the NPC’s asked for help, rather than go with the positive answer (as one does if one actually wants to do quests and gain xp), my husband chose the smartassed “Yeah, whatever… good luck with that” answer, blowing her off to see what would happen. She looked very sad and withdrew from the conversation, causing my husband and I to make frowny faces at one another.  So, of course, my husband approached her again after the encounter cinematic ended so he could offer to do the quest.  No dice.  She wouldn’t talk to us any more.  😦

I remember a point in my WoW career where I felt an emotional connection with the NPC’s.  I felt terribly guilty if I declined or abandoned a quest.  That feeling is long gone now.  The NPC’s never seem to remember you anyway.  (Heck, I’d think Thrall would remember me after Wrathgate, but I’m pretty sure if I popped by the throne room, he’d welcome me to Orgrimmar and ask if I’ve come to serve the Horde.)  I’d forgotten what it was like for there to be such consequences in my gameplay.  Sort of refreshing, actually.

(Later, when I was making another character, my husband told me I could delete the one we made together.  “She’s mean,” he said.)

“Realism,” Immersion, and Missing Voices

All of this sets the stage for a wonderfully immersive gameplay experience.  It is immersive, for the most part.  There are two things in particular that take me out of the story on a fairly regular basis, however.

The first is the blood splattered all over everything.  At first I thought, “Wow, that’s different.”  Aside from a few drippy raid bosses in WoW, there’s not a lot of blood squirting around.  In Dragon Age, sometimes the killing blow decapitates your enemy, causing blood to shoot out of their neck.  So, I suppose it’s natural that your character might become bloody if they’re in the fray.  The problem is that in the brief cinematics after a battles, your character continues to stand there with blood all over their armor, weapons, and their faces.  There are little specks of bright red blood on everything.  I suspect it’s intended as part of the “realism” of the game, but it’s just a bit over the top, in my opinion.

The second (and probably my biggest criticism of the game) is the lack of a speaking voice for you, as a main character.  When your character is deep in discussion with others and you choose what she says, she doesn’t actually say anything.  If everything were text, that would be one thing, but the cinematics are otherwise fleshed out with voice acting.  This may not have stood so much had I not played Mass Effect briefly.  In Mass Effect, you make conversation choices and then your character actually talks to the others.  She doesn’t say precisely the text you chose, but conveys the essence of it in a way consistent with her demeanor.  I realize this would have required many more hours of voice acting, but I absolutely loved this in Mass Effect.  I think it would have brought the Dragon Age play experience to the next level.  Not sure why it wasn’t done.  You choose a voice at the beginning, but it just determines what your character yells passively in battle.

Basic Controls , Tactics, and Navigation

One thing that took some getting used to was the combat system.  It may be second nature to those accustomed to recent single-player RPG’s, but I was having a hell of a time trying to figure out how to coordinate all my characters at first.  You choose the character central to the story, of course, but you’ll often be fighting side by side with characters of other classes that join your party and help you fight.  As part of this, you gear them and can control them.

There is AI, of course, and you can define elements of your party members’ fighting styles through the Tactics interface.  Until I figured this out, I died a lot. (In between dying a lot and figuring this out, I was pausing the game a lot.  Turns out that using the Tactics system is far superior. ;)) You can set your characters to heal themselves if they get too low, use certain attacks based on enemy proximity and health, and so forth.  Very handy.

Navigating the world is intuitive.  Your map features quest locations and the minimap has a pointer on it to lead you in the general direction of your quest objective. Another complaint I’ve heard from MMO players is that there are invisible walls.  This is true, there are.  You cannot always go to the places that you can see in the distance.  With a few exceptions, this hasn’t been too immersion-breaking for me.  As I’m moving through the world, I just try to stay on task.  The urgency with which the quests are usually assigned means I probably shouldn’t dally exploring the fields or romping in the rivers anyway, right?

As with WoW, I use a combo of WASD and the mouse to move myself around.  (There is click-to-move, but I don’t use it.)  It’s pretty smooth and the running animations look fairly natural.  There is, however…

No Jumping Allowed!

I don’t think I realized how much I jump around in WoW until I started playing Dragon Age.  There’s no jumping at all in this game.  (I suppose it would make you look uncivilized.)  In WoW, I am constantly moving and jumping in fights while I’m casting.  Part of this is because some of the raid encounters require constant repositioning and running around, and as part of this, I jump.  My priest almost always hops up in the air before slinging Prayer of Mending at the tank, too — it’s just a habit I picked up. (She looks like she’s having a great time when she’s healing.)  So, in DA:O this means that I hit the space bar and pause the game repeatedly.  I see a pile of rubble and want to jump over it. *pause* *grr*

(So, only rogues in Dragon Age.  No rouges.)

But, Pause is Your Friend

It turns out that pausing in battle can be really helpful, however.  This kept me alive before I figured out how to use the tactics properly and now I pause just when things get too chaotic.  My tactics are mostly set up to just let the AI do its thing, but occasionally some intervention is required.

I confess that it’s also refreshing to play a game that I can pause it all.  I can leave the game at a moment’s notice and nothing will happen without me.

And F5 is your BEST Friend

Save. Your. Game.  Do it often.  There is autosave, but nothing kills a play session like accidentally dying and then realizing you’re going to have to repeat your last 30 minutes of play.  If it were just fighting that would be one thing, but it sometimes means redoing conversations, watching cinematics, etc… aaargh.  Not that they’re bad to watch, it’s just frustrating when you want to move forward in the story.  So, right from the start, get yourself into the habit of saving the game regularly.

Overall

First impressions?  Dragon Age: Origins is excellent fun.  It’s reminding me of the old days when I looked forward to long, immersive play sessions with my games. I’d dim the lights, put on the headphones, and completely focus on the story being told to me, soaking in the experience.  It has made me realized that so much of what I do now is socializing and character maintenance rather than play.  It is fun, but it is definitely a different kind of play than a single-player RPG can offer.

Looking around the blogs, lots of MMO players (particularly in WoW) are bored or in a rut right now.  Looking for something fun to do before your next patch/expansion comes out? Consider joining the Grey Wardens.

sapping my way to seventy

My rogue hit level 60, putting her at the bottom of the battleground bracket food chain once again.  I suspected she would be relatively useless in a one-on-one situation against, say, a level 68 rogue, so I decided to stick with Alterac Valley until I gained a few levels.

So, this past Sunday (after deciding to put off working on my novel), I cleared my bags, queued for Alterac Valley, and went mining.  (In between BG’s, I am mining and leveling engineering.  I want rocket boots!). I noticed that I was about 7000 xp points into level 60, for which I need 290K xp total.  Within a few minutes, the battleground popped and off I went.

After a victory for the Horde, it was back to mining and chatting with my guildmates.  One of them asked how the battleground leveling experiment was going and I said, “great!” and glanced up at my xp bar.  It was at 96,866 xp.  😮

Really? 90K for one battleground?  Wait… had I run a partial BG in there, too?  Or did I see that starting number wrong?  (I listen to podcasts while I run BG’s, too, so sometimes I’m only half paying attention.)  I jotted down the number and queued again.  Here’s how the afternoon broke down once I started keeping track:

Starting:  96,866 xp

After AV#2: 123,384 (26,518 gained)

After AV#3: 190,360 (66,976 gained)

After AV#4: 256,862 (66,502 gained)

After AV#5: 289, 757 (32,895 gained)

Of these, AV#2 and #5 were partial battlegrounds where I was probably replacing folks that had been afk or dropped part of the way through.  The Horde won all of them (woo!).  That’s pretty good xp for 15-25 minutes worth of play.

I wondered if there might be diminishing returns as I level more, but according to wowwiki, it should continue to be rewarding, because boss kills and tower cap rewards are based on a percentage of the xp required to level.  My numbers don’t quite mesh with theirs, given that I clearly got more than 20% of a level for a single AV win (twice!).  In any case, it looks like running battlegrounds (particularly AV) is a viable way to level.

And, it’s fun.  One of my guildmates teased me a bit about how I was spending my time (like, how could running BG”s over and over possibly be interesting), but I am loving it right now.  Each battle presents a new challenge against new opponents that may or may not do what we expect.  Sure, my teammates are sometimes obnoxious, whiny, and insufferable, but I either tune them out, zing right back, or take my frustrations out on the opponent.  If it gets too annoying, I just take a break and work on crafting for a while.  I much prefer all this to doing the Hellfire Peninsula quests again.

I don’t get mad, I get stabby.

When we put together a static group with my sister and her husband, I decided to try my hand at playing a rogue.   I confess — for a long time I didn’t enjoy playing her.  She wasn’t remotely competitive with the mage and shaman on the dps meters, since she was limited to single targets, and often mobs were dead before I got close enough to hit them, so I spent a lot of time frustrated.  As she got into her 40’s and 50’s, it started to get much better.  Her spec matured and I figured out how to deal with her limitations (and mine, as a new melee player).  I even started topping the meters on some of the single target fights.  (Not that I have to be at the top; I just want to be competitive.)

We recently hit level 57, having slogged through BRD and the first wing of Dire Maul.  My husband, who has been tanking for us, tossed out the idea of folks swapping in different characters before we moved on to Outland.  It would be perfect timing, for example, if someone wanted to bring in a death knight.  They’d hardly need to level — just do the DK starting area and go.  It does sort of fly in the face of the “let’s start at level 10 and push to 80 together” idea that we started with, but he wanted a break from tanking.  Since I wasn’t completely in love with my rogue, I decided to give death knight tanking a try.  (I’ll save those omgnoobtank stories for another day though. 😉 )

Since my rogue was now free to play on her own, I decided I might try my hand at some pvp and level her in the battlegrounds.  I spent some time at shadowpanther.net looking at gear and specs and then sent my priest to the heirloom vendors to pick up some goodies for her.  Six heirloom purchases later (shoulders, chest, two melee weapons, a gun, and a trinket), my rogue was ready to hit the battlegrounds for the very first time.

I queued for Warsong Gulch first since it was the daily.  It popped almost immediately and I zoned into the base for a fresh match.  Scanning the list of horde players, it didn’t seem we had many healers, which worried me.  (This is why I like healing BG’s, generally.  Few people seem to be willing to do it and it can make a huge difference.) I surveyed my cast bar a final time to make sure I knew where vanish and sprint were.  The gates opened and off we went.

I won’t do a play by play of the whole match, but there were some great moments for me. I loved sneaking around, incapacitating the enemy’s healers, and sapping people when they thought they were alone and safe.  Once, I came upon a scene midfield where there was an Alliance DK and his druid healer descending upon on one of our guys (can’t remember what class).  I dismounted and stealthed up behind the DK and sapped him before he entered combat.  I then helped my teammate dispose of the druid and then we destroyed the DK together.  Ahh… it was lovely.

On one of the flag runs, I was the lone player guarding our flag carrier. He and I ran to the top of our base and I stealthed around, waiting for attackers.  I killed a rather persistent warlock a few times, but the best kill was the paladin.  As he approached our flag carrier, I sneaked up behind him, cheap-shotted him and then bludgeoned him with hemorrhage and eviscerate so speedily that he didn’t have time to heal, bubble, or anything.  The flag carrier said, “wow good rogue.”  Bwahaha…we won that BG 3-0.

This really whetted my appetite for pvp, though of course all the BG matches haven’t gone this smoothly.  There was a WSG where an Alliance DK had something like 8000 hit points and was basically untouchable.  Some on our team even suggested that he was twinked.  “How much do you have to suck to twink a DK?” they said.  I saw plenty of heirloom shoulders in the base when we were buffing before the match — not like we had room to talk.  “I think he has purples,” someone else said. I looked him up and, no, he has no purples.  He has mostly starting DK gear, a couple quest items, and some engineering stuff.  Nothing too crazy.  I suppose it goes to show how powerful DK’s are out of the starting gate.  I was unfortunate enough to go toe-to-toe with him at one point and he killed me in two shots.  Ow!

I have also run few Arathi Basins and quite a few Alterac Valleys, which have been fun.  As a priest in AV, I always stayed in the thick of things.  Even if everyone abandoned before capping, I had to go, too, because I could never defend anything alone.  As a rogue, I have a few more tricks at my disposal.  I still find myself missing psychic scream, but I suppose I can’t have everything.  🙂

Anyway, she’s now 59 and feeling strong, but will soon find herself at the bottom of the bracket again.  I’m looking forward to the climb to 80.  It’s been a while since I’ve felt this way about leveling!  Probably all the extra adrenaline.

/stabby

Violins and Magic

Beautiful post at Terra Nova about violins as magical items.

I own a violin, but it is only a white-level item, at best.  Certainly mass manufactured, it was purchased for less than $100 when I was in 8th grade.  My mom probably thought the violin was a passing fancy, so didn’t want to invest in a lot of gold toward a green level one.  I did my best to make it sounds like a green violin over the five years that I played.  (I played the viola for a year, too, which I loved even more.)

I skilled up quickly in the beginning, but then plateaued, as always seems to be the case with weapons. As my skill increased, I noted that my DPS went down.  My parents stopped sending me to my room to practice with the door closed.

Eventually, I reached the limits of my available training, given how much gold I had in my bank (not to mention my innate skills as a player), and pursued different skills.  I kept the violin in my inventory (my room) for the next few years, just in case I felt the urge to play.  When I moved away from home, the violin was moved into my permanent bank space (parents’ basement) where it stayed for more than ten years, collecting dust.

On one of my last visits, I decided to bring the violin back home with me.   I can see it in the closet from where I’m sitting in my office right now.  I know I’d have to start leveling the skill from zero again, but some days it’s tempting, especially when I hear one of the more masterful players make magic on one of their epics.  I know these are epics and skills I’ll never have, but a little magic in life is always nice.  I could be a casual player again someday.

Dragon Age (shall be reviewed)

EDIT: I just received an e-mail saying they’re sending my copy after all. Coincidence? (A couple bloggers made similar posts about this yesterday.)

As my husband sometimes says, “The universe is far more interested in embarrassing me than inconveniencing me.” Not that this was particularly inconvenient, but you catch my drift. I’m happy about the outcome, too. Like I said in my last version of this post, I’ve heard good things about the game.

So, post withdrawn. 🙂


Labor vs. Labor of Love

/RL

Last December, I did something crazy — I quit my job.  It felt strange to do something so bold in this economic climate and even stranger to tell people about it.  Not only was I ditching a steady paycheck, I was leaving the career path that I’d been on for more than ten years, which included getting a PhD and doing several years of postdoctoral work.

I can’t say that my colleagues were impressed with my decision, except maybe a few that knew how unhappy I’d been.  My misery had begun in graduate school, but I finished the degree and continued with the work anyway.  This is partly because I did love it once and hoped I might find that feeling again.  The rest was pride and stubbornness.  Oh, and fear.  Lots of fear.  I was afraid to venture out because what I really wanted to do instead seemed so impractical, I could hardly admit it to myself, much less anyone else.  I wanted to be a writer.

When I finally reached my breaking point and planned to quit, I decided to seize the opportunity and see if I could make a living as a writer.  To quell the fear (and make the decision seem more legitimate), I took the most practical approach I could think of.  I secured a job as a contractor for an editing company that caters to folks in my old line of work.  In between jobs with them, I arranged to work through freelancing bid sites to supplement my income.

In the 10 months after joining the editing company, they only sent me work three times.  The first time, the topic was far removed enough from my field that I couldn’t do it — I let them pass it along to someone else.  The second time, it was to write a grant (not my cup of tea), again on something completely unrelated to my specific expertise.  (The selling point of the company is that your documents will be edited by experts, not some random schmo filling in their knowledge gaps with Google.)  By the time they sent me the third item, which was relatively close to my expertise, it was too late.  Science is something you need to mentally keep up with and my brain had gotten too rusty.  Besides, I didn’t want to think about that stuff any more.  So, I turned down the work and terminated my contract with them.

I did pick up work through the bid sites, however.  I had plenty to keep me busy during weekdays, mainly through one particular client.  After my first few assignments, they brought me on as a full member of their project team to write web content and promotional materials for their company.  They loved my work, too.  I basked in the positive feedback and wrote whatever they asked me to.  As my other clients trickled off, I didn’t replace them.

As for the content itself … meh.  And the message?  Er… yeah.  Let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of what they were selling.  It was ghostwriting, however, so I assured myself that my reputation was safe.  I did like the people personally, we were just coming from different places.  In writing on their behalf, I did what I could to keep them honest (from my point of view).  Truth be told, most of it was just fine and I was left to my own devices enough of the time that I could write what I felt was right.

The summer marched on.  I was pretty happy.  I enjoyed not dreading Mondays for once in my life.  And then I got a little wake-up call from a surprising place: Jonathan Coulton‘s  How I WoW appearance.  He was asked whether it was a conscious choice to steer his songs toward the geek culture.  He said no, he just wrote what he wrote and didn’t steer his creativity toward any particular mold.  If he wrote what others wanted him to, it would just be like any other job.

And I thought, Damn, he’s right.  I think I did it wrong.

But I kept going.  I was getting paid, right?  Paychecks good.

Fast forward a few months.  My pay had marginally increased, but the client was asking a lot more work from me.  I had enough to do that I could keep myself busy full time, but given the low pay, I worked part time.  Since they were satisfied with my progress each week, I didn’t ask for more or rock the boat.

Then, a few weeks ago, they rocked the boat.  They’d asked me to write some sketchy things in the past, but I usually just let them fall to the bottom of the priority pile. This time, there was a concrete deadline, so I had to do it. Given the particulars of the assignment, I had enough editorial control to express what I really thought about the topic, so I did just that.  I was pretty sure they were going to disregard my work, so my rebellion might not not pay off, but it was worth a try.

About a week later, they gave me an assignment that was even worse.  This one I could not do.  I joked early on in my freelancing career that I’d probably start with high standards that would spiral downward when I found myself in need of money.  It seems it was the opposite.  I hadn’t had a decent paycheck in a year, but for personal, ethical, and philosophical reasons, there was no way I could write what they wanted.  In fact, I realized I didn’t want to write for them at all any more.  It was a tough phone call to make, but I did it.  I was honest, too, and told them exactly why I was leaving the team.  They called a few times after and asked me to reconsider, but I held my ground.  I’m done with them.

Even though I’m now starting from scratch after almost a year in this job, I think it’s been a good year and a great experience.  It certainly crystallized some things for me; I have a much better sense of what I want to be as a writer and what I’m willing to write for others.

I’m going to fully embrace this fresh start, too.  This time, I’ll choose what I write.  Maybe I’ll get hired for regular writing somewhere (web or print), maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll manage to sell a story, an essay, a novel… who knows?  I won’t know until I really buckle down and give this work an honest try.  Besides, if I’m not going to make much money writing, I may as well do it writing about things I care about.

So, the time has come.  Enough with this working-to-live crap.  Life is too short for that.

Onward! 😀