Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dragon Age - Some impressions

No, Dragon Age wasn't the reason why I've been silent for so long. And it's also not that I haven't done anything in the meantime - I just didn't think anything of what I've done was worth writing about. Some new areas are done, but frankly, screenshots of interiors are never satisfying to me, and the few exteriors I made are not screenshot-ready yet.
Anyway, this is about Dragon Age, the game I just ran a tour de force through. Typical for Bioware, it doesn't let you go, and now I'm feeling sick and tired and tempted to make another character and start over again. Yes, it's that good.
However, there's one point, and that's the hope for Dragon Age being a NWN replacement for us builders someday. I guess many remember the disappointment about the decission to make it only a singleplayer game a while ago, especially after many of us became frustrated about the NWN2 toolset. However, after playing it for a while now I must say it's maybe for the best, at least for now, because I noticed a lot of things in the game that were quite disappointing from a builder's point of view. There's for one the general artwork. If you aim for realism, I think DA is not for you, because the artwork is even more comicbook-style than NWN2. That does not include the characters, armors and weapons of course, which show a wonderful amount of detail. The placeables and area design though can't live up to that standard, some appear very outdated, some are just, to speak bluntly, crap. Bioware also did a very bad job with the textures at many points, as you can see in some of the screenshots I attached. As a builder, I wouldn't want to use any of this, Dragon Age would need a big overhaul like some of those Oblivion mods, or a Witcher enhanced version (although the Witcher already had extraordinary area design right from the beginning). To make things even worse, Bioware level designers didn't even make the best out of the limited ressources they had - the area design is sometimes just sloppy and rushed with no attention to detail at all.
All this doesn't hurt the campaign much, because you're so soaked into the storyline, but if you take a short break and just look around with builder's eyes for a few minutes, you might be as disappointed as I was. But that's Bioware, they've never been the best in the art department, however they are wonderful storytellers, a fact that saved a lot of their games in the past. It's just a little sad when you read the reviews and all of them mention these sloppy mistakes that could have easily been avoided. Just fixing up a few textures could've earned them a, say, 93% score instead of 91%. Sad.
I must add though that the general atmosphere of the game still works fine for me, if I forget about the details. The lighting is often wonderful, some textures still work great to give places a certain feel to them, and with a little more attention to detail, I think one can make a great mod here. It just won't be the style I aim for in Middleforest, it'd have to be more fantasy.

There's also the toolset I just opened for the first time this week to look around a little, then ignored again because I just had to continue playing. On first sight it's rather intimidating. Funny, that was my first impression on NWN2's toolset too, I thought I'd never learn it nor even understand it's basics. Now after opening Dragon Age's toolset, I have the same feeling again and NWN2's toolset feels like the easy to use one to me. Well, I guess it's too much to ask for a simple toolset like NWN1's again, but the professionalism of DA's was a little more than I expected. The first thought was again: This needs wizards... a lot of wizards.

I have to mention another thing that drags me down, and that's the characters. Why, you ask? Well, because I'd never be able to bring this kind of depth into a multiplayer moddule, not even a singleplayer module. Characters are what make this game again extraordinary, and Bioware even did a much better job here than in Mass Effect. Mass Effect still was too close to the stereotypes, and all the characters were somehow foreseeable and easy to understand. Even though they were great in how they came to life, their background and story was clichée. In Dragon Age though, the characters are rich in every aspect, and I was surprised of how much I cared for some of my companions. More than in every other game so far, at least.

The clichées bring me to another topic, and that's Dragon Age's classes and races. There's one huge problem I have to mention right at the beginning: The City Elves. I sort of saw this coming, started with the City Elf Origin and found my fears to be proven: Bioware did exactly what I imagined the elves in Middleforest to be. Why's that bad? Well, because of course everyone will just think I copied from Dragon Age now. Meh.
Besides that, Dragon Age did a lot of things exactly how I wished them to be in D&D. It was so refreshing to find what you could call an overhaul of the D&D system that gets rid of all the rubbish and makes things easier and better where it can. Many things are very familiar to those used to D&D and games like NWN, but you can expect some surprising changes as well. I had great fun with the overhaul of the rogue class, just to name one. New feats like the "Below the belt" one are extremely fun to have, even if they might not be very powerful. But the animation that goes with it alone is fun enough. Oh, animations... do I have to mention how wonderful animations are? This is clearly the department where Bioware can show Obsidian their middle finger with a huge grin, and proves how much attention they can pay to details if they just want to. My conclusion is, in the level design department they just don't want to.

Let's not forget some aspects of the game that were talked a lot about, like the maturity of the game. There's two aspects of maturity in the game, one is the actual storyline, the other is content. As for the storyline, yes, it's a mature storyline that should appeal to adults a lot more than Mass Effect. The characters in the game are not as naive and simple anymore as they once were, and there's a lot of grey now where once was black and white only. Bioware got finally rid of the simple good/evil axis and decissions in this game are very tough... some had me stare at the screen for minutes or a half hour, some touched me deeply. Job very well done.
But most people probably think of blood and sex when the topic is adult content, so let's talk about that. The violence level in Dragon Age might be 18+, but it's not mature - it's silly. Some might be realistic, I'll take the Witcher for comparison again. I'm sure Bioware looked very closely at The Witcher and adopted a lot of ideas from that game. Finishing moves, severed heads, that was just too familiar. But Bioware has overdone it, and that's where it's not mature anymore. In some scenes the fountains of blood and gore are so silly I fell back into my chair and slapped my forehead, it was not the Witcher but much more the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
This game certainly needs blood and violence, but they've not done it right.
As for the sex, this is again somewhere in between, and again we have to differentiate between storyline and graphics. As for the graphical sex, i.e. nudity, I have no clue where "partial nudity" is shown. In the hottest scenes you see characters in underwear, hardly nude (although parts of that underwear are quite detailed). There are some creatures that show a little more than underwear, but still no partial nudity. A demon and a spirit come to mind, both seem again a little familar (uh... Driad and Bruxxa in The Witcher), but both show as much as the Witcher's censored North American version, with the most delicate parts hidden. So as for graphical nudity, there's not much mature content.
As for the storyline, there are scenes comparable to the one in Mass Effect (Mass Effect's was done better in my opinion) and some "in between quickies". Bioware made sure absolutely every taste is catered to, there are hetero, gay, even options for a mix of all. None of them are very detailed, the main romance plotlines are very well done though, and very tasteful, mature in a positive way. And from my experience, it's not just a "discover everything in the game" thing, your companions can grow so much on you that you really want to get everything out of them. Again, well done, doesn't deserve a "filthy" stamp. Actualy, and you may think whatever you like about that, I'd rather have had partial nudity in the main romance scene, maybe hidden by the camera angles of the cutscene. The silly undies appeared too much like a self-censorship and actually deserve a negative point in maturity. I guess they wanted to avoid the stupid remarks about the Witcher, in which you see a little more and which earned the game an unjustified "sexist" stamp.

Now a last word on the ingame systems. I must say besides the "D&D overhaul" there wasn't much that impressed me. The influence on other characters is the same as in all Bioware games, hardly surprising anymore. Theres no "living, breathing" world around you like in The Witcher, no NPC jobs, no day/night cycles, no weather system, nothing at all. If there are any nifty ideas in Dragon Age, it's in the lore, the story, the characters and setting, but certainly not in any ingame systems. Well, of course there are nifty ideas in the class progressions, feats and spells, but that won't be easy to copy in NWN. But for a living, breathing world The Witcher is still the prime example in my opinion.
You know what my last impression is though, especially with the sometimes very archaic area design? Multiplayer... MMO. This game is made to run on as many systems as possible, on my now 3 year old computer it runs on he highest of highest settings, smooth as silk. There are many aspects ingame and outside that could lead to a multiplayer game, add to that some comments on the DA boards like "we wanted to focus on singleplayer for now" and and and.. it's just a feeling deep in my stomach, but it's not a positive next-NWN feeling, it's more a negative MMO feeling... And yeah, just a feeling, probably best to ignore it.

One "meh" for the textures

Another huge "Meh" for the textures... shame on you Bioware...

Realistic placeables? What for, in a fantasy game... meh.

Sloppy area design, part one... if you just use 10 spots of grass in the whole area (meh), you could at least place those ten spots correctly. Meh.


Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. I'm glad to hear that DA impresses in some areas. It did seem, from the outset, to be a rather generic looking RPG, so that's good news.

Bioware's lack of care for exterior areas is not new, really. Mass Effect had some unfortunate exteriors, too, if I recall. I tend to think Bioware can do writing/scripting, but maybe they should outsource the game design/art to somebody else.

Casa said...

Oh, don't get me wrong, it impressed me deeply. I think the storyline and characters are wonderful, and I'm fighting hard with myself against replaying it right away.
Area design is really the main problem with it. It doesn't hurt the game so much that it ruins your fun, but it's certainly no competition to any other recent RPG, so I agree with your comment about outsourcing level design. I could use a job... ;)
In other news, I opened the toolset again last night and found some neat stuff there, like the function to lipsync voiceovers... I haven't really tried it out yet, but it looked like something I'd love to play with. Very powerful stuff in there, but I'm not sure if I'm having the patience to dig deeper while I'm still busy with Middleforest.

Erik Karlsson "Berra" said...

Thanks for sharing your opinions! Sounds like many aspects of the game seems really great and some seems to need some improvement. Perhaps Bioware'll adress some of the issues in later updates?

I enjoyed reading your view of the game.

Michael A. Sinclair said...

Interesting comments on the maturity level of the violence. I think people often assume that, the more blood and guts you have, the more mature something is. But it doesn't work that way. You talked about how the violence in District 9 was humorous, rather than sickening, and that sounds like what's going on here.

A mature treatment of violence is when we want to see it stop. When you have to turn away, not because you can't stomach the blood, but because of the true expression of hatred and brutality within the human soul. Violence doesn't have to be bloody to be mature. As an example, take the new James Bond movies. These films have a mature treatment of violence because it's close, personal, and traumatic. It's not glamorous or heroic. It's dirty, horrific, and soul-staining.

I'd like to see that kind of violence presented in a game. Right now, most games remind me of a sick twist on the Six Flags commercial: "More blood, more fun!"

Ben Harrison said...

Interesting overview. I haven't had a chance to try the (non-beta) game or toolset yet, but I can see myself liking and disliking the same things about the game as you.

One thing that stood out for me from the beginning as a bit silly was the visual violence, actually -- the blood splatters and so on -- as to me that kind of representation of violence decreases realism and immersion. As Michael says, realistic/mature violence is usually enjoyable in a novel or RPG because of the circumstances characters are in that, if they're at all sympathetic, we don't want them to be (with many possible exceptions in heroic works, admittedly).

I can certainly understand why a more shallow type of violence is presented, given a commercial game's wide and varied audience.