I don’t play massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMOs) anymore. I’ve tried Eve Online, Age of Conan, and of course Lord Creator World of Warcraft. I’ve watched my friends play and heard them discuss numerous others, and from what I can gather, they all involve two key elements that millions of people confuse with fun: countless hours of grinding and prolonged interaction with players with names like “L33t Mastah Killah” and “IPWNNOOBZ.” WoW‘s marketing department frequently claims, “10 million people can’t be wrong.” I doubt they use that marketing slogan in Germany.
Dragon Age: Origins by Bioware of Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect fame attempts to trump both issues by delivering a single-player role-playing experience with many MMO conventions. After about fifteen hours of play, it shows great promise. Whilte its interface indeed borrows heavily from MMOs and particularly WoW, DA evolves the genre by presenting a mature storyline, believable characters, and a rewarding non-“grindy” quest log in a relatively open world.
The game offers six individual prologues, each about two to three hours in length. As a Dwarven noble warrior, I began as Doshan in the dwarven city of Orzimmar (not Orgrimmar, that’s WoW, you MMOnkey). Although all prologues eventually converge into the main story, Doshan’s experiences in the political tumult of Orzimmar surprised me. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but some of the dwarves, many of whom claim to value honor, turned out to be backstabbing Machiavellian filth. Bastards. There will be blood.
DA‘s dark and bloody main story is one of hubris, greed, and exile. The player eventually joins the Grey Wardens, a small group of warriors, rogues, and mages dedicated to stopping the resurgence of the Blight. The First Blight swarmed over the land after some overly-ambitious mages invaded heaven, corrupting themselves and desecrating it in the process. They returned as the world’s first Dark Spawn and tainted the old Dragon-gods into arch-demons. If it sounds like traditional “Great Evil threatens the world” high fantasy fare, that’s because it is, but the characters are well-acted and well-scripted enough to keep the plot interesting and my mouth has dropped open on several occasions.
I bought DA because of Bioware’s promise of “morally ambiguous” choices, and for the most part I’m satisfied. ME, BG, and many other RPGs typically feature decisions clearly on a good-neutral-evil framework, akin to the following (thank you to Steerpike):
LITTLE GIRL: Help! My kitten fell down the Haunted Well! Will you rescue her?
PLAYER (choose one):
- I’d be happy to help.
- Are you parents rich?
- I will kill you, rape your kitten, and burn your house down.
Bioware promised something meatier with more shades of gray, and it has so far delivered. As Doshan, my younger brother warned me of my older brother’s plan to kill me as I was a perceived threat to his ascendancy to the throne. DA’s dialogue choices did not disappoint. Do I strike first? Do I wait and see? Am I infuriated by his betrayal or saddened by it? Do I even believe my younger brother? Do I tell Father? Even if though these options probably don’t have a tremendous effect on the plot, they create an immersive role playing experience formerly provided only by table-top RPGs.
When I’m not talking to people or selling loot, I’m questing and fighting. The quests are varied, interesting, and usually integral to the plot. Some have more than one possible outcome and the “right” choice is not always so clear. Aside from the story, the combat system forms the heart of the game. Anyone familiar with Baldur’s Gate or World of Warcraft will ease right in; the uninitiated will find the interface intuitive and easy. I’m playing on hard difficulty and I found that when the tutorial warned I will frequently need to pause the game to issue orders to my characters, it really, really, wasn’t kidding. Some players may favor the easy or normal setting for a less threatening world, and DA even provides a tactical menu to assign a variety of preset orders to each character such as “Heal anyone below 50% health,” “Cast Lightning Bolt at target with less than 30% health,” or “Target main character’s target.” I had little luck with the tactical menu and chose to disable it as I enjoy the tactical challenge of battle micromanagement; I suspect the BioWare didn’t intend for it to perform well against hard difficulty anyway.
Players can use up to three non-player characters (NPCs) and their main hero. More become available as the party progresses, forcing the player to decide which combination of rogues, mages, and warriors to use. Each class contains several sub-variations and possible skillsets. When adventuring, these NPCs converse with each other and they do not always get along. Furthermore, my actions and dialogue choices sometimes raise or deplete each NPC’s opinion toward me; NPCs with high favor receive bonuses and vice versa. My witch-mage doesn’t particularly care for me as I’m prone to general acts of kindness (but not mercy…never mercy), and my fellow Grey Warden companion endlessly squabbles with her. BioWare included the option to give gifts to other party members as a way to increase favor, and gifts like vintage alcohol, rings, and more esoteric items will ingratiate NPCs, although each has his or her own tastes and these preferences are only revealed in in-depth conversations with them.
So if it’s not apparent, I love this game and I expect to lose more than a little sleep in the coming weeks. It’s so good, in fact, that I played most of those fifteen hours without sound because the game crashed to desktop whenever I tried to activate the audio. Fortunately, this issue was resolved by the latest patch. Now I just need to finish this one before my PS3 arrives for Christmas and distracts me with Demon’s Souls.