Thursday, December 15, 2011

PC: 10 things I didn't like about DA: Origins


Dragon Age Origins is one of my favorite games.
No, I'm fairly certain when I say that it's my single most beloved game in all of history. You might've noticed this, if you've read some of my earlier reviews and essays about it.

Obvious things being stated, I've been pondering for a long time about the fairness of my recent article concerning the Dragon Age-universe. Namely, my article in which I actually took up arms in the defense of the bastard child that is Dragon Age 2. I sat down and concentrated for a long while to come up with 10 points that I actually liked about it, now that the hype and sky-high expectations from Origins were no longer present to cloud my judgment.

DA2 is still a massive disappointment, don't get me wrong. I don't say to myself ”Why, it's been WAY too long since I last played this game!” about DA2. Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Vampire: Bloodlines all hold this honor but of course the cardinal example is Dragon Age: Origins. A game that I'd marry any day.

I've said before that I'll never write a review of why I love Origins so much, mostly stemming from the same reason as why I won't write one about Skyrim. I have so very little bad to say about it that it will mostly be me writing obsessively like a drooling fan boy. There is no point in doing so.

On the other hand, I'd be a huge hypocrite if I didn't consider the impact of my ”10 things I liked about DA2”-article on other essays. Said otherwise; if I had to search for 10 great things in DA2 it only seems fitting that I try to find 10 bad things in Dragon Age: Origins.

So this is it. 10 things that cross me in my all-time favorite game. I can't say it's been easy.

1 - Oghren
Let's start with the heavy hitters. My single biggest issue with this entire game.
Oghren.


People have scorned me for being such a hater against the filthy dwarf, which has only led to a deep and sincere feeling of bafflement on my side. There are actually people out there who like him?
To refresh your memory, Oghren is the smelly, ale-stained, rough dwarf whom you meet as you do the Orzammar-quests. I'll be honest with you here; my memory keeps failing me when people ask me to tell anything more about him. Except the fact that his spec is so-and-so from a technical point of view, Oghren will always be the underdog of the Origin-NPCs in my optic. And that's saying a lot, when you consider that he's below the dog.

A lot of people love him because he's ”funny” and ”silly” in that ”old-school stereotypical” sort of dwarf-way. You know; he drinks, swears, loves to fight and is unkempt to the very last hair. That's funny. Right?
Right??

LAUGH, DAMN YOU!

No? Me neither. Even if you'd argue this qualifies as comic relief, it's been done to death SO many times. It's what also gradually ruined Gimli for me as the LOTR-movies progressed. Dwarf jokes. Tossing a dwarf, the burping dwarf whenever someone is having an important conversation, 'OH LOOK, salted pork, I'm a dwarf, must mean I LOVE eating!'. I'm SO tired of it. And Oghren is just contributing, in his own abysmal way, to keep this stereotype alive.

I love fantasy conventions, actually. But a lot in the Dragon Age-universe is about conventions with a clever twist. The dwarves are still an industrious race governed by a caste-system with great respect for their elders. Fine, I can easily live with that. Just as elves like the forest and commune with the environment through ancient means. But all elves aren't what you see in Overlord 2.


Oghren might've worked in a less ambitious game where he'd stand with more uninteresting NPC's. But compared to Alistair, Leliana and my all time sweetheart Morrigan, he's just so annoyingly bland and stereotypical. Even when I force myself to include him in my parties I never feel any depth. And even Shale makes for better comic relief than him. I suppose that with all the other races, they'd had to include a dwarf one way or the other. Perhaps they simply saved the best for Varric.
In fact, they should do a movie along the same theme of Twins. Just with Varric and Oghren.
I'd watch it.

Oh, and while we're at it, the initial reason why I never touched Awakening was the commercial line: ”Including an old favorite from Origins” and my reaction once I found out whom.
I imagine he was the easiest to fit in, since he had so little personality.

Boring!
Next.

2- Denerim
Might sound odd, you say? I suppose, and this is actually one of the minor flaws of the game. But it's a good starter for the geographical complaint department.
I didn't really like Denerim that much. I'm aware that this is sort of like being given a hundred grand and complaining that you didn't get two, but compared to other fantasy cities it seemed...model'ish. There weren't really THAT many places to go in the end, you fought a bit in some alleys and got to see the market square among others. But I felt more atmosphere in, say, Redcliffe.

Denerim didn't have to be Kirkwall in order to be convincing. It could've been bigger; it could've had some more areas and places or out-of-plot-events to encounter. Origins had a heavy emphasis on travelling near and far, so focusing on one single city was obviously never on the agenda. I imagine I'm just holding this up a bit to the first Baldur's Gate in which you actually began a whole new game once you entered the city.
I don't think it's a totally unfair point I'm making. Games such as The Witcher still manage to build up convincing cities without any of them being particularly big. But in the end, I'm glad they prioritized as they did, and chose to focus on the world instead.

But I've started to become positive now and that's baaaad. Onwards to the next disappointment.

3- The Fade
And noooow we're talking.
Besides from Oghren, the Fade-sequence in the Mage Tower is beyond doubt the biggest issue I have with this game. Not based on concept, the idea is nothing less than brilliant. So is the journey through the tower in which you encounter the demons, slain mages and templars, the carnage and the atmosphere is so thick. I love it.
Up till that god awful sloth demon whose head I always want to rip out whenever I encounter it. No, I don't want to have a rest. No, the world won't go on without me! Please don't pull me through this horrible sequence yet another time. For the same reason, I always get the Mage quest over with first.

Why is the Fade bad, you ask?
Well, for starters; it's WAY too long. Even when you've done it a couple of times I still have no clue or remembrance of the locations of the various forms. Not to mention the order in which they must be obtained. It adds a lot of time to the place, even when you decide to just give in and run gamefaqs.com in the background for a guide. I can understand why some people will want to explore and spend time here, due to its mysterious and alluring nature. I really can. But it becomes tedious combing every passage and nightmare for those stat-bonuses. Yet, they are nifty and make your job easier, especially if you play on harder settings, so getting to them really is a great idea.

The Fade could be an ideal place to basically play out any encounter the developers could come up with in their twisted imagination. Everything is possible in there. Instead, we only get three extremely short encounters, one for each of your followers. It feels so cheap. Why not expand upon that idea, and make three separate dungeons floors instead? ”Because that would take up way too much work, Maynard!” I hear you say. But face it, they already made the other nightmares in which you have to form-dance, crawl through holes and play with fire like were you in a circus. How much would it really have taken to just make a miniquest for each of the companions you brought along? Or hey, if you really insist on your point, why not just make it one single long quest for you in which you had to enlist your party members' help along the way? Instead of freeing them for the final boss alone?

Origins wanted to let us know how dark and gloomy it was. That this was evil, sinister fantasy. With the risk of sounding slightly disturbed, I'd like to point out that I've had much worse and sinister nightmares than being a mouse or a half-naked burning man.

4 - The Deep Roads
This one is a little more tough than the Fade. I'm a bit ambivalent about it. In many ways, I love the entire Orzammar section. The city itself is brilliant, the quests and your journeys in the dark roads really bring me that claustrophobic feeling. But no matter how great it feels, I always end up groaning a bit towards the end, wondering when the Brood mother will show up.
You run around a lot in these roads, especially if you want to get all the quests and items. There are so many enemies, a lot of them are quite repetitive and I always wish I could at least skip some of it to advance the story.

Even then, you also have to make your way to the anvil afterwards and by that time I always want to just get the hell out of there. On the other hand, though, one of my huge complaints about DA2 is that there was way too little of the Deep Roads and The Fade. So I suppose that out there we can find a golden middle way.

5 - The DLC
Yes, this isn't an entirely fair point to throw at a great game but it's not entirely unreasonable either. And it has to be said in this regard, at least for what Origins spawned later on.
I've always hated the majority of the DA-DLC. I've never tried anything for the second game, besides a weapon-pack, but by now I'm through most of the crap they spewed out for the first game. And I'm far from impressed.

In a way, several of the releases really show what can potentially go wrong with DLC. I'm a big fan of it myself, but it's so rarely you see anything of good quality. It becomes a quick, money making machine that can often tax heavily on the fans before they decide it simply isn't worth it. I know that's how it went for me at least.

I've always said that DLC in the RPG'ish sense should strive to tie together loose ends or extend already good games with new quests, encounters and experiences. New weapons, armor and looks are all good but I'm not keen on them. As for Origins, the only DLC I ever felt worthwhile was Leliana's Song because it did exactly that. It expanded upon an already great character and even though it was short it had a lot of atmosphere and did portray Leliana in a whole other way. Somehow, I had hoped for something similar featuring Alistair, Morrigan and maybe even Sten.

Sadly, we got the smelly piece of dung that is Witch-hunt, beyond doubt my favorite example of bad DLC. A lot of fans wanted to know what happened to Morrigan after Origins. Be it for romantically, vengeful or simply curious reasons. That is why I was very eager to take up this installment and have my warden chase down his lost love.
The problem with Witch-hunt is that it actually manages to raise more questions than it answers. They might as well have ended the DLC with credits rolling and the iconic Simpsons ”HA-HA!” exclamation playing on repeat. Ending in; ”Yeah, we stole your money. Make up a better ending if you want.”
Others tried to bring new features to the game that we didn't know we needed. Such as the ability to play as a dark spawn (seriously, why would I ever want that?) or get your own keep (which actually managed to pale in comparison to Crossroad Keep in Neverwinter Nights 2). None of them really worked the way they intended to, I think.

I've heard some better things from the DA2-DLC. Maybe I will give that a try later. But for now, I feel ripped off.

6- The loot distribution
Maybe this is just me again, but I never got it? There doesn't seem to be any real system to good drops in Origins, but they don't seem entirely randomized either. The thing is that when you down a boss or something challenging, you sort of expect something very nice to drop. Or simply, you'd expect searching a chest and find something decent (another long living fantasy convention). But, that was far from the case all the time. In fact, you could find some surprisingly good items by rummaging through crates, barrels and odd stuff as you went along. And I encountered it in the strangest of places, such as in back alleys, caves and even outside in the forest.

It likely has something to do with my lack of patience for searching every single lootable container I can put my kleptomaniac hands on in RPG's. A lot of them love this feature, really. Just start counting. We could begin with the BG's, move on to Icewind, Neverwinter 1 and 2 in particular, Final Fantasy to some degree, the Elder Scrolls games and neither the futuristic people of KOTOR 1 and 2 and Mass Effect should feel safe. And I always skip on this part. But in Origins I sometimes felt forced to do so, if I wanted to make sure I picked up the essentials.

I'm not sure whether it's as bad in DA2, but it doesn't feel like it. Either way, I can't help but notice it every time I play.

7 - No social consequences of being a blood mage
Now, this is very specific but somehow always ticks me off a bit. Blood magic is one of the biggest taboos and frowned upon elements of the Dragon Age-universe, and for the same reason I was very cautious about making my main char a blood mage the first time I played the game. Mostly because of the social repercussions it might include, but nonetheless I went through with it.
To my amazement there is absolutely no penalty, consequence or scorn to be had once you turn to the dark side. Your friends don't challenge you or at least tell you that you need to stop, like they did in KOTOR once you started turning Sith. Not even the brilliant Wynne.

It just seems like such a shame. I understand it would take up some additional work for perhaps little gain, but since Blood Magic is so damn good in Origins, I imagine most mages at least considered it.

8- Crafting
Crafting to me always seemed useful but I never got around it. Especially the ability to make your own potions and such was something I wanted to invest heavily in during my first playthroughs, but yet I ended up buying most of them instead. Poisons and traps I've never bothered with, simply because I never saw much point in doing so. I've heard you can make some exploits such as piling of tons of traps and waiting for Flemeth to spawn and be insta-gipped, but seriously, where's the fun in that?

Not sure whether I really prefer DA2's crafting, though. In that case it seemed almost simplistic. This is one of those points of which I have no ideas of improvement, but I imagine the game just never invited you or encouraged the use of traps with its many waves of enemies. Some encounters, though, I could imagine would be way more easy if you had traps to take out the brunt of the force. The fight in the end when you rescue the queen comes to mind.

9 - The PG-Stuff
This one is going to be hard to explain without sounding like an old pig. But I'll try anyway.
I'm disappointed that they took the underwear-road during the love-scenes. And yes, I'm also aware it's no more than a mod away. But in principle, for a game that so heavily sold itself on the premise that it was dark and adult fantasy, these scenes seem like a peculiar choice. They really do.

Age of Conan had no qualms showing off just about everything and that is a far lesser game. I am not even asking for it to be hardcore, but some of the mod'ers out there have done a much better job portraying these scenes, in accordance to what I'd expect from a game as this.  That's also why it's such a small concern, and Bioware likely knew that. Those of us who wanted things in the extreme would mod and shut up, and the rest could look at the 'dark fantasy white bikinis'.

All being said, Origins does feature blood and the run of the mill savagery. It has some elements that seem somewhat gruesome from time to time, but I'm sad that it doesn't have the courage to walk the line just a little bit more. Luckily, it's nowhere near the massive youngster catering of the second game, but I can't help but wonder what they could've pushed it to.

10 - Lack of hedgehogs
Naturally, Origins didn't have enough hedgehogs.

Conclusion:
There are obvious flaws to any game, whether you want to acknowledge them or not is the question. Regarding Origins there surely are elements I don't like and things I'd have made a whole lot different. In the end, we tend to forgive them. I had to think long about these points, and the hedgehogs are not only mandatory, but also included simply because...well, I couldn't come up with 10 points. Things such as the DLC and inventory already feel like stretching the criteria.

If anyone out there has additional input, I'll always love to hear from you!

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