Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Getting Jiggy with Dragon Age

As I mentioned yesterday, the best thing about being on the floor at GenCon this year was the behind closed doors Dragon Age demo. (By closed doors I mean that they only showed one group of people at a time, not that the demo was closed to the general public.)

Bottom line: If you're a fan of Baldur's Gate II then this is the one.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

Basically what they showed was the very beginning of the game. You are on the verge of joining the ranks of the Greywardens, who are basically guardians against an ancient evil (or some such thing), the Blight. If you've ever read George RR Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series (excellent), the Greywardens seem analogous to the men of The Wall (excepting that the Greywardens presumably aren't composed almost exclusively of castoff vagabonds and criminals).

The Blight, from what we see in the demo, are basically your standard menagerie of Tolkein beasties (Orcs, Trolls, etc.). But there seems to be some question among the powers that be (in the game world) of how serious a threat they are. (Who didn't see that coming?) The fact that most don't see The Blight as a threat lends to a couple of the characters in the demo being less than cordial toward the Greywardens.

When the demo begins you arrive at a castle with your mentor/boss type figure and find the King of Faerun (?) has come to greet you. The king is friendly, but pompous, full of grand visions of leading his people into battle against The Blight, which is cliche, but he breaks out of that a bit in the demo because he's also competent in his planning and execution when battle arrives. (If he'd gone all weak in the knees the second the steel started flying that would've made him an unbearable cliche.) He's also one of the few remaining supporters of the Greywardens, so he appears to be an ally, assuming he lives through the first battle.

After this initial encounter with the King, you're left to your own devices for a bit as preparations for the upcoming battle with The Blight are made. I should point out that the attention to detail in this world is astonishing. From the armor people are wearing to the varying crests on shields to the architecture of buildings, Bioware appears to have constructed a convincing three dimensional world for us to go and inhabit.

Back to the demo. At this point we walk over to see a man being held prisoner in a cage. He was put there for stealing a key to a chest containing, of course, some magical (or at least valuable) items. He hasn't been fed for a long time and is starving and because he still has the key (he swallowed it and, with nature taking her course, it has returned to his possession) he's willing to give it to you if you get him some food. Here we're presented with our first choice. Get some food for him, leave, or kill him and take the key. The Bioware crew left it up to the audience and in both demos I sat through the bloodthirsty ones in the crowd won out. The nearby guard pitches a fit when you off the prisoner, but ultimately does nothing, which struck me as weak plotting, *but*, the guy giving the demo was less than subtle in intimating that there would be consequences further down the line for killing the prisoner. If so, that's the kind of stuff Dragon Age needs a lot of. Having too much consequence free actions and dialog were a weak point of Mass Effect.

From here they fast forwarded to the attack of the Blight, which is spectacular. (Actually, there's another scene in between with some battle planning, but I don't remember the details of it very well.) Yes, it's the same as the video sequence they released at the time of E3, and yes it's very much like the Battle for Helm's Deep scene in The Two Towers, but in an RPG PC game? It's still pretty unprecedented. Anyway, your character has been charged with lighting a signal fire, which means you're not in the meat of the battle. (Boo!) As I'm sure you can guess, however, your plans to just saunter over to the right location and light a match do go awry. So, wait for it, you'll have to fight your way to the tower where the signal fire awaits.

Bioware showed off a fair bit of the combat model, which is reminiscent of a much better looking Neverwinter Nights. There is a lot more interaction between combatants than in that game, but I think we've got a ways to go tech-wise before we see combat in this type of game that looks really authentic. Anyway, not unlike a World of Warcaft game, you have various combat skills at your disposal that you can deploy, like attempting to knock your opponent to the ground. What's nice, and this is in one of the online vids if you look around, is that you can play from a 3rd-person over the shoulder perspective, or you can do it the way god intended and play from a distanced isometric view. From that view the combat, which is pausable real-time, is just like something out of an Infinity Engine game (Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, etc.). Lovely.

Once they got our hero and his merry band (there were three followers) to the tower they switched over to show the mage class. The spell effects for the mages are just bad ass. When they cast the Blizzard spell in a wide open room, it looked like their was a damn snow storm in there. Niiice.

I particularly liked that spells that have an area of effect allow you to see what area you're going to affect before you cast it. So, if you're going to cast the cone of flame spell (the actual name eludes me), once you select it, you'll get to visibly adjust the angle of its use to maximize its impact and avoid hitting your party members. Trying to keep your party guys safe from your own spells was always an issue in the Baldur's Gate games, so it's nice that they've addressed that here.

Anyway, after a pitched battle with a great big, nasty beastie (the same one from the online E3 videos), the signal fire is lit and the game goes into a canned sequence from the battle below. The king's life is threatened and then the screen goes to black. End of demo.

Ultimately, if you watch a lot of movies or read a lot of books in the fantasy genre, you might be left with the impression that this world is pretty standard fare. And from that perspective, I suppose it is. But I can't name the last PC RPG I played that showed this kind of scope and attention to detail. So, while Dragon Age could easily be dismissed as Bioware's attempt to recreate The Lord of the Rings in their own IP, I say what the hell is wrong with that? We need more of that old school PC RPG goodness in the world dammit!