Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wrapping Up: Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening. Yay Colons!

As I’d hoped, I was able to finish Dragon Age: Awakening last night. As I’ve noted in each of the last two podcasts,  my overriding impression with this one is that it’s a solid game but it’s one that seriously lacks some polish. I’ve no idea what sorts of plans Bioware has for the future of this franchise –aside from an insert card in the game packaging referencing something for February of next year- but I get the impression that this product was forced out a mere four months after the release of the main game in order to keep the production schedule rolling for whatever else is coming down the pike.

What I don’t know about game publishing and financials and marketing budgets and particle physics you can just about squeeze into the grand canyon, but I do know when a product diminishes a franchise instead of enhancing it and, unfortunately, Awakening edges perilously close to doing just that, not because there isn’t good stuff here, but because very little of it is executed in a way that meets the standards of the first game.

There were wide swaths when playing this game when I was absolutely enthralled with the story and the action, but there was always something at the end of the rainbow that derailed it. Here are some examples (some moderate spoilers follow):

- Bugs/Errors. The character Sigrun was the last NPC I recruited into my party. When you recruit an NPC in this game you need to return to Vigil’s Keep to have them go through The Joining ritual. Unfortunately, when you complete the last of the game’s three primary quest areas the person you need to speak to about the Joining refuses to talk about it. All you get is, “Do we proceed with X, or do you nee more time?” So, Sigrun never actually becomes a Grey Warden and I never get her companion quest. (Come to think of it, I never got Oghren’s either, although I think that had more to do with his not liking me very much.) You can avoid this scenario by doing the Blackmarsh quest last. Justice (who is a great NPC to have) is sort of already a Grey Warden and doesn’t need to do The Joining.

- Incomplete/Rushed Quests. At the end of the final big boss battle (the only remotely challenging battle in the game, btw) it cuts to a pre-rendered scene in which your character puts his sword through the big bad’s head and walks away. That’s it. Cue text-based epilogues. First of all, I worked hard to get that sword. I’m not leaving it in some creepy boss lady’s head, alright. Secondly, that’s it? Seriously? Where’s the wrap up that shows me, rather than tells me, about the immediate aftermath? I got more satisfaction from the aftermath of defending the city of Amaranthine a couple of hours earlier –-which was awesome-- than I got from the game’s primary ending. Weak.

- The game is just not well-balanced. On the PC DA: Origins was a challenge on Normal difficulty. You needed to use tactics both in positioning and with skill usage. You needed health poultices and injury kits. You needed to think! In this one I barely touched health poultices, only had a couple of character sustain injuries (mostly because I wasn’t even trying to be careful anymore), and I only had one full-party wipe and that was in the final boss battle. It’s like this because your characters level up like crazy, the new specializations and talents are wickedly overpowered, and the Tier 8 and 9 items you can gear up with are insane. I had rings that were giving me +10 to attributes, a maul that offered my two-hander 100% stamina bonus, etc. Yes, leveling up and acquiring new skills is fun, but come on now. There are other ways to develop fun gameplay besides hearing a leveling-ding when you finish off a monster or quest. In fact, by the end  of the game leveling up my characters was actually boring. I already had them maxed out on the skill trees that mattered to me. There is no thrill to bumping up a characters Strength from 60 to 63. It’s absolutely pointless.

There are other things I could pick on as well, but you get the gist. Each of these issues are the sort of things a couple more months in the oven would’ve addressed. A good game expansion gives you more of what’s good in the original game, while enhancing gameplay within the framework of the existing engine. In the case of Dragon Age, that should’ve meant more in-depth character interactions, more intricate quests that have a good payoff, and tactical battles against beasties that aren’t horridly overmatched for your band of renown. (Yes, you can turn the difficulty up, but the difficulty scale was just fine in the original. The only reason this game is so easy on Normal is because they overpowered your party and didn’t do a good job play-balancing.)

And yet, as disappointed as I am with Awakening, I absolutely do not regret playing it. There are some great quests in here. There are some great moments, especially late in the game during the sequence in which you defend (or not) the city of Amaranthine. The consequences of your choices there are fantastic and I’ll be talking about them some on next week’s JtS. I also loved the new NPC characters. Nethaniel, Sigrun, Justice, etc. were all interesting in their own ways and the companion quests that I was able to accomplish were all satisfying, as is getting to play lord over Vigil’s Keep; lots of interesting stuff going on there (some with a quality payoff, some not).

Should you play it? If you liked the original, absolutely. You might wait a bit to see if you can get this cheaper than $40 (PC), but it’s worth playing. It is more Dragon Age and that’s still a good thing. Just go in with measured expectations.