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Dragon Age: Origins – Part I: A Tale of Two Versions November 13, 2009

Posted by emeraldsuzaku in Blog-along, Video Games.
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I know I haven’t updated in a while, but I went on an extensive sidetrack away from game-related things. While I did fiddle around with some games for a bit, I didn’t really accomplish anything. I knocked out some levels in Scribblenauts, got to Silvalant in Star Ocean, and went pretty much nowhere in Demon’s Souls.  Oh, and I made more progress on Ultimate Alliance 2, now that the new DLC is out. But that will be its own post.

But the real purpose of this post is to discuss Dragon Age: Origins. I had pre-ordered the PS3 collector’s edition from Amazon months ago, and it finally arrived this week. After a fairly lengthy round of installing and inputting content codes, I was taking my first plunge into the world of Ferelden.

Or not. In reality, I spent the next long time in the character creator. It is a very, very sexy thing. I’ve only spent that much time in a character creator once twice before—in Star Wars Galaxies and City of Heroes. Putting some serious time into designing a character in an offline game is a somewhat new experience for me. I was amazed at the various options and depth of customization. And the kicker is that you can only actually customize your character’s face (and hairstyle, voice, and portrait, but meh). There’s no body customization. It’s an interesting choice, but probably for the best. I’d likely still be sitting there if body customization was available.

I ended up creating an Elven mage (typical, I know—but this one was really based off of my WoW character, so….) and running through that origin story. The origin section alone took several hours, and had a lot of dialogue trees. The dialogue in Dragon Age is amazingly well-acted, and the lips sync up well with it. It’s a small thing, but it helps bring the characters to life. And even early on there are some interesting lines you can pick. There is some odd shadowing and shimmering on character models during conversations on the PS3, but nothing major. Movement and conversation work well.

And then there’s combat. Combat works well enough if one is soloing (which is the case for the first couple of dungeons in the origin), but the interface really starts to get clunky when the combats get larger, as I found out in the third dungeon of the origin. By that time I had a cone of fire that I could spew, and would have killed my compatriots several times over had I been playing on a difficulty higher than normal. The limitation of only having 6 abilities hotkeyed at quickly becomes an issue, as well as only being able to pause combat by opening up the radial menu. The game is screaming for tactical combat, which the PS3 version does not deliver. It’s fun for what it does, but it’s easy to see that the designers had more in mind.

The menu interface also leaves something to be desired on the console. In order to compare equipment in your inventory with equipment that you’re wearing, you have to highlight the equipment and hit a button. This brings up two big boxes with equipment details, covering pretty much all the screen. You can scroll through your inventory in this view, but you can’t actually see what you’re doing. It’s mildly annoying. The codex interface is a bit more annoying. The quests and codex entries are just linear lists that take a lot of scrolling to get through. It’s also easy to close a section you wanted open, and to open a section you want closed on accident. Overall, the menu system, like the battle interface, is functional but not optimal.

I did make it up to the Tower of Ishar in Ostagar in my first evening. I had planned to make the ascent and light the beacon last night. Despite interface annoyances, the game really dragged me in. Three hours passed unnoticed, followed by a couple more. Dragon Age really is addictive.

But wait, there’s more!

After airing my grievances with the PS3 version with a couple of friends who own the PC version, I looked into that version more in-depth. It appeared that none of the issues I had with the PS3 version were present in the PC release, and the interface was actually *gasp* intuitive! After much hemming and hawing, I decided to but the PC version. I installed it (15+GB? WTF!) and quickly recreated my character. The PC version has a couple more sliders in the character creation area, including the ability to tweak the character portrait’s expression. Nothing major, but cool nonetheless.

I had to run through the origin again, but it really wasn’t as tedious as I thought it might be. Even running the same content again a day later, the game was still totally engrossing. I think part of that may have been the actually logical and intuitive interface this time around. The quick pause feature alone is worth it. The tweakable camera angles are also great. There are a few more tutorial tips in the PC version because of the new interface, but nothing major.

The interface isn’t the only place the PC version differs from the PS3 release, however. The loot appears to be different in the PC version (and a bit less to boot). Running through the Harrowing went quickly enough. The dialogue options were exactly the same, and the controls were easier to use (duh).

I popped out of the Harrowing, and ran around the tower with no hint of the framerate hiccups present in the PS3 version. Yay! Though, in my explorations I noticed that bookcases no longer sparkle like chests and crates if they have loot. That is very good to know. Some other things also fail to sparkle, so it pays to be more observant in this version, as well. With the mouse and camera control, though, it’s really pretty simple. Things that you can poke still glow blue when you mouse over them.

My next real eye-opener was the spider-infested store-room tunnels. Now, I am running the game at maxed-out graphical settings, but DAMN does this place look good. Total night and day versus the console. Once again, navigation was simple, auto-pausing upon entering combat was great, as was the occasional manual pause. This (mini) dungeon was much more fun this time around. I was in and out in no time.

A couple of quick conversations later and I was on to the third and final (and only *real*) dungeon of the origin. This was where the game slapped me upside the head and informed me that I was an utter fool if I thought the difficulty level would be the same as the PS3 version. That is very much not the case. The PC version is *harder*. Not because of any interface clunkiness, but because the enemies seem a little smarter, hit harder, etc. And later on, there are more of them. I was much more involved in combat this time around, and I got this overwhelming feeling that this was how the Baldurs Gate and KotOR games *should* have been. It was incredible. Combat was fast, frantic, and just plain awesome.

I plowed through the dungeon without much of a problem, came out, had my conversations, watched a couple cutscenes, and joined the Grey Wardens. I did pick a couple of different dialogue options this time through just to see, but nothing really affected anything. Which, since I don’t have any real party members yet, makes sense.

Onward to Ostagar! I tore through the dialogue, and found a quest that I hadn’t run across previously—a guy captured for desertion had a key to a shiny cool chest, but wanted me to get him some food and water before he’d trade it to me. I could have tried to kill him outright, but I decided I wasn’t playing that kind of character this time around. Because I screwed up with my skill allocation I hadn’t picked up a level in Coercion, and I failed to get him his food. Oops. I guess I’ll see about trying that quest next time around with a rogue.

My trek through the woods went well enough, though I did have to reload once. It turns out that in the PC version, letting yourself get sidetracked while the other three members of the party deal with a mob of enemies will start getting people killed. Who’da thunk? Did I mention that the PC version is harder? With more enemies? Yep, this is where it really starts to show. I cleared through the woods well enough, this time conspicuously avoiding the old Grey Warden ruins until I’d finished up my other quests out here. After getting all the side stuff done I went along, met Morrigan and her mother, and returned to camp. Though, not before sprinkling some ashes on some rocks and awakening a demon and having to dispose of it. Yep, something else I hadn’t found last time through. Spiffy.

Like before, I came, I saw, I Joined. The war council was the same, with the same sinking feeling that Loghain was going to turn tail when the beacon was lit. The cutscene of the beginning of the battle once again gave me flashbacks to Lord of the Rings (might have been the totally awesome music), but this time was much prettier. I fought my way to the tower (sustainable abilities, like frost weapon, really can suck up the mana) and went inside.

And promptly got rocked. Repeatedly.

This was the point where the game told me it was serious. That it had shown me how to play and now expected me to put up or shut up. It flattened me. Several times. This was where I learned that just because I had a healing spell didn’t mean that it was actually going to do the job all by itself. I ended up mowing down health packs like a starving denizen of a third-world country, and that finally got me through. The next several rooms were a tad easier, though no less intense, and then I got to another big room, this time with a ballista close by. That I could use. It was awesome. By the end  I was pretty much bowling for party members, but meh. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I discovered on the PS3 that even with friendly fire off, cone of cold would still freeze allies even if it didn’t damage them. I suppose the knockdown from the ballista would be no different. So I kept firing the bugger with the occasional break to life drain the baddie shooting at me and using health packs on the rest of my team.

I tried to cautiously go room by room, but apparently enemies in this game can open doors, so I was pretty much up against 6+ guys at once at a minimum. But it’s all good. There were many mana-giving corpses on the ground—thankfully all the enemy’s.

When I reached the top of the tower and saw my opponent, my first thought was “wow, that’s a badass looking monster” followed quickly by “he is *so* going to eat me.” He did have a lot of health, and he hit really hard. I ended up not being able to keep the rest of my guys up, usually because he was picking one up and squeezing them repeatedly—which not only hurt them, but also denied them actions so they couldn’t health pack when my heal spell was down. Of particular interest to me, however, was that some of his attacks were manually dodgeable. He’d start to throw a really big rock, and I could run out of the way. He’d charge, and I could dodge. I used this to great effect after he’d broken my other three party members, and managed to take him down with a sliver of health left on my main character. Talk about a tight battle! I love this game.

After the epic boss battle I lit the beacon, watched the cutscene, went “Ah-hah! Called it!” at Loghain’s part in it, and promptly got pincushioned with arrows and landed on my ass. I woke up at Morrigan’s hut, had a lively chat with her and her mother, and am now ready to go to town (literally and figuratively).

And that’s where I stopped for the night. I can’t wait to continue my adventure this evening.

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