Why You Should Play Dragon Age. Again.

I am somewhat slow to complete video games, as a general rule.

For example, I finished Portal, for the first time, a few months ago. Portal was first released in 2004. It was a relief to finally understand all the cake jokes, although I did identify with this a little too much.

Many games I simply leave unfinished. I played FF X-2 to within probably 4 hours of 100% completion, got to a part I didn’t like and just stopped. The reason for this is simple – I play video games because I enjoy the story. More often than not, the actual gameplay tends to bore and annoy me after mere hours. Expressed in a simple equation:

desire to see how the story turns out < amount of suffering from actually playing the game = point I turn off the game system This also explains why I consider watching my husband play through a game as essentially the same thing as me playing through it. So when I tell you that I have completed Dragon Age:Origins three times, one of which I actually held the controller for the entire time, and that I and my husband have additionally started five more characters and logged well over 200 hours of gameplay, you can surmise the following:

Damn. Good. Game.

(Yes, I do understand that Dragon Age blog posts have been played out, and I really should be talking about Mass Effect 2 like everyone else right now. I’m thinking I probably have at least another hundred hours of DA to play though. And the ME story, while interesting, isn’t as gripping for me. So it’s gonna be a while.)

That said, there are two main reasons why this game has so succeeded in my household:

Amazing Characters

I was going to rave about the game’s plot, which is pretty cool, but then I realized that wasn’t really why I enjoyed the game. The plot is fairly straightforward, after all, so even though it has some twists and plenty of room for theories about the sequel, it doesn’t explain the constant hum of the PS3 over the past few weeks.

But Alistair might. 🙂

See, what holds up the plot is this crazy cast of characters, who have been given so much thought and backstory and motivation that even having played through as much as I have I still don’t know everything about them. How is that possible? Well the first reason is a technique that Bioware has used before – your party members have conversations with each other, and in those conversations, they reveal a lot about themselves. They did this way back in KOTOR, and it was awesome then, but now they’ve improved the idea vastly.

Not only are there so many conversations possible that in a normal playthrough you will never see even half of them (and you will want to, believe me), but those conversations are rooted in what’s going on the the world around the characters, so they change. Two characters talking will say different things based on what is happening in the plot, what relationships are going on in your party, what gender you are, what race you are, sometimes what class you are and even various choices you have made. This is true both of party members and NPCs, such that sometimes you’ll be talking with a vender or questgiver and one of your party members will decide to butt in, bringing up new information and often choices that you wouldn’t have had in a different play through or party configuration.

It’s not even just a selection of a different conversation to play, either – the second or third time you play the game you’ll start to notice conversations that you’ve heard before have actually changed, and a different conclusion may be reached based on what is happening when the conversation is triggered. The amount of writing and recording that must have gone into this is just staggering. I just triggered a conversation with my 6th character between two party members that I had never heard before, and the information in it suddenly made me realize a secret motivation for a character I had never discovered before. That is just plain crazy. I love it.

But even besides the incredible dialogue, the characters have one other secret weapon – some of them can change themselves. Not just their relationship with you, but actually change their perspective on the world. And these changes are not simply “good” and “evil”, but things such as “Do I care more about my duty or my feelings?” or “Does my past define who I am today?” A character that reacted to a choice you made one playthrough may react totally differently the next time, even if they like your character the same amount. (Your own character has lots of depth too. You’ll often get three or more conversation choices which say *almost* the same thing, but with a different emphasis or tone. You rarely choose between clear cut good and evil and there is never an indicator of how good or evil you’re becoming in the game – people just react to who you are and what specific choices you make.)

And speaking of liking your character – yes, there is a bar to let you see how high or low your favor is with a particular party member. However, this does not necessarily affect that party member’s worldview – meaning that they will remember and react to choices you make regardless of how well they like you at times. This means that unlike other games I’ve played in the past, you can’t just do whatever you want and shower your party with gifts to make up for it. There’s a little leeway for relationship grinding, but not a lot. So if you want to do something you know will make someone mad, it’s best to not let them see it. And sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Also, that little bar doesn’t make it easy to figure out what actions will grant you favor with a particular character either. Again, it’s not a straight up good/evil thing, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Kinda like, I dunno…people?

Incredible Variety

Even if you were to set aside the variety in characters and conversations, you could still make a case for the variety in the game itself. Of course, there are great choices and it’s amazing how every little thing you do affects the story and the fact that you can get to the end text and sometimes not even know why something happened…that’s just amazing. By the third time around you’ll have a decent handle on the major events and how they affect the story at the end of the game, but even then there is more content in the mid game that changes minor events which can then change even major events…and hence the end. Not to mention the choices available to solve a problem…I can think of 6 different ways to solve one of the very first main problems, and I’m not sure I’ve even found them all still. Way beyond good and evil. Did I mention it was crazy? Just wow.

But that’s almost expected of a Bioware game, as they’re known for their story telling. So let’s talk about the non-story variety. First, there’s an amazing (have I used that word too much?) amount of non-quests. What do I mean by that? Well, sometimes you’ll find a scrap of paper on the floor, and it will have something written on it. Adding information to your in-game Codex is a big part of the game both in explaining backstory and gaining XP, but you do it so often that chances are you’ll stop reading the entries fairly early on, unless something gets added to your quest log so you know you need to do something. (We won’t even go into what it takes to fill out the whole codex here either. I don’t think I’ve done it yet.)

But sometimes, a random paper will tell you about something that sounds suspiciously like a quest – where a treasure is, for example – and never officially give you a quest log entry. And if you follow the implied instructions, you’ll get a little bonus – a reward, a new conversation, a codex entry, or even a mini cut scene. This happens more often than you might expect, and sometimes has unintended consequences later.

And what about combat variety? On first glance, the fact that there are only three classes may fool you into thinking combat will be a simple and repetitive thing. It is true, as I have seen people say, that you can go through the game and ignore combat – pretty much just run up to someone, hit them with a sword and be done with it. Not on the harder difficulty settings maybe, but it can be done, and if you’re rushing through the game so you can write a review…I guess that’s one way to do it.

On the other hand, each class has four specializations, which can totally change the way you play. And just unlocking all of those requires you to play through twice (well, possibly you could do it in one, but it would make for a really schizo character). If you get bored in combat you can take over any of the other party members and play as them instead. No two mages are alike without even getting into shapeshifting or arcane warriors. Heck, Keith and I both played a straight rogue our first playthroughs, but our combats were totally different, just because he favored melee and I played the whole game with a bow.

And you can make potions. And poisons. And traps. (yes, crafting – which at times is even used in quests, like a freaking MMO) And play favoring items and bonuses, or hexes, or using some of the DLC abilities. Some of your party members have special combat that is only specific to them that you can play with. And when you think you’ve gotten tired of real time combat, there’s still the seriously detailed tactics system which allows you to even setup combos with other party members, turning the game into a strategy rube goldberg system where you basically just press the button and watch it go. You can focus on persuasion. Or intimidation. Or pickpocketing, even in combat. Way too many choices.

The game has more replay value than any other I’ve ever seen. It is well worth picking up one more time. If you’ve never played Dragon Age:Origins before, go play it. If you have, think about playing it again. Every time I think I’ve discovered everything, it surprises me. 5 stars with no hesitation.

End Note

Lest you think I am unaware of any room for improvement, let me say that there are two things I don’t like about Dragon Age. One, there are two sections which can get boring after the first couple of times playing them, one because the puzzle only has one solution and the other because you stay in a particular area too long and can get tired of looking at it.

And two, it’s taking entirely too long for Bioware to put out more DLC and the sequel. Hurry up already.

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