Category Archives: dragon age: origins

Reviewlet: Dragon Age Origins – Awakenings

I bought Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings when it first came out a few months back, played for a couple of hours and… just stopped. I think I was a bit Bioware-d out from thoroughly playing through Dragon Age itself and Mass Effect 2 in fairly short order, and Awakenings didn’t ram a crochet hook of pure stimulation up one nostril and yank my brain out through the medium of excitement alone. The icon was sitting on my desktop filed under “must get back to at some point”, and after the Grand Theft Auto IV expansions with their interminable conversations that you have no control over I though it would be nice to actually pick what I got to say for once, fired it back up, got hooked in this time, and played it pretty solidly through to the end.

[The rest of this post has been rated as “Mild” by the British Board Of Possible Spoiler Warnings. No big twists will be revealed, but if you want to know absolutely nothing at all about any aspect of the game, look away now.]

Story-wise, “solid” is probably a fair description; as I said, it didn’t grab me instantly, but in the right frame of mind it’s engaging enough, and there are some interesting revelations about the Darkspawn as you go. In many ways it’s a slightly cut down version of the original, after a brief introduction there’s A City Bit, A Forest Bit, A Spooky Fade Bit and A Dwarf City Bit that you can choose to visit with some interlinking quests, with a Big Final Battle once you’ve completed the other areas. Each segment is quite neat in its own right, and none drag on too long.

Companion-wise only Oghren comes with you from the main game, and hardly develops past Obnoxious Drunk, I never really cared much for him. A couple of new party members are soon available: Anders the Mage who looks and sounds a lot like Alistair in a dress, and Nathanial Howe, son of Arl Howe, who starts off a bit Inigo Montoya (“you killed my father, prepare to die”), but can be conscripted into the party, and I don’t think it would be a massive shock to reveal he can gradually soften to you over time through the right conversation options. Three more are available over the course of the game, a total of six not making quite such a mockery of going adventuring with a party of four while a massive entourage of slackers just hang around the camp. There are no romance options, though, a bit of flirting with Anders was as much as my female Warden could manage, despite there being a perfect rom-com setup with Nathanial (“His father killed her father! She killed his father! Now he’s out to kill her, but through a whacky bunch of hijinks they end up having to save the world together; while looking for Darkspawn, they found each other…”)

Mechanically there’s quite a bit of new stuff to play with. The level cap is raised, with new spells, talents, abilities and specialisations to pick from as you go; where Mass Effect 2 cut right down on the number of activated abilities, by the end of Awakenings my Rogue must have had around 30 icons on the hotbar for assorted attacks, buffs and skills, and few types of health and stamina potion from the inventory (stamina potions being a welcome addition for non-mage classes, who’d previously fling themselves upon opponents using a wide range of devastating moves, get knackered in about seven second flat, and spend the next couple of minutes panting and occasionally auto-attacking). It teeters gently on the edge of being a bit too much, especially for mages, but with the ability to pause in combat you can always spend a while hunting through the spellbook for that situationally useful ability you’re fairly sure you have somewhere.

I scarcely bothered with the crafting options in the original game, finding or buying potions and ignoring traps entirely; Awakenings adds Runecrafting, and a bit of extra weapon damage never hurts (or always hurts, more to the point) so I thought I’d give it a bit of a try. Very broadly, two runes of the same type can be combined into one more powerful rune, and a vendor sells unlimited quantities of the lowest level runes, so to get a level X rune you buy 2X rubbish runes, a stack of consumable-type-stuff, and click away. It’s not a bad system, but each rune takes up one inventory slot, so even if you totally clear your inventory (a difficult task for a compulsive pack rat, even with the storage chest provided) you can only cram in enough raw materials for a couple of the most powerful runes at a time. This wouldn’t be a major problem apart from the fact that I trained one of my party up in Runecrafting instead of learning it myself, and the rune vendor is in your keep, the equivalent of the party camp from the original game where all your companions hang around between questing. As you’re not actually in a party in the keep you can only use your own skills, which meant crafting consisted of buying a load of stuff from the vendor, leaving the keep to form up a party including the runecrafter, standing just outside the door of the keep actually making the runes, running out of ingredients, going back into the keep (disbanding the party) to buy more from the vendor, leaving the keep again… I could’ve respecced my character to learn Runecrafting (official respec books are another addition to Awakenings, though plenty of mods allowed you to do it in the original), then re-respecced afterwards to drop it for more useful talents, but that seemed like a fair bit of hassle as well. Nice idea, perhaps a bit of a MMOG-y timesink, so after creating a couple of uber-runes for my favourite sword I decided to skip the 1% benefit of making a bunch more.

Speaking of crafting, another minor annoyance: Wade the Blacksmith turns up again, and can make powerful weapons and armour from certain rare things you find in your journey. A piece of Heartwood, for example, Wade could turn into a bow or a shield with just a flawless ruby, a bit of catgut, and some oil. Great! I’d found catgut and oil earlier (through the traditional RPG hero method of taking everything you ever see that’s not nailed down), except somehow, either through my own carelessness or a glitch, they didn’t seem to be in my inventory or storage chest; maybe I’d got rid of them while trying to clear space for the runes. Still, something as common as oil, that must be lying around all over the place; store rooms at the castle, merchants are bound to sell it, maybe just pop along to the nearest coast line and scoop some up from a spill… but no. No, apparently oil is just as rare as the living heart of a sapient tree, and there’s only one flask of it in the entire world.

With the arsenal of new abilities I never had too much trouble in combat; I have a suspicion this might be from turning the difficulty down to “Easy” when I made a bit of a start at a second play-through of Origins to get a different ending, and not changing it after installing Awakenings. Even the bigger beasties like dragons went down fairly easily with a bit of pausing and health potion use, I can’t remember having to reload due to party death at all, so it was quite nice as a casual wander around Amaranthine with occasional widespread slaughter. Towards the end of the game I had to choose a party for what I thought would be Something Quite Important But Not The Big Final Battle, picked three characters who volunteered, and was plunged into what turned out to be The Actual Final Ultimate Battle of Finality with three rogues (including me) and a mage. Not really the optimal composition, but they still managed to defeat everything without great difficulty.

All in all, if you liked Dragon Age: Origins, Awakenings is another satisfying dollop of Darkspawn-slaying fun.

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

One of the things that I like about Lord of the Rings Online is that, in order to claim at least some sort of adherence to the spirit of Tolkien’s mighty work, they needed to keep the game’s armour and weapons towards the more subdued end of the General Garishness Scale as we can see in Figure A.

Figure A - General Garishness Scale

Figure A - General Garishness Scale

Dragon Age: Origins on the other hand is hard to place on the scale because it has, on the whole, a fairly sombre design philosophy with regards to armour and weapons, but has the occasional Warcraftian eyesore whose effect is only magnified by the fact that it keeps such sober company. Take the longsword version of Starfang, one of the better swords in the game, which appears to have been designed by the car stylists from The Fast and the Furious. With its vivacious eggshell blue neon glow from hilt to tip, I think it’s safe to say that it stands out against the more traditional steel on offer, but not in a good way to my mind; it has what I can only describe as veins of glowing neon blue running the length of its blade and it does seem to resemble a giant blue penis in sword form, as though Dr Manhattan had detached his wang and altered its molecular structure in order that you could beat Darkspawn to death with it. Now there’s a fanfic crossover idea.

I suppose that swords in these fantasy games are a bit like lady’s pleasure devices: most want a subtle, discreet unit that doesn’t draw attention to themselves and can be slipped in and out of a body without any more fuss than a modest breathless gasp on the part of the recipient; other people, and I’m not entirely sure that they aren’t either mythical or the sole preserve of fans of adult entertainment films, want a humungous intimidating thing, that glows and sparkles and which could have someone’s eye out from over six feet away, the primary design goal of which seems to be to scare the living crap out of pet cats sneaking around under the bed, or a partner who accidentally stumbles upon it whilst looking for their slippers there.

I don’t really understand the whole ‘the bigger the better’ and ‘if it glows it must be special’ idea behind items in these games, I’m sure the heritage of it lies in fantasy literature and Dungeons & Dragons, and it has since evolved as a cheap and easy way to allow players to quickly identify those with the biggest eRogenous Zone from some distance – half a continent away in the case of World of Warcraft – but all the neon and flashing lights and ridiculously inflated proportions seem tacky and uncivilised to my mind, doubly so when it appears in otherwise sober games like Dragon Age: Origins or Lord of the Rings Online where the starkness of contrast is at its most pronounced, like finding a Constable watercolour titled 37DDs Outside Las Vegas Casino.

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.

I’m suffering from a bout of that irrepressible excitement one often feels with regards to creating a new character; this time however, it’s for Dragon Age: Origins and not another of my innumerable MMO alts. It’s something I haven’t felt in an MMO for quite some time and which I dearly miss, but I think that’s more likely down to my general quietus with respect to MMO hype at the moment, than anything that MMO developers are doing specifically wrong.

To clarify: it’s that feeling you get deep down when you are inspired with a character concept and want very badly to plan out that new character and, more desperately, to see how your new concept pans out within the game. It’s that frenzy of creation that gets your text editor all hot and sweaty, and where Imagination, Anticipation and Expectation throw caution to the wind, discard their clothing and have a frolicking good roll around together between the spreadsheets.

City of Heroes used to drive me to distraction like this when I was playing it; the sheer number of archetype, powerset and costume combinations meant that I could latch on to the smallest thing, be it a single costume item, a combination of a couple of powers, or something else, and build an entire concept around them. Then out would come the spreadsheet and the lists of powers and levels and slots and enhancements, and a build would be meticulously planned. What was worse, as that character was being built, another powerset combination would leap out at me and I’d put the current character plan on hold whilst I built up that concept in my mind; each new idea was like the innocent trickle of snow that is in fact the prelude to an avalanche, a small idea popping unceremoniously into your mind, and before you know it you are buried alive beneath a metres-thick carpet of densely compacted thoughts on costumes and names and builds and all of the overwhelming potentialities.

World of Warcraft did a similar thing but on a smaller scale, with every class appearing deeply appealing, as though they were all attuned to some fundamental primordial genetic trait that is inherent to MMO adherents. Talent specialisations initially served to expand the horizon to the good ship Customisation, offering tantalising hints at new lands that players might discover with their characters, but alas in this case the world turned out to be flat, and players who did not follow the tried and tested paths were doomed to fall off the edge of the world and be lost to the game forevermore.

Many other MMOs have offered the same: EQ2 almost drove me insane with the options and potential for my character. Maybe it did. I wouldn’t be entirely confident in denying the fact that I’m actually still sitting on the floor of my room, rocking back and forth while surrounded by a cityscape of sheets of paper, some crumpled into balls, others folded into obscure shapes, all of them covered in tiny blocks of illegible scrawl and connected by crisscrossing lines and arrows which, unknowable to anyone but me, attempts to plot my perfect character in the world of Norrath. I also expect that other MMOs would provide similar excitement if the game itself appealed to me, Fallen Earth’s expansive skill trees sound like a potential Petri dish of breeding material for the rapidly multiplying bacterial disease that is my desire to build new and interesting characters, for example.

I’m glad that I have, for now, found the bug again through my enjoyment of Dragon Age. I’ve just recently completed the game on its easiest setting whilst skipping many of the side quests, just in order to get to the end and experience the core of the game, something I am notoriously bad at achieving; I am not a game finisher, in the main. However, having finished and got an ending that was pretty much all that I had hoped it to be, I am left wanting more. Thankfully there is plenty more to be had: I have many side quests to complete, party character personal quests, and other such content to explore. I can also try the game now on a harder difficulty, knowing that it won’t put me off entirely if I have to replay a fight a few times and attempt to be more tactical about things rather than just charging blithely in and hoping that it will turn out for the best.

And of course I get to create a new character. I played a Warrior the first time around, a feisty noble lady who become a Templar and a Champion and swung a huge two-handed sword at her foes. Now I’m tempted by an Arcane Warrior, a mage who can get into the thick of melee and mix it up with the best of them. So there are spells to consider now where my Warrior had none, and which armour would be best, and what weapon. I won’t be able to wear my beloved Templar Armour this time around – the most gorgeous looking heavy armour outfit I think I’ve ever seen – both because it’s restricted to Templars only, and also because it is not the best armour in the game; I could afford to wear what looked best when playing the game on the easier setting, but the rules of the Maxminati come in to effect at greater difficulty levels, and so style has to be eschewed for stats, as is regrettably the way in so many RPGs, MMO or otherwise.

So here’s to you, Velkyria, Grey Warden and champion of the people of Ferelden. Enjoy your retirement travels with your dear Leliana, and I will see you again with the coming of the next DLC and Dragon Age 2.

VelkyriaVelkyria in Templar Armour

Until then, I have a spreadsheet and a few text editor windows burning a hole on my desktop.

No safety or surprise, the end

Danger! Here be Dragon Age Spoilers! Previously on the show: allies had been gathered fairly easily, but things hadn’t quite gone according to plan in the Landsmeet. The situation looks nice and simple as we head for the final act, though: Evil Archdemon to be killed, world to be saved, tea and biscuits for everybody, sorted.

The night before the final battle, Alastair popped his head around the door for a quick chat. He was besotted with me, we were ecstatically happy together, I’d just made him King, I figured he’d probably want to show me his gratitude. And by “gratitude” I mean “hammer“.
“Hi” he began, “you know how like we’re all in love and that? Well, I’m going to have to go and shag a bunch of other birds.”

All right, his reasoning was slightly more complex, involving the need for an heir (look at the mess we were currently in due to lack of succession planning) and the fact that Gray Wardens inevitably went bonkers in the nut, meaning a child of one Gray Warden parent was risky enough let alone two, but it was still a kick in the teeth. I went back to Leilana and tried to persuade her that when she’d given the ultimatum and made me pick either her or Alistair she must’ve misheard me, I didn’t say “well regretfully I’ll have to choose Alistair” at all, it was actually “sod Alistair, he’s just going to go off and ‘ensure the Royal succession’ with some strumpet, it’s you I want” but she wasn’t having any of it. That just left Zevran as a possible romantic interest, but he was a bit too close to Captain Bertorelli from ‘Allo ‘Allo to be a serious option (whatta mistake-a to make-a!)

Still, never mind, once I’d heroically killed the Archdemon I’d be fighting ’em off with a stick, right? “Oh yeah, about that…” chirped up Riordan, the conveniently liberated Warden, “I should probably just mention that whoever kills the Archdemon dies themselves. Y’know, it’s a bit like when you’ve got a nuclear hand grenade with a blast radius bigger than your throwing range. Only not like that, and with more magical essence and stuff. But don’t worry! I’ll do my utmost to strike the final blow.”
“Uh huh. The geezer that’s just turned up is our ultimate saviour? Seems a bit unlikely, doesn’t it? Lacks a bit of emotional impact compared to having to choose between me or Alistair. Though if the silly git had let Loghain join up, it would’ve been a perfect Evil Henchman Has Change Of Heart And Achieves Redemption By Killing More Evil Boss But Dying In The Process (there must be a snappier title for that on TV Tropes).”
“Well, narrative imperative does rather suggest that doesn’t it, but we’ll sort it out at the time I’m sure. Hope I haven’t dampened the mood at the pre-battle party too much!”

I didn’t really fancy the vol-au-vents after that and slunk off to bed, but got buttonholed by Morrigan on the way. “Don’t worry, my liege, I overheard that stuff about a Warden having to die, and I have a cunning plan!”
I sighed. “If it’s putting a pair of underpants on my head, a pencil up each nostril and saying ‘wibble’, I don’t think it’s going to help”
“Better than that! I sleep with Alistair, then the evil-demon-essence-thing will latch onto me instead of the Warden who delivers the killing blow, and result in me being pregnant with a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing.”
“That’s the worst chat-up line I’ve ever heard. Still, it might work…”

Dilemma time: having gone to all the trouble of making Alistair King, if he struck the final blow to the Archdemon and popped his clogs we’d be back to square one with the other main ruling candidate locked up. On the other hand if I struck the final blow, being dead would put a serious crimp in my plans for the weekend, as well as making a direct sequel a bit difficult (Dragon Age 2: I Got Better!) If Riordan struck the final blow then nobody would give a stuff, hence being a somewhat unlikely eventuality. Or! I could unleash a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing on the world. Hrm. As the old saying goes, “better to face the possibility of a demon-Alistair-god-magic-baby-thing in the future than your own imminent death in the present”, so I told Morrigan to go for it. As long as I could watch. “That’s the worst chat-up line I’ve ever heard” said Alistair, but he went along with the plan. The strumpet.

Finally we plunged in to the actual final battle, and that was nicely done. For a start it actually made sense of a fixed party size! “A small party of you, say, hrm, oh, I don’t know, picking a number at random, four should go and confront the Archdemon while the rest of the group stay and defend the gate!” The allies you’d gathered in the earlier part of the game were available to call on as reinforcements as you hacked your way through the city (ever-so-slightly undoing the good work of explaining why you have a fixed party of four by giving you a massive pool of troops to call on, only instead of rushing the Darkspawn with a massive human(/dwarf/elf) wave assault you sportingly only unleash five or ten of them at a time; even then it’s an impressively large scale battle that caused the framerate on the old PC to drop off when the fireballs started flying, so it’s obvious why full army RTS-type battles are impractical). Riordan, surprisingly enough, didn’t manage to take out the Archdemon on his own, but the heroic overpoweredness of Morrigan, Wynne and a giant stack of mana potions did the trick. Archdemon stabbed, magical essence diverted to Morrigan instead of killing me as promised, all that was left was the coronation, victory parade and biscuits. And the “what happened to…” montage; apparently Alistair wasn’t the most natural King and kept buggering off on various quests, but fortunately he left the Kingdom in the incredibly capable hands of… me. So that was OK.

I’m quite interested in all the other possible endings, though not interested enough to play all the possible origins through all the combinations of decisions; it’s where the story can really open up, as there are no more fixed points it has to manoeuvre your character to. Spinks posted an interesting link to the forums where people discuss their own endings, and I might try another playthrough sometime, steering towards ending up with Leilana and getting Loghain to strike the final blow on the Archdemon.

What’s also interesting is the announcement of an expansion, Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening (expanding not only the game but the variety of punctuation in the title), with the option to import your character, so perhaps another fixed point to be manoeuvred to after all; I wonder if it’ll take account of all possible endings of the original game, or assume a single “canonical” version?

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Previously in Dragon Age: Zoso the Rogue had gathered together an army of Elves, Dwarves and Mages to defeat the Blight, but first there was the small matter of Teryn Loghain to deal with. All was going according to plan as the team headed to Denerhim with Arl Eamon…

(More spoiler-y Dragon Age spoilers follow,)

So as we headed for the capital everything seemed to be proceeding towards the requisite happy ending: overthrow the tyrant, smite some evil, home for tea and scones. Before actually calling the Landsmeet for the tyrant-overthrowing, Arl Eamon thought it would be a good idea to make sure we had the support of more Arls (and possibly Ukes, Aronets and Iscounts, I’m not sure of the exact structure of the Dragon Age nobility), so we sniffed around a bit for more evidence, clearing the Tevinter out of the Alienage and finding evidence linking Loghain with slave-trading.

The first bump in the previously smooth road was Queen Anora. We got word that despite nominally still being in power she was being held prisoner by the rotten bounder who’d done in my parents; a damsel in distress, you say? Sorted! Off to the rescue. I was worried for a moment it might turn out the princess was in another castle, but nope, there she was, and we bundled her back to Eamon’s estate. Only instead of being all “Swoon, I’m so grateful for being rescued, but the excitement has got to me and I must lie down for a while”, she put herself forward in place of Alistair as the prime candidate to be ruler after we deposed Loghain. That set me thinking that I’d just been taking it as read that Loghain was a Bad Man and needed a kicking, but I wasn’t really sure what his motivation was for abandoning the King at Ostegar. Was he in league with the Darkspawn, deliberately allowing them to overrun the kingdom? Did he just spot an opportunity to grab power? Did just think the King was a bit of a dick (he had a point) who was letting the country go to the dogs? Was he really a patriot, determined to protect the Kingdom in the face of a threat he considered to be greater than the Blight? And now his daughter, the Queen, was selling him out, so what was *she* up to? A double agent come to spy on us, who’d cooked up the whole being captured business? A pragmatist who could see the way the wind was blowing and wanted to be on the winning side?

Until then, Alistair had reluctantly accepted prospective Kingship; he didn’t really want to rule (one of the prime qualifications for a position of power, in my book), and I was pretty sure I could trust him after all our adventures. The “optimal” approach looked to be to get Alistair to marry Anora; continue the royal bloodline, put a thoroughly decent chap on the throne, but with the experienced and steely Anora around to actually run things. Trouble was… I’d got quite fond of Alistair. Usually I’ll play characters as… well, as me, so even if playing a female character it feels strange to engage in a romance with a male NPC, but Alistair was pretty engaging in a Hugh-Grant-in-rom-com sort of way, if Hugh Grant spent less time running bookshops and attending weddings and more time stabbing ogres in the face and acquiring useful abilities for smiting enemy magic users. I think the player character being mute in Dragon Age has a slightly odd effect, it almost makes them seem like an external observer, despite being the centre of everything. It could be very immersion breaking if “you” have a voice that doesn’t seem appropriate or match your idea of the character, but the complete voicing of everyone else throws your muteness into sharper relief compared to previous games where conversations were more textual, and just seemed to put a bit of distance there such that getting together with Alistair didn’t seem weird. Or maybe I’m in denial about something. Anyway… I made a sort of half-hearted suggestion to Alistair about marrying Anora, he got a bit cross, and I dropped the subject. I didn’t trust Anora enough to fully support her, so I made some non-committal about being pleased she was on our side, but I wouldn’t be able to back her bid for leadership, and things were all a bit awkward around Eamon’s mansion like Christmas with a couple of sets of in-laws who don’t really get along.

Volunteering to take the dog for a walk to get away from the tense atmosphere, I wandered off and did a bit more evidence gathering, got revenge on the git who’d offed my parents, was banged up but planned an ingenious prison break (it involved a wooden vaulting horse and bag of soil down the trouser legs, only that took a bit too long so I went with the almost-as-ingenious Plan B of picking the door lock and punching all the guards to death), found the son of a noble who’d been imprisoned after he started asking awkward questions about Ostegar, found a spare Gray Warden who’d been lazing around in a dungeon while I was doing all the hard work (honestly, he hadn’t even constructed a wooden horse to vault over) and rescued another noble that Loghain had chucked into prison. I was pretty sure I’d gathered sufficient backing amongst the nobility to stand against the slave-trading king-abandoning noble-imprisoning Loghain, so off we toddled to the Landsmeet and I presented my case (“Loghain: what a bastard, support Alistair instead, he’s a bastard too, but the good kind”).

The nobles seemed to be going with it until Anora turned up and showed her gratitude for the earlier rescue by siding with her father, which I took as reasonable proof she was only in it for a nice tiara. Either that alone was sufficient to turn the tide back for Loghain, or I’d overlooked some other way of getting more support, as the Landsmeet couldn’t reach a decision on a new ruler and decided to settle things the old fashioned way instead, with a full-on ruck. Several stabbings and a couple of fireballs right in the rebuttals convinced the doubters that they hadn’t actually considered our thoroughly convincing arguments carefully enough, though Loghain himself insisted on a one-on-one duel (which seemed to be mandatory; I didn’t notice a “LOL NO WAI!” option to have him riddled with crossbow bolts). Obviously the Teryn hadn’t come across the old country saying “never propose a duel when your opponent has a massive stack of health poultices”, which didn’t give him much of a chance in the resultant fight, and he surrendered.

Mindful of International Humanitarian Law and the treatment of surrendered combatants, I was keen to see he was treated humanely and that no outrages were enacted upon his personal dignity. The others took those concerns on board, but instead proposed two alternative plans: either give him a nice cup of Darkspawn blood and turn him into a Gray Warden, or cut his head off. Flipping through the Geneva Convention I couldn’t find any references to Darkspawn blood, and decided that course of action might be OK if we told him it was Ribena. Loghain could’ve been a useful ally too, especially with Sarevok’s precedent as Ultimate Opponent Turned Handy Party Member, but Alistair, in flagrant breach of Article 3, was quite insistent on killing him to death. I tried to talk him out of it, but he rather hoist me by my own King-selecting petard by deciding he would take the crown after all and pointing out that, as King, he could do what he jolly well liked. There didn’t seem to be much of an alternative, so I let him get on with it. One beheading later, it rather put paid to any lingering ideas about an Anora/Alistair ruling combination, patricide being a notoriously bad choice for a first date (even worse than a romantic dinner for two at the local kebab shop), and we had to lock Anora up.

Still, justice had (more or less) prevailed, and with the nation (pretty much) united it was time to give the Archdemon a good kicking. At least that looked nice and straightforward. Until Alisatir popped his head round the door wanting a bit of a chat…

(To be continued. Again.)

Don’t step on any butterflies. What do you have against butterflies?

Danger! Dragon Age spoilers follow, of a spoiler-y nature. Don’t read unless you want to be spoiled, or require reduced lift and increased traction.

The structure of Dragon Age, and indeed many CRPGs, invokes predestination; with finite time and resources (especially the voice acting, I imagine), the game obviously can’t represent every possible outcome of every decision and has to guide you through certain set pieces. It’s like an inverse butterfly effect, you’re going to go to the Circle of Magi, the Dwarves and the Elves, and there’s going to be a fight with the Archdemon at the end of it, no matter how many butterflies flap their wings. What’s interesting is how the game offers you decisions which simultaneously have an effect on the outcome, but can fit within that overall structure to minimise the amount of assets and testing required.

I was pretty happy with the way things were going up to the Landsmeet. I’d secured the requisite allies, with dollops of noble self-sacrifice: I’d cleared the demons out of the Circle, saving as many mages as I could; I’d freed the werewolves from their ancient curse (noble self-sacrifice: Zarathian, albeit he needed to be persuaded with a bit of stabbing); I’d destroyed the Anvil of the Void, on the grounds that Branka was more of a fruitloop than a loop constructed entirely of fruit (noble self-sacrifice: Caridin bungee jumping over a lava pit, but forgetting to attach the bungee). I slightly kicked myself at missing out on a noble self-sacrifice when releasing the Arl’s son from demonic possession, as I brought the Circle in rather than getting the mother involved in a blood magic ritual, but everyone seemed happy enough with the outcome.

Generally, the earlier in the game something happens the more fixed it is; the origin stories all end up with you at Ostegar and once there I’m sure you can’t decide that being a Gray Warden doesn’t really fit into your career plans after all, and you’d like to go into insurance instead, possibly via banking. It’s the storyline equivalent of the fallen tree or overturned table that present an insurmountable barrier to your character, the conversation options are there hinting at the wide open spaces of infinite possibility (“I’m not ready to become a Gray Warden!”), but you know where it’s going really (“Yes you are, now shut up and drink your darkspawn blood or you can’t have any pudding”). It might be a problem if you’re wanting an open world with (nigh) limitless choice, but it’s the price you pay for an involving story.

Though a particularly trenchant commenter previously insisted that the game was AWESOME because it forced you into tough decisions where sometimes there’s no right choice, for those main quests I’d suggest it’s actually the reverse: there’s no wrong choice. You have to come out of the quests with allies of some sort (interesting as it would be to have options that totally screw everything up, to destroy all mages then refuse the help of templars, to slaughter the elves but still release the werewolves from their curse, to leave the dwarves in the grip of isolationism, the Final Battle might be a bit shorter if it’s just four of you against the entire Blight), and from the options presented, and doing a bit of reading around, I think I could live with any of the alternative outcomes. Saving the mages presumes the survivors really are a nice bunch after all, as opposed to hideous demon-things just pretending to be nice until they eat your brain, so you can understand the reason for the Right of Annulment and it wouldn’t be too tricky to support it:
“I’m sorry, Warden, I have called for the Right of Annulment. It is my only option.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Oh yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“Definitely. Can’t take any risks with these demons. Take off, nuke the place from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“You don’t want to plead with me at all? ‘Just give me an hour, if I don’t come back then cleanse the whole place, but I have to try’, something like that?”
“Crikey, no, you just told me there’s all sorts of nasty stuff on the loose in there, I don’t want my brain eaten.”
“Oh. Right. It could be terribly exciting, though? I was thinking we could have all the templars out here, maybe some siege weapons with flaming ammunition, very dramatic against the night sky, and I’d be all, like, ‘Prepare to fire!’ and have my arm raised, and then somebody would be all ‘Wait! What’s that?’, and these silhouettes would emerge from the tower, and as the light from the flames played across them we’d see it was you, supporting the bloodied but defiant First Enchanter, and we’d all cheer and stuff.”
“To be honest, if the timing is that tight then even if I do triumph against the forces of darkness it sounds like a better than evens chance of you levelling the place anyway, especially if I dawdle a bit when coming down the stairs, you’re not selling it y’know.”

The elves and the werewolves, well, I don’t think you could ask for a better illustration of why you might side with the Spirit of the Forest. I could even *just about* see my way to supporting Branka, on the grounds that golems are really, really awesome. “The end justifies the means”, after all; the main problem here is that “the means” are not only horrifically unpleasant on two counts (the way golems are created and Brankas efforts to secure the anvil), but the latter is also batshit insane:
“The Anvil is protected my many devious traps, Paragon.”
“Right, traps. Presumably for many centuries they’ve kept the Anvil safe from the Darkspawn hordes that infest these tunnels?”
“Yes, Paragon. The craftsmanship of the traps is amazing, it must have taken an amazingly skilled Dwarf to construct them.”
“Hmm. Something this cunning, it would take another exceptional engineer or smith to have any chance of getting through, right?”
“Definitely. Gibbering wretches like the Darkspawn have no chance, that’s why the Anvil has remained safe until now.”
“Right, I’ve got a plan! I’m going to create loads of Darkspawn.”
“Yes, we should bring the most skilled… wait, what?”
“Create loads of Darkspawn. Obviously in this tunnel system riddled with Darkspawn, where us Dwarves constantly fight to hold the Darkspawn back, the never-ending waves of Darkspawn who can never be totally eradicated, what’s been missing is Darkspawn. I’ll make a load of them.”
Still, in the dim mists of time there’s some sort of twisted logic to her motivation that you could just about rationalise to get hold of an army of golems to fight the Blight, though you’d want to shuffle Branka off to a nice padded room rather than involving her in any military planning…
“So that’s the situation, the Darkspawn are marching on Denerim. Does anybody have a plan? Anybody *apart* from Branka? No? All right, Paragon, what do you suggest?”
“The Darkspawn have a day on us, and are moving quickly. We have only one choice. We must teach a load of pigs to play the banjo. Ding ding ding ding ding oink oink ding ding ding ding ding oink ding.”
“How does that…”
“Wait! How could I be so foolish! There is another option: we could make a really big pancake. I mean, like, five metres across, or whatever the fantasy equivalent of a metre is in this setting, and then cover it in gravy.”

So I had my allies. Things were even going well sartorially; the massive armour sets get progressively more awesome, and all the warriors in the party looked fantastic, clanking around in their heavy metal. My rogue, meanwhile, had gone through a period of looking like a cut-price Roman re-enactor from an episode of Time Team, but settled on a Dalish armour set that looked pretty good (Dalish tailors clearly taking heavy inspiration from Louise Jameson as Leela in Doctor Who), even if the exposed midriff didn’t seem terribly practical. As I’d done the Warden’s Keep DLC very early on, though, the Warden Commander plate armour was only Tier 3, which meant my rogue met its strength requirements in the latter stages of the game, and that looked better still. The mages still got the short end of the stylish clothing stick, but we kept them at the back of any group photos behind Shale and Sten, and they made up for it by being ludicrously overpowered anyway.

So everything was proceeding according to plan, we called the Landsmeet, and that’s when things went slightly out of control…

(To be continued…)

The world’s a forest, in which all lose their way; though by a different path each goes astray.

Here be Dragon Age spoilers.

I had a memorable moment of mirth whilst playing Dragon Age this past weekend. My new venture – Grey Warden Adventure Tours of Thedas – was taking off, and having enlisted the help of the Circle of Magi to create the special effects and theme park rides for Grey Wardenland, I moved my attention to the Dalish elves of the Brecilian Forest with the hope that they could provide cleaning and catering services. The elves didn’t seem terribly keen about the idea, something about the centuries-long oppression of their race at the hands of tyrannical men. Or something, I wasn’t really listening to be honest because I was more interested in having my plate armour shined and my cuticles attended to. After the elves had finished my Brazilian wax and licked the party’s horses clean it was pointed out by the more stuffy members of my party that I should probably offer to do something to help the elves. I claimed that the various ticks and bugs that they had licked from the horses would nourish those two elves for at least a day, what more could I possibly be expected to do? And as is usually the way with these things, ‘saving their entire race from a hideous centuries-long curse’ was the answer.

I performed the standard RPG ritual: running around the camp to see if anyone had any other errands that they needed me to undertake; seeing as I was going into the Forest of Death and Blood anyway, I might as well go and collect old Uncle Frank’s long lost colostomy bag, or see if I could find little Timmy’s favourite teddy which he lost. And if I can find the undead corpse of little Timmy, enter the Fade, solve a series of complex puzzles, slay the demon controlling him and lay his soul to rest too, well, that’d be swell.

As such I found a couple of quests. One was to unite a couple of estranged lovers in harmonious matrimony: she refusing his advances because he hadn’t completed the ritual of The Hunt, and therefore wasn’t a man. Which was obvious to me because he was clearly an elf, but there’s no telling some people. Essentially I think it was a cunningly veiled metaphor: she was concerned about his inexperience because he hadn’t been ‘out in the world’ and ‘shot his arrow’ into a ‘warm, throbbing, piece of meat’.

I thought her worrying overly that he was going to accidentally poke her in the bum hole on their wedding night was not really a valid reason to put off their eternal love and told her so, gave her some lube, and watched them join together in eternal blissful matrimony, ’till death us do part’ and all that. It turns out that that was a bit of ominous portending, and no mistake.

As well as reuniting the sexually inexperienced lovers, I also found a craftsman who told me that if I could bring him a piece of Ironbark he could make me a mysterious item from that material that I would probably find useful. “I can’t tell you what it is, but it will prove most handy in a battle” he winked at me. “Ooo, how mysterious!” I said, “Is it a bow?”. “What?” he yelped like a dog who’d just had his paw stood on by accident. “A bow. You know, wooden thing, bendy in the middle, shoots pointy sticks. Useful for cunningly veiled metaphors. Always carried around by elves, just like dwarves always favour axes, and humans their massive sense of self righteousness.” I explained. “I…uh… yes.” he said, looking like a dog that had just pooped in his own food bowl by mistake. “Right-o!” I said, and off I went into the Forest of Death and Blood.

So after much adventuring in the forest – read: wandering around fighting mob spawns until I found the entrance to a dungeon – I made my way into the heart of the werewolves’ lair and reached the final confrontation with their fearful leader. Who turned out to be an incredibly hot, mostly naked spirit called the Lady of the Forest. I was so glad that I’d had my forest tended to with a Brazilian wax by the elves before I left, I can tell you, because there was going to be some fire in the forest tonight if I had anything to do with it.

“Let me explain the curse of our kind” she spoke to me through bluish lips, moist like violets in the morning dew. “I must explain things that Zathrian, the leader of the elves who sent you here, has not told you. It was he who first…”

“D’you want me to kill him?”

“I… uh, pardon me?”

“Kill Zathrian, is that what you want? Because I’ll do it. I’ll kill them all if you want.”


“The elves. All of them. Everyone, anyone, just tell me and I’ll kill them. Just say you’ll be mine.”

“I… was going to tell you about the curse, how Zathrian came to curse the humans who lived here, and how he has maintained that hatred, beyond all reason, for centuries. How I have taught these noble savages to control their rage, and become more human again, even though they maintain their bestial form. I… I… was going to provide you with a morally grey choice, about whether to bring Zathrian here to negotiate, to slay me, or…”




“Or to kill him and… hello? Hello?! Where have they gone?”

Her werewolf companions could only point to the dust cloud in the doorway and shrug sheepishly as the sound of receding footsteps echoed from the corridor beyond.

And so back with the werewolves I went to confront Zathrian. He wasn’t too happy about it I can tell you, all sorts of curses and hatred poured forth, but none of it could stand against the beauty of the Lady of the Forest’s perfectly formed moist breasts. Lips! I meant lips.

And breasts.

So the stage was set and the battle joined; it was over almost as quickly as it started though, because ‘Cloth-wearing Noncey Elves versus Blood-raged Werewolves and Plate-wearing Grey Wardens’ gets a pretty high entry on the chart of top 100 one-sided battles. The fun was during the battle though: the first people I encountered were the newly married couple, who were true to their vow of death and the parting thereof thanks to my well timed two-handed sweeping arc attack that took them both out. More amusing still was Ser Ironbark the bow-maker, who came charging at me with his sword, all the while over his head shone the ‘Quest Completed’ arrow; I tried to hand the quest in, I really did, but he wasn’t having any of it. Whether this was due to the fact that I had brought about the slaughter of his entire people, or because he had six feet of my best steel sticking through his chest, I couldn’t tell you. Suffice it to say that I didn’t get my bow, which was most vexing. We had a contract and everything.

So the elves were slaughtered and I had myself an army of werewolves instead, which is by far the better option if you ask me. “Werewolves or effeminate tree-huggers? Hmmm. Hmmm. Now. Let. Me. Think.”

And of course most importantly I received the promise that the Lady of the Forest would turn up again to aid me in the final battle against the Darkspawn. Hmmm, I must remember to get a fresh Brazilian wax before that battle and wear my extra sexy lace undies. She can be the lady of my wood any day.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s armoire

I need to get something off my chest. It’s a mace. And a shortbow. And a pair of chainmail gauntlets.

Yes, time for another Dragon Age post as everyone enjoys them so much. Just to be abundantly clear: it’s a really good game and it’s precisely because it does so many things so very well that certain little things stick out all the more. Things like having a camp full of incredibly dangerous people, and offering no explanation of why you only ever bother taking three of them out and about with you; of course there are myriad excellent reasons, technical limitations, replayability, yada yada, but I’d just like some nod towards it in-game. Maybe in a dream at the start:

Archdemon: “LOL u r such a nub u have to zerg me”
You: “NO WAI i r totally leet i cud pwn u solo”
Archdemon: “OK lets both fix party size at 4 thats fair”
You: “yeah OK”
*first fight is your party vs 23 Darkspawn*
You: “WTF HAX!”

All right, so that serves as an illustration of how attempting to explain meta-mechanics within the plot often ends up being far worse than just saying “it’s a bloody game, get over it you nitpicking git”. Still, today’s quibble is chests, and not Morrigan’s unnaturally sticky-back-plastic-dependant top (if alchemists can come up with a flaming weapon coating or health restoring poultice, I’m sure a suitable adhesive is easy enough).

Treasure chests, loot-containing barrels, crates, weapon racks, suitcases, vases, piles of stones, wardrobes, armoires and cupboards are staples of CRPGs in much the same way that staples are staples of stapling. That’s fine, there’s nothing I like more than a good rummage in a chest (and I don’t mean… oh, just take all the hilarious chest innuendo as read from here). If a dungeon doesn’t come with the requisite stock of loot-stuffed containers I’m highly miffed. Dragon Age, though, like Baldur’s Gate and many other games before it, sprinkles loot-containing objects all over the place. Wandering around a town, there’s a sparkly barrel, stroll up to it and… hey, here’s a longsword! And a bow in a crate over there. Slightly incongruous, but not utterly ludicrous. But then you go into a house or an inn, open a door, see a couple of people in the room, barge in, open the wardrobe in the corner, rifle through it, take the dagger that was sitting at the bottom, click to talk with one of the occupants and they say… “Good morrow, Grey Warden”. Not “Guards! Guards!” or “Who the hell are you?” or “Get out of my wardrobe!” or “Please don’t hurt me, you terrifying blood-spattered armed maniac who’s just broken in to my room and stolen my dagger”. There are a couple of instances where attempting to interact with an object actually provokes a response, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Yes, it’s a very small thing, but picking at that thread of the Pullover of RPG leads on to wondering why you’re in the house in the first place, and indeed why the instinctive reaction upon arriving in any town is to thoroughly explore every single location, talking to everybody (unless they have a generic title like “Peasant” or “Noble”) asking if they have any menial tasks they’d like done while you happen to be in the area like it’s bob-a-job week, stuff you were taking entirely for granted, and before you know it the pullover’s unravelled you’ve ended up with the Crop-top of Absurdism, and then… Oh, wait, we’re back to Morrigan’s top again.

It is your destiny.

My primary problem with Dragon Age:Origins is the same as it has always been with Bioware RPGs, and it is currently my primary concern for their Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Dragon Age comprises a world which is ruled by old and powerful Gods who control the fate of all existence, which they bend to their will and whim.

We call these Gods developers.

And they are fickle.

A small spoiler now follows for Dragon Age, you have been warned.

One of the early objectives of the game is to enlist the help of the Arl of Redcliffe. When you reach Redcliffe village you find it under attack from the undead, and after defending it from attack you make your way into Redcliffe Keep to find the source of the evil and rescue the Arl. The source of the evil turns out to be the Arl’s child who has been possessed by a demon. When you confront the boy and his mother she pleads for you not to harm him and to find another way to defeat the demon, with the more immediate option being the death of the child by your hand. At this point you are presented with a choice: kill the boy and thus the demon, or travel to the Tower of the Circle of Magi and try to get the help of someone there to exorcise the boy. My offer to go and get Jane Fonda and exercise the boy was met with quiet contempt.

Now I already knew that the Tower of the Circle of Magi was in some sort of trouble, so getting there and back was going to be tricky and possibly involve epic quests. For a change. Since the boy was possessed by a demon that was bent on slaughtering all the local population (which had been reinforced by my having to defend the village first before entering the keep) I took what I thought was the hard decision to kill the boy, sacrificing one innocent life for the many. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that his mother was an annoying whining bint who had caused the whole problem in the first place, honest. Of course the game let me know through various lengthy patronising conversations what a monster I was for doing such a deed, and yet I imagined the situation if I had gone to the Magi to have been worse: coming back to find everyone who lived in Redcliffe to have been slaughtered in the intervening period. Zoso happened to choose that route, and so happily informed me that, no, you can take as long as you want to go and get the help; the demon seems to be distracted from its previous plans to destroy all life in Redcliffe for the entire time you are away. Perhaps a really good episode of MacGyver was on Fade TV, who knows?

I became a bit fed-up at this point because I was being made to feel like I had done the wrong thing, when in fact I felt that I had taken the harder choice with every good intent in mind; but my good intent was negated by the fact that the developers had decided that the seemingly obvious thing that would happen if you went away – demon enjoys its temporary reprise by slaughtering everything with a pulse and then raising them as an army of undead slaves in an attempt at world domination – doesn’t happen at all, instead the demon suddenly has a pang of existential crisis long enough for you to conveniently fetch help. There are villains in the 60’s TV series of Batman that feel less contrived. I couldn’t help but feel that the developers were laughing behind their hands “Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!”.

I’d put this all down to my unreasoning belief that all game developers are out to get me, but I have another brief example from a different Bioware RPG.

You’ll have to excuse any inaccuracies because I’m recalling this from old, worn sections of my brain. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic you encounter, at some point, a beggar in the street asking for credits. When you ask them how much they want you can choose to give them nothing, the amount they ask for, or more than they ask for. Being a noble Jedi Knight of the Shining Order of Smug Superiority I gave them more than they asked for, since I could spare it, it felt like the right thing for a Jedi to do, and because you never know – help someone out now and you may run across them later on and gain something in return. Now altruism like that, as opposed to genuine generosity, is possibly a learned perversity that these games encourage, but regardless of the fact, I thought I was doing a Good Thing. You do indeed meet the chap again later on, dead in an alley, mugged because of all the credits he had on him. Credits that you gave to him.

“Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!” say the developers in my mind.

And that’s what annoys me about these dialogue choices in Bioware RPGs, and why I really worry for Star Wars: The Old Republic at the moment. The result of your actions is based on the fickle whim of the developer writing the story, and it is entirely too easy for them to set things up in a way that appear very obviously to suggest one thing, whilst actually delivering something entirely the opposite. This, when used very carefully can make for an excellent plot twist and following dramatic dénouement, but Bioware seem to use the trick far too often in their games for no better reason than to keep players second guessing what the actual outcome may be.

It’s a tricky problem to solve because the opposite end of the scale is a game like Mass Effect where there were generally always three options, one piously good, one tediously neutral and one blatantly moustache-twiddlingly villainous, and whichever option you chose, you got the reaction and plot progression that you’d expect. It allowed you to build the kind of character you wanted but at the expense of any real surprises.

I still feel that Bioware are trying to experiment with telling an interactive story in their RPGs; they have a strong foundation for telling a good tale, but it seems that how the player interacts with and affects the plot is still very much being explored and trialled with each new game. I don’t know which route Star Wars: The Old Republic will follow with respect to story choice, or perhaps it will beat a new path all of its own, but the problem comes from it being an MMO. Without the chance to save and reload as you would get in a single player RPG, you will have to be very careful of any choices that you make because they may affect your character for the rest of its career. In fact, I plan to setup ChottBot right after I finish posting this, it will be an Internet database filled with every conversation choice you can make in the game and thus allow players to pick whichever options will build the ultimate munchkin character, or open all the contacts with the best loot rewards; plot, motivation or immersion be damned, because frankly the outcome of your choices are a lottery anyway.

My concern is that where conversation options in Star Wars: The Old Republic are concerned, ‘It’s a trap!’ may become a fitting mantra.

Hat News Now Today: Dragon Age Edition

Badadadadada dum dum dum dadada daa daaa dum dum daaaaaaaaa! Back, by popular demand, it’s Hat News Now Today, today’s premier column focused, now, on news about hats. Everybody’s been talking about Dragon Age: Origins, about the story, the world, the characters, but they’ve been strangely quiet about one thing: why was Kleist’s armour halted outside Dunkirk on May 24th? Nobody really knows, and frankly it’s slightly outside our hat-based remit, so lets get on with the headgear in the early stages Dragon Age.

Firstly, it’s good news if you’re a strapping great warrior type who likes to wander around in hunks of metal:

Alistair, looking fetching in his Templar helm

Alistair, looking fetching in his Templar helm

There’s some nice plate helms which go with some pretty stylish suits of armour that convey strength, menace and protection.

For those of you who prefer leather, key words this fall are “functional”, “drab”, “bowl” and “remember those really boring helmets from Age of Conan?”

Its not just a bowl, there are ear flaps too!

It's not just a bowl, there are ear flaps too!

You might have thought exotic Bards could get togged up in something suitable for entertaining, or lethal Assassins might have some ninja-esque gear for infiltration, but if you haven’t got the strength to carry off (in either sense) heavy armour it’s a world of leathery disappointment, summed up by helmets that are thankfully automatically hidden in cut scenes.

Still, you can always comfort yourself that you’re not a mage:

Its not a sock, its a sock with some snakes teeth sellotaped to it!

It's not a sock, it's a sock with some snake's teeth sellotaped to it!

On the plus side it’s going to keep your ears warm when stuck on a mountain side, though in Morrigan’s case the ears would be the last thing you’d think would feel the cold…