Resuscitation: Dragon Age
Posted by deckard47 on February 23, 2011
I enjoy playing Dragon Age: Origins quite a bit. I haven’t written about it that much here, but I’ve played around two hundred hours of the game (spread across 3 playthroughs). Considering Dragon Age is a single player game, that’s actually very impressive. For me, 100 hour and over playtimes are reserved for multiplayer games like L4D2 and games with titles like Call of Honorable Men in Bad Companionable Duty.
While I’m a fan (of a sort) of Bioware’s writing, plotting, and actor-hiring, the solace I’ve taken out of all of these playthroughs (and especially the most recent one) of Dragon Age has had little to do with the game’s world or story. Instead, I’ve come to relish the game’s character leveling system and combat encounters. I certainly can’t praise Dragon Age’s combat mechanics. Party member AI in combat is almost unbelievably stupid (though this is a game brought to us by the people who created the path finding in Baldur’s Gate 2, so I shouldn’t be surprised). To start playing Dragon Age with a new character − especially after a long break from the game − is to be unpleasantly reminded of the AI’s complete inability to do anything right.
My brother just started a new playthrough of DA:O. I watched, amused and horrified, as he spent his first three or four hours with the game relearning all of its ins and outs. His greatest challenge was at first posed by his own party. They never did what he asked of them. Instead of attacking, they’d heal. Instead of healing, they’d run off into a corner, or chase a weak, unimportant enemy into another room. This led him to a lesson all Dragon Age players should learn: never use the “Tactics” options for anything but basic buff re-ups and standard healing potions and attacks.
Dragon Age’s “Tactics” system is quite similar to that used in Final Fantasy 12. Each character gets a limited number of tactics slots (not that you’d ever use them all). Each slot can hold one order that the party member will enact, if the right circumstances occur. I can tell my main character to always turn on their “Threaten” ability (if I’m a warrior), thus increasing her threat level (Dragon Age’s term for monster agro). I could also tell my warrior to use shield knockdown on any enemy attacking her with a bow. There are hundreds of orders possible, but most of them should never be used. That’s because the AI will figure out how to use every skill at the worst time possible, but still use it in a way that technically fulfilled the tactics slot’s requirements. This means that warriors will use their best abilities on the weakest mobs, mages will drop AOE nuke spells right onto said warriors, and everyone will use far too many health potions. It’s a mess, and the game’s built-in behavior modifiers (I can set my characters to act “ranged,” “melee,” “aggressive,” and so on) only slightly ameliorate the situation.
Unfortunately, even if all harmful tactics options are disabled, the game’s path finding and basic AI routines can still ruin standard combat encounters. Thanks to the aforementioned behavior sets (ranged, melee, etc.) and the AI’s peculiar priorities, characters will often run from enemies, stand around doing nothing, and attack enemies you told them not to attack. It’s not clear to me why this happens. Possibly the game’s AI can’t handle my complete removal of all Tactical orders. Possibly the party AO and path finding are woefully ill-designed. Regardless, every combat encounter must be carefully, minutely examined, prepared for, and every plan of attack and mid-combat tactical shift must be swiftly and specifically implemented.
This is, bizarrely, why I enjoy Dragon Age so much. Once I’ve stripped away the game’s broken mechanics, I have to do all of the work to get through combat unscathed. It’s incredibly rewarding, because when I win, it’s not because the bumbling AI, shakily-chained animations, and behind-the-scenes dice rolling helped me win, it’s because I have learned how to defeat the game’s challenges almost completely unaided.
It helps that I play Dragon Age on Nightmare difficulty. Playing the game on Easy, Normal, and even Hard modes doesn’t challenge me. The enemies are weak, they are easily stunned or otherwise hampered or cursed, and proper party-creation leads to a nearly invincible medieval wrecking crew. This is interesting, because when Dragon Age was released, reviewers and players agreed that the game had a difficult-to-adjust to difficulty curve. Boss battles, multi-tiered mob rushes (mixing ranged, armored, and swarming enemies, for instance), and limited potions and buffing items were all blamed for this much-slandered play imbalance.
I can understand how a person might find Dragon Age’s difficulty daunting, but only if that person were playing it like squad God of War, or if that person didn’t learn how to use all of the game’s party combat systems. For me, playing Dragon Age on Nightmare replicates what people tell me is so fun about high level MMO play. I have four characters, all of whom have a diverse array of powers, all of whom do almost exactly what I want when I want it. Even if tactical complexity stops at who is affected by what negative status spell, or who is drawing agro from which enemies, it’s still taxing, for the most part, at the highest difficulty level. The game does let you overpower yourself seriously (by Origins’ end I was lvl 23, far over the expected 20, and at Awakening’s end I was 34, four levels above the expected 30), turning even the two campaigns’ final boss fights into routine exercises in debuffing, crowd control, and DPS. In these later stages, difficulty only arose when I was playing sloppily: mostly, I was defeated only when I neglected to use all of my powers in the rights places at the right time, and whenever I let wounded party members suffer for too long.
This isn’t to say that these aren’t difficult sections, merely that to a player who knows the ins and outs of the combat systems, only a serious player error can lead to disaster. Even so, between the 10 and 40 hour mark of Dragon Age I really enjoyed defeating Bioware’s monsters. The constant battles against ranged and melee hitters, the need to instantly neutralize mages, and the ways in which party powers could be combined, all of these things continuously held my attention. While all of these things also held my attention in Baldur’s Gate 2, there’s a lot less fiddly math going on in Dragon Age. In Baldur’s Gate 2, debuffing a mage and preventing that mage from destroying your party was a welcome challenge, one often ending in defeat. In Dragon Age, all that’s needed is a quick hit from any of the game’s long-ranged DPS and status effect-focused classes (for me it was always Leliana, though in a pinch a Mind-specialized Morrigan did the trick).
Basically, Dragon Age is a simpler, less obtuse version of Baldur’s Gate, but in many ways that simplicity is welcome. I like being able to complete one of Dragon Age’s huge dungeons in a drawn-out play session, whereas in Baldur’s Gate 2 I would have been constantly restarting, trying to perfect one nearly impossible battle after the next. I’m not sure exactly how Dragon Age 2 will compare to Origins (the demo seems slightly less taxing than Origins, but it’s stuck on Normal difficulty, so who knows), but I know that it’s hard to find tactically-minded gameplay of this middling complexity in a modern, mainstream game (that isn’t a sim that I have to spend tens of hours learning).
Dragon Age is really a peculiar game to recommend to someone. Its in-combat AI and animation/action issues make those same issues in other Bioware games pale in comparison. Often, these issues contribute to the difficulty derided by so many. It’s hard to play because they made it hard to play, and not in the way they’d hoped. Dragon Age’s main character is annoyingly silent (although sometimes my hero’s eyes bulge in what I assume is worry) and it’s too long-winded by about ten or so hours (really, by about the entire main Orzammar dungeon). It’s also the best modern tactical-RPG that I’ve played that also has a story that’s player-alterable in significant ways. Every time I reacclimatize myself to its tactical puzzles (and design missteps) I’m pleasantly surprised. I hope that Bioware thinks on the relative complexity of Dragon Age, as they move forward with their careful streamlining of both the DA franchise and the Mass Effect franchise.