The many games of Dragon Age

February 15, 2010

As was briefly touched on in an earlier post, Electronic Arts made the interesting decision when the launch of Dragon Age: Origins was imminent to release a free Flash-based game set in the same world called Dragon Age Journeys. Looking back on both the Flash-based and retail game now, it’s clear that both had a lot of shared background. The races, classes, and world history are all the same. Many of the abilities and the philosophies of combat were very similar. When discussing RPGs, that covers a lot of the bases.

And yet, in the end, the two games were so very different. Most of the people I’ve talked to who tried out Dragon Age Journeys didn’t find the game very engaging, and I’m afraid I didn’t either. Despite a multitude of abilities and some pretty sophisticated AI for a Flash game, the combat felt repetitive. The story felt thin. There just wasn’t enough to pull the player along.

The retail game, Dragon Age: Origins, was as we know almost the polar opposite experience. The story was fantastic, as is only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. The combat was always engaging, even 60 (or *cough* 80) hours into the game. Where in the Flash game it was, alas, difficult to keep pushing forward, the retail game was hard to put down. For those of us that study game design, it’s a valuable lesson.

But it was when the retail game came out for both the PC and the console that the story gets really interesting. These games tell the exact same story (if you played the same character in each one) with more or less the exact same graphics. Leading one to think that if they were to play the game on the console or on the PC, they would be playing the same game. But they would be wrong.

I had the chance to play a little bit of Dragon Age for the XBox 360 after beating the game on the PC. It’s an entirely different experience. The difference is in the combat engine, and it is dramatic. With the PC, you have at least 12 abilities at your disposal directly on the screen (more when you figure out that you can drag your action bar to expose more action slots–which I didn’t until after I had beaten the game and I will never forgive Bioware for ever ever ever…but I digress), 10 of which are hotkeyed. For the more restrictive console interface, you never have more than 6 actions available without having to bring up other screens in the middle of combat. The PC version allows the player to zoom the camera out until it (very elegantly) shifts from over-the-shoulder to top-down perspective for a better view of the entire battle. In the console version, you’re locked into the active character’s perspective (though you can hop from character to character in your party).

Essentially, combat in the PC version is a much more tactical experience, and this is by design. When I played the console version, I did my best to navigate the console UI to have my character be of some meager use in battle (I’m not very good at console games). The AI took care of the rest, and we were fine. If I tried to play such a weaksauce party in the PC version, we would have been annihilated. The PC version requires the player to frequently pause the game to direct their entire party. If you don’t, you will die. Think that group of genlocks and hurlocks up ahead should be easy enough to plow through on autopilot? Not on the PC: if you don’t pause and control your party in every single fight–especially in the early levels–you will die. It was hard. It was fun! For whatever reason, the Dragon Age team didn’t feel like they could or should replicate the experience on the console version, so they made the fights significantly easier. You can, in fact, more or less coast through the game on the console (at least as far as I have played). I found it made for a less powerful–and in the end less fun–experience. It’s remarkable how these games with so much in common, especially the different retail releases, can feel so different when you sit down to play them.

Advertisements

Dragon Age has been a fascinating game for me on a lot of levels.  There’s a gold mine of meta-game stuff to talk about here, enough so that I’ll probably save some of it for a later post to avoid the unseemly activity of me blabbing your ear off. Your health is always foremost in my thoughts, gentle reader.

To begin with, how the game came from being a dark horse to one of the hottest RPGs in 2009 is a great story in marketing (and the fact that it is a great game, but we all know being a great game is sometimes not enough). Though we started getting hints that this would be the next Baldur’s Gate around E3 2004, the game quickly fell back into the shadows and we went on with our lives, rocking out to other Bioware and Bioware spinoff titles like KOTOR2, Jade Empire, and Mass Effect. By the time 2009 rolled around, Dragon Age had been all but forgotten, and most of us when we heard the word “Bioware” started salivating in Pavlovian proportions with sci-fi visions of Mass Effect 2 and The Old Republic dancing through our heads. Then out of freaking nowhere emerges the Dragon Age team, an artifact of a bygone era. They brush the dust off their collective shoulders, blink into the harsh, foreign sunlight, and cry out, “Hello world! We are almost ready to give you a new fantasy game, full of angry, angry characters! Are you ready to rawwwwwwwck?”

To naught but the sound of a dog barking in the distance. Oh, crap.

Enter the publisher, EA, wringing its hands and saying, “This ain’t good, yo. We gotta step this up.” And to EA’s credit, they come up with some pretty neat tactics to drum up interest. Suddenly we start hearing about an online, Flash-based prequel game and a downloadable character generator, both of which will unlock unique items in the full game when it is released. My curiosity about this (ahem) brand new RPG is piqued. And then, the coup-de-grace: players who buy new copies of Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 will get a unique item unlocked in both games. Sold.

The rest, as we know, is history. A history of awesome. The story told in the game is on par with Bioware’s best. The new engine is remarkable (with some uncanny valley creepiness, especially during Leliana’s song, but I digress). Combat on the PC is tactical and enjoyable throughout the whole game, which is much more than I can say for my typical RPG experience, but more on that in another post. If you’ve been waiting for a good RPG for a while and haven’t picked up Dragon Age do so. And get the PC version if you have the hardware for it. I’m sure glad I did, and I’m not sure I would have if EA hadn’t stepped up to the plate and figured out innovative ways to give the game the attention it deserved.

What we're playing: Osmos

December 27, 2009

A game is a closed, formal system that engages players in structured conflict and resolves in an unequal outcome.

Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, and Steven Hoffman

Ask ten game designers what a game is, and you’ll likely hear ten definitions.  But if there’s a game that embodies this one, it’s Osmos, a downloadable indie game in which you control one cell-like mote among many drifting in a Petri-dish-like environment.

The mechanics of the game are simple: a mote moves by ejecting a bit of its mass as a smaller mote behind it, and when two motes come into contact, the larger begins to absorb the smaller.  The combination of these mechanics creates some fun situations.  Two of my favorites:

  • When fleeing from a larger mote, your ejected material will often end up making it a bigger threat in the process.
  • When you make a course correction near a wall, you can sometimes reabsorb ejected motes as they rebound.

I can’t think of a recent game that better fits the definition of Fullerton et al.: the bounded environment and strict conservation of mass embody a closed, formal system, while absorption-by-contact is a quintessentially unequal outcome of a structured conflict.

I don’t want to give the impression that Osmos is more academic experiment than actual entertainment, though.  It’s also a viscerally enjoyable game, with evocative graphics and a soothing ambient soundtrack.  I’m not sure it’ll have a lot of replay value, but Hemisphere Games is offering it for download for the price of a movie ticket, which strikes me as a good deal.