Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bark/Byte: Okay, bored of the snow now

Yesterday I was supposed to go to Wimbledon College for a training day on post-16 teaching. Unfortunately, that plan got totally wiped out by the two inches of snow that fell onto the snow and ice still covering the car park outside my flat from last week. I made it all of 30 feet before needing to dig myself out. 'Fuck that for a game of soldiers' thinks I, and promptly went back to bed.

This morning the car park's still resembles more of an ice rink than a road, but at least the main roads are clearing up, thanks to some timely rain. It would be nice if the snow would thaw so that I can actually get out of my flat, because the cupboards are getting perilously bare.

At least I was able to buy a replacement graphics card on Monday night, along with 4GB's worth of RAM upgrade. So now my aging PC has a bit of a new lease of life. The new graphics card isn't spectacular by any means (a GeForce GTS 250 w/ 512MB), but it's better than what I originally had in there (a GeForce 8800 GTS w/320MB) and now I've got 6GB of RAM in the box rather than 2GB, Windows 7 is nips along rather nicely indeed. The loading times in Dragon Age Origins are very noticeably shorter and the game looks a bit prettier, too. I'll have to reinstall Crysis or something to give it a really good workout, but things like Mass Effect run as smooth as melted butter.

WARNING: HUUUUUUGE SPOILERS FOR DRAGON AGE FOLLOW!

I didn't actually post what I thought about Dragon Age, now that I've actually completed it. I guess I was a little too hacked off about my graphics card dying on me.

The short version: Yeah, it's really bloody good.

The long version: Yyyyyeeeeeaaaaahhhhh,,,,, iiiiittttt'''''sssss rrrrreeeeeaaaaalllllyyyyy bbbbbllllloooooooooodddddyyyyy gggggooooooooooddddd.....

No, just kidding. Firstly, the story: It's typical BioWare - get the four MacGuffins and then have a big dust up at the end. Nothing new there, then. But at least the execution is nicely done. It may not be a new story, but it is a story well-told.

Next, the characterisation: very good indeed, overall.

Alistair is probably my favourite character in the party. He's got some great lines and I especially like the skit where he claims he was raised by dogs. My lady mage ended up being really cruel to him, by not only making him marry Queen Anora after he'd fallen in love with my mage, but also by making him sleep with Morrigan before The Big Final Battle with the archdemon so that no Warden had to sacrifice themself when killing the archdemon.

Morrigan being in the party only really made sense at that point, and while I thought it was a nice twist to the story, I think it would have been been better to have had another, more immediate reason for her joining the party than Flemeth going "there's a good girl, piss off with them". Still, Morrigan's a nice enough character and good to keep around when you're playing if only for the banter she has with Alistair and Sten while you're out and about exploring.

The Dog: utterly pointless, except as a meat shield in the final battle at the gates. Alistair doesn't take it very well if you tell him to sling his hook, though. Perhaps he really was raised by dogs...

Leliana: she's probably my favourite of the romantic interests, mainly because I am attracted to slightly crazy French women. AND IN THE GAME! Ahem. There is a great line you can have with her when she talks about her 'vision' from the Maker, which goes "Okay, I believe this is the part where I back away slowly." She takes it quite well, considering. In gameplay terms, she's also a must if you're playing a Warrior or a Mage, as otherwise you can't open chests (not that there's usually anything worthwhile in them, but still) and if you give her a load of the dual-wielding talents, she can easily out-do Alistair in terms of damage per second.

Sten: A bit dull and boring, really. First time around I left him in the cage to get eaten by Darkspawn. The second time around I wished I'd left him in the cage. The only reason to have him around is if you want to play with two NPC warriors in the party, though his snarky, flirtly banter with Morrigan is quite amusing.

Morrigan: So are you going to continue staring at me as if I am covered in eels?
Sten: Eels would be something.
Morrigan: Prudery! How charming. I expected paranoia. This is much better. I prefer to be stared at lustfully, if at all.
Sten: Keep trying, then.
Morrigan: Oh? Then shall I demonstrate an act or two? And you may tell me hot or cold?
Sten: I'll save time. Cold.
Morrigan: (Chuckles) You are a tease.

Wynne: I like Wynne. If you give her Arcane Warrior as her second class specialisation, she rocks. Arcane Warrior/Spirit Healer is *the* class combination to go for as a Mage player character as well. She's also got quite a good character backstory as well and is quite interesting to chat to in the camp. I tended to pick her over Morrigan when I wanted an extra Mage in my party to go with my PC mage, because of her healing talents. Also, Petrify + Stonefist = Instant Dead Enemy. Very fucking handy in battles with lots of mobs. One of the best spell combinations out there. I just wished it worked on those gorram Revenants.

Zevran: Just kill him, because he's fucking useless when you get him. A rogue that can't open chests? Just fuck off.

Oghren: Again, not much reason for having him around. He's no better than Sten and if you're playing a Warrior class, other than the part in Orzammar where you're forced to have him in your party, there's no real reason to have him in your party at all, other than to fill up the numbers in the secondary battle at Denerim Gate in the final showdown. I think he's mainly there to provide a bit of comic relief, particularly with his obsession about Wynne's gravity-defying bosom.

Loghain: He's the "secret" NPC you can recruit into your party as a Grey Warden after you spank him at the Landsmeet, but I didn't actually recruit him myself on the one playthrough I've completed - mainly because I didn't want to lose Alistair from the party. I may recruit him on a subsequent playthrough with a male character, just so I could annoy him by marrying his daughter, Anora.

The game does suffer from the traditionaly BioWare failing of having too many NPCs - if you're going to give us that many options, at least give us the option of having five or six characters in the party at a time when you're out in the big wide world. If Baldur's Gate III ever does get made, I will spit teeth and fire if you can't have six people in the party at a time. You need that many to have a proper balance in the party, but at least Dragon Age does one thing rather spectacularly right... Mages.

Holy crap, Dragon Age's Mages are viable from Level 1 and can genuinely spank just about anything from the get-go if you know how to play them properly and pick the right spells. It's no coincidence that my party for the final battle was made up of my Mage (Spirit Healer/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Primal spells), Morrigan (Shapeshifter/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Entropy spells) and Wynne (Spirit Healer/Arcane Warrior, specialising in Creation spells), along with Alistair as resident mage defender and meat shield. I can't imagine trying to play something like Baldur's Gate I or II with a party primarily composed of mages - you'd get cut to pieces. But in Dragon Age, mages are truly a force to reckoned with. If you don't target enemy spellcasters first in fights you generally regret it, too (or end up using gallons of health potions). Fireball is one of the most satisfying spells I've ever seen in a videogame RPG, though I wouldn't recommend using it if you've got friendly fire on. Which brings me neatly to the subject of the difficulty level - I can't really think of any reason (other than willy waving) of why you'd want to play on anything other than Easy. Easy, in my extensive experience of other BioWare RPGs, is equivalent to Normal difficulty - and since I don't really have time these days to be replaying parts of a 50+ hour epic again and again, I'm quite happy to leave the difficulty slider where it is for my subsequent playthroughs.

I think it's possibly an exaggeration to say it's the best traditional style RPG of the noughties (as some have claimed). I'd say that Knights of the Old Republic edges it - I can't see myself replaying this as much as I've replayed KotOR and some features of Dragon Age are a little retrograde if you compare them to Mass Effect, but it's certainly one of my favourite games from 2009. The fact that I actually stuck the game out to the end quite happily is one of the biggest endorsements I can give any game - since I don't actually do that for the vast majority of titles that I buy. However, I would encourage BioWare to treat their audience in a slightly more adult manner. If you're going to put sex into a game and show it, actually show it. Most women don't have sex still wearing their bra and knickers. And my toes were certainly curling when I saw my NPC's "happy face" when they were taking a roll in the hay with Leliana and Morrigan. I've not seen sex scenes that cringe-worthy since, well, the Watchmen film. Brrr. Since the esteemed Ron Jeremy (seemingly the highest authority on videogames these days) outed violent videogames as being "worse than porn" this week, the industry might as well live up to its reputation and put in some proper sex to go with its violence. If you're going to splatter your game with so much gore that it earns an 18 rating away, why shy away from putting in nipples?

I've always thought it was ludicrous that you could blow people's heads off in videogames as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but a naked nipple was the END OF THE CIVILISED WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with America retailers such as Wal-Mart refusing to stock products if they're too out there in the puritan stakes, but that's what localisation is for, right?
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