When Bioware invited MMORPG.com out to Edmonton to see Dragon Age, our first question was "why?" Dragon Age is not an MMO, it doesn't pretend to be an MMO, and there is absolutely nothing online about it. So what brought us there? According to Bioware, they wanted to show it to a wider audience and thought that specifically MMO players would find it to be a complimentary experience. Fair enough.
"Dragon Age has strengths where World of Warcraft has weaknesses," noted Executive Producer Mark Darrah, and "World of Warcraft has strengths where Dragon Age has weaknesses."
And it's a fair point. Fact is that MMOs don't do a good job of making the player the hero. Bioware is all about story and the player character is at the center of it all. At the same time, games like World of Warcraft obviously bring people together and put them online. Dragon Age, at least at launch, has no online gameplay.
So, we buckled down and looked at Dragon Age for what it was. What we found was classic RPG, a game that has as much in common with Baldur's Gate as it does Oblivion. If you've missed the way RPGs used to be played, this game will be a welcome change.
"[Dragon Age is a] spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate," said Darrah.
That's no small boast. Baldur's Gate and its sequel were the two games that cemented Bioware as the industry leader in RPGs. I wondered why they didn't just make the third installment. Darrah was honest: EA, who recently acquired Bioware, doesn't have the D&D license anymore.
While it is a successor to Baldur's Gate, that doesn't mean it is exactly that. Dragon Age's world is much darker, grittier and grown-up than the lighter Forgotten Realms world players previously enjoyed. When you hack and slash monsters, your characters get coated in blood, or at least the ones standing close to the action do. When you take down a boss monster, there is a specially animated finishing blow, such as when my warrior jumped up on a big ogre and stabbed him through the chest, or when a rogue character straddled the neck of a dragon as she plunged her twin blades repeatedly into the beast.
As a gamer, the RPG left me behind when it went 3D. Oblivion is no doubt a wonderful title, but I just never could get behind the 3D, over the shoulder view for a single player RPG. There is no logic - I clearly still play MMOs that way - but I've missed the isometric games.
Dragon Age does a spectacular job of catering to both purists like me and the new age of gamer. More than one reporter, myself included, felt like it was an entirely different game based on which perspective you chose or whether you played on the PC or Xbox 360.
On the 360 or zoomed in on the PC, it should be eminently familiar to people who played any of the more recent RPGs. The controls are just like an MMO. Each character in the party has stats and special skills in a hot bar to use. You click between the characters, while those you're not controlling directly use their AI (which is completely customizable).
Unlike MMOs, and this is something someone who has played them so long and so exclusively sometimes forgets, there is a pause button. Which is awesome. You can stop the action if you wish, and manually queue up every action from every member of your group. For highly strategic play, this works wonderfully and can make a very difficult battle a lot easier.
On the PC though, I fell in love. Scroll back with the mouse wheel and you not only zoom out a bit, but you eventually snap into a three quarters isometric view that anyone who has played the Diablos, Baldur's Gates or Icewind Dales will instantly recognize.
From this perspective, you can (if you want) toss out the WASD controls and move to party based point and click. Just like the old games, you can draw a box and control all four party members at once. Pausing becomes even more important and useful at this angle, of course, and generally, the people at Bioware said they found that people who want more control and strategy adopt this mode, some others run through exclusive in 3rd person, while a third group switches between the two for specific encounters.
Dragon Age is a party based RPG. You create your own character, down to the size of his nose, and these choices can make a big difference. Over the course of the game, players meet and have the chance to bring up to three others along for the ride in any one scenario. The exact number of characters who can join the party has not been revealed, but Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw told me that it is just shy of a dozen full characters, with several others joining for very specific, finite arcs. During my hands-on time, I managed to find about six of them.
Each character has its own personality, and just like the old games, you quickly find yourself playing favorites.
"All we're about is making people care," Laidlaw told me. They did a fine job. For example, early on I met a warrior type named Allistair. Even though I too was a sword/shield warrior and he was basically redundant in my party, I refused to kick him out. He was just too cool.
This is the trick the game plays. Laidlaw said that while some characters do player larger roles than others in the overall story, there is no one you "have to have." If the story truly demands the presence of a character you don't have with you, they will show up. Organically, I might add. He promised there wouldn't be absurd, emersion breaking cameos from guys you left at home.
The selection of who is with you can also make a huge difference. For example, in a story I discussed on a blog just after I got back, they showed off a specific scenario where the player has two options and one of them would be viewed by a religious character as an act of blasphemy. There's no quicker way to turn your cleric on you than to desecrate a holy relic. In that scenario, two religious characters in the group, if in your party, literally turn on you and must be put down.
And don't get any bright ideas. If you leave them at camp for that mission, they'll hear about it and let you know how they feel.
They chose a party of four because it allowed people to cover the basic components of a group (mage, healer, tank), without forcing them to cut someone because of redundancy. Want your guy to be a tank? Don't worry, you can still keep Allistair. Want to be a mage? Morgain is still quite useful.
What's more, the people you leave behind continue to level up in the background, so you don't find that after 20 hours of gameplay if you want to bring out the rogue, she needs to be power leveled.
The truly refreshing element of the trip to Bioware was the lack of dog and pony show. Many companies bring in reporters and show them demo after demo, speech after speech and then by the time that's done, you get a scant few minutes with the game before moving on. It's tough to really get a grasp and it's why so often hands-on reports from events read like feature lists.
Bioware wasn't worried about that in the slightest. They had us there for two days and the vast, vast majority of that was just us at terminals playing away from start to as far as we could get, at least on the PC. The 360 version started people from specific save points.
According to my save game when it was finally time to go, I logged just under nine hours of game time. It's the most I've ever been able to play a single game at an event.
In my case, I chose to play as a Human Warrior of Noble birth. There are six distinct origin stories and each lasts for a few hours of gameplay. This is not unlike an MMO, such as Lord of the Rings Online, where the different races get their own unique start before being pumped out into the general game world. As a Human Warrior, I started in my father's castle. The youngest son of a noble lord, I wasn't to succeed him, but instead had to find my own path.