Thursday, May 6, 2010

Dragon Age Review

In the middle of a drought of RPGs, Dragon Age: Origins comes to try to rescue me from the hordes of bad MMOs and shooters. Does it succeed? Well...

Dragon Age is a single-player RPG, pitting you in the role of a character who ends up becoming a Grey Warden, a member of an organization designed to put an end to large Darkspawn attacks known as Blights. The game starts with the player choosing his race and class, then an "origin." Each Origin is a sort of mini-story that shows how the player gets recruited into the Wardens, but the Origins also appear again from time to time over the course of the story. Story is, in fact, probably one of the strongest aspects of this game. I won't spoil things, but I will say that there's more than one twist over the course of the game that you might not expect.

As for the party members, each one has his or her own personality, and there's quite a bit of humor to be found in their banter. Each party member has an amount of "approval", which goes up or down based on your actions. Characters with high approval like you and can get boosts to their stats as a result. While I liked most of the cast, there were a couple of characters that didn't make much sense to me, such as a very blatantly evil character who disapproves of nearly any action that benefits someone else, even if done for completely pragmatic reasons.

There are three races one can play: human, elf, and dwarf. To be fair, BioWare has attempted to make each race have their own unique spin, such as elves being a conquered race pressed into servitude, but even so the race selection is still rather bland and over-used. Similarly, there are only three classes: warrior, thief, and mage. There are different specializations that each character can acquire to learn some additional abilities to branch out a bit and make each character a little different, but it still seemed unnecessarily standard. Nonetheless, there's quite a few options for character creation, so it shouldn't be too hard to make a character you're at least alright with.

For the gameplay itself, Dragon Age is your fairly typical RPG, much in the same vein as the older Baldur's Gate games. With your companions in tow, you gather quests and go out to complete them. There's a lot of things to do, so you'll pretty much never be aimless and there's plenty to occupy your time. Combat is real-time with the ability to pause, and is fairly fast-paced and interesting.

Unfortunately, interesting does not equal balanced, and I found the game to be fairly easily to break in terms of difficulty. One thing is the balance of the games three classes. Warriors and thieves can pretty much only tank and do damage, whereas mages get a wide variety of powers, letting them buff, debuff, heal, deal damage, crowd control, and even tank with the right specializations. Taking two or three mages into your party makes the entire game stupidly easy due to their raw power and versatility.

This imbalance continues into the enemy encounters, as the difficulty varies wildly from encounter to encounter. Enemy mages in particular are very deadly, and often fights seem like they're based more on luck than actual skill. Will the mages unleash their full might on you first round and slaughter your party, or will they waste time to give you a chance?

Beyond this, though, I think I'd be lying if I said I didn't like this game. It's a good RPG, as to be expected from BioWare, it's graphics and voice-acting are good, and it's an overall fun game to go through. If you haven't played it, I'd recommend it to anyone who's a fan of the more old-school RPGs that it's a throw-back to.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Problem of MMOs

I've already touched on how the MMO genre has affected off-line RPGs, but I'd like to take a while to discuss the subject in a bit more detail. MMO games have been a growing phenomenon ever since Everquest, peaking due to the recent, mind-boggling success of World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, old-school gamers such as myself might see this as a bad phenomenon, as MMO games have been muscling out offline RPGs of the market, whether intentionally or not.

Whether MMOs are good or bad is something up to the individual. I can't rightly say that anyone is wrong for liking World of Warcraft, Everquest, Warhammer Online, or any other Massively Multiplayer Online game. However, many have seen the success of these games, and they try to cash in on that craze. Ever since World of Warcraft, the RPG genre has taken a complete plummet, as most RPG fans are now playing online games instead of the single-player variety. For those of us who prefer offline games, or games that have features normally only associated with offline games, like multiple characters, we're in a bad position.

Sure, the occasional bone is still thrown. We have Dragon Age, for a recent example. Still, once that is done, we will have little choice but to either go to another genre or go crawling back to the MMO giant to get our RPG fix, like the terrible addicts that we are.

It does make me wonder if the MMO giants know the stranglehold that they have on the genre, and how negatively it's impacting it in terms of diversity. Still, game developers are out to make money, and no one can deny that MMOs make money. Whoever is running Blizzard Entertainment must be a filthy rich man indeed. I think they know full well the way the genre has shifted, and are taking complete advantage of it. By adding solo-ability to MMOs, they're also reaching into the more standard RPG audience and attracting their attention as well, due to their starvation from the lack of normal fare.

I do have to salute those that continue to make RPGs, though. Bioware continues to put out quality products, and while I have my own issues with Dragon Age and Mass Effect, they're at least trying to keep the genre alive.

Friday, April 30, 2010

RPGs: Single vs. Multiple Characters

For my first rant on this blog, I'd like to talk about roleplaying games. In particular, single-character versus multi-character (or party-based) RPGs.

Now, I'll admit that I'm a pretty old-school gamer. I grew up with some of the really old DOS RPGs. I still fondly remember the games like The Bard's Tale, the Might and Magic series, the Wizardry series, and other such gems that time hasn't treated well. These contained epic (oh, okay, badly-written to non-existent) stories of a group of adventurers delving (badly-drawn) dungeons and smiting (supposed) evil. This was almost the default at the time, controlling a group of heroes.

Sure, we still get games in the similar vein even today. First the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment, then we moved into Dragon Age. However, these games are still in the minority, and instead we have the vast majority of RPGs (for the PC) being completely single-player affairs. Epic party-based stories have become replaced with tales of a single hero, games like Gothic, Oblivion, and the vast majority of MMOs.

The genre has been shifting for some time now. Some might argue that this is a result of the genre itself being less common in an age of shooters. Others will point out how most RPGs made today are MMOs, and controlling multiple characters in such a setting is difficult to implement (though not impossible.) Either way, I think anyone who takes a serious look at the genre has a whole will see that single-character RPGs have overtaken multi-character RPGs in sheer numbers and popularity. The question is...why?

It is not as if the two are interchangeable. Multi-character RPGs have a lot of unique aspects that cannot be replicated in their single-character counterparts. For many (or at least myself, but I'll pretend I have a lot of people backing me up here because I have that big of an ego) there's a lot of fun to be had just in creating a team, tweaking each member's skills and abilities, making and designing them to work like a well-oiled machine in perfect tandem with one another. You simply can't replicate that aspect in any other genre. In fact, considering the rise of MMOs and the concepts of specialized heroes (a tank, a healer, a controller, etc. etc.) it seems very odd that you don't actually see many single-player RPGs making use of these roles and creating a game about managing characters like this.

It is also interesting to watch this phenomenon, as there are one or two game series where you can almost see a microcosm of this taking place. A good example is Guild Wars. For those unfamiliar, Guild Wars allows you to control multiple AI-controlled "Heroes" that obey basic commands and who you can change their skills, attributes, and choose what roles they will take. This was largely to allow players better solo-ability and to allow better filling of party slots when the normal four to eight could not be filled with actual players.

News of Guild Wars 2 originally possessed the promise of a "Companion" system, where instead of Heroes that replace players, you would get one Companion that would be AI-controlled and assist you in combat. It did not take the place of a player, so it didn't discourage grouping (a common complaint against Heroes) and it was completely optional, as you could turn it off and get a buff instead. Later, however, a recent interview confirmed that the idea was scrapped altogether, as all of the game's professions would have enough soloability that they wouldn't need a companion...which completely misses the point of why many (again, the royal "many") were looking forward to the system. What makes this even more odd is how the interviewee seemed to believe that this removal was a purely good thing, like a favor was being done to us that we would be spared the pains of having to control more than one character, when it was reported to be an option to begin with.

When did we reach this point? When did single-character RPGs become inherently "better" than multi-character ones?

I certainly hope future opinions will change. Until that point, looks like I will continue to be disappointed by game developers churning out more Gothic and World of Warcraft clones.