This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dragon Age: Origins.
Sometimes it's fruitful to take a step back and examine the basic workings we have come to accept, like saying the word "Scunthorpe" over and over again until it's reduced to meaningless syllables with a spicy hidden cuss.
And there's something terribly weird about the standard fantasy setting, not least of which the fact that the phrase "standard fantasy setting" can be uttered without irony. Look at this, we're a civilization so steeped in escapism that we've managed to find mundanity in something that doesn't exist and never will, whatever your Otherkin friend might say. Why is it accepted fact that elves fire bows and arrows and commune with the trees? That was Tolkien's thing. Without him, elves would be just about qualified to sell Rice Krispies. And he made dwarves all have braided beards and wield battleaxes. Real dwarves don't do that; they get hired by Lucasfilm or take corporate office jobs because they're an equal opportunities bonanza. Are we all but children playing forever on the same swing set while J.R.R. is the grumpy dad watching from the park bench and trying not to get aroused?
Dragon Age calls itself a "dark fantasy." It's rather cute, really, like a D&D nerd getting his ear pierced because he fancies the goth girl who works at Starbucks. Dragon Age isn't dark fantasy, nor is it light, gray, avocado, or caffeine-free fantasy, it's just straight fantasy classic. It's a straight-line Tetris block wiping out four big fat rows of demand for traditional single-player RPGs. It's got elves, dwarves, dragons, it's got a title screen depicting a sword sticking out of the ground, and the world map looks like a fire-breathing coffee drink has been sick on it; we're talking a hundred percent commitment here, where every individual element could be taken out of context and every single one could make your girlfriend legitimately call you a sad bastard.
Here's the story: at the borders of the kingdom of Fereldon, a sinister army of darkspawn masses, a power struggle has broken out between the usurper Teyrn Loghain and — oh Christ, are you listening to this? I feel like this should be scrolling over a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger looking bored on a throne. So you start the game and you choose whether you're a human, an elf, or a dwarf. Then, just as you're reeling from all the staggering innovation, you pick warrior, rogue, or mage. I can sort of see what they're going for: another game might keep up some pretense of newness and have classes like "Peacekiller" or "Shadowhumper" or "Garrotkorv," and necessitate players sitting with a fucking glossary on hand, so better to just drop the Trousers of Pretension so everyone understands what you've got swinging around.
Once that's all done you get one of six unique starting levels; depending on what sort of character you roled to. You've got six entire games in one--in theory. Realistically, you'll probably just play through it once, then play the opening mission five times, because after that it's pretty much the same except for the occasional bit of dialogue. For example, I was an elf, and every now and again characters would say, "Hello, you are an elf!" If I were a human presumably they'd say, "Hello, you are an asshole!" I'd like to see a Tolkienesque fantasy where the humans aren't the biggest pricks in the room; I mean, a lot of my friends are humans and some of them are all right.
I won't waste too much time describing the gameplay, for the same reason why I wouldn't spend too much time describing the color of a banana: if you've ever played a BioWare RPG, you've played this. If the elves all had lobsters for faces you could convince yourself you're playing Mass Effect: Brown Edition. You enter a new area, you gather quests for a load of work-shy peasants who won't lift a finger to chase the cottagers out of their own toilets and who have about two faces and four hairstyles between them all, go to the dungeon and murder everyone you find, steal their pocket change, steal their trousers, then come back, hand in the quests, sell all the trousers, and flee, like some kind of extremely dedicated wandering secondhand clothing salesman. And various party members join you, whose purpose is to aid in battle, wear all your spare trousers, and force me to go through the dull routine of making sure their trousers are marginally better than the ones I'm selling at the end of the day.
And of course, what would a BioWare RPG be without dialogue? A whole bunch of silence and trousers, that's what. I remember hearing somewhere that Dragon Age contained 9 novels worth of text, which didn't really sell it to me. Who the fuck sits down to read 9 novels at once if they don't live in the fucking Bastille? So about seventy-five percent of your playtime is spent making rather creepy loving eye contact with NPCs as they talk about the weather, the political situation, and the small group of ogres who are standing behind you and who will stoke in your head with lead pipes literally the very instant this conversation ends, all in the same placid tone of voice, even when you're freshly battled and your body is spotted with blood splatters like a menstruating leopard, which makes everyone in the world seem a little bit mental. Then you choose between the friendly response, the neutral response, or the asshole response; this is what they call "role playing," children. Being an asshole doesn't really affect the game in the same way it did in Mass Effect or KOTOR, but they can occasionally make people attack you faster or not give you stuff, which I call blatant assholeism.
I haven't mentioned whether Dragon Age is good or not yet, and here's why: because at time of writing--I mean, speaking--I've been playing for twenty-five hours and there's still no end in sight. There are three-day accountancy conventions that don't feel as long as this game, but you know what? I'm actually enjoying it. Combat gets a bit clusterfucky but the radial menu has the decency to pause the game when it's open so you don't get bisected by knolls while you're hunting for the "summon fiery apocalypse" button, like you're trying to read a manual on cocksucking while your first customer is already speeding towards your gums.
It's easy to mock the straightfaced cliché of it all, but the fact that I can play it for twenty-five hours and still want to know what happens next means that I shouldn't complain; besides, people like what's familiar. That's why Blizzard recently bought their fourteenth yacht. Basically, if you like fantasy RPGs, then Dragon Age is about as definitive as they get, and if you don't like fantasy RPGs, then I guess you can just go off and have sex with people instead.
Stop those credits! It's time to announce the winner of the Stonking Great Game Contest! We had some very strong entries and some utterly rubbish ones as well. Actually there weren't many strong entries at all and most of them were about as captivating as a dead dog in a skip. But to be fair, it wasn't much of a subject matter, really. An accurate game about my daily life would be like an MMO where all the fun and questing takes place on the other side of a big concrete wall while the player sits in a dark room illegally downloading Avenged Sevenfold.
Anyway the winner was Yahtzee's Last Stand, a frantic platform shooter sort of like Smash Bros. Brawl if all your opponents were launched at you with a man-cannon. The connection to Zero Punctuation is visual alone; you could replace all the sprites with pictures of cucumbers and sprouts and re-sell it as an educational game from the National Health Service, but, again, with the given subject matter, what the fuck was I expecting you to do? A game where you shout into a microphone for five minutes? Because someone else tried that and I beat it by putting my headset next to the tumble dryer. And Yahtzee's Last Stand was one of the few entries that noticed that between the word "Stonking Great" and the word "Contest" was the word "Game," and had actual gameplay that was entertaining and challenging without becoming overwhelming, as opposed to a sequence of references held together with spit.
The runners-up were Imps vs. Fanboys, a neat little tower defense game to add to the several billion of those that the Internet has grown like pubescent bumfluff, and Yahtzee the Ultimate Game Critic and the Imps Invasion, a surprisingly graphically detailed side-scroller let down by some control issues and the fact that the flamethrower weapon is to balanced gameplay what a crowbar is to a kneecap. Big thanks to all the judges and of course to everyone who entered. In a way you're all winners, and by "way" I mean a fucked up Bizarro universe. Resume credits!
- In the name of the maker: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- So is the Dragon Age anything like the Bronze Age, and now everything's made out of dragons
- Sometimes I carve hairstyles out of wood
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- "Zero Punctuation: Achieving the Cross-media Transformation of Ludological Hermeneutics"
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