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The GoodBioWare or Black Isle-style RPG: No matter how you call it, it's the type of RPG that defines quality role-playing for many people. Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, KOTOR - what I call the children of Ultima VII. Detail. Emotions. Choices. Quality writing. Lovable party members. Infinity engine.
But lately, Bioware Lite games Jade Empire and Mass Effect made some RPG pundits frown. Action-based combat? Simplified system? Pfeh! A pfeh! - like that guy from "Brothers Karamazov" said. Actually, I loved "Jade Empire" and "Mass Effect". A breath of fresh air, if you know what I mean. But still. A part of me was missing wearing Leather Gloves of Arcane Horror +3, increased damage to half-hobgoblins or whatever.
So here it is. The Return To The Roots (TM). A RPG so biowareshly classical, so blackisledly traditional, that you'd swear you've already played it before. But folks, this is one of those cases where the word classical doesn't bear any negative connotations. Dragon Age drips quality. It's so well-made, so masterfully constructed, that you won't give a damn it's just a repetition of the same (admittedly, great) formula the company has been using for years now.
Here is why. It takes particularly talented story-tellers to create a believable, interesting, absorbing world which is a replica of the most tired of all cliches: medieval fantasy. And not just any medieval fantasy. If you have a lot of fantasy to do something like this, people won't even notice it's still rooted in D&D, so original and unpredictable it is. But Dragon Age? You simply can't get more Tolkien than that. It's like someone read/watched Lord of the Rings (more like watched, really) and gathered all the ingredients for a game. Strictly medieval. No talking skulls or bears with an eye for fashion; not even mind-controlling psychopaths with tentacles, which are, after all, part of the lore. Humans or humanoids. Kings. Nobility. British accent. Dragons and orc-like guys as the villains. Very old-school. And still...
...it's alive! It's a world with its own culture, laws, relationships, religion, social interaction... and not just one, but several. The schemes of human nobility. The stubborn secrecy of the elves. The brutal caste system of the dwarves. Characters, places, items - everything goes into the Codex, and here it is, the great wonder: the world of Dragon Age is alive. That's where you begin to appreciate the importance of good writing.
Because anyone could have just written a couple of boring "educational" articles for the Codex. But not everyone could inhale life into those dialogues. If you played any other stuff by BioWare/Black Isle/ Obsidian, you must know how good those guys are at writing dialogues. You know how smart they are, how they put those funny "evil" responses into dialogue trees, how suddenly a phrase will pop out that you'd want to quote afterwards. Well, it looks like they outdid themselves in Dragon Age. Tasty reading, I don't know how else to call it. Amazing in their wealth of information, background, lore. Sometimes hilariously funny. Sometimes so thought-provoking that you forget about the rest of the game and immerse yourself in a discourse about God and the world.
Choices... one of those things that justify the name of this genre. Role-playing: you play a role of another person, and what can be better when you can create this person yourself? Not just the way he looks and how he kills enemies, but the way he reacts to what is happening around him? We loved doing that in other BioWare-style RPGs, and Dragon Age gives us more. From simple "mood answers" to moral decisions of gigantic proportions, which will make a veteran role-player pause. Does a man whose family was brutally killed still have the right to exact revenge on the culpable nation after generations have passed? Should we keep a powerful invention to protect an entire nation if it requires to turn people into mindless slaves? There are several "to kill or to forgive" situations where I honestly didn't know what to do - the "pro" and "contra" were both too heavy. Masterful work, BioWare. Truly a delight for anyone who enjoys quality role-playing.
What would a BioWare-style RPG be without party members? Erm... something I still don't dare to play, for fear of being disappointed. Ahem!.. One (if not the most) of the greatest enjoyments of playing such a game is witnessing party members talk to each other and quarrel, exploring all those dialogue trees, having a feeling you have real companions, romancing cute half-elves... Yeah... Well, that's a part I don't want to talk about, because for some reason my protagonist couldn't have sex with Leliana because of either a bug or a dialogue tree I forgot to choose and then there was no way to get it back. All I got was a big kiss. Lesbian. I was so disappointed, really. Or maybe my standards are... ehh... different now due to over-submitting of hentai games.
But anyway, you have so much of this quality stuff (interesting party members, not lesbian kisses, although that too) that it would be hard to demand more. This is the pinnacle of party interaction. Tons and tons of different conversation topics, comments on every plot-related situation, relationship with other characters in the party, solid and precise "liking system"... you have it all here. And those guys are all interesting. Even Morrigan, whom I couldn't stand, had well-written and convincing lines. Besides, you have a wonderfully sweet dog in your party. Sure, there were lots of RPGs with playable dogs, but this is by far the most developed one. Go, Jhonster-Monster!
Oh yes, sure, the gameplay. How could I forget. Well, that's because it's the old Baldur's Gate with a simpler system instead of D&D debris. Is it a good thing? Hell yeah. I never get tired of Infinity combat. Never. It's perfect. It has both the tension of action combat and the strategy of turn-based style. Why to change it? I said once, and I still say, that the future belongs to real time combat. With more realistic graphic engines, only God knows to what depths can real-time combat take us. Turn-based? It can't really change. Sure, it can be perfected with small details, but that's it. That's what I think, and yet every time I play a game with Infinity engine I feel I will defend it against anything that dares to replace it.
Dragon Age is a challenging game. In a good way. Smart enemies force you to plan, to experiment, to think tactically. Everything you loved doing in Baldur's Gate - sending a thief to back-stab, putting archers far away, luring enemies one-by-one with your tank, ordering mages to cast delightfully treacherous spells that would render enemies helpless while you hit them with melee weapons - everything is back with a vengeance. Tons of items, spells, equipment - everything you want from a RPG, everything is here. Pure bliss.
Great music, good graphics, and of course I should mention the voice acting: slightly cheesy at worst, but fantastic on many occasions. I totally loved Loghain, for example, but actually most actors for the main roles were great.
And should I mention the awesome cut-scenes? Someone here really learned from Lord of the Rings movie. Those "darkspawn attack" cut-scenes are just too cool.
The BadThere's this tiny voice speaking inside of me. And this tiny voice says: "Look at this game. I mean, take a good look at it. You think it's so exciting... but now think of Baldur's Gate for a moment. Can't you see? It's the same thing. Ten years passed, and yet it's the same thing. Infinity engine. Romances. Choices. Good, evil. No physical interaction. Fighters, mages, rogues. Drinking violent dwarves. Cute female elves in sexy bras. Yeah, yeah, yeah. What's new, man? What's changing? Nothing... nothing... nothing, like in that second Mr. Bean movie".
I try to chase the annoying voice away. But another one pops out and says sheepishly: "You always wanted to have this perfect game... the freedom of Gothic, the vastness of Oblivion, with all the good stuff you like so much in BioWare... Where is this perfect game? It ain't Dragon Age, that's for sure. What do you say? We'll wait some more, right? Eh?"
I stop listening to the voices. But I know that they are still there, somewhere.