Friday, November 7, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins (and a little bit of Mass Effect) - Part 1

Time to do another package deal. I have never written about Mass Effect in this blog even though I have played the first two. I'm pretty sure it happened before starting this blog so I'm not exactly obligated to according to my own rules. Dragon Age on the other hand is a game I have played quite recently, and it has a lot in common with Mass Effect. Might as well throw them all together. I have touched the topic of BioWare games earlier but now it's time to dig a bit deeper into one specific title. As usual I took forever and a half to start this game. I think I first wanted to play it as soon as it was released. I ended up playing it in 2014. Back then I didn't own a very modern PC, and I feared the PS3 version would not give me the same experience. I also had quite recently played a modded version of Baldur's Gate, and figured I might want to mod Dragon Age a bit too. "A bit" turned out to be about 30 individual mods, although most of them were simply graphical or environmental improvements.

1. Can you hear the dice?

For people who didn't like Mass Effect's rather close relatedness to first person shooters, Dragon Age was refreshing news. It promised to return back to the good old times of Baldur's Gate, giving the player control of the entire party from a bird's eye view. Although BG was a bit tedious to play at times, I was still looking forward to this. Although the game draws its inspiration from BG, a lot of things have naturally been modernized. The combat system is also BioWare's own instead of ye good old Dungeons & Dragons (well, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back in the day). It's not that far removed from, say, the fourth edition of D&D really. Generally it's fair to say that things have been streamlined all over the place. Inspiration has been drawn from my all time favorite source (sarcasm detector says beep!): MMORPGs. Abilities are now cooldown-based with stamina/mana cost added on top.

Back in the day, most abilities, including spells, had limited uses per in-game day. This led to hilarious amounts of resting at times, but as a system it wasn't all that bad. Cooldowns on the other hand are often more spammable, and unfortunately this shows in their design: they are really lackluster. It's nice and all to have a bunch of skills, but you know what's nicer? Skills that have an actual noticeable effect. Sure, most of the higher level skills have noticeable effects, but that still leaves a ton of relatively irrelevant skills to fill the player's action bar. I do like to think there's a reason for this - at least in the source. Having an action bar (or two) full of active abilities gives the player something to do while their character is auto-attacking endless mobs in MMORPGs. Whether pressing buttons in a sequence is interesting or not is another question in itself.

Looking back to Baldur's Gate there actually are not nearly as many active abilities - and most of them have use limits much stricter than cooldowns in modern games. Indeed, most of the combat is about looking at characters auto-attacking mobs. The difference between a modern MMORPG and BG? Well, there's at most six characters for the player to control in BG. The tactical dimension of moving them around more than makes up for the fact that they are mostly just doing basic attacks. So, what happens when we add few handfuls of active abilities with small effects to all characters? Well, mostly it just becomes more tedious to play. When the impact of a single ability is close to zero, activating it feels a lot like an extra hoop to jump through. It's also important to note that impact is not a static property of an ability. Instead, it also depends on the game's enemy and encounter design. More about that a bit later.

As stated, there definitely are abilities in Dragon Age that have a clear impact. Higher level mages can clear mobs with powerful area of effect spells, given suitable conditions. Likewise, higher level rogues have skills that actually increase damage output significantly enough that it can be called burst damage. Yet most abilities are only weak buffs, debuffs or disables etc. They certainly have a statistical effect but its presence is hard to notice in a real-time battle system with 4 party members. The only sensible way to use all these small abilities is to set conditional statements for the AI to use them - at least for the other three party members, but it certainly doesn't hurt to do this for everyone. After these meaningless little skills have been automatized the player can then focus on activating the bigger abilities at opportune moments. However, at this point it's rather questionable to include such meaningless abilities in the game at all.

Basically it comes down to decision-making. If the difference between using a skill off cooldown (i.e. as soon as it comes available) and using it at opportune moments is not significant, then the choice of when to use the skill is not meaningful. There are many ways to deal with this problem: you can turn these skills from active to passive, or proc-based; you could increase their impact and the cost of using them; or you can just remove them. The "how" is ultimately a matter of game balance. The important part is having a suitable amount of meaningful decisions in the game and minimal amount of meaningless decisions. The latter are just noise, and they make the game irritating to play. That's the noise of the dice being rolled way too many times during a simple combat encounter. I guess there is a general phenomenon here at work, somewhere: making it appear like more is happening by dividing all actions into smaller units. Doesn't work. At all.

2. Iconoclastic Hammer of Infernal Devastation (+1 damage)

The rant continues and I'm afraid it won't be done by midnight. I have went on about this topic at least once before but I have the perfect excuse to revisit it. Let's compare equipment in BG and DA! The comparison is slightly unfair as BG enjoys a certain amount of familiarity bias from an old school AD&D nerd like myself. Equipment in DA is very - you guessed it - MMORPG-esque. Well, to be fair, they are a bit more interesting than that. Closer to Diablo 2 I'd say, of all the games I have played and actually remember. There's a lot of numbers. I didn't count exactly, but I wouldn't put 15 different numbers on one item beyond the realm of possibility. Generally speaking, more numbers equals more dimensions along which to compare pieces of equipment. One-dimensional equipment systems are incredibly boring: two pieces are either exactly equal, or one is simply better than the other.

As dimensions increase, player choice increases with them. I might want to wear weaker armor, because it grants other bonuses that I rate higher. However, if multiple dimensions are parallel to each other, meaning diminishes and overt complexity is introduced in its stead. For example, critical hit rate, critical hit chance and percentage-based bonus damage are often different ways to increase average damage per attack. Percentage bonuses are more stable, but over time the net result is the same: a double damage crit with a 15% chance equals 15% bonus damage with enough repetitions (in a simple system at least). Although it might be somewhat up to taste whether you want a higher crit or just more damage, to make an informed decision you'd need to whip out a calculator when two weapons are near enough each other in average damage. Or, you know, just don't give a damn and use the one that looks cooler I guess.

Situational bonuses (e.g. elemental damage, bonus vs enemy type, damage type resistance) are another beast entirely. Strictly speaking, they can be an attractive way to make more items legitimate choices. I mean, if a weapon is better against dragons than any other weapon in the game, it remains situationally useful, does it not? Well... it depends. A lot, actually. In a sense, actually using the item in its situational context is usually not a real choice (after all, it is the best option). However, there may be strategic decisions to make if there is a cost to equip the item - for instance, in Dragon Age the player may have two weapons equipped and swapping them is effortless. In this case the "cost" of equipping any given secondary weapon is that it takes your only secondary slot. So there is a decision: what to equip. Meanwhile, switching between primary and secondary weapons is free from the game mechanics perspective.

The overall cost of messing around with equipment also includes an external cost: effort cost, i.e. how much additional effort the player needs to expend in order to make the switch. For a very simple example, let's say switching to my anti-dragon sword kills a dragon approximately 15 seconds faster. If it takes 20 seconds to actually bring out the damn thing, it's not worth it. Even if it's close, or even slightly faster, it may feel too much of a hassle to be actually bothered with. On the other hand, if the effort cost is zero (e.g. alternative weapons are bound behind different, equally reachable action buttons), it's also a non-decision. Generally speaking, all sorts of effort costs are detrimental to choice, and should not be used as balancing factors in this context. There are other contexts where effort costs are valid balancing factors, especially if they have a skill component.

To summarize: situational equipment only makes sense if  the player has to make meaningful decisions about which to use. Probably the most common approach is to have a limited number of quick access slots coupled with a real cost for reconfiguration (e.g. inventory cannot be opened during combat). In conclusion, situational bonuses are certainly a dimension, but only a secondary factor in deciding a character's main equipment kit. Despite the flood of numbers, most equipment in Dragon Age falls on a neatly tiered scale so ultimately not a whole lot of choice is involved. Although, some armors are so goddamn ugly that I occasionally just had to use a slightly weaker one. Then again, for female characters, that's almost every piece of armor in the game. Which brings us to another important factor that influences equipment choices: player experience.

Let's face it. Despite occasionally having cool names, a collection of numbers doesn't really cut it when it comes to items being cool. So for all their numbers, pieces of equipment in Dragon Age just aren't all that interesting. This is where the AD&D background of BG comes into play - especially in BG2. We can even argue that comparing a sword +1 to a sword +2 is not all that different from comparing two items in DA - the difference is just made more obvious. At the same time, the scale is more visceral. However, the really interesting stuff comes in the form of unique magic items. Named items that clearly differ from anything else in the game. A lot of these items give the player new abilities and truly unique mechanics that are not available anywhere else in the game. The amount of oomph is simply superior to a collection of numbers. While in DA a sword is always used in the same way, in BG a sword might have abilities that create entirely new strategies.

Furthermore, as most of the items come from the well-known AD&D and Forgotten Realms lore, they are already iconic - and their names have meaning. Some of them are also batshit insane, like the Deck of Many Things - an item that's almost a sidequest in itself - or the talking sword (name forgotten). Whether there is more meaningful choice considering equipment in BG is debatable though, as they still mostly fall on a rather tiered scale. However, they are definitely several magnitudes more exciting. They are also much harder and time-consuming to program. It is easy to see why developers these days prefer collections of numbers. Once you have the system down, generating equipment is just a matter of drawing up some numbers - which is something computers are very good at. It's also easy to balance, and effortless to re-balance. Just tweak the numbers.

Sadly, the oomph is gone - equipment has become just another piece in the mathematical character optimization machine. While making choices based on numbers is still meaningful, individual items are not memorable at all, and the excitement of finding new equipment is massively diminished. That's the sad reality as RPGs become games of numbers. In closing, a couple of examples. Borderlands 2 walks the border of numbers and uniqueness quite successfully. While most of its items are indeed just numbers, truly legendary weapons have unique properties that make them behave like no other weapon in the game. Another one is Dark Souls. If you only look at numbers, the equipment system seems really one-dimensional. However, each weapon is truly defined by its attack animations - its player experience - so that choice is first and foremost based on play style preference.

3. There and back again - travel time: eternity and a half

This pretty much continues where I left off with the Tales rant about ridiculous detours in games. Detours are not as much of a prominent problem in Dragon Age. Granted, every faction the player needs to visit to get them pledge their allegiance demands a series of quests before agreeing - so it's basically business as usual. In the very least these are actual subplots with player choices, and in many ways feel much less like hoops to jump through. So what's there to rant about? Well, very briefly: dungeon length. I have touched the topic in the past, but if any game has truly tried my patience with long dungeons, it's Dragon Age. It doesn't even necessarily mean the problem is at its worst here, it just means it feels most aggravating. This is due to several reasons, one of which is the combat system deficiencies outlined before. On its own, even that would be fine though.

The real problem then? The sheer amount of encounters per dungeon. There's a fight in literally every fucking room and corridor in the game. Which, again, in and of itself is not aggravating - just incredibly annoying. I've had my share of these in games before (like Xenogears, omfg). What really makes it toxic is that there are like three different enemies in the game. The variety of encounters is mindbogglingly low, and going through the motions again and again is really tedious - primarily because the game has a fuckton of meaningless abilities and the NPCs tend to have a really hard time staying where you want them to be (or if they do, they don't do anything at all). Although you can make combat more interesting by increasing difficulty, it becomes so time-consuming that it's just not worth it. Most encounters have the same structure anyway: sneak up on soft, deadly targets (mages, archers), then mop up the rest. Rinse and repeat in every room and corridor. Later on in the game you can fortunately use broken AoE combinations to kill enemies before they even reach you.

Mass Effects 1 and 2 suffer largely from the same problem. The amount of fighting really drove me insane - or, well, bored, actually. The problem is the same: there just aren't that many enemy types in the game. I think ME2 did best of the three games in this category. In all games the dungeons are just too long, and too repetitive. In Dragon Age the only real difference you seem to get between most dungeons is new textures in the environment, and new flavor for the same old enemies. I get it, we are supposed to be fighting darkspawn throughout the game because they are everywhere. Just, could there maybe be more than three types of them? No? Ok, I am exaggerating a bit, but three is not *that* far off, unfortunately. It's kind of the same in ME: there's this one race of enemies that forms the major threat in the game, and they have like literally three different types of units. That, and dungeons are effectively just long FPS corridors.

So, here comes the unfair Baldur's Gate comparison again. Admittedly the first Baldur's Gate suffers from many of the same problems (except it's composed of massive amount of outdoor areas and somewhat less dungeons) - largely because the level range 1-7 is in fact quite boring in AD&D in general. BG2 on the other hand is miles ahead. Taking advantage of iconic AD&D monsters, the game offers a far wider variety of challenges in combats. Many of its dungeons are also more interesting with devious traps and puzzles, or optional challenges that yield worthy rewards. Which is another point: if items are not exciting to find, why bother spending any longer in dungeons than is mandatory? Overall, the ratio of meaningful encounters to meaningless ones seems simply much better (or maybe it's the nostalgia talking). The number of enemy types is probably a magnitude or two higher too.

Variety of challenge is the key. In BG2, enemies have abilities that are absolutely bonkers and - as a consequence - very threatening. High level mages have ridiculous protections; vampires drain levels; beholders cast all sorts of crazy shit at you, including instant kills. It's even possible for characters to be entirely erased from the game, permanently. Think about that, and compare it to the watered-down enemies we get in games these days. Since player abilities - especially those of mages - are equally nuts, strategy choices have much higher impact. The games feel so different in comparison. To me, in DA it feels like most of my decisions increase my party's overall effectiveness by like 10%, whereas in BG2 the chance of winning can go from zero to 100% with good strategy. In a way, I could say that in DA everything progresses at a steady pace, whereas BG2 is incredibly explosive in nature - often literally.

All that, and I'm pretty sure BG2 also has shorter dungeons.


So, to summarize this wandering rant, these modern BioWare games - Dragon Age in particular - seems to suffer from everything being watered down. Certainly this makes it a more balanced game than Baldur's Gate 2, but at what cost? Going through the game feels like treading through some gray substance at a steady pace - a really slow pace at that. The game just throws these seemingly endless encounters at the player, each containing a mixture of the same enemies you just killed in the last room. Reaching new levels doesn't feel much like anything as most abilities lack substantial impact. Finding items is reduced to a sense of "wow, better numbers". Quantity over quality, it seems, and it just doesn't work. It never does, not for me. As a game of high fantasy dungeon crawling, DA is just garbage. If there's a mod that removes two thirds of all encounters in the game, I recommend using it - that just might make it work.

In the next part, I'll go through some reasons why I still managed to play through it.

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