RPS At E3: Dragon Age – Origins

By John Walker on June 10th, 2009 at 10:00 am.

We've got to break THROUGH the ice!

There were surprisingly few disappointments at E3 this year. Most trips behind a closed door revealed something new and exciting, or reinforced enthusiasm for an ongoing project. EA’s demonstration of Dragon Age sadly did not. If the content shown was indicative, it seems reasonable to worry about with the forthcoming old-school fantasy RPG. I’m just hoping it was not.

Rumoured to have been in development for around a decade, the project has been described as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, and a fresh approach to traditional fantasy ingredients. Not using any D&D ruleset, but rather an infrastructure of their own creation, it sounds like it has the potential to be the triumphant return of a lost art. But I’ve yet to see anything that’s been convincing of this. Previous videos have come and gone, and almost every time I’ve thought, “Well, maybe it was just that voice actor,” or, “Well, it was just a dialogue scene.” I’ve made excuses. After the poor footage shown at E3, I find myself making more.

It’s important to be fair: this is an epic game, intended to last around 80 hours before planned DLC adds dozens more. I’ve seen minutes of it. It’s hard to have a sense of perspective for the game in full. But at the same time, those minutes have so far consisted of clodding dialogue, embarrassing voice acting, and peculiarly awkward combat. Oh, and of course, the rawk music.

The behind-closed-doors presentation of Dragon Age promised to show us two things: The nature of romance in the game, and the first reveal of a combat scene featuring a dragon. Let’s deal with the “romance” first. I don’t know whether it was a deliberately ironic choice of wording to introduce the clip. What we saw went something like this:

Our hero – one of the Grey Wardens, the group to which players will belong in an effort to fight back against the Blight, and the evil Arch Demon bringing it about – has a present for a lady, Morrigan. It’s a magical book that she has been looking for. She’s going to be very pleased to receive it. Once it’s dragged from our inventory to hers, she responds with some of the most excruciatingly dreadful flirtation I’ve ever seen. The acting is very weak, my face screwed up as I wrote the word “AWFUL” on my pad in the dark. She’s dressed as you might imagine a girl would appear on the cover of a 1980s D&D book, wearing what appear to be a couple of straps of material, most of her breasts hanging out. We can respond to her elephantine attempts at flirting by suggesting we’re open to her ideas. Once we’ve ambiguously agreed to her advances a couple of times, it cuts to a glimpse of an awkward sex scene that saw everyone in the room burst out laughing. Possibly not the desired reaction.

How romantic.

This all took place in a camp – something you can create at any time while wandering the game’s open spaces, a place to recoup, get some sleep, and chat with your companions. And indeed fuck them all, apparently. Because as we emerged from our night with Morrigan, we went over to chat with the slightly more modestly dressed redhead Leliana, who it turns out is apparently our girlfriend. Leliana’s voice makes Morrigan’s seem Shakespearian. The delivery is so deeply weird, stunted and childish. Unsurprisingly she’s upset at our bedroom antics, and protests. But not with any vigour or passion, but rather damply complains that it’s not particularly nice of us to go sleeping with other women right in front of her. Acknowledging that she can’t necessarily stop us from sleeping around, she meekly asks that we either stick just with her, or have the grace to break up with her as we continue our conquests. We choose to tell her that we love her really. She immediately capitulates and welcomes us back into her arms, before you’ve washed the smell of the last woman off you. So romantic! Here my notepad reads, “Pathetic.”

Next we’re shown the battle that led to our having the magical book gift for Morrigan. (I should note here that it became a gag for the rest of the week to say things like, “I wouldn’t mind giving her a book.”) This began with a meeting with Flenneth, the Witch of the Wild. Hundreds of years old, she is the witch of fairytales that have scared generations of children, and an enemy of Morrigan’s. We’ve been asked to kill her. During the conversation we’re offered dialogue choices that wouldn’t result in a fight, but for the purposes of the demonstration the violent choices were made. Also during the conversation I noticed that Flenneth was Captain Janeway off of Voyager, Kate Mulgrew. I asked about this and was told that the cast wasn’t being announced yet. Her having Kate Mulgrew’s voice did seem a bit of a give-away. Her acting was very good. After declaring our intent to kill her, she transformed into a giant dragon.

The combat that followed showed off a number of the special attacks and spells that will be available. Combat looks like it will be involved, using the various abilities of your party members collaboratively, the game letting you take over any member at will. At one point a member of our party changed into a venomous spider, who poisoned the dragon to weaken it – having shapeshifting playable characters sounds like a fun time. But for the most part, people seemed to be just slashing and chopping at the air, while the shapeshifting sorceress cast multiple heal spells to revive the frequently falling melee fighters. We were told the dragon was able to perform attacks like sweeping her tail at our party, but mostly people just fell over. However, there were also moments when the dragon would pick a party member up in her teeth and thrash around. This all finished remarkably quickly after our main hero jumped on the dragon’s head and wedged his sword into her temple.

And that was that. I want to stress once more, the above depicts only the few minutes we were shown, and there’s no way of knowing how it reflects on the overall game. I stood in line for as long as I was able to play the 360 hands on, but unfortunately ran out of time. I watched others playing, using the completely different interface the console version will sport, and it looked fine. Pretty enough and as you’d imagine a fantasy RPG would appear. Context presumably adds a great deal, and of course this isn’t an action game – RPG combat with multiple party members has rarely shown full contact fighting. The chances are, this being a BioWare game, that there will be a large, involved and decent story, along with elaborate and intricate role-playing.

But the problem is BioWare are concurrently developing both Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. What we’ve been shown of these is bloody brilliant. It’s mystifying how the same studio can be drawing us in with such exciting prospects for those two, while having Marilyn Manson declare that Dragon Age is to be “the new shit” over every recent trailer, and showing us nothing that gives us evidence for being positive.

I desperately want this to be good. Well, I want ALL games to be good, because then how great would gaming be! But I especially want a BioWare fantasy epic to be good. They’ve been so brilliant at them in the past. But the E3 clips ranged from juvenile to mediocre, which isn’t the impression I want to have at all. I look forward to being proved embarrassingly wrong.

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151 Comments »

  1. Psychopomp says:

    *sigh*

    I’ve waited for this game lord knows how long now.

    But…
    Bioware
    I am disappoint

  2. Jim Rossignol says:

    Seems like most of the E3 reactions to Dragon Age are middling-to-bad. Disappointing.

  3. jarvoll says:

    Wow. That was a sobering read.

  4. Larington says:

    “I wouldn’t mind giving her a book.”

    I have a sudden urge to make use of this phrase at any given opportunity.

    I think it’s the larger setting of Dragon Age that bothers me most, in the Baldur’s Gate series matters were a lot more personal or oddly mundane – Find out what’s happening to the iron supplies, find out who killed your mentor. But presenting this large threat in the form of the Bane just doesn’t have much impact on me. Its a great big evil that isn’t trying to conceal itself or anything. I may be wrong and the nature of this evil is far deeper than that, but right now as far as I can tell, the major villian of the story isn’t very interesting.

  5. Lobotomist says:

    Well

    Question is. How good is the gameplay ?
    Dungeons , fights , spells , strategy ?

    Cause this is what Dragon Age is really about.

    You can compare it with Mass Effect. But Mass Effect is nothing more than interactive Movie. And its good at that.
    But it was very Slim RPG. So comparing these two is probably not very appropriate. And this is perhaps what you have been doing.

    Instead ,if DA will be slim at acting sequences , but great at RPG goodnes…

    Than Bioware has mission accomplished…

    Mass Effect for more Story driven RPG
    Dragon Age for more strategy and combat RPG.

  6. Xercies says:

    wow i was really looking forward to this when it was first announced but that has soon gone down everytime I see a trailer and read about it. For shame Bioware.

  7. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    I too thought the dialogue and acting was stilted and badly done (from the various videos released). Set off alarm bells. Although it was not something many people have commented on.

  8. Tei says:

    Maybe is not that bad, maybe the audience like the game like that.

    Also, you guys are journalist. And gamers have a interest on different things. So of course, the more “yellow” part of the game has show to you guys. Because “yellow” sells newspapers. I mean… life is not just political debate and watergates, but If you turn TV on, is all you see on the TV. The world that journos show, is not the world where we live. So the game dev’s have show to the journos the part of the game more like…. political debate and watergates. Probably to spawn “debates” about showing pretending sex scenes in videogames. Is a irrelevant debate, but it sells newspapers. In real life we don’t care about these things.

  9. Dante says:

    Damn, I’m a big Bioware fan, and this looks like something of a downer.

    I too have been telling myself things like “The first mass effect trailers had some dodgy voice acting too like”.

    We’ll just have to keep hoping.

    Also, the acting would have to be pretty bad for Kate Mulgrew to be a welcome releif.

  10. Nick says:

    Unless the reviews come in declaring this to be the second coming of the elder gods I think I’ll be putting the NZ$100 on some books instead.

    I know they’ve declared that they’re trying to get back to their roots, but there are some aspects of the classics we don’t need to go back to. Like clodding dialogue, bad voice acting and crapola sub-plots.

  11. Dante says:

    @ Tei ‘Yellow’?

    I’m sorry, but I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say.

  12. Bossman says:

    I just want two things: A good, Baldur’s Gate style combat system and a campaign that lasts over 50 hours.

  13. Dante says:

    I think the bigger problem is the parts where they aren’t getting back to their roots.

    There was a great deal less shagging in Baldurs Gate.

  14. Howard says:

    That was a scary read. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen John so…despondent before =(

  15. Sp4rkR4t says:

    I lost all faith in Bioware after Mass Effect, yeah there was a good story in there somewhere but the awful combat and terrible use of HDR killed the game for me.

  16. Ian says:

    I’ve gone from entirely disinterested in this game to thinking it might be pretty decent and back again.

  17. Stromko says:

    I thought the ‘sex’ scene in that ‘sex and violence’ trailer was rather awkward already, and it’s not like Bioware is new at sex scenes. What the hell is going on with her neck? Why is she crawling like that? Is that how they fuck in Canada and they’re only now showing us the sobering truth?

    I would call this less sensationalist or ‘yellow’ journalism, and more a bit of honesty(not that the RPS crew seek to lie to us, but clearly the author here wanted Dragon Age to be great and succeed and is admitting he’s legitimately concerned for its future). I could tell Dragon Age was really looking ‘meh’ months ago. Doesn’t mean it might not be good, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have bought it already if they hadn’t delayed it for the console release, but everything I’ve seen about it has deflated my hype a little further.

    A couple months ago I was complaining bitterly about the lack of Mass Effect 2 coverage, I worried maybe it had been cancelled in lieu of other projects.. Now I’m left wondering if Bioware’s spreading their talent a little thin? Personally I’d much rather Dragon Age failed than ME2, for all its flaws I really loved Mass Effect, but I have no reason to care about Dragon Age one way or another. If it’s a good game, I’ll enjoy it. If it’s a bad game, I’ll pass. Of course Mass Effect 2 probably won’t see a return of Tali, maybe not even Wrex, so I could maybe pass on that too. I’m sentimental like that.

    I just don’t expect anything good from a company or developer after EA buys them. Usually it’s true, and if a rare gem escapes that hell of beancounters and board rooms, it comes as a pleasant surprise.

  18. Bobsy says:

    At least we know Dragon Age has dragons in it now.

  19. Hamflank says:

    The characters seem awfully generic and uninteresting. However, still hoping this to turn out more than half-decent.

  20. unwize says:

    When was the last time a Bioware game had anything other than average combat? Baldur’s Gate 2?

    If their usual standard of storytelling is there, I’ll be happy.

  21. Hermit says:

    Bioware have never really been good at romance plots. KoToR, NWN2, and Mass Effect all follow the same “Being nice to someone = instalove!”

    It’s a shame the setting sounds so generic given they built this world from scratch. It feels like they pitched this as a DnD game and didn’t get the license. That said, hopefully the gameplay will be the strong point, since that opens up the possiblity of many interesting mods.

  22. Schadenfreude says:

    So you’re saying we get to kill Captain Janeway?

    Sold.

  23. Andy says:

    Interesting stuff!

    Even with the slightly negative vibe from John, it’s still hard to know if this will be worth the wait or not. Not to keen on the idea of camping – never been a fan in real life let alone wanting to emulate it on my computer – even if it includes the opportunity to *gulp* copulate.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s one to wait and see about.

  24. James G says:

    Bah. Bah. Bah.

    Dragon Age had been one of my most eagerly anticipated titles, and this held up even through the initial few trailers. But recently my impressions have been dropping rapidly. I’m sorely disappointed.

    Already Bioware seem to have U-turned on some of the more promising comments they made. ‘No rapid, easy healing’ for instance. Whereas on other points they’ve just been disingenuous, ‘no chainmail bikinis’ for instance. Something that may technically be true, but is a statement which somewhat misses the point when you just end up making them out of cotton instead.

    It may sound like an odd comparison to make, but I’m beginning to think of Dragon Age in the same light as Torchwood. They’ve taken the admittedly slightly campy Baldurs’ Gate and promised to make it more adult, and instead seem to have ended up with something that’s going to be far less subtle, and as a result far less interesting. I was hoping Dragon Age would somewhat be following in the footsteps of something like Being Human instead.

    I’ve not written DA off completely, and part of me is still hoping for the game I wanted to see, but this is one I’ll certainly be waiting on more information. (Previously it had been a pre-order.) I find it slightly ironic that had the game not been delayed, I’d have almost certainly purchased it on day of release.

    Bah.

  25. BigJonno says:

    As awkward as the “romance” sounds, on reflection I realise that it seems light years ahead of anything else they’ve done. Mass Effect’s romance plotlines were very tastefully done, but incredibly simplistic. BG2 had brilliant writing for its romance scenes, but again, it was rather basic in its execution.

    What John described, while cringe-inducingly juvenile, sounds a hell of a lot more interactive than previous efforts. As much as I would like My Perfect Fantasy RPG right now, these things can take a few games to get right. Bioware have fouled up royally in the past (NWN campaign, anyone?) but generally get things right, so I’m reserving judgement until I hear something from people I trust who have played the actual game.

    Anyway, there’s a precedent for this sort of thing. Haven’t you ever read any Conan?

  26. Ian says:

    @ James G: “This is Torchwood. Which is a bit more FUCKING adult than Doctor Who, okay? I mean, shit! Those people are having some fucking sex right there!”

    I like some episodes of Torchwood but the first series they were trying too hard to be adult, and now you relate Dragon Age to it I can’t help but think that and agree.

  27. Larington says:

    I’ve always preferred the idea of imply then fade out as far as sex scenes are concerned. If people really honestly want sex in games, they can go mod them in, game development surely has more important things to do with its time. That and there is more often a focus on the actual sex rather than intimacy, which may be where they are going wrong.

  28. James G says:

    I can’t help but think that the uncanny valley is a very uncomfortable place to have sex.

  29. Jockie says:

    Maybe it’s more a case of CRPG’s being a bit undemoable. Admittedly the Knights of the Republic stuff all looks good, but most of the good will came from a CGI presentation, it’s pretty hard to show off an 80 hour storyline and a fiddly tactical combat system to full effect in the same context.

    RPG’s are all about sitting down and immersing yourself over a long period of time, making your choices and playing the game how you want to play with the guy or gal you created. The fact that the sexy-time is a bit cliche doesn’t really bother me, because examples of well done romance in games are few and far between.

    Or maybe i’m just deluding myself because I really want this game to be good.

  30. Tyndareus says:

    I just don’t get the developers’ insistence (in general, not just Bioware’s) to include “romance” in their games. Some of the most unpleasant memories I have from BGII involve my shunned flirty companions droning on and on, repeating the same “romantic” lines. What the hell, I just saved you from that circus twenty minutes ago, girl, wait a couple of hours before falling head over heels for me…

    Romance is one thing, counting roof tiles (or tent stitches, as the case may be) the moment a stranger gifts you a book is quite another and, I’m sorry to say, is embarrassingly close to the “plots” of some of the masterpieces of the adult film industry…

  31. BigJonno says:

    Larington, I agree about the actual sex itself. Anyone who really wants to watch some virtual nookie is better off downloading Second Life, spending a tenner on lindens to kit out their avatar nicely and boldly strolling off in search of the weird and wonderful stuff that people come up with there. It’s definitely an area where talented amatuers charging a couple of quid for bedroom-programmed who-knows-what are leading the market.

    Now the option to have sex is a completely different matter. I’m the kind of guy who has this idea of RPG nirvana where you can do absolutely anything in a virtual world. Being able to do anything would logically include getting it on with some random witch in front of your girlfriend and then making up after.

    Actually, isn’t that the plot for half of the episodes of Buffy?

  32. Feet says:

    Maybe they looked at the sales success of The Witcher and decided they wanted a piece of that pie.

    Sad times.

  33. Tei says:

    <3<3 I love romances on RPG games <3<3. The ones of Baldur Gates where hilarious. Is just another thing that a *writer* can add to a game to make it fun. If you can have a Turret Defense game in Warcraft-RST game, and I don’t see why you can’t have a Dating Sim in a Baldurs Gate-RPG. LETS HYBRIDIZE!!!.. (have you see what i did here?).

  34. Whiskey Jak says:

    “But the problem is BioWare are concurrently developing both Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic.” Well I guess you can’t have your “A” team everywhere at once.

    That’s the problem with developing multiple titles at the same studio, at one point the developer will have to compromise on who they’re hiring and won’t be able to secure “grade A” employees only. Not necessarily bad employees or stupid people, just not as good as the other geniuses who have worked on the titles that the company’s fans are accustomed to.

    Just to make sure that my point is clear: If you hire only 100 people and have tons of money, you’ll probably be able to recruit only Top players in the industry for every key position. If you have to hire 400-700 people, you may lack the time, money, incentives and opportunities to offer, or even simple luck, to get the “best at what they do” for every single position in your company.

    In the end, the company is still able to produce two VERY promising titles and one that seems shaky for the moment but that remains to seen, which is not too shabby, by a long shot, anyways.

  35. user@example.com says:

    To me, the most interesting thing about Dragon Age is the tie-in RPG Green Ronin (IIRC) are making for it. It’ll come in a box and everything, with future boxed sets expanding it, like the old BECMI edition of D&D. http://www.gamebanshee.com/interviews/dragonagerpg1.php is an interview about it, which looks pretty interesting.

    Of course, there’s no shortage of fantasy RPGs, but one with decent production values and a basic set to start with would be a welcome addition to the market.

  36. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    Yeah, Bioware was never good in the field of romance. The approach from “The Witcher” was – in my opinion – far better. I mean, Geralt was obviously some kind of guy that women find attractive and the whole game world felt more… I don’t know how to translate… slutty? Having one of the many sexual relationships with Geralt didn’t break the immersion for me. That was “casual sex” with no need to do a long romance plot beforehand.
    NWN2 in comparison left me almost angry about the lame Elanee plot. I didn’t take her along in my party, I almost never talked to her, but suddenly – on the evening before the castle is stormed – she comes with her cliché stuff “I have feelings for you, but it feels soooo wrong”. It just felt misplaced.

    I admit that doing romance in games is a difficult task, though. There’s so many factors at work in real life. I honestly have no idea how a good love story could be woven into a game. I can only say that “The Witcher” got it done best in my opinion. It’s quite telling that it was the most sexually oriented approach, leaving much of the difficulty of the romance untouched. Maybe that’s why it felt better than everything Bioware tried.

  37. Premium User Badge

    Schaulustiger says:

    Argh, edit not working for me.

    I just wanted to add that romances should maybe be left out completely. Just think about how you got together with your girlfriend. Nothing of all the subtle flirt stuff or subtext-driven conversation can ever be put in a game with it’s relatively strict rules. Romance in RPGs have always been along the lines of “pick answer 1 to get her to like you, pick answer 2 for the opposite”. If life would be that easy, we’d all have “100% working relationship walkthroughs” by now.

  38. jalf says:

    @Tei: The problem imo is that it is so rigid and predictable. Bioware sticks to the exact same formula for the romance subplots with every single game. I mean, surprise me! Where’s the option for a third party member to get jealous? Why do I never have to do more than
    1: do a main story quest
    2: talk to romance NPC
    3: goto 1

    And why is the “reward” always so goddamn predictable, and means absolutely nothing for the rest of the story? Why doesn’t my lover save my life by throwing herself in front of the otherwise lethal shot aimed at me? Or vice versa? Or hell, since we’re apparently that close, why doesn’t the game let me play as her for a bit? Romance plots in general have plenty of possibilities. It’s just the way Bioware have reduced it to a predictable checkpoint feature that bores me.

  39. Orange says:

    Mass Effect has unimpressed me, feels like a bland Kotor mixed with Halo so far.

    Aside from Bioware losing their edge a bit, perhaps with all these projects they have stretched themselves too thin? The mmo in particular is a huge undertaking, especially given the scope they have for it in terms of story.

  40. SwiftRanger says:

    “and chat with your companions. And indeed fuck them all, apparently.”

    They literally said that? What is Bioware smoking? Seems like we have to hope for another company to make an official BG III to get a good fantasy partybased RPG again after all.

    I really hope they just thought “Ah, it’s E3, let’s show console kids what they want and keep the real meat out”.

  41. Koop says:

    Schaulustiger says: “Just think about how you got together with your girlfriend.”

    Does not comply.

  42. Chairman Mao says:

    This game has had the worst ad campaign in the history of gaming since John Romero made us all his bitch, unless you’re one of those console-only monkeys (surely the target audience).

    The concern I have is that the game really IS toned down for the aforementioned console-only monkeys. I find it unlikely that Bioware would make a sophisticated RPG and just dupe the mainstream into buying it without actually making the game itself more mainstream.

  43. phil says:

    I believe the best ‘romance’ plots are the most outlandish, at least they provide a bit of comedy – it’s a shame Bioware has moved away from resolving parallel romance problems by proposing a threesome, as in Jade Empire.

    I suppose the best possible integration of romance/main plot lines would leave you with the option of beating the last boss or bedding it – I think only Bard’s Tale has done that .

  44. Muzman says:

    All that and they’re still holding off on calling it “Dragonage”, or perhaps “Total Dragonage”.
    And the cover should be the title tattoo’d on a flexed bicep.

  45. Premium User Badge

    Morph says:

    My first thought was ‘Dragons! Could this be any more generic?’ before I remembered it was called Dragon Age and so Dragons would probably be in there somewhere. But still, this looks so generic fantasy it hurts. What’s the point in creating your own setting if it’s just basic D&D?

    I didn’t mind the Mass Effect romance, I can’t think of many better examples in games (not that this implies a high standard). But here… yikes. Pathetic sounds the right word from John.

  46. Rath says:

    What do you know, Kate Mulgrew getting work after the assault on television that was Voyager. Wonders never cease.

  47. autogunner says:

    on second thoughts I dont have the time for another mega rpg, ill just stick with mass effect 2…

  48. Digit says:

    If ever you are in doubt this game will be trash, please, just visit their forums. I have no idea what’s going on there, but this is not in the same vein as Baldur’s Gate, or even any of the Infinity Engine games. It’s a bit like… Neverwinter Nights, stealing blatant elements from The Wheel of Time. It’s lashed together with some pretty particle effects and videos that show off nearly nothing new set to rock music, in a hope to kill any last functioning brain cells you may have left that are trying to lead a rebellion against this tripe.

    Disgusted.

  49. Schadenfreude says:

    Just an aside; NWN2 wasn’t by Bioware. Though I do seem to recall Mr Walker loving it (giving at a score in the 90s) and IMO it has some brutal voice acting and that romance with Elanee was one of the worst things I’ve seen on my monitor.

    The voice overs I’ve seen for Dragon Age haven’t been bothering me (So long as Carth Onasi doesn’t show up again I’m happy). Though Morrigan is slightly distracting ’cause I can only ever picture Claudia Black in my head getting torn in half by bioraptors in Pitch Black.

  50. Colthor says:

    I misread that as “Cilla Black” and got confused.