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