Dragon Age Retrospective - Part I
For many people, Dragon Age: Origins was supposed to be the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. That’s a lofty goal, and it’s debatable if that’s what it became, but one thing the series has managed to accomplish is that Dragon Age is unique. In its old-school combat ideas, its willingness to be as hardcore or as simple as the player wants, and its openness to wildly different sequels, this series manages to stay interesting each time out.
The odd way the series handles sequels makes the world more important across each game than the characters themselves. With the most recent game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, the various world states a player could have leading up to this point maintain their importance, and help create an engrossing story. Within this series, BioWare takes a lot of risks with what a Dragon Age title is even supposed to be as a video game each time out, which is a rarity with triple-A games. Let’s examine some of these risks and changes, starting with a look at the part where murder happens.
Dragon Age - Combat
How Dragon Age handled fisticuffs was the most important part of the whole “spiritual successor” idea. Baldur’s Gate was a western-style RPG from the Infinity Engine era: an era when games were adopting Dungeons & Dragons combat ideas and hoping to translate those into fun-to-watch video game encounters. In D&D, you’re rolling dice for each individual action of a fight. However, playing a video game one calculated sword swing at a time over hundreds of fights would be the opposite of fun, so the game engine handled all that stuff in the background. The player’s input was mainly just telling the character which thing to swing on, when to use special actions, and where to go as they automatically attacked their targets. It wasn’t that different from modern MMO games.
The trouble was that you only control one character in a modern MMO game, but in games like Baldur’s Gate, you controlled a party of multiple characters. To make this manageable, the game would pause the action and let you issue commands or move the camera around for as long as you wanted. This gave most fights a stop-and-go rhythm commonly referred to nowadays as pause and play.
At minimum, this was what people expected when Dragon Age: Origins was first labeled as a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t exactly capable of emulating those ideas.
Origins for PC had pausing as well as the option to pull the camera out and get a better view of the battlefield: the tactical camera. The issue was the game’s combat, unlike Baldur’s Gate, wasn’t a Dungeons & Dragons simulation. Bioware gave Dragon Age its own combat rules that were mostly the typical options we’re used to seeing in RPG skill trees. In effect, the game was simple enough that it didn’t necessarily demand that super tactical, pause and play style. Additionally, perhaps because games need to make a lot more money to be successful now than they did in the Infinity Engine days, Origins didn’t require any use of the tactical pause option at all on most of its difficulty settings. Old school PC RPG fans who took pride in having meticulously worked through every fight in Baldur’s Gate felt exploited by a game billed as the one to revitalize those ideas in with a modern focus. The game did connect with a new audience, but it couldn’t stop words like “streamlined combat” from quickly starting to feel like “dumbed down for the masses”.
That said, at least the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins still gave the player options. On PS3 and Xbox 360, Dragon Age’s tactical camera didn’t allow the player to position team members, nor did it give you a wider view of the battlefield. In a lot of ways, it felt like a game playing itself with some occasional influence from the player, in the form of using abilities once their cooldowns ended, every 15 seconds or so. Personally, I often felt like I had grand tactical plans that the game’s combat design just wouldn’t allow. Even some basic ideas like putting your heavily-armored guy in the front of a strong enemy and your less-durable mages further away were incredibly difficult to pull off.
Fortunately, the unexpectedly simple combat served its other goal quite well. People who didn’t come into Origins expecting Baldur’s Gate but 3D still got an introduction to the world. There aren’t many traditional fantasy RPGs coming out now, unless they’re action games with RPG influences. The Witcher, Dark Souls, and Fallout are more accurately described as action RPGs because they lean heavily on the player’s ability to be good at video game stuff. They require things like quick reflexes, for example. Even with the first game’s combat flaws, Dragon Age still required more mental effort than physical mastery of a controller or keyboard. This allowed for all types of people to meet its world and inhabitants, whether or not they wanted things like fairness or fun in their combat.
Dragon Age II corrected a lot of these issues, while still managing to further streamline things. First off, the tactical camera for pausing actually worked on the console versions. Right off the bat, Dragon Age II gives you meaningful control over what goes on in combat, and it’s a great change. Second, the presentation of the game made playing it feel better. There were little pauses and trembles on the screen when a blow landed, and basic attacks were given detailed animations. Combat in Dragon Age II had a tactile feel that wasn’t possible to produce in the Infinity Engine era, and was sorely missing in Dragon Age: Origins.
However, while the sequel seemed to please fans with its combat improvements, the character development part of combat was controversial. Honestly, it was almost universally hated. In short, it only allowed players to do gear customization for their main character, and not for any party members. Allies would grow in skill over time, but players weren’t able to nerd over which bracers to give a character. The series already had a bad reputation for streamlining things a lot of RPG veterans would preferremain complicated, so few people were happy to see this change. Personally, I happen to hate comparing every single piece of equipment that shows up in a game against the numbers and gear for a bunch of characters, so I didn’t mind the change. But there’s a lot of stuff people hate about Dragon Age II that didn’t bother me, as we’ll get to.
There were a few other nitpick-ish problems with fighting. Enemies were rarely present on screen at the start of an encounter, so they would spawn into combat at set points. In a game where resource management and character positioning can be life or death, enemies that would just appear at random positions could often be devastating. It was also one of those gameplay contrivances that serves as an annoying reminder that games are just dumb sometimes. Overall, though, the game felt like a better attempt to do what Origins attempted, even though that wasn’t very Baldur’s Gate to begin with. Playing on the harder levels never gave me that feeling that my strategies failed simply because the game wasn’t sophisticated enough to handle a plan.
Dragon Age: Inquisition adopted a lot of Dragon Age II’s tactile feel. The game’s presentation was expectedly better (it’s a PS4/Xbox One-era game) so the animations helped sell the general effing up of stuff going on. The latest game’s transition to a more open-world structure seemed to inadvertently solve the enemy spawning issue from the second game, as well. Enemies were usually visible from very far away before an encounter began because the areas were often significantly larger than they were in the previous titles. Inquisition also added some wrinkles to combat that made it feel like more than just numbers and dice rolls. The game had more abilities that reposition enemies like black holes or pulling them with a Mortal Kombat style “Get over here!” move. It had counter attacks that needed to be timed just right, but could still be done with the tactical pausing mode.
Inquisition was also the easiest Dragon Age game to enjoy while playing only in real time. Without using the pausing features, the controls and pace of combat made playing it as an action game with AI companions fun and interesting. I know plenty of people who exclusively played the game this way, and never felt like they were missing out on the original intent of how Dragon Age combat is “supposed” to go. I opted for the pause and play approach, and on the harder difficulties that’s the only way to play, but the fact that the option was even valid says a lot about how far the series’ combat came in just three games.
Combat throughout the Dragon Age series represents one of the only good examples of a franchise simplifying certain aspects in order to appeal to a wider audience, yet still delivering on the complex parts for the hardcore fan base. “Streamline” is still a dirty word in game design, so it’s nice to see a developer pull it off in a positive way. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to highlight this series in these retrospective posts.
I’m not sure how many of these will be coming, but I plan to cover how other parts of Dragon Age evolved from game-to-game. We’ll get into how the storytelling, game structure (how many games go from linear to open world in two sequels?), graphics, and so on have changed since 2008. Gather your party and venture forth.