The Corrente Review Of Games: Volume I, Number 6 (English Edition)
The Corrente Review Of Games is published on the first Saturday of the month.
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I've been playing Dragon Age (DA) for about a month now, and overall it's a fun game. It was advertised as one of the must have titles for last year, though, so "fun game" is a bit of a letdown. While it does what it does well, there isn't any kind of great leap forward that gives a game the "wow" factor. I'll start with some praises though.
This is the first game I've played that doesn't just give you a party of characters to lead, but allows you to switch between them during the game - and once you get a large enough roster, swap out characters between quests. It's very cool to be able to figure out what mix of skills you think you'll need for a given objective and decide who to bring along accordingly.
DA also has a very involved action system, where you can set what kind of behavior the characters will have, what actions they will take and the order they will take them, and so on. I really enjoyed fiddling around with that and figuring out the best mix based on my gaming style. Some folks might hate doing that, thinking it drudgery or micromanagement. If that's how you are, you can turn off customization and the game will assign a vanilla set of defaults for you. (It's always nice when games make customization an option.)
On the down side, the biggest complaint is the way it organizes information for the player. It does so badly enough to affect game play. First is the enormous volume of it. It seems like new notes and updates are frequently added. Almost all of it is environmental/historical stuff that fleshes out the world you're adventuring in. My problem with that is, this isn't freaking Dune! It's a video game! I'm not interested in your fantastically detailed milieu - I just want to play! I don't expect the game to be presented in a vacuum, but my sweet spot seems to be five or ten fairly detailed points, with scraps filling in for the rest. I don't want to feel like I'm serially reading a novel (or fantasy encyclopedia) during the course of a video game. Developers need to be mindful of just how often they are asking players to stop and absorb new background. In DA it feels ponderous. It interrupts the flow of the game, so I mostly ignore non-quest related material as it comes in.
Which leads to my second complaint - a small handful of those notes contain information that is crucial to extending game play. For certain optional quests you need to refer to the right entry to figure out what to do, and finding the needle in that haystack is not a challenge but a chore.
For all the work that went into creating this detailed world, the interface presenting it is almost comically inept. If you go to the journal as soon as you get a new entry it's pretty good about opening right to the new one. If you don't, though, when you finally make it to the menu you will see a collapsed set of main categories. The ones with unread data are highlighted, which if you haven't been pausing the game at every new one means most of them (unhelpful!) When you expand the category you (think you) want, all the unread entries there are highlighted too.
Here's the killer: Once you select an entry, even for just a split second as you scroll past it, it unhighlights and marks it as read. As the game progresses and you get more entries that list will grow beyond what will fit on a single screen and you have to scroll down to see additional ones. Meaning, thanks to the instant removal of highlighting on selection, there is no way to see which items below the scroll bar are unread! As soon as you select each entry (by virtue of scrolling) it marks as read. If you weren't already inclined to skip through it all beforehand, that would surely do the trick.
Another complaint, and one that shouldn't have to be made in a world with Bethesda, is the restricted areas for adventuring. The game gives you specific places on the map to travel to, but once at those places you are stuck there. If Oblivion and Fallout 3 have shown anything in the last few years, it's that you need to make the entire game world available to explore. It feels very constricting to be forced into the part of the world that DA wants you to live in and not be able to wander around. That should be a given by now.
The user interface has several glaring deficiencies, all on what they call the radial menu. By pressing and holding one of the trigger buttons you bring up a circular menu with icons along the perimeter. By using the analog stick you can select the icons and press the "X" button once they are highlighted to bring up their menus. So by default the game makes you hold in a button, move the analog stick and press another button at the same time to bring up what you want. It's not an intuitive way to work (for me anyway). It took some practice to get used to, and while I'm now fluid with it I still can't "automatically" work it without thinking, which is a nice thing to have during, say, combat. The radial menu can be made sticky in the options, but why not make the easier one the default?
Another problem with the radial menu is that some of the items on it don't offer additional information. In a game as complex as DA it's simply good design to litter it with help and tips. Put it everywhere and let users disable it if desired. They decided not to do that in several places here and it made a huge difference in game play because I didn't know to use a couple of big things at strategically important points.
Item usage also violates the "put it everywhere" rule. In order to use an item - apply a bandage, drink a potion - you have to change characters to the one you want to use during game action, bring up the radial menu and select the item there. Problem is, flipping between characters during combat can be dicey - and can disrupt the behaviors and tactics you've set up for your NPC's. If you bring up the player menu, though, select the desired character there, move over to the items in your backpack and select the desired item - nothing happens! You can't do it there. There's only one place you can, and what is true for help is true for using items: In a game as complex as this you put options everywhere. You don't put it in one place and assume the gamers will find it. It's just terrible design.
I'm running long already so I won't elaborate on some other complaints, but here they are briefly. There is no alignment or karma, so nothing you do good or bad changes the options available in the game. For something with its roots in D&D that seems like a huge omission. They have a conversation history available which seemed nice at first blush but has been completely useless. It's just one more thing to scroll past. You can't tell value of items when you get them, only when selling them. When you're in the middle of a dungeon crawl this is not helpful because you can't figure out what to junk and what to keep when your inventory is full.
All of these things make it a less fun game. If it had some kind of breakthrough like an Oblivion or Bioshock or Little Big Planet, something that was really unique and exciting, I'd probably be less inclined to quibble. But since it's basically the latest version of an existing formula, these things stand out. I enjoy DA and will play it all the way to completion, but it definitely has not lived up to expectations.
People who have read my columns before know that I'm not a fangirl for any one system. They all have good and bad things about them. I play on a Sony PS3 and it is, in many ways, an amazing machine. It's such a powerful system that clusters of them can be used as super computers. And it's considerably more reliable than the Microsoft XBox 360 (although not as reliable as the Wii). And PS3 users generally report better service than XBox users, perhaps not surprising since XBox is a Microsoft product.
Still, like with most large corporations, Sony sucks. A point proven again last week when PS3s around the world suddenly stopped working when the calendar hit March 1 because they could not connect properly to the Sony network due to an internal clock error that inserted a February 29th in 2010.
Any one can have a bug, of course, and that is not why Sony sucks. Sony sucks because the problem was difficult to contain and its response was incredibly lame.
I do not play on-line, over the Sony network, and so you might think - as I did - that an error connecting to the network would not affect my ability to play games in my living room, but you'd be wrong. Because I couldn't connect to the network, I couldn't play most of my disc-based games like Dragon Age (admittedly not a huge loss, see Dan's review above). I couldn't play them even if I cut my WiFi connection to the network and manually reset my clock.
It appears that in its rush to build its "network" (read rent seeking device), Sony has made sure that games - even individual player, disc-based games - are integrated as much as possible into it to the point where a simple glitch can take down machines all over the world even when players aren't affirmatively using the network to play. In addition to using its network to track what people play and what they might like to buy as a result through the network, I also wonder how much of this love of interconnectivity has to do with Digital Rights Management. Sony has previously had issues over DRM with regard to its CDs. Even if this particular outage wasn't related to DRM, it revealed that in the background of my disc-based games that I play by myself in my living room, I'm still part of a larger network of a major corporation.
Not only was it unnerving to find myself assimilated into the Borg, it's not even a particularly responsive or helpful Borg. Sony's response to the entire thing pretty much sucked from beginning to end. The machines were out for 24 hours, Sony posted very few updates and little information during the time. It took Sony 16 hours to tell its users not to turn on the machines for fear of data loss. That's right, sixteen hours. What's more, users had figured out the problem before Sony gave any information on the specifics. Finally, it looks like Sony's "fix" was to simply wait until the date changed again. So unless Sony rolls out a fix, we can look forward to the same thing in 2014 (assuming it handles leap year correctly in 2012).
Still like my PS3. Am less enthused about Sony (not that I was ever particularly enthused to begin with). And I'm pretty certain I will be disabling my WiFi connection on my PS3 except when I specifically want access to Sony's "network".