Dragon Age: Origins
They’re not the dirty, truculent and mischievous pixie-creatures of pre-Tolkien fantasy, but the elves of Ferelden are treated by humans with the same regard as vagrants and vagabonds. And while magi are employed in the city of Ostagar to defend its walls and magic is respected by its population, its practitioners are distrusted, feared and even hated by some. Generally speaking, choose an elf or a mage character, especially an elven mage, and you’ll encounter prejudice by the bucketful wherever you go in Dragon Age: Origins. Our foray into DA:O’s equivalent-of-Baldur’s-Gate city already hints at the ominous direction BioWare is taking its new IP in. But sitting in front of five of BioWare’s top development team members prompted the obvious question: what exactly makes DA:O different from BG I and II or Neverwinter Nights?
“We took a darker and more gritty approach,” executive producer Dan Tudge told us, “It’s next-gen so we took an over-the-shoulder view, enabling you to drop right into the world. But a lot of the great elements of Baldur’s Gate, like storytelling, tactical party-based combat and party interaction are still there. The team took a lot of the things that went on in Baldur’s Gate and especially Baldur’s Gate II and wanted to build on that legacy and the next generation experience. And it ties in with the origin stories, the idea that every one of us could play our own experience and shape it through the game. It has that double meaning there.”
“A lot of the good stuff from our other games is there too,” said lead programmer Ross Gardener, “Such as the full voiceover from Mass Effect. The Baldur’s Gate experience is there at its core, but the innovations that have come into the industry in the meantime we’ve leveraged into Dragon Age.”
“The other thing is that we’re not following an IP anymore, we’ve created our own” added art director Dean Andersen, “We have a lot of freedom that we didn’t have before to not only explore more mature themes in terms of darker, deeper stories, but also for the rules. The old rule system for Baldur’s Gate – the Dungeons & Dragons system, it’s set up to be a penand- paper game. It’s made so that you can calculate things easily in your head. Whereas computers have a lot more processing power, you, uh…”
“Roll dice in milliseconds.” Dan appended. “Yeah, so there’s a lot more environmental strategy in combat. It’s more strategic and tactical from that point of view. In a lot of ways it’s a better combat system, more fun than Baldur’s Gate.”
Indeed, THAC0 (To Hit Armour Class 0) was stripped out of TSR’s fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons rule set, but this Baldur’s Gate staple no longer applies to DA:O anyway. Although the hardcore dice-rolling game that BioWare was famed for in the early part of this decade hasn’t gone, BioWare’s bespoke rule set is a much less transparent system. Exploring the world in an as-yet-unseen elven origin quest demo hinted on the depth of DA:O’s combat: no less tactical and engaging, but more intuitive and less intimidating than its predecessors.
Taking the reins of an elf character, we formed the support half of a two-man elven team led by a somewhat arrogant companion, who made a better (although not ideal) tank. Our academic quest was to explore an ancient ruin in search of elven history and naturally involved a dungeon, traps, baddies and treasure; true BioWare fantasy fodder. It led us along a verdant woodland path and into a false sense of security, before ensnaring us on a hidden trap and sending two giant spiders to finish the job at the mouth of the open entrance to the dungeon.
Current-generation technologies like the zoom to third-person from classic overhead with a massively detailed environment are a given, but BioWare has made what sounds like subtle differences to combat on paper, but mean a huge difference in practice. The mesh between real combat physics and dice-rolling has been refined. Stepping up the incline of the slope down to the dungeon, we had the tactical advantage of raining arrows down onto the spiders while they attacked our stricken fellow that, unlike Baldur’s Gate, would be impossible if something was obstructing our line of sight. Vice versa, ducking behind a boulder doesn’t grant you a Tabula Rasa-style defence bonus, but it will protect you from incoming projectiles. Your stats have a major part to play in combat, of course, but graphical and physics technology has advanced to the point that BioWare can now use them to augment the system for a more natural combat strategy. Using the boulderthrowing ogre in one of the DA:O website demo reels as an example, Dan explained this in more detail, “There’s certainly a point within the math where even if you physically move your character out of the way, you’ll receive a hit. It’s not real physics in the sense that there’s a point of contact and the boulder actually has to cross paths with your mesh, but there is way more ability to avoid things. And we don’t just call the talent backstab and roll a check for it, you actually have to move the character around for a backstab. So the real-time aspect of that has been brought forward from Baldur’s Gate.”
With the quantum leaps in technology that PC hardware has made since Neverwinter Nights, BioWare has had some serious overhead to play with for DA:O. This has resulted in big bosses with interactive animations, such as the ogre’s grab ability seen in the website demo, the mauling attack of the Bereskarn we witnessed at the end of the new demo and undoubtedly something really sexy from the, as yet, unveiled dragon encounters. BioWare has also made efforts to further the mature theme of DA: O in a more obvious way, immersing the player in a fantasy environment without the sugar-coating, in the form of an abattoir of gore. Blood gushes from every wound inflicted; roll a critical hit and your character will execute brutal fatalities specific to your class and weapon style. Moreover, blood will soak characters involved in close melee combat and is persistent too, which has resulted in some unexpected comic moments in development, “There are some innovative ways of cleaning your armour. You can switch it out…” Dan began to tell us, then Dean broke into laughter before explaining, “There’s this touching scene where you’re talking to a dear loved one, talking serious stuff and he says ‘you look so beautiful right now’ and you look, bleughh!”
“Yeah, so we took some licence with some of the blood in conversation. You’ve got an archer and a mage working ranged, then you’ve got your tank, and if they all step into conversation, they’re all pristine, but the tank is just drenched.”
Sadly, there’s no permanent scarring for serious injuries, though this was considered, “There’s always the joke when you’re playing that your character should be one big mass of scar tissue because they get wiped out so often,” said Ross, “We had a lot of ways we thought about customising a character, and that’s one thing we had to decide against. It would be neat, though. Maybe it’s something we could explore later; the idea that every time you go through the game, you die or get some injury, you get some new scars. Like every time you get hit by a fireball…” “It would be like, ‘can you cast ‘skin graft’ on me?’” joked Mike Laidlaw. Ross laughed, “We could make that a spell!”
Playing a bigger, well-rounded party with a mage, thief and tank complementing an archer we found ourselves slipping into old BG and NWN habits – good habits, that is. DA:O can be played in full real-time, but old hands at BioWare games will remember the benefits of interrupting combat with a staccato of pauses. “I think you learn very quickly that if you just rush in headlong into the group, you’re not gonna make it.” Dan reminded us, “You’re definitely going to have to pause just like you did in Baldur’s Gate. For example, I see three Hurlocks ahead, one looks like an emissary and one’s an alpha – so I’d better take that alpha out first. So I take the meat of my party and send them right at the alpha. I’m also gonna cast sleep with my magi and hopefully put a whole bunch of them asleep, so I pile everything on that alpha and take the power out of that group. Then I might sneak in and peel one off, stealth in and backstab him. Tactically, you really have to think about combat. It definitely makes sense to position your archers, so if there’s a knoll or a platform – get them up on there.”
“But only if you have a clear line of sight,” added Ross, “If there’s anything in between then the arrows will hit it. There’s one thing that we’ve taken from MMOs and that’s the concept of aggro, that’s something that’s becoming awfully common nowadays. You can use your tank to taunt or annoy the enemy in some way and make them focus there. You couldn’t really do that in BG because the AI wasn’t so smart, if you took a tank in first it would just focus on that.”
This certainly marries up with our experience, only in the encounter we had with the orc-like Hurlocks and the roles were reversed. We were taunted by an emissary who lured our warrior across a bridge and into a swinging log trap, laying him flat out. Riled by the audacity of the AI, we seriously underestimated the opposition and foolishly sent our thief in to tank while our mage and archer took up sniping positions. We were creamed by several soldiers who had been waiting in the rear and, in time-honoured Baldur’s Gate tradition, we re-loaded our game. “You can get in there with a plan and get completely wiped out,” said Ross, “Sometimes it takes two or three times, and every time you bring your game to a new level, bringing in more tactics and learning how the system works.”
“And the true grace is, of course, occasionally encountering enemies you can totally destroy,” Dean added, “Every now and then you are the bringer of death, it’s you versus 50 guys. And you totally kick their ass in a single fireball. You have to break the pace sometimes, give the player a breather and say, ‘Well done. Here you go: kick their ass.’”
Our last question was regarding party dynamics: famously, party characters of opposing alignments in Baldur’s Gate would bicker with each other and provide the player with entertaining banter throughout. But inevitably you had to side with one or the other, resulting in repercussions somewhere down the line. The same dynamic has been expanded for DA:O: putting a good party together isn’t as simple as recruiting the most powerful characters available, you’ll need to weigh each member’s martial contribution against their personality, ethics, race and gender. “Each character has their own personality,” Dean told us, “they may agree with what you do or disagree and get upset. You may have some affection for a particular character as a player, but then there’s the tactical side of things. You probably don’t want a whole party of fairly weak characters as you’re probably going to want someone on the frontlines to block. So you have to make sure you’re supporting their abilities while you’re balancing their personalities.”
Dan finished our interview with a teaser, which elicited enthusiastic nodding and knowing glances from the rest of the team. “Gender doesn’t make any difference to your attributes, but the way people react to you. It will also make a difference to your origin story. With some of the origin stories your gender will make a very significant difference, especially one, which has got a lot of ‘emotional’ reaction…” Or should that be a Mass-ive Effect on the DA:O story?