Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dragon Age 1's Add-Ons

So, I did a rant on the various DLCs for Fallout 3, and at the end of it, I wondered how DLC would affect other PC RPGs in the future, and whether companies could be as responsible with it as Bethesda had been with Fallout 3, saying that the then-upcoming Dragon Age would provide a good litmus test. Well, the results are in.

(Take note that I don't really pay attention to little DLC things, like individual items or the Feastday gift/prank items. I'm only really interested in the substantial add-on packages that add quests and locations and such to the game).

The Stone Prisoner: This DLC came free along with the game, so I can't argue the price. A pretty good add-on, too. It added a new, pretty nifty character, Shale the Golem, to the party, and provided not only a small new area and set of mini-quests to obtain Shale, but also another small area and mini-quest later on related to Shale's past. All in all, this was good--Shale is interesting and fun, not to mention integrated well into the main plot, and the side-quests are engaging and have some neat story to them. Definitely a good addition.

Warden's Keep: Y'know, it's funny. Warden's Keep was available for download more or less immediately after DAO's release for $5. Now, that's a pretty small amount of cash, but it's a pretty small extra quest that you get for it. I think it would have made more sense to make Warden's Keep the free DLC with new purchases, and have The Stone Prisoner be the add-on you buy, because with the Stone Prisoner, you get 2 small quest areas instead of 1, and the addition of Shale involves several extra dialogue options and a new character throughout the game. That, to me, would have been worth paying for more than Warden's Keep. Regardless, Warden's Keep provides a new side-quest in a medium-sized new area that fleshes out the history of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden a little. It's fairly informative and interesting. So, good overall.

Return to Ostagar: This is where things kind of fall apart. See, it's like this. Return to Ostagar was originally announced in November 2009 with a release date of "the holiday season." Then, during the holiday season, it didn't come out due to technical issues, and was delayed until early January. Then it was delayed again for a couple weeks due to bugs. Then, when they released it mid-January, it caused all kind of technical difficulties and was recalled and delayed once more. It finally came out at the very end of January.

You know what it was that gamers got after the add-on was 2 months late? About an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours of gameplay with barely any story elements whatsoever. It was basically $5 for the privilege of 2 hours of battling enemies and getting a few new items. THAT'S what took 2 months to make work.

Here's some food for thought. Fallout 3's Downloadable Content packages cost 15 bucks each, and added, on average, about 7 hours of gameplay for me (probably a little less for the average player, I suppose, because I'm given to scavenging for every little thing). Over half of them made for much more time added than that; I probably spent 10 hours playing through the Point Lookout DLC alone. The delays for Fallout 3's DLC add-ons were measured in days, to my recollection. The areas they added were all very large, and I can only assume, with my limited knowledge of programming, that locations, events, and individuals in Fallout 3 must be harder to properly program than in Dragon Age Origins, simply because there's more detail to the world in general and more that can be done within it. So Bethesda charged, if you average it all out, less for a bigger add-on with more to do in it that added more game time that probably involved more work to program, and managed to do so more or less on time.

Even without having Fallout 3's DLCs up for comparison, Return to Ostagar's pretty bland and doesn't add enough to the game to make it worth even a measly 5 dollars. And with the Fallout 3 example to compare to...it's quite frankly something Bioware should feel embarrassed about.

Awakening: Awakening isn't technically a DLC, as you buy it in a store and install it from a disc, but what the hell, I'll count expansions. Awakening isn't bad. The new adventure is moderately good, although I wound up feeling like the main character is a secondary player in Awakening's events. It seems like everything about the plot that would have been really interesting, creative, and notable is all happening just above the protagonist's head, and as a result, you never get to see most of the important parts of the damn plot. The new characters are generally okay, but no one save Oghren has the kind of depth that most of the characters did in the main Dragon Age Origins quest--and Oghren's a returning comedy relief character from there, so he only sort of counts. In fact, only half of them have depth at all, now that I'm really considering it. I take it back; the new cast can't be called "generally okay" if only half of them have any depth worth mentioning, and if that character depth isn't all that great.

And I once again have to look at the ratio of cost to game play here. When it was released, Awakening cost about, what, 40 bucks? That's just about the price for a new RPG. I didn't get 40 dollars' worth of content. From start to finish, with me doing and getting just about every damn thing in the expansion, I played Awakening for a few minutes less than 19. People are saying that Awakening takes about 25 hours to complete, so I dunno what THEY were doing that took them so long, but for me, the complete experience came to 18 hours and 51 minutes--and again, I was pretty thorough. To draw once again on Fallout 3 as an example, the Broken Steel DLC package for Fallout 3 extended the game past its ending to include several new quests, areas, and stuff to do while continuing the story line, not to mention optional small sidequests. I spent, oh, say maybe 10 hours playing that one. You know how much it cost? $15, like all the other Fallout 3 DLCs. 15 bucks for 10 hours of game play that extends the plot in a cool and engaging way as opposed to 40 bucks for 19 hours that creates a new but rather mediocre adventure? I didn't need the comparison to Fallout 3 to know this, but putting it out there helps cement this simple fact: Dragon Age Origins's Awakening expansion is a rip-off. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Darkspawn Chronicles: Back to regular DLC packages with this one. I feel like Bioware was honestly trying with this one, coming up with a decent idea for this one: play through an alternate universe version of the final battle, in a reality where the main character never existed...and for that matter, play through as one of the bad guys. Sounds good, right? Well, it would be, in a lot of RPGs. Unfortunately, Bioware forgot one important detail: the main bad guys of Dragon Age Origins are Darkspawn.

Here's the deal. I love it when I get to play as the villain for a while and see things from their perspective in an RPG. The majority of characters on my list of the best RPG villains ever fit this--Fou-Lu (Breath of Fire 4) and Orsted (Live-A-Live) you directly control as they form the conclusions that bring them to their roles as villains, and Darth Traya (Knights of the Old Republic 2) is in your party for most of the game. The more time you, the player, spend with a villain, the better chance the villain has of being developed into a deep and excellent bad guy.

The problem in this instance is that the villain you're spending time with in this DLC is a Darkspawn. A Darkspawn commander, yes, but a Darkspawn. Darkspawn, for those unfamiliar with DAO (although I don't know why you'd have read this far if that's the case), are...basically, zombie orcs, I would describe them as. Take the orcs from The Lord of the Rings, take away their ability to speak or perform any complex reasoning, make it so that hanging around them for too long can kill you and/or make you into one, make'em look ever so slightly zombie-ish, and you have a Darkspawn.

So you're not really controlling a proper villain, or even a bad guy with the power of speech. You're just controlling a semi-mindless goon, with the only dialogue in the entire add-on being your boss's psychic commands, which are short, to the point, and not terribly interesting. And as for the whole alternate-reality-where-the-main-character-didn't-exist thing, all the information on it that you get are brief entries in your journal that provide tidbits about the game's events and how they were different. Yay.

I realize that it wouldn't be realistic to have a bunch of Darkspawn have deep, involved characters, given what the Darkspawn are supposed to be. But accepting that there's no way to make the idea work in a meaningful and compelling way doesn't excuse it; it just means that they should have dropped it and moved on to another idea that they COULD make worthwhile. Sometimes an idea just can't work. And this is an example of that. All you're paying for are a few extra battles under slightly different circumstances than usual. There's nothing of substance here. This DLC isn't worth the cost. Hell, even if it were free, it wouldn't be worth your time.

Leliana's Song: After the the Darkspawn Chronicles DLC, it's a relief to see that Bioware CAN make a side-story DLC that actually incorporates a plot. While I wouldn't call it amazing, and I think many aspects of the conflict in Leliana's past shown in this DLC deserved more attention than they got (I would have liked to see more involvement of the Chantry with Leliana, seen a little more evidence of its eventual importance in her life...and I wish we had seen more of Marjolaine's perception and paranoia of Leliana's similarities to herself), this one's definitely a solid DLC package. It gives a glimpse into the past of my favorite character in the game, developing her a little further, and also provides a few tidbits of interest about Dragon Age's world's history and politics.

Golems of Amgarrak: Aaaaand after our brief dalliance with some quality, we're back to unimpressive, rather pointless DLCs. Sigh. There's nothing especially wrong with Golems of Amgarrak, but there's certainly nothing noteworthy about it. The self-contained plot is underdeveloped and frankly cliche as hell ("Yes, you had to give up on what you thought you wanted...but you've learned that family is the most important thing of all!"), not to mention seems largely irrelevant to anything else related to Dragon Age's world and events, and the characters are a perfect match to the plot--underdeveloped and bland.

Witch Hunt: So...let me get this straight. You've got a post-game DLC where they bring back one party member from the game proper to join you, and it's the Mabari Hound...and they once AGAIN spend no effort to make him anything more than a drooling, peeing lummox, repeating a mistake they made for 50 hours or so already for another 2 or 3 extra. You've got a post-game DLC where the 2 new characters actually seem to have some mild potential to be interesting characters...and the DLC is too short to flesh them out properly, so they're quirky, incidental personalities at the very most. You've got a post-game DLC whose official description indicates that it's there to answer why Morrigan left at the end of the main Dragon Age 1 game's events, and, to quote the official Bioware site for this DLC, "tie up this last loose end once and for all," finding out what her intentions were and what she plans to do now and so on...and you get a 2-to-3-hour-long investigation that concludes with a 5-minute talk with Morrigan that tells you nothing you didn't already know, answers no questions at all, and only poses new ones. Seriously, Morrigan basically says, "Hey sup. I know you tracked me down to find out about the baby and all, but it's, like, super magic special and stuff, my evil mom's not dead and is evil, I'm leaving you guys behind--for REALZ this time, dawg--and you can't follow me, and basically there are a bunch of mystical magical divine mumbo-jumbo Dungeons and Dragons things at work that I can't tell you about at all. So basically, everything I already said the last time I saw you, just with a little extra flourish. Kthx bye."

There are basically 2 ways I can respond to this DLC. I am going to be very charitable, and conclude that this was a case of incompetence. They wanted to make suspenseful, interesting implications about things that will (maybe) come up in later games, and they just couldn't figure out a way to do that while properly answering our questions and revealing plot points to us. They planned poorly, and didn't have the writing talent to pull off what they'd intended without giving either too much or too little.

The other way I could respond to this DLC is to imagine it as the result not of incompetence, but of dishonest, abusive greed, a disingenuous case of them dangling an alluring carrot in front of their fans' noses, with no intention of giving it to them, only of lightening the fans' wallets to the tune of 7 bucks each. As I said, I'm going to be charitable and assume that this is a case of incompetence rather than despicable exploitation...for now. But as I play and pay for more and more add-ons from Bioware, it gets harder and harder to see their business practices and development decisions as having any more integrity than those of the Patron Saint of crooked, dishonest RPG companies, SquareEnix.

And that's that--according to Bioware, Witch Hunt was the last additional content Bioware for Dragon Age 1. So, back to the progenitor of this rant--after Fallout 3's brief but periodic add-ons, how does Dragon Age hold up?

Not very well. Not very damn well, at all. The first 2 packages were good, and I enjoyed Leliana's Song, but the rest of it? A sad collection of drivel, is all it is. We get packages that are:

Boring and Insignificant (Golems of Amgarrak)
100% Irrelevant (Darkspawn Chronicles)
A Huge Rip-Off (Awakening)
Outright Stupid (Witch Hunt)
So Late and Lacking That it's Shameful (Return to Ostagar)

And most of these crappy add-ons can apply to more than one category, too.

So what's the verdict? Well, when I left my Fallout 3 DLC rant, I was optimistic about how Bioware would handle Add-Ons, but wary that they might not use them responsibly. In the end, I was obviously right to be wary--there just seems to be a lack of competence here on the part of the writers AND, at times, the programmers that really hurts DA1's offerings of Add-Ons. And there are times, which I've mentioned, where these packages of extra content are such bad deals (especially when compared to Fallout 3's) that it looks suspiciously like exploitative, undignified business practices. Still, I'm not entirely angry or disappointed about this collection. It's bad, but as I said at the end of the Fallout 3 rant, DLCs could easily be abused to intentionally withhold content from gamers from the start until they pay more money--basically, holding legitimate parts of the game hostage as extras. And it really doesn't feel like Bioware did this--the Add-Ons of Dragon Age 1 almost all really do feel like extras.*

So in the end, Dragon Age 1's Add-Ons as a whole are pretty poor...but they don't come off to me as being the result of dishonest business practices so much as being early mistakes made by a company trying to figure out how to do them regularly. Once they're finished with Mass Effect 2's DLC packages, I suppose we'll see whether they were learning from their mistakes or not.

* The Stone Prisoner would be the exception to the rule. But it came free with a new copy of the game, so no harm, no foul.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess AMV: The Cinematic Experience

Well, it's been a little while since I had an AMV rant for you all. Simple reason for that, too--I ran out of good ones. Yeah, out of the literally dozens and dozens of AMVs I look over every few times a year for every RPG I've played to date, which has to total in the hundreds by now, I only had about half a dozen that I thought were high enough quality to make a rant about. That's probably the worst track record I've seen for fan-related works, an even worse ratio of good to bad offerings than Fanfiction.net's Final Fantasy 8 section.

At any rate, though, whilst recently perusing the AMVs created at Youtube and AMV.org since last I checked, I DID find another noteworthy subject, one made by a certain Roynerer, that's not only very good, but rather distinctive, too. Oh, and long. Like, 8 minutes. Just to let you know in advance. Oh, and this is DEFINITELY one of those AMVs that needs a SPOILERS warning slapped all over it--you're gonna essentially be seeing the plot of the game from start to finish here, so, y'know, fairly warned.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: The Cinematic Experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hKFVLxDoURg

Alright, Mr. DeMille, I'm Ready for my Close-Up: The visual quality of the videos used is good enough, nothing to complain about nor particularly praise. The videos' nature, of course, is fairly noteworthy, as the visual component to TLoZ: Twilight Princess was both impressive and aesthetically effective.

The artistry of the video, though, is pretty much the main event. Roynerer hasn't thrown any notable visual tricks into the AMV, but they would be out of place, even distracting, from what he DOES use the video component for: telling a concise, yet epic and powerful, version of TLoZ: Twilight Princess's story. This AMV uses key scenes throughout the game to show the watcher the main arcs of game's events, from the beginning of Link's journey and transformation, to meeting Midna, the spirits, Zelda, Zant, and Ganondorf, to the final battle and Midna's emotional goodbye. The AMV is showing the most plot-relevant scenes during his journey, and interspersing these scenes with several quick clips of the various tasks Link engages in during the game's course, from fighting to riding the river.

This by itself is a skillful move for Roynerer's purposes--the plot-essential scenes obviously tell the game's epic story as he intends them to, but the scenes thrown in here and there that show some of the tasks and battles Link goes through on the way to the important plot points effectively conveys the length and spectrum of the journey, showing the viewer that much effort and time is expended to get from one event to the next in a way that just showing us the important parts wouldn't manage. At the same time, though, there are only a few such images, leaving most of the AMV to be filled with the story-telling scenes, which is important when you have a longer one like this (let's face it: attention spans ain't what they used to be). Roynerer also employs some smart scene selection for the major plot parts of the AMV, cutting and pasting the videos of each event to give you a concise summary of each part that tells you as much as you need to know for the story, without adding unnecessary time to the AMV.* It works pretty impressively well, creating a fairly understandable and straightforward take on the story that's shown well enough that I suspect even those not familiar with the game would have little trouble following it, while sacrificing little to none of the story's power and grandeur--if anything, this summarized version better emphasizes the epic nature of Twilight Princess's plot than the game does. Even more impressive when you consider that the AMV tells the story entirely visually--none of the game's dialogue that accompanies the scenes is shown. Roynerer takes artistic, stirring visuals from a really cool story, and edits them together to make the whole product better. This AMV is, simply put, great to watch.

I Gotta Have More Cowbell: The music used in this AMV is comprised of several parts of the soundtrack for the movie The Last Samurai, composed by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is, apparently, one of Roynerer's musical heroes (and the same goes for my sister--she just loves The Last Samurai's music), and one can certainly see (well, hear, anyway) why--regardless of your musical tastes, it would be hard not to recognize this music as strong, moving, and masterful.

Now, under normal circumstances, the visual part of this AMV would certainly be its highest virtue--as I describe above, it accomplishes a great deal with its video portion, and does so with excellence. But with this AMV, the audio component is actually an equally strong part of what makes it great--and once again, this is a combination of the music itself being great, and the skill of the AMV's creator. The score to The Last Samurai is at many points designed to be epic, and Roynerer takes full advantage of it--in fact, he goes beyond what I'd consider "taking full advantage." That implies (to me, at least) working with a song perfectly within the normal expected, established parameters of that song. I believe, however, that Roynerer's selection of which pieces of music to put where makes great use of it in ways that were not intended. See, one of the really great things about The Last Samurai's music is that it's meant to be the mood-creating theme to a movie about Japan at (I think) the end of its feudal age; it takes its cues from traditional Japanese sound, and creates and emphasizes the movie's Japanese setting at least as much as any visual aspect of The Last Samurai.

Basically, what I am saying here is that this soundtrack really sounds Japanese.

Yet, when I watch this AMV and see the scenes that the music plays to...it becomes transformed to me, somehow. Put to the well-chosen and entrancing Twilight Princess scenes, the music seems to meld with the game's video, and suddenly the epic and emotional music doesn't sound like it was taken from another source--it becomes such a connected part of the AMV that it sounds like it was somehow made for THIS. Seriously, when I watch this AMV, everything clicks so perfectly that the music doesn't seem like it was taken from something else and put into this--it's like it was MADE for this game's visuals. It's hard to describe how it happens, especially since I don't know much about cinematography and music to begin with, but the pace at which the visuals tell their story matches the music's tone and pace perfectly throughout the AMV, and that, along with the individual scene segments fitting extremely well with the moments of the song that accompany them, makes the song clips seem less a separate entity's music and more like they were designed around this AMV. That's an illusion that requires a lot of skill to create and maintain.

Also, as I mentioned, the individual scenes shown to the music are often flawlessly matched to its tone, coordinated as well as any AMV I've reviewed so far. My favorite example of this is at 1:22, when Link turns around and sees Zant. The music characterizes the visual wonderfully, taking a sudden, surprising dip into a deeper set of notes that work with the sudden appearance of the bizarre and formidable mask of Zant to startle the viewer and emphasize the unsettling nature of the villain in a slightly unnerving, almost regal way. And I'd like to note that it's also an excellent example of the AMV taking the music and changing how the listener reacts to it...this moment in the music is, in The Last Samurai, used for a moment of strong emotion in a way that you would expect. It's used perfectly, but conventionally, in its original use. Yet in this application, where the same moment of the song is used to convey unsettling, shocking imagery and timing to properly create a feel for Zant, it works equally well--it's a completely different way of using the same moment of music, yet it feels equally natural.

Overall, the scene's a really cool coordination of audio and visual and my favorite individual moment in this AMV, although it's very far from the only one--I'm not going into detail on the others simply because they go throughout the AMV, many, many scenes and moments mirroring and meshing with the music's mood of pitches, tones, and crescendos, singular scenes that sync with the sound so well and so successively that they simply become whole segments of superb coordination.**

Guy, You Explain: Like a few others I've reviewed, the point of this AMV is to provide a summary for the game, to give you an idea of its epic power and grandeur. Unlike the ones I've done here before, though (not to mention practically all other AMVs I've seen), this is no attempt to communicate the general feel and emotion of the game--this AMV actually attempts to show you the game's plot from start to finish, using the scenes of important events in the plot to give you a basic, but effective, story to watch. It's done so well that a person who hasn't played the game before would, I imagine, have very little difficulty following the AMV's story (and thus, the game's) from start to finish from this musical movie and pretty much understand most of the game's important ideas and plot points. Roynerer has told me,

"The idea just kinda sparked one night as I was trying to look for a new way to be creative and productive within the music area...which then resulted in the idea of making a short movie-like sequence made up of footage from a game, carefully structured around specifically chosen orchestral music. Orchestral music helps tell the story and grip the viewer a lot better, you see.

"...after the first section of the video was finished, I found it rather enticing, I said to myself that this has to be big, different, nothing like other AMVs on YouTube; I wanted it to be gripping, meaningful and in tune with the music I'd chosen."

Creative, movie-like, gripping, meaningful, and in tune? Mission Accomplished on each. This is a fresh and engaging idea for AMVs that I hope to see more of. The combination of a great set of visuals with a cool story set to an epic and emotional score makes it very movie-like. From start to finish, the AMV grasps the watcher's attention masterfully, impressing us with its power and feeling, gripping us like few AMVs can. Meaningful? I think there are scenes from TLoZ Twilight Princess that this AMV conveys more impressively than the game itself does, and if you can find any meaning within the game (and it's definitely there), you can find it almost perfectly preserved within this AMV--indeed, the meaning may even be better off in this form, because it's all presented together, rather than over the course of 50 hours. And in tune? I already mentioned earlier that this is so "in tune" that it basically BECOMES the tune.

TLoZTP: The Cinematic Experience is really just a splendid work. The care and skill in it is practically palpable, and I can't recommend enough that anyone and everyone check it out.

* To be critically fair, this may have been done as much out of necessity as of artistic considerations--the original version of this, according to my correspondence with Roynerer, was 12 minutes long, which won't fly on Youtube with its short-sighted demand that all videos on it be in the 10 minute range or less. Regardless of what could have been, though, the version we have now is good AND efficient, so I still feel it fair to count this as one of its virtues.

** Why yes, I DO like alliteration, now that you mention it.