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.

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