Dragon Age Is Not the Next Baldur’s Gate
We can cite their names like the holy litany of computer role-playing games: Baldur’s Gate I and II, Planescape: Torment, and (to a lesser extent) Icewind Dale I & II. They are all unified by the now dated, but once sacrosanct Infinity Engine, which I love like my own future hypothetical child. They, alongside Fallout 1 and 2, are the greatest gifts Black Isle Studios gave to posterity. Any single one of these titles would have rightfully inscribed Black Isle into the pantheon of legendary game design, excepting maybe the wonderful but oft-underappreciated Icewind Dale series (which I think is a damn shame considering that it did so successfully what other lesser but vastly more popular games have struggled to do, which is to translate D&D faithfully to an action RPG environment — Neverwinter Nights, anyone?). To their undying credit, Black Isle delivered not one, but seven beautiful titles, each of which occupies a space of high privilege in my memory.
So it’s not surprising that my proverbial neck follicles went on high alert when Ray Muzyka, BioWare’s CEO cum Electronic Arts vice-president (after selling BioWare to them) came along with a press release in 2008, saying, “We’re thrilled to be returning to BioWare’s fantasy roots, with Dragon Age: Origins representing the culmination of over a decade of experience. Dragon Age: Origins is a dark heroic fantasy that doesn’t pull any punches. Our fans are in for the most emotionally intense gaming experience we’ve ever created, and we hope to surprise them with just how dark and gritty it gets!” I don’t know who first described Dragon Age as the “spiritual successor” of Baldur’s Gate, but that phrase caught on like wildfire across the blogosphere and review community, taking on the veritable quality of fact. We were all calling it that, and we all very much wanted it to be precisely that. And we had good reason, too.
In 2008, BioWare was the strongest candidate for creating a plausible successor to Baldur’s Gate. It was BioWare that developed the Infinity Engine, which introduced the revolutionary fusion of real-time and turn-based strategy into role playing games, and was an integral component of Baldur’s Gate’s success. To their credit, they have produced a number of high-quality role playing games since then, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I and II and Mass Effect I and II, which both employ a three-dimensional combat system that, like the Infinity Engine before it, enables the action to be paused so the user can issue strategic commands. They’d also proven themselves to be competent storytellers. It really seemed that if anyone could make a successor to Baldur’s Gate, it had to be BioWare. And it would certainly seem, if you were to go by the strident voices of mainstream critics, that they succeeded. Let’s look at the facts.
Over at metacritic, Dragon Age: Origins has received a glowing 91% “metascore”, aggregating 65 critic reviews, a whopping 8 of which deigned to convey grades of 100% (a ninth mincing some particular qualms to impart only 99%, and I wonder why he even bothered). That’s 8 declarations of perfection. 8, I would assume professional, reviewers out there who consider Dragon Age to be a flawless masterpiece, or one whose flaws were so trifling, so inconsequential, as to make denying BioWare a perfect score an affront to the ethics of criticism. Let’s not forget the 44 other reviewers who gave 90% and up — for all we know theirs may have been the highest possible score permitted by their editors, and which may for all intents and purposes describe a broad reviewer tendency towards perfection. If I were to be cynical, I might suggest you could almost see the bandwagon careening down the path of gaming history, a coterie of followers clinging desperately to it, hollering such indications of their hard-earned fealty like, “Remember me? I was your champion! I gave you 100%!”
To give some context, of the top 500 PC games of all time on metacritic, Dragon Age is (at the time of this writing) ranked #64. It’s score, 91%, is only 4 percentile behind Baldur’s Gate II, ranked #6 of all time. It is rated more highly than such incredible games as Portal, Deus Ex, Civilization 3, Duke Nukem 3D, Starcraft and even Fallout. Now to reveal my personal viewpoint (not altogether mysterious based on this article’s title, I expect): Though I don’t actually hate Dragon Age, I do consider it to be a work of remarkable mediocrity and unoriginality, in no way worthy of the hyperbolic accolades it has received from all quarters. I’m most inclined to disparage it, frankly, because it has positioned itself to be one of the best games of all time, a true successor to one of my absolutely favourite games, and it is anything but.
Let’s take a more discerning look. What criteria should a game be evaluated on? Storyline, graphics, gameplay? On these points, Dragon Age is at best entirely average, and at worst a resounding flop. I know saying this is in staunch opposition to the public consensus, but really how can anyone who has earnestly and soberly tried the game claim it is a pioneer on any of these fronts? The story, for instance, is notable only for being one of the most hackneyed and derivative ones I have encountered in recent memory. It employs virtually every conceivable trope of the Fantasy genre: a daemonic blight is encroaching, plaguing the land. A hero must rise to unite the divided kingdoms and stop the great nemesis. Elves are sequestered in their remote, ancient forest, tending to their trees and xenophobia; mages are governed by a militant authority that fears an outbreak of untrammelled magic: they are consigned to a great tower to conduct their studies. Dwarves live underground in stone halls and are excellent blacksmiths. The blight itself consists of trolls, orcs, goblins, ogres, and an archdemon. What here is even slightly original? The whole narrative smacks of an inexcusable laziness, considering that it is a story-driven game that demands the player navigate through countless cut scenes of plodding, uninspired dialogue about unimaginative and two-dimensional characters, on a quest utterly predictable in its every twist and turn.
The graphics, while in a limited sense contemporary and decent enough, are in terms of imagination, wonder, and pure raw creativity just as banal and uninspired as the story. The environments are generic dungeons, castles, and small towns, utterly bland in comparison to the intoxicating, dark, and wonderful city of Sigil in Planescape: Torment, or the richly detailed and original hand-painted locations in Baldur’s Gate II (like the creepy organic Beholder lair, or the variously delightful and horrifying planar spheres). The voice acting is good, but the character animations are invariably wooden; it is disconcerting to be given a riveting speech about action by a character who has all the subtle mannerisms of a marionette. The magical effects are for the most part colourful light blooms and explosions. There is no great inventiveness, visual play, or breathtaking artistry here.
The gameplay is not much better. The battles often feel tacked-on, as if the enemies were not there owing to some plausible aspect of the plot, but rather because it is a fantasy game and as such requires copious slaughter. Nor are they especially fun. The fact that your characters heal instantly after each encounter makes things feel like an arcade game, the enemies the limitless hordes of some fantasy version of Smash TV. The action feels hollow where it is clearly attempting to be ‘streamlined.’ The skill system, invented from scratch, is not just contrived and bizarre, but sometimes outright confusing. For a long time I had no idea what any given skill was good for, and what’s worse, I could never really bring myself to care. To my dismay, since every single point invested in a particular tree unlocked an entirely new ability, it required an instant and complete familiarization with the entire system’s subtleties and nuances, lest I accidentally acquire at the outset skills for which I had no real use. Case in point, Alistair uses dual weapons, but I selected the two-handed weapon skill not realizing that these two skill trees were basically incompatible. A skill point was thus wasted, irrecoverably.
New characters likewise become sources of frustration and tedium. Do I choose between this spellcaster with a preference for healing spells, even though I know her interactions with Morrigan will result in conflict and an overall reduction in their approval levels? Somehow the game’s designers succeeded in making secondary character interactions annoying exercises in trial and error, as I tested one and then another “gift” on different people to derive the most positive reaction, and felt compelled to replay certain dialogue sequences that resulted in a dramatically poor character reaction because I happened to choose the wrong dialogue option. To completely reveal their personal story trees you must skillfully and attentively nurture their approval ratings (not only difficult, but annoying to do), yet the unfolding stories proved to be so underwhelming as to be unworthy of the effort required in unlocking them. Contrast this to the marvellous secret lives of your party members in Planescape: Torment. For example, I still think about the joys and immediate rewards of unlocking each of Dak’kon’s incredible philosophical discs.
These are just some of many objections I could raise. The game is riddled with issues concerning pacing, design, and, simply put, fun. What’s more, these objections are fairly easy to see. Within moments of playing the game I was struck by its overall lackluster and generic qualities. Where is the critical review mindset that addresses the merits and flaws of a game regardless of the hype around it? I feel that, out of the fervency of our desire for this hallowed successor, we have dulled our collective better judgment as to Dragon Age’s real worth. I say resolutely that Dragon Age is not the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. Earlier, I deliberately held off mentioning one striking coincidence: Dragon Age and the original Baldur’s Gate both scored 91% on MetaCritic. Is this a manifestation of our collective will to power? Did we all so strongly wish for Baldur’s Gate III that we willed a mediocre and unoriginal fantasy RPG up to the status of legend? Or perhaps it’s a testament to the brilliant marketing of one of the most successful video game publishers in the industry? I leave these questions to you to answer; for the time being, in my own eyes, I will continue to consider the true successor as yet unnamed.