DAW2016: Bioware

BiowareLogo

DAW2016_logo

Developer Appreciation Week is here!  For the uninitiated the concept of Developer Appreciation week dates back to 2010 and was started by Couture Gaming the Blogger formerly known as Scarybooster.  The idea was simple, spend a week talking about all of the things you love about various game development companies and studios.  As a blogger we spend plenty of time pointing out what is wrong in the games we love, and talking about ways that they could be better.  That said it is important to understand that for most of us this critique comes from being a huge fan of the games and genres as a whole.  So during this week we point out the things that are going right and make a point of mentioning all the things we really appreciate out there.  If you too are a blogger please feel free to join in by posting your own Developer Appreciation Week ideas.

BiowareLogo

This is going to be a difficult one to tackle, especially since I didn’t get a ton of sleep thanks to the tornado warnings.  However I am going to give it to good college try, and hope that the end result turns out at least not too shabby.  I first became aware as Bioware as a company with the release of Baldur’s Gate, or more so the existence of what I later came to know as the “Infinity Engine”.  I have been a fan of Dungeons and Dragons since I first found a players manual abandoned in a locker on the last day of school in second grade.  Finding that book spawned a lot of things, not the least of which was trying to hungrily gobble up anything TSR related.  I played the “gold box” series of games, namely because I had read the novels behind a lot of the stories.  There was just something missing with the game, and while I enjoyed them at the time they never really felt that good.  The story that was being told felt limited by the meager technology, and while I was happy enough with the end product…  that only lasted until I had played my first Final Fantasy game.  Baldur’s Gate was the title that brought me back from my console days into once again believing that the PC was a great platform for role-playing games.

Subsequent games were released…  Icewind Dale, Baldurs Gate II and even one of my all time favorites… Planescape Torment… all using this “Infinity Engine” I have to admit I got a bit of the wrong idea behind what exactly the company Bioware really was.  In my mind it seemed like Bioware was the tools company, and Interplay, Black Isle, or later the reboot Obsidian were the game creator.  It wasn’t until Neverwinter Nights was released that I really started to understand that Bioware was both the tools division and a lot of great storytelling wrapped into one package.  Neverwinter Nights was one of those revolutionary games for me personally.  While the original campaign was awesome… it was the inclusion of the aurora toolset that set my mind on fire.  At this time I was playing a lot of Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot so I tried to replicate some of my favorite features of those games using the Neverwinter engine.  I learned the C Script language and figured out how to code things like randomly generated loot from tables when you opened chests or killed mobs.  I also eventually figured out how to create a token based system along the lines of the one that allowed you to purchase armor in the Darkness Falls dungeon.  The end result was this amalgam of the EQ Plane of Hate and DAoC Darkness Falls that I called the “Plane of Spite”.  While I never did anything really interesting with it, I loved every single moment of working on it and figuring out the inner machinations of this engine.

It was not really until Knights of the Old Republic that I hopped back on the Bioware fandom, and I remember being crushingly disappointed when I learned that the title was going to be Xbox Exclusive.  Thankfully later that year it came out for the PC and I was absolutely thrilled to be dissecting that game world as well.  I loved Neverwinter Nights for its technical precision, and the Aurora and Infinity engines for giving me this awesome framework to go out and explore worlds in.  However KOTOR was the first time from Bioware that I was completely stunned by the storyline.  Last week we went into a discussion on AggroChat about the best Star Wars stories, and by the end of that show all of us pretty much came to the consensus that Knights of the Old Republic was if not the absolute best story, it was at least among them.  There are moments in this game that had shocking revelations that I have never quite recovered from.  Even though the engine is dated, and the graphics look like crap compared to what I am used to… I can still play this game happily over and over just because it was so damned well crafted.  I’ve bought it for others, and even own the mobile port of the game.  I feel like this game more than any set the tone for the modern incarnation of Bioware.

I ultimately for one reason or another skilled Mass Effect at launch, and instead picked up the Bioware banner once again with the release of Dragon Age: Origins.  During this period of time I was raiding in World of Warcraft rabidly… but there were a few weeks where I completely dropped off the face of the planet, and it was thanks to this game.  I was just completely enthralled with the world and the setting, and the concept of the dark spawn and deep roads.  I am a Dwarf at heart, so I loved every single moment of Orzammar.  My first play through was as a Dwarven Noble, and I have to say after all of the subsequent play sessions that is still the one I cherish the most.  Much the same as KOTOR, it was ultimately the characters that set this game apart from the others I had played.  They felt so fleshed out and three dimensional, and I actually cared about interacting with them.  I am a huge proponent of smashing things with a big weapon, and games that allow me to slaughter by the hundreds… but it is significantly harder to find a game that makes me feel.  Dragon Age made me feel so much, and during this time I had a really interesting encounter.  One of my guildies invited me to tank for some friends of his, and when I popped onto voice chat we had some of the usual getting to know a new person discussion.  I mentioned that I had been playing a ton of Dragon Age… and it was at this point that they started grilling me about this character or that, or what decision I made where.  It turns out that I was ultimately raiding that night with a bunch of the writers, and you could almost hear them beaming as they proudly chimed in that they wrote this or that as I gushed about various details.

With the release of Mass Effect 2, I later went back and became an addict of that series as well.  I still wish that someone would make that into a Walking Dead style serialized television show, because the story that is being told is among the best science fiction tales ever.  It just seems a crime that the only folks that will ever see the story, are the ones who have played through the game.  Then you of course have the release of Star Wars the Old Republic, that my friends and I tore through rabidly when it launched.  I burnt myself out on that game but recently a bunch of us ended up going back and remembering just how damned well written all of the story arcs really are.  At some point soon I want to go back and finish where I left off which is the start of the Revan content, and try out the new experience fallen empire content that I have heard so much about.  For sake of time though I am going to wrap things up, because otherwise I could probably carry on for a dozen more paragraphs talking about all of the things from Bioware games that I love.  It is a great studio, and while I was scared that EA would destroy its spirit… I have been pleasantly surprised that the core values of the company and the creative might seem to keep trucking along happily.  I look forward to more adventures be it with Andromedia or the next great IP that we have yet to experience.

Man With the Hand

The Man with the Hand

The Struggle

The Man with the Hand
The Man with the Hand

For over a year now I have desperately tried to get into Dragon Age Inquisition.  The game starts really slow and throws your character in the middle of a conflict that I did not really care for.  Be warned that there are going to be a few minor early game spoilers here, but I am going to try really hard not to say anything super spoilery.  During Dragon Age II, you are constantly getting vignettes of Varric being in essence tortured and questioned by a figure that is identified as “The Inquisitor”.  In Dragon Age Inquisition (and the anime if you had chance to watch it) you are introduced to Cassandra Penteghast…. the same Inquisitor who you learned to kinda hate during Dragon Age II.  The thing is…  in truth I actually rather like Cassandra, but the initial set up of the game places me squarely on the side of some epic side-eye when interacting with her.  Not to mention that my character is apparently being blamed for some catastrophe as a result.  Then with a huge amount of narrative whiplash I go from being the pariah and prisoner….  to quite literally the chosen one of Andraste.  At no point did I want ANY of this…  in past games I have only feigned interest in Andraste to get Leliana to like me.  I am generally fairly anti-religion in games… and in this case especially since my preferred method of playing Dragon Age games is to play a Dwarf that believes we all spontaneously came from the stone and will return back there again someday.

Then on top of that… we basically find out that there is a war breaking out between the Mages and the Templar, and I am not terribly fond of either side.  The entire game seemed to focus on my least favorite aspects of the Dragon Age world… and somehow got rid of the parts that I loved.  I absolutely love the concept of the Grey Wardens.  I was all about drinking demon blood and fighting dark spawn, and I would have been completely happy if we just had more games where I fought lots of bad things to save kingdoms.  With Dragon Age II…. it took a big detour, but even then I got to fight self righteous asshole red lyrium Templar…. and was mostly okay with it.  The thing that carried me through that game were the characters that I got interested in…. but the problem thus far with Dragon Age Inquisition…. were the fact that I simply was not really feeling the characters at all.  I like Cassandra just fine, and Dorian and Solas were both growing on me.  Varric felt like a caricature of Varric from Dragon Age II…. which bothered me from the start.  Leliana changed for the worst, and was not the character that I came to adore….  lost all of the soft spots and became this battle hardened zealot.  Blackwall is cool enough but I already had Cassandra to tank so quite literally had zero use for him.  The only character I completely and wholeheartedly loved…. was Sera, but that didn’t really feel like enough.  Mostly the grouping did not feel like “my team” in the same way as the other Bioware outings did, and more so felt like a bunch of characters that I just happened to get thrown in the same room with.

The Turning Point

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A Better Horizon

As I said at the beginning of my post… this has been a struggle for over a year now.  I will sit down… play for a few hours….  not get drawn into the game and then log out once more.  With the new laptop I have been in the process of trying to play games that I for one reason or another struggled with.  At the top of that list was Dragon Age Inquisition, and last night I finally realized that I was sitting at a pretty major turning point in the story.  I had been putting off the assault on the breech, thinking that it might lead me down a path that would ultimately lock me into the “end game” in a same way as attacking the collector ship does in Mass Effect 2.  Sure I was only 20-30 hours into the game, but Dragon Age II was really short… so far all I knew the base game here was short as well if you simply steamrolled your way through the story.  Last night Dragon Age pulled a “Link to the Past” on me…  and bam all of the sudden I saw everything that everyone was talking about this game.  Essentially I now view everything that I did up to this point as largely “the tutorial level” and now it feels like the real game is finally beginning.  I have to tell you I am really excited to be “into” this game.

The game manages to pull together a sequence of events that not only cements your motivation and why you care about the events of the world…. but also serves to cement your team.  I went from feeling this was just a group of people that I was stuck with….  to being a group of MY people.  I am also completely bought into the Inquisition as an organization, because after last night I realized that I am the person shaping the fate of this organization.  I can make the Inquisition be this brutal force similar to its namesake…. or I can make it into an organization that cares about people and tries to save them in the process.  Bioware I am sold…. and I am ready to get started playing this game. What is frustrating about all of this is… Dragon Age: Origins had an AMAZING introduction… or at least it did if you played a Dwarf.  By the time I completed that opening sequence I was completely sold on the setting and the characters and ready to go out into the world and carve my niche.  Dragon Age II had a much rougher start, but even though it felt more forced and pushed down a single hallway… I eventually reached a point where it felt I was changing the world.  Inquisition though… feels like the worst of those two options…. where you have only the most vestigial of control over your own character as you are forced down a path.  Thankfully it seems that the skies are clearing…. and I am ready to step forth into the new world.

Death to Darkspawn

Lost in a World

daorigins 2014-10-04 01-29-53-900 One of the aspects of a good game that I have always been amazed by is just how lost you can become existing in that world.  With the upcoming release of Dragon Age: Inquisition mid month, several of us have started re-playing origins in an attempt to get a new save file to import into Inquisition.  I realize that the process for importing works a little differently than it has in previous Bioware games, and is done through an intermediary program called Dragon Age Keep that also allows you to choose the decisions you would have liked to have had from previous games.  However with some experience with the Mass Effect 3 “comic book” tool, it tended to also make a lot of really horrible decisions for me.  One of the most enjoyable experiences I have had with a game was playing through the entire Mass Effect series in sequence over the course of a Christmas break…  so while the games in the Dragon Age series do not connect as tightly, I am hoping it will still be very rewarding.

Belghast_1 Over the weekend I said that I had decided to start the “least” Belghast character possible for this play through.  That I guess is not correct… the least recognizable character would have been me starting an Elven Mage.  We all know  that one is never going to happen, as I tend to be allergic to playing finger wigglers.  Instead I basically picked something other than the high born warrior I always tend to play, and in this case that was a Dwarven Casteless Rogue.  I love the Dwarves of the Dragon Age series, and having my very first play through be the Noble rogue pretty much ruined every other introduction storyline for me.  That said the Casteless introduction is pretty great as well, and especially after having played through many of them…  you see hints of the other introductions as you play.  Like I know the events that are going on with the noble houses, and while they are only loosely alluded to in the casteless introduction… they are still very much there and very much the way they play out as a noble.  I like thinking that there is a fixed story arc with multiple windows out onto it.

Death to Darkspawn

daorigins 2014-10-03 23-58-27-939 This game has always hit every trigger for me… in a good way.  I love dark ominous demon filled landscapes where I am the only person with the tools to dispatch them.  I love the political infighting and backstabbing and the identification of a truly wicked person that I can focus my anger and rage towards.  But I also like that apart from that central story arc, nothing is really certain and the game doesn’t judge you much for dabbling in the grey areas.  It is an absolute feat that this game manages to make me NOT side with the mage haters.  Given my feelings towards finger wigglers, it would make sense that I would want to help the Templars eradicate the “Mage Threat”, but instead each and every play through I cannot bring myself to go against the Circle Mages.  Maybe it is because I like the character of Wynne too much, or maybe they just manage to create a narrative that makes me actually care about magic users.

Belghast_204 Granted personally I greatly prefer the side of the Apostates, and generally their cause is one that I can get behind whole heartedly.  I am a huge fan of Morrigan, but I have found her character to be extremely polarizing even among my close friends.  She is dark and brutal and abrasive…  but I always enjoy listening to her quips.  One of the things I am doing this time around that I have not in previous plays is varying my group composition based on what I know my intended action will be.  Generally speaking if you make Morrigan happy…. you won’t make Alistair and Leliana happy for example.  So I hedge my bets and end up simply not bringing the person that I know I will end up pissing off.  It is a strange line to walk but at this point I have some duplication of most of the roles I might need.  There are certain characters that I just absolutely cannot stand…  I am looking at you Zevran.  Though this time around I am finding myself softening to that character, especially after seeing him in Dragon Age II.

Slowly Progressing

Belghast_273 I am taking my sweet time moving through the game.  At this point I am just shy of 20 hours spent and have saved the Circle of Mages as well as Redcliffe Castle.  I am however trying really hard to do every single side quest in a given area.  This means that while I can just blow through Lothering… I am trying to do all of the little side missions which end up dragging out that area considerably longer than you might think.  In a way I am treating this as though it were my last time playing Dragon Age ever.  I realize that is likely not going to be the case, but I guess I am trying to make every choice count since I will ultimately be importing this game into Awakenings and Dragon Age II before finally importing the entire mess into Dragon Age Inquisition next month.  On this play through I am more acutely aware that I am building a world around me, a series of consequences that lead to other consequences later down the line.

Belghast_272 This is a strangely different feeling than when you do the same process in the Mass Effect series.  There you are living the legacy of one person, your version of Shepard… and it is a direct lineage from game to game.  The choices you make on one game, are effect the relationships you have in the next game because you were the person that made them both times.  Here you are setting up a conflict that spans multiple generations, and while you are creating ripples it is somewhat uncertain how the final events will play out.  It is also playing through a game knowing the beginning and the ending but having the steps between be rather fluid and changing.  This will make my fifth play through of Dragon Age Origin since release, and I am still finding little details that I don’t remember from previous plays.  That and the fact that I am not bored with the game, really are a testament to just how good the writing is.

Sneaking into Denerim

Belghast_314 Right now I am tempted to save my game and then make a run at getting to Denerim before completing any other areas.  I would really like to resolve the whole Urn of Sacred Ashes business before moving too much further in the storyline.  I have also never actually gone to Denerim this early in the storyline before.  I have no clue what the rammifications of doing that are, but I already have several quest chains that take me there.  So I think that might be the order for tonight, to create a good clearly labeled save game so I can roll back if I am not happy with the consequences started by my actions.  That is one of the things that is interesting about Dragon Age is just how unforgiving it is when it comes to your choices.  It is super easy to close off a quest chain to you by picking the wrong answer… and there will never be another way to get that option back.  In some of the later Bioware games they have given us the ability to escape out of a dialog tree, but this being a fairly early one has really strictly binding choices.  As such it is making me super careful about what I end up choosing.

Belghast_208 If it has been awhile since you last played Dragon Age then I highly suggest you dust off your copy and give it a proper play again.  I am currently playing the “Ultimate” edition that comes preloaded with all of the DLC… and there was quite a lot of it.  I’ve found this game plays significantly better through Origin than it does through Steam, as anytime I have tried to play through Steam I have issues with it not recognizing my DLC as being “genuine” and the official Bioware answer to this is to hack the save game file to turn off the protection bit.  I would rather just play the game without doing all of that so I am using Origin and overall the experience is not too horrible.  I have to say that Origin as a whole has gotten considerably better since its launch, and right now the only problem I really have with it… is that it is not steam.  I still to some extent resent having to have a separate launcher just for Bioware games but the experience is worth it so for the time being I just deal with the frustration.  Thankfully Ubisoft is taking steps to move towards better integration with steam so that the entire process will be transparent to the users.  Unfortunately with the rather public falling out between EA and Valve… I doubt that will actually ever happen.  In any case… I am having a blast with Dragon Age and look forward to completing it.

#DragonAge