The Dragon Descends

14 03 2011

So here I was with a good idea for a first blog post: the prospects of the RPG in 2011. What better way to get things going than with my favourite genre in a year which promises so much? Skyrim, Mass Effect 3 and The Witcher 2 all sit squarely on my most-wanted list for the year, despite the fact that I almost certainly won’t have the time to play them all as I would wish to (my current replay of Oblivion has taught me that an hour-a-night doesn’t get you that far – blasted degree…). Beyond the volume of big releases this year, there would also be the bonus that I could write in an overwhelmingly positive fashion, opening up with a celebration of the past greats and the possibilities of the year ahead.Then Dragon Age 2 was released and it turns out nobody quite knows what an RPG is.

So that positivity may have to be tempered a little, but such is the potential of this year that it’ll take more than a few angry user reviews on Metacritic to stop me from being giddy in later posts. Nonetheless, there is an issue here that rewards further exploration. Despite the accusations of rabid fanboyism, tunnel vision and prejudice toward EA that are being levelled at those who have slated DA2, the sheer disparity between critics and audience on the game’s merits is something quite unprecedented.

We’ve seen games like Spore and Assassin’s Creed 2 accrue a slew of one-star reviews, particularly on Amazon, but this was largely, if not wholly down to DRM issues, which rightly earned the ire of users at large. In this case, for all the sniping at day-one DLC and cynical pre-order bonuses, it is largely the content of the game itself that is being criticised. This is mightily intriguing, given the absolute supremacy that Bioware have enjoyed critically and commercially for the past decade, in which they have staked their claim as the best developer not only in the genre, but in the industry as a whole.

Perhaps the most common charge levelled at the game is that of dumbing-down, of reducing the complex strategy of the Dragon Age: Origins to button-mashing in which the use of abilities is not so much a tactical choice as a matter of convenience, with players simply unloading whatever powers happened to be available in the knowledge that most combinations would result in many dead darkspawn and some shiny loot. Mike Laidlaw, the game’s lead designer, himself stated that the difficulty of the game has been toned down, though he was sure to state that higher difficulty options would provide more than enough challenge for those who enjoyed having their backsides repeatedly offered up to them on a blood-soaked platter in the many punishing dungeons of Origins.

To my mind, however, the question is not one of difficulty, which, as Laidlaw pointed out, is easily tailored by a quick trip to the options page. Instead, the issue is more related to the way the game has been billed. In building up Origins as a successor of sorts to the two near-sacred Baldur’s Gate games, Bioware cultivated an image of the game as refreshingly old-fashioned and traditional, a haven for those who weren’t inclined to follow the studio’s experiments with action-orientated styles in Jade Empire and Mass Effect, both of which also signalled a change in focus by being released initially on the Xbox and the 360 respectively. DA2 inevitably assumed this same appeal, making it certain that its more fast-paced, less heavily strategic gameplay would frustrate some players.

I’m not entirely sure, however, that classic gameplay is what players wanted to be taken from Baldur’s Gate at all. I can’t help but think that these classics have taken on a kind of idealised image in the collective memory of the audience. As an example, take the staple warrior class. In both Origins and its sequel, as well as most other modern RPGs, the warrior has many abilities, from heavy strikes and defence-buffing stances to far more spectacular powers. The warrior in Baldur’s Gate, conversely, had nothing. They simply performed base attacks again and again. An offshoot like the Paladin might throw in a quick buff here and there, but the game-changers in battles were the mages and priests dishing out fireballs and heals. Likewise, thieves could only deal one-shot backstab damage when emerging from stealth and were more useful out of combat, unlike the furiously powerful Dragon Age rogue who can bring down the pain just by repeatedly hacking at someone from behind.

The styles of combat between the two games clearly changed. If not gameplay, then, what did the gaming audience want Dragon Age to take from Baldur’s Gate? The answer, I think, is everything. Not just some idealised view of RPG combat, but also deep inventory management, exploration, a user-defined protagonist, elves, dwarves, perhaps Elminster and Drizzt to make a guest appearance. Fine, that last bit is a little unfair, since the series has snared a whole heap of players who have likely never touched a Black Isle game. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that Origins‘ success was founded not on its independent merits, but rather on its appeal to nostalgia. It was, perhaps paradoxically, a triple-A novelty, a big-budget title deliberately situating itself in the 1990s. For DA2, by changing the most immediately obvious part of the game, the gameplay itself, Bioware has broken the spell of yesteryear. I for one am glad that the series can now stand absolutely on its own merits, on the appeal of its world and storytelling more so than how it plays. However, in breaking that spell, in changing that gameplay, Bioware changed what the series is – or at least, what many players perceive it to be.

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