Recently in Games Category

First off, yes, I am still alive even though I haven't blogged here in ages. Since the last entry I've moved to California and taken a new job, and this just fell by the wayside. However, it's a new year and let's just see if I can't get back into the swing of things, shall we? I'm going to kick it off with a review of Mass Effect 3, which I got for Christmas, since I think the game deserves a good discussion of its merits and flaws. It's been a year since it game out and I know it's been discussed half to death already, but not by me.

It's going to be hard to discuss the game without spoilers, but for this first part of the post I am going to keep them to an absolute minimum. If you haven't played the game yet and have managed to avoid all the publicity around the game's ending, I don't want to be the one to spoil it for you. Once I'm behind the cut, I'll go more in depth on what really seemed to work and what fell short in terms of the story, which is really where the meat of this game is.

In all likelihood, if you're reading this you've already played Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2; if you haven't, you should (although I admit the original Mass Effect is a bit of a slog to go back to these days). You also probably know the gist of the plot too (the Reaper invasion has begun and you need to stop it). If you've been paying attention at all since the game was announced, you know Bioware was hyping how all your choices from the first two games would pay off in this one, and if you've been paying attention since it was released, you know that the fan furor over the ending has been unprecedented. With all of that, plus the additional baggage of EA's Origin platform, it becomes difficult for the game to really stand on its own when you're playing it nine months after release. To be honest, I had put it on the back burner in "well, maybe someday I'll play it" territory because of that, despite the fact that I think Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I've ever played.

However, once I sat down with the game last week and actually dove in, after steeling myself while I installed Origin and tried to put the furor over the ending out of my mind, the same excitement I had at every turn in Mass Effect 2 started to creep back in. It doesn't hurt that the game opens with some really magnificent visuals, with the Reapers attacking Earth and a trip to Mars in the middle of an oncoming sandstorm. In general, the story manages to keep the same quality that it had in the second game (with a few major exceptions), the gameplay mechanics are improved, with a happy medium between the power and inventory headaches of the first game and the bare minimum of RPG trappings in the second game. Honestly, I feel a little silly for ignoring the game for the better part of a year, because it really is a good game for the most part, and especially now that you can get it for half the original price, it's well worth playing. Here's my breakdown, with a discussion of story spoilers after the cut:

The Good

  • For the most part, the writing in ME3 is up to the level displayed by Bioware in the first two games, and the voice acting, especially the returning members of the cast, is still superb. I'm still not quite sure what the point of Jessica Chobot's character was really (unless it was to get some free media coverage for Bioware). Freddie Prinze Jr. gets kind of a hard role, coming in as a new character not mentioned in any of the previous games, and doesn't do a bad job, but it seems like it would have been better to replace his character with someone from the earlier games. Most of the major subplots in the previous games (the krogan genophage, the quarian/geth conflict, etc) get some resolution in ME3, with some very strong emotional moments. The very end of the game does fall short of the mark (even with the Extended Cut DLC), but up until the last ten minutes of the game, I found myself deeply within its grasp.
  • The game swings the pendulum back the other way on the RPG mechanics side of things, towards a middle ground between the first two games. There's a wider variety of weapons available but not too many -- generally between 5-10 options, and they've brought back weapon attachments. Instead of having to pick them both up individually, though, you only need one to equip everyone in your squad with one (like in ME2) and finding or buying additional ones of that same type add to the level of the item. Your character can carry whatever kind of guns he or she wants, but the more weight you carry affects your power cooldowns. I liked the system and I actually felt like the different kinds of guns mattered, as opposed to the choices in ME2 where it was basically the good one or the not-so-good one. I used the Black Widow sniper a lot myself, but tended to give Garrus a different one because I wanted him to be laying down covering fire more.
  • The pace of combat was very similar to ME2, and it's still easy to see where you're going to have a fight because the terrain will start to have ubiquitous cover, but there was a fairly wide variety of enemies and I only had a handful of fights where I got a little annoyed with the dying. They were all climactic fights though, so they were intended to be difficult, and the autosave is good enough that I didn't need to redo any huge amount of stuff or watch 3 minutes of cutscenes each time like in ME1. The added weapon variety makes the combat a bit more interesting though, and most of them feel very different in a fight (some with very different effects) giving it an extra dimension, enough that I actually enjoyed playing the multiplayer, which is just wave survival combat for the most part.
  • Visually, the game seems like a step up from the previous game; as I said, the opening visuals on Earth and Mars are breathtaking at times, but even the textures and lighting on board the Normandy seem better than they did in ME2 (which I replayed with all the single player DLC right before my ME3 playthrough). Some of the facial animation seemed a little off, and there were a few other niggling graphical glitches, but for the most part it is a very pretty game.
  • One of the things I was mildly worried about with ME3 was the departure of Jack Wall as the composer; his synthy 70s-80s scifi soundtrack was a big part of the first two games. I really shouldn't have worried that much, in retrospect, since Clint Mansell is certainly no slouch when it comes to music. The soundtrack in ME3 is different than the first two, more orchestral and less synthy, but it is very good in its own way. There's a good number of musical callbacks to the first two games that made me very happy every time they popped up.
  • Speaking of callbacks, there were certainly plenty of those in ME3, depending on how you played the first two games. Every major character from the first two, assuming they're still alive, shows back up in the third game. Fewer of the minor characters pop up, but that's an understandable admission when you look at just how much they're trying to cram into the game's narrative. However, there's some problems with this as well, which I'll touch on in the next section.
  • I felt like my romance with Liara (which I've kept through all three games) had the best payoff in ME3. She was still remarkably standoffish for the most part until right before the penultimate mission (as always), and the sex scene was still somewhat awkward (why is she naked and I'm wearing a bra and panties?), but I really felt like the dialogue around that scene had a lot more heft than in ME1 or the ME2 relationships. The fact that Liara's character has evolved significantly from the first game until now no doubt helped, but I hope the romances with other long-time companions of Shepard are as rewarding.
  • Thankfully, I never really ran into the money trouble or resource problems that were annoying in my first playthrough of ME2. Bioware seems to have fixed that particular annoyance that made ME2 a bit frustrating at times. I don't think I had enough money to just buy everything I saw (especially not at the beginning) but with a reasonable amount of scanning I didn't need to scrimp and save every penny like I tended to have to do in ME2.
The Bad

  • All right, let's get this out of the way. Yes, the very end of the game has issues. The final segment of the ending is largely unconnected from the rest of the game or the previous two games and the choices seem arbitrary and not particularly satisfying. All of the possible endings seems to go against the tone of the last three games, and the Extended Cut DLC doesn't really help that; in fact, a lot of its extra exposition seems unnecessary and cumbersome. I'll talk more about this in the spoiler section, but be prepared to be somewhat disappointed by the game. However, as I said, up until that point the game is really good.
  • Probably my biggest annoyance of the game is that it's really hard to keep track of the little side quests you get. You pick most of these up by overhearing random conversations in the Citadel, and they are kept in the same place as your main quests in your journal, which is a little hard to handle. The bigger issue, though, is that none of these are tracked on the galaxy map, so you have to poke through your journal to find out where you need to go to get some of this stuff. That got pretty tiresome as the game wore on.
  • The war assets system, where you have to collect war assets to supposedly improve your chances with the ending, really seems to have disappointingly little to do with the rest of the game. Yes, having more war assets opens up more of the arbitrary ending choices, but other than needing a higher number, none of the endings really have anything to do with any of your war assets. The war assets are good for getting extra money or resources, and you probably want to max out the war asset bar for the most options in your ending, but it really feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. It would have been nice if getting war assets slowed the progression of the Reapers, or if different war assets changed the specifics of the ending (like how the ending of ME2 could change based on how loyal various characters are or how you used them).
  • Remember those callbacks I was saying were good? Well, the caveat is that they are really only window dressing on things that are going to be there anyway. Killed the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1? Too bad, the Rachni still show up in this game. Myself, I always went for most of the game options that tended to preserve as many characters as possible, so I didn't notice too many things that seemed amiss here, but I suspect if you had a particularly bloody playthrough of ME2, you're going to see a lot of Dr. Neds ("the totally not-made-up brothers of Dr. Zed") showing up in your game. This feels like a disappointing cop out for a game that Bioware promised would be hugely impacted by your previous choices. It's understandable; planning for every one of a hundred different combinations of major choices and character notes would probably have been cost prohibitive, but Bioware shouldn't have hyped that so much if this was really all you were going to get.
  • Like ME2, ME3 suffers from not having a strong antagonist. There are really two antagonists in the game, the Reapers and Cerberus, but aside from an endless string of mooks you don't get much in the way of rewarding confrontations with the enemy. You have a handful of conversations with the Illusive Man or his head ninja assassin (who seems a bit out of place here), and one confrontation with a Reaper, but there's nothing that even approaches the confrontation with Sovereign or your run-ins with Saren at Eden Prime or Virmire. Why the ending has you deal with a literal deus ex machina instead of Harbinger itself is a baffling choice to me, especially when it's one of the places where ME2 really dropped the ball (and ME1 did so well).
  • Compared to the number of companions Shepard had in ME2, ME3 pares your crew down to a relative handful. Some of this is understandable, since you could have had a lot of characters die in ME2 potentially, but if you did, woe is you. Because your core crew is made up of only 3-4 people for most of the game, plus one with the From Ashes DLC. It's possible you could pick up 1-2 more later on, but compare that to the 10-12 you could have in ME2 and it seems a bit paltry. There was also a lot of overlap for me; I rarely wanted to take James, the new marine who joins your crew, on missions when his skill set overlapped with mine or another crewman, and he didn't have the resonance of having been with me for the rest of the series like Liara. It also means there's less difference when you replay, since you lose out of the multitude of companion reactions to each mission.
  • Ashley, the collagen in your lips and that hair is not regulation, woman. Please don't be an embarrassment to our gender. That dress that Diana Allers runs around in doesn't really seem appropriate for wearing aboard ship either.
Despite its failings, though, Mass Effect 3 is far better than you might expect based on the furor that erupted after it came out. In a lot of ways, Bioware is a victim of their own success here, because the bar was raised so high with the first two ME games (and almost all of their catalog up until Dragon Age 2 and The Old Republic) that it was going to be very hard for them to live up to all the hype going into this one. Now that the furor has died down a little and the price has dropped, it's hard not to recommend Mass Effect 3 to anyone who liked the first two games. It might not be everything you hoped for, but I can guarantee you won't end up feeling like you wasted your money.

On that topic, I also picked up the From Ashes and Leviathan DLCs after recommendations from people on Quarter to Three. Annoyingly, despite the fact that it's for sale from EA's own store, you're still forced to buy it with the ridiculous Bioware points crap (just let me use actual money, for crying out loud); each of those DLCs is 800 Bioware points, or ten bucks, and that's kind of marginal for what you get. Both of them really feel like they should have been included in the main game, for as integral to the main plot as they seem to be. From Ashes adds a new squad member with a fairly large amount of new and interesting dialogue, plus an extra mission, while Leviathan gives you three extra missions and some fairly important insights into the Reapers. Since you can get the base game for less than $20 on sale these days, I'd recommend snagging them if you don't have too much moral indignation about the DLC. If I'd paid full price for the game, I would have been pretty annoyed with the nickel and diming. I skipped the Omega DLC for now because it just didn't seem worth $15 at this point.

Okay, now it's time to take a deep dive into spoiler territory for the rest of my review. If you read past here, keep in mind what you're in for!

LTTP: Alpha Protocol

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So, this is a few months late now, but I really wanted to talk about Alpha Protocol, since it was one of the games I was most looking forward to this year and because it's the latest product from Obsidian Entertainment.  If you don't know who Obsidian is, many of the founders of that company are former people from Black Isle Studios, which made Fallout, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment.  Obsidian previously made the flawed gem Knights of the Old Republic 2 and will be releasing Fallout: New Vegas later this month.

My interest had been piqued in the game last fall after I'd watched a talk Chris Avellone, the lead designer, had given at Frameworks in Australia last year, so I had preordered the game in anticipation of it coming out last May.  Unfortunately, when the game was released, it wouldn't run on my computer, despite spending two weeks going back and forth with tech support.  It wasn't until I installed Windows 7 and a new patch finally came out for the game a couple weeks ago that I was actually able to play the game.

With four months between the release date and actually playing the game, it was hard not to be spoiled a little by forum discussions and reviews, especially since I was really interested in the game.  Reviews of the game were lukewarm at best, but there was enough praise of the parts I was concerned about -- the storytelling -- that I was still looking forward to playing the game.  Now that I've played it, the game's storytelling is as superb as I could have hoped, but unfortunately it is wrapped in some very frustrating gameplay.  Here's my rundown of the good and bad:

The Good

  • Alpha Protocol's greatest strength is the sheer number of ways the story can play out based on the choices the player makes in the missions and in the conversations with the other characters.  I played this game side by side with my friend Deirdre, and in general we tend to make similar choices in most RPGs, so I expected our playthroughs to be pretty much the same.  However, we started diverging early in our second mission hub, and the way the game played out got further and further apart as we went on.  The missions we did were all very similar, but how they played out and what was involved were often very different based on our choices.  Compared to Mass Effect 2, which I think was overall a far superior game, Alpha Protocol does a far better job at portraying a dynamic storyline within certain constraints.  The framing device, with most of the game being told in flashback, was also used to good effect, putting your actions in a larger context.
  • As might be expected, the writing in the game is also pretty good, though I think it still falls short of the high bar set by Mass Effect 2 this spring.  While the characters for the most part hold up, and some are simply superb (Steven Heck will be sticking in my mind for some time to come, for sure), none of them really got a chance to shine like almost every one of your companions did in Mass Effect 2.  To some extent, I'm sure the fact that Alpha Protocol is a very single-character focused game causes this, but it's hard not to compare the two games.  The plot is not all that original, but it is presented and executed well.
  • I really liked the dossier system that the game had for finding out more information about the various characters and factions.  It could have been slightly better in presentation (it was hard to find out which dossiers had been recently updated with new information, for instance) but peeling back the layers of the various actors within the game was a lot of fun and really felt like actual spy work.
  • For similar reasons, I liked that there were a fair number of missions that were simply conversation trees where you met with informants or confronted opponents.  The reputation system in the game, which is driven in large part through these conversations, is a lot of fun to play with as well, and the effects it has on the story are rather pronounced, as I mentioned above.  Very superior to both the systems in Dragon Age (which was extremely easy to game with gifts) and the system in Mass Effect 2 (which was a binary not loyal/loyal).

The Bad

  • I really do not like boss fights; they were the worst part of Dawn of War 2 for me (I still never beat that stupid Avatar mission in the campaign) and in a game like Alpha Protocol where, for the most part, it is trying to stay vaguely realistic, it is extremely jarring.  It's especially frustrating because while much of the game can be played in a stealth-heavy fashion, almost none of the boss fights can be played in that way.  However, while they are only somewhat annoying (and at least tend to be rather infrequent) in the main part of the game, the endgame of Alpha Protocol features no less than 4 separate boss fights.  While some are harder than others depending on choices you made earlier in the game, this does mean that a lot of the endgame bogs down to dying a lot and retrying over and over.  This destroys the pacing and really makes you feel like a chump, the superspy that keeps dying to showers of grenades, barrages of rockets, and a hail of bullets.  That's not fun; compare to Mass Effect 2, where none of the boss fights were particularly difficult compared to most of the normal fights, and they were very few and far between -- and the endgame had challenges and new gameplay that was not a sudden ramp up in difficulty, just something to shake things up.  It feels like someone wanted to make Alpha Protocol's endgame feel intense, but couldn't come up with any way to do it other than piling hard fight after hard fight.
  • Aside from being mostly worthless during the majority of the boss fights, stealth is also kind of primitive; most of the stealth abilities seem very gamey, basically boiling down an almost magical invisibility at times.  Deirdre, who has played Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid, also said that the stealth options seemed very primitive; I haven't played those, so I don't feel like I can really speak to it much, but they didn't feel especially organic or well-presented to me.
  • One of the biggest problems with Alpha Protocol is that it is very clearly a console port, and suffers from that in almost every way.  The minigame for hacking is the biggest example of here; it involves moving two character blocks through a shifting field of characters to match the strings.  One string is moved with WASD and the other is moved with the mouse, whereas on the console both are moved with joysticks and locked with trigger buttons.  Unfortunately, in the computer version, the mouse controlled string is extremely sluggish, making completing the puzzle in the alloted time extremely difficult sometimes, especially when you are still sort of figuring it out.  I suspect using the sniper rifles scattered through out the game (and almost required in one of the endgame boss fights) is another case here -- it seemed really hard to control them with the mouse, even though I don't usually have similar problems with other games.  There's also a very small number of hotkeys -- you have to change out abilities/items in a menu to use them instead of simply having individual hotkeys for your most-used abilities, which was annoying at times.

The Ugly

  • Like Mass Effect, Alpha Protocol uses a conversation system where you pick an attitude or the gist of a statement and your character delivers the lines, rather than you picking exactly what your character says.  It's big difference is that the choice is timed, which increases the urgency and keeps the pace going.  While I can see why they made this choice, I'm not sure I like it myself.  There are several places where making a certain choice in a conversation makes Thorton do something really unexpected -- Deirdre mentioned picking a conversation choice that led to her shooting someone she had no intention of shooting, which seems like it takes things a bit far.
  • The tutorial section gets you familiar with the mechanics of the various aspects of the game, but because your skills are so weak at the beginning of the game, many of the things I picked up during the course of the game -- waiting until my reticle shrank to make sure I got a good shot off, for instance -- were really hard to get the hang of, especially on the weapons course, where I was trying to run through and get good shots off.  I am very wary of mixing RPG mechanics and shooting in games -- I couldn't even make it through the first part of Deus Ex because of that, and it was an annoyance in the first Mass Effect too -- but despite a lot of the griping I saw on forums after the game came out, I really didn't think it was that bad once I got further into the game.  It was a little hard to grasp in the tutorial though, and that's something that could definitely have been improved.
  • Buying equipment was a tad bit silly in the game; while I understand the game balance reasons for it, pistols that cost $150,000 that aren't made from solid gold clash a bit with the rest of the game's tone. I wish they had done this a bit differently, perhaps putting more emphasis on making connections with dealers and making money less of an issue.
  • Perhaps because of it's slightly more realistic setting, Alpha Protocol didn't really have any real jawdropping moments like in Mass Effect or Dragon Age; few of the set pieces really stand out, aside from those which were coupled with the incredibly frustrating boss fights. It's harder to do with a more reality-based game than those two, for sure, but Bond and Bourne movies, which Alpha Protocol clearly takes a lot from, certainly have their fair share of amazing action scenes, and Alpha Protocol doesn't really manage to bring that across.  It could be a creative choice, but I think frenetic and exciting set pieces would have been a lot better than gamey boss fights for maintaining the spy-movie feel.

Despite its many problems though, Alpha Protocol is definitely worth a look -- perhaps not at the $50 price point, but once it goes on sale for $20 or so, I'd recommend it to any fan of RPGs.  It's really disappointing that it doesn't appear Obsidian will be getting the chance to make a sequel, because I feel like it's a case where the same sort of transition provided by the Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2 development could really turn Alpha Protocol into a very solid game.  Unfortunately, as it stands, Alpha Protocol is a mediocre game, despite being packed with many really well-done elements.  This is only compounded by the fact that as an RPG it came out within six months of two superb efforts by Bioware, about the only company that can challenge the Black Isle legacy for quality RPGs.  The contrast between Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect 2 is pretty stark in terms of polish, even though it's clear they were not designed with the same intent (despite both being third person shooters for the most part).

I would love to see Bioware take a lot of the innovations that Alpha Protocol has, like the more complex reputation system and divergent storyline, and use them in Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2, and I am really looking forward to Fallout: New Vegas to see what Obsidian can do with a fairly solid preexisting engine, a setting they are intimately familiar with, and the time to really put out a quality product.  I admit that I have yet to preorder New Vegas though, mostly because of the technical issues that kept me from playing Alpha Protocol for four months, and the fact that it was the first of two bad preorder experiences I had this year (the other being the half-baked Stardock effort, Elemental).
I came to Mass Effect late, only playing it for the first time last year, but I was pretty impressed with it and really enjoyed the storyline and setting that Bioware created.  My attitude towards its sequel, prior to last month, was positive, but not overwhelmingly so.  I wasn't keeping up on the press and everything too much, though I was considering preordering for the bonus items.

Dragon Age changed everything for me, I think.  That game completely blew me away when I was just sort of lukewarm on it, mostly because Bioware had spent so much time creating the setting and the story, and made me realize how much I really craved that kind of story-driven gameplay, and just how good Bioware had gotten at it.  In retrospect, that has really been in evidence since KotOR and the first Mass Effect, but I think Dragon Age solidified it as a trend in my mind.  I started paying a lot more attention to the coverage of Mass Effect at places like Giant Bomb and threads on RPGnet, and from the teasers that were trickling out, I really started getting excited about the game; I did end up preordering Mass Effect right before the release date, just to get the bonus content.

But does it stand up to the hype?  Let's face it, Mass Effect 2 has been promoted to hell and back, probably to a nearly-unprecedented level.  It would have to be pretty friggin' awesome to live up to that.

And yet, I think Mass Effect 2 does, by and large, live up to the hype.  Nearly everything I didn't like about the first game has been fixed.  The storyline is excellent, despite a few small failings, and for the most part I think your companions are more interesting and more developed than in the first game.  A lot of the accounting-style RPG trappings that were in Mass Effect (and in Dragon Age), like the ginormous (and often painful) inventory management, the complicated power management, and the annoying collection quests, have been ripped out and replaced with much more streamlined systems, giving Mass Effect a much smoother storyline -- you don't feel like the game is dragging you down with boring stuff for the most part, you're always moving from one cinematic moment to the next.  Here's my breakdown (spoilers after the break):

The Good

  • Again, the writing in Mass Effect 2 is superb, and it's accompanied by some excellent voice acting.  While there's not really any Dragon Age-style banter between your companions, sadly, characters do have different stuff to say on missions, and the dialogue system from the first game is back and works very well.  The incidental dialogue you run into throughout the game is excellent, and often completely hilarious -- especially on the Citadel.  The commercials and stuff really undersell the writing of the game, very similar to the crazy Marilyn Manson trailer for Dragon Age; characters are far deeper than they seem, and this is revealed through "loyalty missions" that each character has that focuses on their backstory.
  • Importing your character from the original game does not give you a ton of tangible bonuses, but the game does an excellent job of calling back to your choices in the first game.  Choices you made and quests you finished into the first game, even if they may have seemed relatively minor, crop up in various ways throughout the second game, some more significant than others.  Your companions from the first game show up in various places (assuming they survived), and all seem to have been profoundly affected in one way or another by their time with you.  Surprisingly, the one major exception from this was the romance subplot from the first game -- my Shepard had romanced Liara in the first game, and by and large that was forgotten in the second game, aside from her picture on my desk in my cabin and a more-than-just-friends kiss when we met up again.
  • Mass Effect 2 introduces conversation interrupts (at least, I don't remember these from the first game), which really add to the game's cinematic feel.  During conversations, you will sometimes get the option for a Paragon or Renegade interrupt, which lets you make a move rather than just sitting there passively.  The bad guys have you in a Mexican stand-off while they monologue to your face?  A Renegade interrupt might be to just shoot him in the head.  One of your companions about to kill someone because they're flying into a rage?  A Paragon interrupt might be to grab their arm and knock them aside.  Most conversations with interrupts will probably only have a Renegade or a Paragon option, but rarely both.  They really keep you involved and on your toes in a conversation, rather than making it seem like a more passive experience, which definitely helps with the immersion.
  • Combat is much more kinetic and seemed a lot more exciting to me in ME2 than in the original game; there are some issues I have with it (see below), but in general I had a lot of fun with the fights and didn't seem to run into as many really annoying "die a lot" combats, at least on Normal difficulty, unlike with the original game, where the two climactic fights on the first planet your pointed to, Therum, killed my ass 5-6 times before I figured out what I needed to be doing.  The addition of clips in the game, instead of using heat like the first game, doesn't really make much sense from a story point of view, but it does force you to change your weapons up and move forward to get clips from fallen enemies, rather than sitting back and gunning them all down.
  • The horrific inventory system from the first game is gone, gone, gone.  No longer are you juggling 900 different kinds of guns and armor to figure out what is best for everyone.  Instead, there's really only 2-3 guns of each type (aside from the 5-6 heavy weapons), and you find or buy upgrades to research as you go through the game.  Most of these upgrades cover everyone in your squad, not just you.  While some people have mourned the loss of the customizable upgrade system, I actually like the new one.  It makes the focus of the game the fun parts for me -- the story and the actual missions themselves, not arcane record keeping.  If Bioware stuck with this trend for future games, even for old-school RPGs like Dragon Age, I would not mourn the loss of fiddly bits much.
  • The Mako is also gone, and Bioware has done pretty much what I asked for in my Mass Effect review -- I think there are fewer side missions, but they are definitely not all "go to this generic-looking pirate base and shoot a bunch of guys."  Missions, in general, are much more varied, many don't involve combat at all, instead focused on dialogue and story, or a minigame of some sort that relies more on a keen eye and your wits than simply the ability to kill people real dead.  Even the sidequests have their own environments that are not reused (at least, not to the ludicrous extent the ones in the first game were).  I've heard that there will be some DLC coming with missions involving some sort of hovertank, but Bioware seemed to have given up on the annoying Mako-style exploration and instead focused on putting you into the action right away, and thank god for that.
  • Your new ship feels both very familiar and also bigger and better than the Normandy did, and your NPC crew is given a lot more flavor than they had in the first game, where you really only had Joker and Pressley with anything to say (other than your companions).  The same goes for most of the other locations you visit in the game.  In the first game, one of my big complaints was that aside from the Citadel, the major planets of the first game seemed a little lacking -- very bland and empty for places that were supposed to be bustling metropolises or well-developed colonies.  ME2 remedies that in a big way.  The major planets all feel very different, much "busier" and jam-packed with life.  Yes, for the most part they are all pretty small for what they are supposed to be, but I didn't expect Bioware to make the sci-fi version of Liberty City for every planet you land on -- the feel and atmosphere is excellently done (with a lot of help from the superb incidental dialogue you hear as you go through the game), and there's lots to do on every single one.
  • Again, music and the actual cinematics in the game are superb and fit the game perfectly.  I do feel like they may have slightly overdone the cinematics -- so much of the game already feels like an awesome action movie that I wish they had replaced some of the cinematics with something more like what Valve does in Half-Life -- scripted sequences that you still take part in.  However, they are so well done that seems like a fairly minor quibble, and it really is only a problem at the very end of the game.  The one problem with the soundtrack I do have is that the version that comes with the Digital Deluxe version of the game is only half the actual soundtrack -- the version available on Amazon's MP3 store (which I ended up buying) has twice as many tracks.  This was the case with Dragon Age too, and I don't know why they can't just give you the whole thing when you're shelling out the 10-15 bucks extra.
  • The romance plots are well done and less salacious than in ME1, thanks to the strength of the characters, and there are more options (three male and four female, I believe).  While it's not up to the quality of the ones in Dragon Age, nor is it as tied into the game, but they are a bit of a step up over the original.  Bioware appears to have done without the even the tame "explicitness" of the sex scene in the first game and just fades to black at an appropriate moment (which didn't bother me at all).  Unlike in Dragon Age, though, there's not really any same-sex romance options (aside from one, less-developed one for a female Shepard), which has caused some ire among people on RPGnet; it didn't bother me too much, even though I think I preferred the female love interests to the male love interests for the most part.  If it really bugs you, you can just avoid it entirely -- "no time for love, Commander Shepard!"
The Bad

  • From what I hear, if you start a new character and don't import one from the first Mass Effect, you kind of get the shaft in regard to "your" choices in the first one.  You don't get to choose your origins, you didn't save the Council, Wrex died, and Udina is the human representative on the Citadel.  Most people I know who played the first game went for the extra opposite choices in most cases, so that really sucks.  If you haven't played the first game, and you want to play ME2, get the first game (it's not that expensive anymore, and Steam puts it on sale regularly for as little as five bucks) and play it so you can import your character.  You won't regret it.
  • Character abilities have been very reduced both in size and effectiveness in the second game, which is kind of annoying.  Ammo types are now a power your character will get depending on his class; my Infiltrator got Cyro Ammo and Disruptor Ammo as powers, for instance.  Each biotic or tech character really only gets two powers (plus an additional one if you win their loyalty) and most don't work on shielded or armored enemies.  Since unshielded and unarmored enemies usually aren't that troublesome, this really diminishes their utility -- on the higher difficulty levels, nearly every enemy but the weakest of mooks has shields and/or armor, which makes these abilities almost useless.
  • It is still very much a console port, and that has some annoying limitations.  Run, grab cover, vault over cover, and use all use the same button -- which sometimes caused problems for me; I still don't quite have the whole vaulting over cover thing down perfectly.  I can't really zoom out much from being right over my character's right shoulder, and it seems like I have a much more limited view than I had in the first game even, which can sometimes lead to problems with situational awareness, especially against melee enemy swarms, such as husks.  All in all, I think I preferred Demiurge's port of the first one, which seemed to fit a lot better with the PC platform, to Bioware's very direct port of ME2.  It isn't bad or especially distracting, but it does feel a little lazy to me, especially considering the rather significant differences between the PC and console versions of Dragon Age.
  • The prospecting minigame got to be a little tiresome.  In ME2, to build your upgrades, you need to get quantities of four different minerals, which requires you to visit a planet and scan it by dragging a sensor circle over the surface to find the minerals, then launch probes at it.  Unfortunately, partly due to my OCD tendencies in RPGs, I became obsessed with getting the minerals off every planet (because it marks it as explored after you visit it, and it's hard to tell without going there if you mined it or not), even after it became clear I was probably not going to need the half million units of palladium I was carrying around.  I think my playthrough took about 45 hours, and probably ten of that was just flying around getting minerals.  The fact that you have to buy fuel to travel between systems and you can only carry 30 probes with the option to expand to 60 later and it takes 10-20 probes to deplete a planet makes this a bit frustrating, especially since both items are only available in one system per cluster.  My suggestion -- don't overdo it.  Visit every planet to find the anomalies that represent a mission on that planet, but once you have 50-100k of an ore, don't feel like you need to do any prospecting unless you have a bunch of upgrades waiting, and don't bother mining gas giants unless you really need the more common minerals -- they usually have less of everything than rocky worlds and rarely if ever have Element Zero.  There is way more than enough minerals in the game for every upgrade you could want -- the limiting resource in ME2 is definitely credits, which are in short supply by the end of the game, largely due to the fact that you can't fund your mission by selling secondhand weapons and armor (the extra 100k credits you get from getting the Rich achievement in ME1 really come in handy, as it provides you probably 1-2 more upgrades at the very least).
  • The missions in ME2 are much more discrete and end in a way that is more obviously game-y.  There's some good things about this -- you get experience for completing missions now, not killing things, so that means missions aren't as focused on combat necessarily (though it's still very much action/combat-centric) -- but at the end of every mission, instead of just heading back to your ship afterward, you get a summary screen where it tells you all the stuff you got and what you found out.  While this isn't done in a completely broken way (the mission summary is written as personal notes of your mysterious backer), it does yank you back into "oh yeah, this is just a game, not an awesome action movie" mode briefly.
  • As much as I prefer the new way weapons and armor work, there are a couple issues I have.  There's really only 2-3 versions of each weapon, and they seem to have a progression of normal-better-best (though the difference between them is not nearly as pronounced as you might think) -- but it's not really clear if that is the case.  Heavy weapons are slightly different, since there are 6-7 different options, but there is one that you get fairly early on that is very good in nearly every situation, while the others are more specialized -- a flamethrower is really good against lots of swarming enemies, but won't really help you against a heavy mech or gunship, whereas a rocket launcher is the opposite.  Because you never really know exactly what you're going to run into, the all-purpose weapon tended to be what I used most of the time.  Armor had a different issue, the biggest one being that ME2 does not have a "remove helmets" option in its settings, and the DLC armors (which are much better than your default at first) all have helmets, means that you can't see your character's face at all.  When one of Mass Effect's big attractions to me is that characters have excellent "facial acting," that really sucks.  By the middle of the game, I'd found enough armor upgrades that the default N7 armor was comparable, and I switched to a headpiece that didn't obscure my face simply to avoid this problem.  The DLC armors are also not customizable like the N7 set, and that's another reason I didn't really like them.
  • Probably the biggest problem I had with the game is that there is time limit with the game that may not be particularly easy for people to pick up on if they haven't read discussions online -- one with real consequences to the game as opposed to the immersion-breaking, you-need-to-go-to-Ilos-right-away-but-really-you-can-do-side-missions-for-a-while endgame start that Virmire is in ME1.  At one point during ME2, you're given a mission to go recover a certain Reaper artifact; when you're given the mission, you can choose to do it right away or keep building your team.  At that point, I highly recommend saying you will keep building your team -- once you go on the mission to recover the artifact, you will only have a limited amount of time (usually not more than enough for one or two missions) before an event happens which pushes you towards the endgame.  Waiting to do the endgame mission at that point will slowly push the game towards a bad ending, or at least a more bloody one.  I suggest doing what I did -- get all the companions you can, do all their loyalty missions, and do as much exploring as you want to do before you go get the Reaper artifact, because after you do that, it opens up another mission you will probably want to do before you go to the endgame, and if you have lots of missions to do after that, you won't get a chance.  I wish Bioware had made this more clear, but it can just sneak up on you and I have seen many people get pretty miffed about running into this time limit.  Yes, I understand why Bioware did it -- story-wise, it makes good sense.  Unfortunately, for people who are completionists in RPGs, it can really piss them off, like the time limits in the original Fallout.
  • The lead villain in ME2 is not nearly as good as Saren or Sovereign were in ME1, perhaps the one place where a character from ME2 falls short of his predecessors.  From the ending, it seems likely that he will return in the future of the franchise, but you don't really become personally engaged with him like you did with the villains of the first piece.  Unlike Saren or Sovereign, you never really confront him personally, nor does he have a personal hand in striking against you.  I understand letting him be in the background for now as setup for ME3, but I wish they would have added a Saren-analogue you could confront and deal with to get some personal satisfaction as opposed to making the threat largely impersonal.  As it is, I had a more satisfyingly antagonistic relationship with the man backing my secret mission than I did with the "real" villain.
  • The Digital Deluxe version (from Steam, as well as other online places) does not really give you that much stuff over the normal version.  For ten extra bucks, you get some weapons that are good, but not really that much better than what you can get in the game, some armor that (as I said above) I wasn't really fond of anyway, an art book PDF (which fell far short of the hardcopy art book for ME1), soundtrack MP3s that make up about half the tracks on the MP3 "album" available on Amazon (which goes for 12 bucks and has everything you get here and more), the 30 minute documentary I believe was broadcast on SyFy (which doesn't really give you anything you probably didn't already know), and the first issue of the ME comic series that shows what happened between the games (which if you really want, you'll probably just wait and get the TPB of anyway).  Honestly, while I don't feel screwed for getting the Digital Deluxe version, I don't think it is really worth the money.  Unlike with Dragon Age, you don't get any DLC adventures/locations you'd have to pay for otherwise.  For the vast majority of people, even hardcore fans, I'd say you'll be perfectly happy with the normal version of ME2.
For all those problems, though, Mass Effect 2 is still probably one of the best games I'm likely to see this year -- it far exceeds the bar set by the original game and is filled with awesome gameplay, story, and detail that draws you in quickly and does not let go.  If you are looking for a good RPG, Mass Effect 2 is definitely worth picking up, especially if you prefer sci-fi or console RPGs, where Dragon Age isn't as good an option.  Both are excellent games with superb production values, and I still think Dragon Age is a bit more superior, but if I had to choose between one or the other I certainly wouldn't feel cheated if I had taken Mass Effect 2.

If you're looking for more spoilerific information, you can look behind the fold -- just beware, a lot of events will not have quite the impact if you know what's coming.

When Valve announced Left 4 Dead 2 last year, I was not particularly happy to hear it.  Being a fan of TF2, I had purchased the original at the full price largely on the expectation that it would receive the same sort of content updates that Team Fortress 2 was getting (and is still getting).  While I wasn't quite ready to jump on the boycott wagon, I was happy enough with the original Left 4 Dead for all my zombie-killing needs that I wasn't going to pay full price for L4D2 when I could just wait 6-12 months and get it for half price.

My brother, however, purchased it right away and was overjoyed -- and despite my lukewarm feelings about the title, he bought it for me for Christmas.  I admit that at the time I wasn't rushing to play the game -- I had just finished Dragon Age, I was picking up things right and left from the Steam holiday sale (Rome and Medieval 2: Total War have eaten up far too much of my time over the last couple weeks) and I figured L4D2 was pretty much going to be more of the same with regard to zombie-killing.

Reaching the point of burnout with Total Warring for the moment, late last week I picked up the game and tried it out for the first time, and I have to admit that my preconceptions were pretty wrong.  Far from simply feeling like an attempt to cash in by selling a half-baked sequel to a successful game, Left 4 Dead 2 actually goes back and makes the original Left 4 Dead feel like a half-baked pilot project rushed out before its time.  I'm not sure if that is better or worse, but I think the ire would have been a lot less pronounced if Valve had treated it that way, selling the original game at a much lower price point (25 bucks or so) to start, and marketing Left 4 Dead 2 as "the real game," though the 50 dollar pricetag still seems out of whack -- the $33 price during the holiday sale would have been about perfect though.

What makes me say this?  In the original L4D, the various campaigns were well-made but seemed very workmanlike.  Everything was very straightforward; each stage generally progressed in the same way, the finale events were all very similar, and even the environments were not particularly all that different.  L4D2 shows evidence that the team behind the game had become comfortable with the tools -- instead of just making levels in the way of the previous game, they are using the various building blocks of the game to change the way the game is played in a very significant way.  Each of the four campaigns in L4D2 feels very distinct from the others, and generally plays at least somewhat differently as well.

The Hard Rain campaign probably exemplifies this best; it has several new gameplay elements that make it stand out as a significant departure from the original L4D formula:

  • Instead of progressing through the stages in a linear fashion, you go from start to finish and back again, with the items and such remaining persistent -- if you take all the health kits on the way to the gas station you're going to, they won't be there when you have to go back from the gas station to the boat.  This adds a lot of economizing to the gameplay and forces people to make some difficult choices, especially on the harder game settings.
  • While the above might seem like a cop out, as a way to only design half the levels in order to get a full campaign, on the way back to the boat from the gas station you're in the middle of a hellish storm, and much of the terrain you went through before is flooded.  Walking through the water slows you down, so you need to stick to the higher ground -- walking on catwalks, roofs, and other stuff.  The storm picks up into a furious, pelting rain at random points as well, usually accompanied by a slavering horde of zombies; having been in some really bad storms myself, Valve did a good job making the atmosphere during this part really evoke that feeling.
  • The second part of the campaign takes place in an abandoned sugar mill heavily populated with Witches, including the new type that wanders around.  This definitely forces you to play in a very different fashion in order to avoid setting off one or more of them.  There definitely seem to be fewer of them on the return trip, but the added problems with visibility (and hearing) in the storm make those that remain all the more dangerous.  This new arrangement of familiar gameplay elements happens in the other campaigns as well, and really raises the bar for the level design from where it was in the original game.
Hard Rain has a similar ending to the finales of the original L4D campaigns, where you have to hold out for your ride after signaling for the boat to come pick you up, but it is different (as the designers pointed out in an interview I saw) because there's really no place for you to bunker down and hold off the horde, whereas that was generally the plan in the original, to the point where one of the main tactics for the endgame finales there was to hunker down in a closet, at least prior to some patches that made that more difficult.  Other campaigns have different crescendo events that depart from the "hold off the horde" formula as well, though it does still fall back on that to some extent.  Still, if you think you've been there, done that after the original game, L4D2 will creep up on you with some new twists and turns.

On top of those deeper differences, Valve has added a layer of creamy frosting.  L4D2 adds new weapons, including melee weapons and variations of the guns that were in the original, as well as new types of special Infected.  While I don't think these add as much to the game as the new campaigns, you definitely need to do some readjustment when you start playing.  Melee weapons are necessary in some places like the mill in Hard Rain or one part of the Parish campaign where you emerge in a giant lot of alarmed cars, where one misplaced shot can bury you in neverending hordes of zombies.

The new special Infected add some gameplay wrinkles too.  In the first one you could get situations where a Smoker might drag you into a Witch or Boomer, making your life a bit difficult.  L4D2 adds the Spitter, which belches persistent acid at the players, which can be a real pain in constrained spaces or when you get attacked by the Jockey, another new Infected which jumps on your head and forces you to move in whatever direction it feels like -- often into a pool of the aforementioned acid.  There are also Chargers, which barrel into you, knocking you across the map like a Tank, and then pick you up and pummel you similar to a Hunter.  While I haven't played any Versus games (I tend to prefer the campaign missions, I admit), I suspect a good Infected team can play merry havoc with the Survivors with the right combination.

As far as the rest of the game goes, everything I liked from the original is back in the new one; the cinematic tones, the fun character interaction, and the excellent set dressing are all still very much present, and the fact that the scenarios are a little more varied allows them to show more of the game's setting and flesh it out a little more.  The campaigns now have a clear progression, whereas the campaigns in the original were largely separate; in L4D2, the survivors are making their way from Savannah, GA to New Orleans, each campaign being another step along that path.  If you play them in order, this adds a bit to the verisimilitude, if that's your thing (not everyone plays their FPSes for story though, let's face it).  The characters are all at least as fleshed out as the protagonists of the original game, and they are all very different from their L4D counterparts.

So yes, I am overwhelmingly positive on L4D2; if L4D wasn't just a year old and L4D2's price point was lower, I would tell you to run out and buy this title right away if the premise sounded at all appealing.  As it is, I can't really say that -- if you're happy with L4D, you can wait for L4D2 to go on sale in order to pick it up.  I have no doubt that there will be another sale at least as good as the holiday sale on the game in the next six months.  On the other hand, if you don't own L4D, L4D2 is worth getting if you enjoy cooperative shooters and probably worth paying full price, especially if it does get more DLC in the future; the first add-on for L4D2 has already been announced (a campaign involving the survivors from both games), and Valve has released the SDK for player-made content (which is also good for making L4D add-ons, if I understand correctly).  You're pretty much guaranteed to have a good time if you can find a good group of players, and it shouldn't be that difficult if you use the Steam community features.

Dragon Age: Origins

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Well, I haven't blogged in a while, and the biggest culprit for that has been Bioware's new fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins.  Deirdre gave it to me a few weeks ago as an early Christmas present (and vice versa), and I have been playing the hell out of it.  I beat it for the first of what will probably be several times with 65 hours of play time, according to the in-game counter (not including saves and restores).

Initially, I had been very cool on the game; fantasy RPGs are not really my favorite genre, though I have fond memories of the Baldur's Gate series.  The marketing campaign, which seemed focused on the sex and violence rather than on a strong story, did not really do a good job of convincing me that the game was going to be my cup of tea either.  However, reviews were extremely positive for the most part, Bioware is one of the few developers still in my "I will buy anything from them" list, and Deirdre (who had followed the game much longer than I had) was pretty excited about it, so I was cautiously optimistic.

Does the game hold up to the hype?  Well, to say the game is flawless would be a mistake; there were parts of the game that were pretty frustrating for me, and the game's plot is not particularly original, but it is superbly written, drawing you into Ferelden and holding you there.  Dragon Age may be my favorite Bioware RPG now, and possibly close to my favorite RPG period, though I think it falls short of the Black Isle heyday.  If you are at all interested in fantasy RPGs, Dragon Age should be a must-buy, especially if you are willing to put up with some gameplay annoyances for the sake of a good (if not entirely innovative) story with strong characters and a beautifully crafted setting.

As usual, this will be a two-part review, with spoilers behind the cut.

The Good:

  • As usual with Bioware RPGs, the writing in this game is excellent, even if the story and characters are not entirely original.  Shamus Young has posted a good article on this subject on the Escapist (here's his note on his blog about it), and I agree with most of his points, but Dragon Age feels like it steps beyond the writing in Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic to me.  There's a few specific cases I'll note later, but in general, characters have much deeper and complex motivations and your actions have more consequences.  NPC banter is great to listen to and even more than Mass Effect, I'm disappointed I can only bring a few characters with me in any one place.
  • As in Mass Effect, the background material for the game is extensive and the world building in the game is well-done.  One minor issue is that the Codex now gets some quest-specific entries instead of just optional background material; if you don't read some of the Codex entries, you can miss out on fairly important or at least helpful game information.  The various cultures seem fairly well thought out and most seem like more than just usual fantasy tropes or historical analogues, though there's a fair share of those too.  Ferelden is clearly a sort of "not-Britain" and Orlais "not-France," but elves are not exactly nature-loving, immortally wise tree-huggers and dwarven culture, while bearing some surface similarities to Tolkien-esque tropes, is quite different under the surface.
  • If you like romance subplots, but inwardly groan when you think back to some of Bioware's previous attempts, especially for female PCs, Dragon Age will probably be a pleasant surprise.  There's a wide range of possibilities, and the "good guy" romance option is not nearly as angst-ridden as say, Carth in KotOR or Kaidan in Mass Effect.  Unlike in Mass Effect, where I wasn't really that interested in any of the love interests, the romance subplot in Dragon Age actually made a difference to how I played the game, including a few key choices I had to make.
  • Dragon Age's tutorial-style origin stories are a great evolution of Mass Effect's "your origin affects the game" idea.  While in Mass Effect that simply changed a few NPC lines of dialogue and gave you a new mission or two, in Dragon Age it changes the entire way you play the first hour or so of the game, and touches almost every part of how some NPCs interact with you.  Many of the subplots in the various parts of the game are much more meaningful if you have played through the origin story related to them.  This adds a lot to replay value, even if it largely only affects the dialogue and not necessarily the main thrust of the story.
  • Dragon Age uses the "few major locations on a world map" style of Fallout and KotOR rather than the "few major locations with a bunch of shallow optional stuff in between" of Mass Effect, which seems to make for a much stronger game.  I don't think I ever found myself searching for subplots as in Mass Effect; even though there's plenty of quests to do not specifically related to the main plot, most of them take place in areas you will have to visit anyway.
  • Dragon Age does a good job of making you and your companions feel like some serious badasses.  From time to time -- especially on the boss battles -- your characters will pull of some really awesome finishing moves, and the cinematics that punctuate the major victories in the game are pretty jawdropping.
  • Dragon Age uses a Fallout-style ending sequence where the long-term repercussions of your actions are described after the game is over.  These are widely varied -- considerably more than the original Fallout, I think -- and change based both on your actions during the various quests and on your decisions around the endgame (mostly in dialogues).
  • The tactics system is pretty neat, and I was able to come up with some decent settings for my characters that let me get a bit more hands off than I was in say, Baldur's Gate.  Some characters I could reliably not worry about, but mages especially still needed a fair bit of tweaking in order to ensure that they were being used properly.  Still, it was annoying to have to sacrifice other skills for tactics slots (though generally only on non-warrior characters) when you could simply micromanage everything if you wanted to.  Making people sacrifice abilities in game to compensate for the interface is rarely a design feature people appreciate.
  • The game seems very modable, with Bioware having released the toolkit, and there's already wide variety of mods available to change everything from allowing you to respecialize characters to one that lets you make custom equipment to one that removes helmets from view (as in Mass Effect) with varying success.  Hopefully this means the game will have a good deal of longevity and we might even see some fan-made campaigns.
  • As is usual for Bioware, the soundtrack for Dragon Age is quite good; thankfully, it is in the line of their previous work for Baldur's Gate and not the Marilyn Manson in the trailers.  I don't think it's quite as good as the Mass Effect soundtrack, but there's some tracks from it that are sticking with me, and it's entered my rotation of good fantasy soundtracks. 
The Bad

  • The difficulty curve for Dragon Age has been described as a "sawtooth"; you will cut a swath through a horde of ravening darkspawn for a while, and then you will get into a boss battle or a "puzzle battle" (where the battle becomes a thousand times easier if you can figure out the one tactic that works best) that ends in a gory end for your entire party, resulting in some reloading to figure out how to win.  This was definitely my experience; I'm not particularly fond of boss battles in general, but there's a few that were incredibly frustrating to the point where I needed to take a break.
  • Compounding the last issue is that the computer does not do a very good job of leveling up your companions when they join your party.  As is usual in many games, being specialized is far more powerful than being a generalist in Dragon Age, but pre-leveled characters generalize, making them much weaker than they could be.  If you get your "main companions" early on, this isn't as big an issue, but it can be annoying.  Morrigan, for instance, has the Shapeshifter specialization to start with, which is considerably less useful than the other three specializations, an issue when you can only pick up two mages to choose from in the game at all.  I am using a mod that allows you to respecialize characters and I highly recommend that for people playing on the PC.
  • Magic, and particularly some of the spell combinations, seems really overpowered.  Fights that are nearly impossible without spells like Cone of Cold or Crushing Prison suddenly become far easier with them.  Prior to the last rebalancing patch, it was possible to completely lock down some of the bosses with repeated uses of stunning/paralyzing spells for the entire duration of the fights. I have heard of some people playing without mages at all, but I'm a bit surprised that's viable.
  • Equipment overload is not as bad as in Mass Effect, but it is still a bit annoying that I am funding my world-saving quest by selling scavenged armor, and juggling my inventory was a serious pain during a few of the longer quest periods, such as in the forest ruin or the Deep Roads.  It isn't as bad as Mass Effect because it's much clearer what is generally better to use, but it's still a bit of a pain.  I really hope RPGs move away from this kind of loot mechanic in the future.  As an important tip, whenever backpacks are available at a shop, buy them as soon as possible.  The ten extra inventory slots will pay you back in pretty short order.
  • Only being able to take three companions was a bit frustrating.  You generally need to take a tank (usually a sword and shield fighter), having a rogue to disable traps and open chests is a good idea (if not absolutely necessary), and you're probably going to want at least one mage for healing and/or crowd control with area-of-effect spells (and two is even better).  There's only two mages and two rogues in the game, and the rest are all basically fighters.  That really limits the options for a well-rounded party, especially when you want to bring certain party members with you on quests of special relevance to them.  Even just being able to have one more person would have made the game far easier to manage, and a wider variety of companions would have been welcome too.  As it is, I settled on the team of Alistair (a sword and shield fighter), Leiliana (a bowfighting rogue), Morrigan (a combat-oriented mage), and myself (a support/combat mage) very early on and rarely deviated; when I had to get rid of my rogue or one of my mages, it was pretty painful.  That really limits not only your strategies but also the banter and character subplots you can be involved with, which was really disappointing.  If you aren't a mage, you have even fewer choices, it seems.
  • If you don't have much in the way of healing magic (and sometimes even if you do), many of the tough battles can boil down to bringing as many healing/mana potions as you can and chugging them like crazy.  Personally, I'd prefer fewer battles where this was the rule.
  • There's a fair bit of annoying mook fights, necessitating that you fight through waves of darkspawn, or cultists, or some other generally-annoying-but-not-that-tough guys to get to the main set-piece battles.  Some of these are genuinely tough, simply because of the number of enemies you have to fight (many of which are archers or mages, which can be really a pain).  This can cause some serious slowdowns in the game's pacing, and doesn't do great things for the verisimilitude since for the most part they are just guys standing around waiting to fight you, with no other real reason to be there.  This is, unfortunately, a staple of a lot of RPGs (Mass Effect's final stages are another example), but there needs to be some more thought applied to the level design to avoid this kind of annoyance.
  • The blood effects are a bit extreme.  It's not a giant complaint, but it's a little weird to see a cut scene where you're talking with someone calmly while you're covered head-to-toe in blood spatter.  The game wouldn't really lose much if this was toned down (or even turned off, as you can do).
Appendix: Downloadable Content

I got the "Digital Deluxe" edition of Dragon Age, which comes with some extra downloadable content.  Every purchased copy of Dragon Age comes with The Stone Prisoner, but the Digital Deluxe version from Steam comes with a few extra bits (some armor and some other items) as well as Warden's Keep.  The Digital Deluxe edition also comes with a set of wallpapers and the entire Dragon Age soundtrack.

The Stone Prisoner was originally intended to be included with the base game but was pushed out when they thought they didn't have enough time to finish it before release.  It is an excellent bonus to the game, as Shale, the golem companion you can get in the town it adds, is very tightly integrated into the rest of the game, especially the dwarven kingdom area.  Shale has nearly as much dialogue and character interaction scripted as the other companions, and is definitely a useful addition to your team.  The new areas this DLC adds will probably add another couple hours of gameplay as well.  I'd say it was well worth getting, but if you have a legitimate copy it should be free for you anyway, so there's no reason not to pick it up.  If you buy Dragon Age used, however, you will have to purchase it separately; I don't know if it is worth $15 if you do (you're probably better off just buying a new copy from Steam or something instead, since I doubt you'll get Dragon Age for less than 25 dollars used for a while).

Warden's Keep is much more self-contained than The Stone Prisoner; it adds a single new area for the game, which is basically a dungeon that will take you an hour or two to complete.  It also adds a number of very good items (the best sword in the game and some very good armor for the level you happen to get it at), as well as a "party chest," something that really should have been included in the game to start at your camp, and not at a static location (there is in fact a mod to do just that already, so the DLC is not necessary for that).  Seven dollars is a pretty reasonable price for what you get.  I'm not sure I like the way that Bioware is trying to get you to buy the content for this one (see the Penny Arcade on the topic) but because it was already included in my version it didn't really affect me.  I do hope that future DLC is much more like The Stone Prisoner, however, and integrates into the rest of the game rather than just being a bit awkwardly bolted on.  I'm not holding my breath though, since that's a lot more work (which is reflected in The Stone Prisoner's significantly higher price tag).

The extra items in the Digital Deluxe edition are handy, but not necessarily all that.  There are items in the game that you can find or purchase from merchants that are easily almost as good (though I admit the Blood Dragon Armor does look pretty badass).  Don't feel like they are must-haves.

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