Dragon Age: Origins and the Curious Marketing Strategy

By now, anybody who cares has seen the trailers for Bioware’s upcoming fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins. We laughed, we cried, we wondered how in the world they thought adding Marilyn Manson to scenes of mass violence and armored dudes sneering at each other would help it sell. At E3, the gang and I got a closer look at the actual game, and while there was little to sway people one way or another, I did get the impression that there is cause for hope yet. Allow me to elaborate.

We started off with the trailer. One of the guys said it was set to Nine Inch Nails, which it could very well have been; I don’t know my growly angry rock that well. In retrospect, I can’t take it seriously now that I’ve seen it set to the Hawaii Five-O and Cowboy Bebop themes, which redeem the trailer in many ways. Word is a Sanford & Son version is coming soon. But I digress. The trailer did, however, appear to be entirely through the in-game engine, which does suggest this thing can render pretty large battles. Whether we’ll get to play any is another matter.

Next up was a short gameplay demo at the party’s encampment, and a demonstration of dialog options with party members. Specifically, the guy playing it immediately ran over to the token black mage evil lady (why is the black mage always evil?), handed her a book, and proceeded to a sex scene that was deliberately cut short. Reportedly, how you treat your allies will affect their performance in battle, which could be interesting depending on how well it puts emphasis on roleplaying as opposed to stat boosting. However, game romances tend to look silly out of context, and very often in context, and this was no exception. Then he wandered over to get the opinion of the token Scottish accent good lady, whom he’d also been sweet-talking to this point. Cue drama and dialog options forcing the player to choose one girl or the other; the guy put it to a vote and black magic woman won. Well, good girl originally won, but then there was some confusion, lots of noise, ballots fell off the back of the truck, etc. and they picked black magic woman instead. Go figure.

By now, fans of Baldur’s Gate II were having flashbacks of a verbal catfight between all three of the game’s female clerics, and by fans I mean me. However, following that was something everyone can appreciate, a good old-fashioned dragon fight. Despite some stiff animation, the fight actually looked pretty fun. Combat appeared similar to The Witcher in base controls, with the ability to switch characters and issue specific orders. The dragon, appropriately, was no pushover, hitting hard with its claws and throwing around several potent breath attacks. The player rushed the beast with melee units and softened it up with lightning spells. At one point black magic woman shapeshifted into a spider to poison the dragon. His party took a sizable beating, losing at least one party member in the process, but in the end they were victorious.

Crowds were too thick and time too tight to get my hands on the playable demo itself, sadly. So let me explain why I think this game, in spite of the evidence, is going to be good.

Baldur’s Gate comparisons are inevitable; Bioware themselves invited the comparison. And many undoubtedly wonder what the fuss over Baldur’s Gate is about. It’s true that series takes place in the Forgotten Realms universe, a land that couldn’t be more typical fantasy. It’s true that the male romances are all female elf (or half-elf) clerics that can’t stand each other, and the female romance is an arrogant, easily-led ponce with no alternatives. It’s true that for every cheap enemy there were ten cheaper tactics to take them out.

But some perspective is in order. Picky as those romance characters were, they were also well written at times; characters were dynamic and diverse, and did grow over time. Party members almost across the board had great dialog, acting and banter. Minsc was practically a must-have on the strength of his one-liners alone. Lest we forget, Baldur’s Gate II still featured one of the best villains in the genre, and arguably in gaming history. The plot may have been fairly linear with a typical good-vs-evil karma system, but a wide variety of character builds and roleplaying opportunities awaited patient players. That it allowed players to roll up a male or female main character, or even an entirely custom party, are steps far beyond what most RPGs do. Even the combat had its moments, provided you put some care into balancing out your party.

The point of the above is that Bioware games don’t always look that good on the surface: ultra-violence, trope-heavy plots, conveniently all-female alien races, tacked-on sex scenes, et cetera. But once you get past that surface, once you get to actually read what’s written and poke around the world they’ve created, there is very often an excellent meaty, highly replayable game on the inside. And that is why I’m willing to give Dragon Age: Origins the benefit of the doubt. Say what you will about Bioware, but if Dragon Age: Origins is half as good as the Baldur’s Gate series, it will still be one of the best fantasy RPGs in a long time.

I’ve been wrong before, and how; Mass Effect as a modder’s paradise seems very silly in retrospect. But if I’m wrong this time, so be it. I’m buying this at launch day and I’m not looking back.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.