Friday, 27 November 2009

Dragon Age: Origins - Keeping it dark with sarcasm and blood

As a spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate 2, Dragon Age: Origins is an epic role-playing fantasy game that successfully blends the charm of an old-school RPG storyline with some sophisticated relationship and dialogue mechanics. It doesn't reinvent the Western Role-playing genre, but its presentation of a dark fantasy world with meaningful choices and grim consequences shows that traditional Tolkien-inspired games have plenty left to offer the modern videogame player.

The traditional Western Role-playing game has been well-represented in recent years, with The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion offering some impressive open-world adventuring in a typical fantasy setting whilst Mass Effect brought Bioware's RPG expertise into the realm of science-fiction space opera. Dragon Age: Origins, also developed by Bioware, is pretty much the most traditional and typical fantasy RPG you could wish for and follows the company's success in developing the Dungeons and Dragons-based Baldur's Gate series and the original NeverWinter Nights.

On the surface it would be easy to criticise Dragon Age for being nothing more than the epitome of the genre. But delve beneath the Tolkien-inspired fiction and the MMO-style interface and you'll find a game that's laced with knowing sarcasm but also serious enough to offer some believable dark themes. This is Bioware at their best and the over-arching narrative kept me constantly involved and itching to take on the next quest.

Though the class system of Dragon Age may be a little restrictive than what I've been used to when playing an RPG, it more than makes up for this with the six origin stories which offer unique, 1-2 hour beginning sections depending on which race or class you choose. These gave me a real sense of where the character I was playing came from, what their history was, and how they and their race fitted into the world. For example, choosing a Dalish Elf will put you in a small campaign deep in the Brecilian forest. Here the story focuses more on the forgotten Elvish culture and how your small community survives as a nomadic people.

Survival for my main character, a City Elf, was a very different matter. The Elves living in Denerim, Ferelden's capital, are subjected to prejudice, segregation and racism on a daily basis - all of which spills over during the Origin story that shows or implies the brutal treatment that your family and friends are subjected to. The dark themes continue and out of the six Origin stories, those of the City Elf and lower caste Dwarf are the most affecting. Maybe I've played too many generic games that put Elves above humans in stature and culture, but having these genre tropes turned on their head and giving Elves a history of enslavement is just one aspect of Dragon Age that elevates it above the usual fantasy schtick.

The manner with which these origins stories bleed into much of the main game gave me the kind of meaningful experience I've long been waiting for in Western RPGs. The one instance where this struck home came when I returned to the Alienage much later in the game - finding out that the poverty-stricken and grimy streets of my home had actually become worse thanks to my actions earlier in the game was one of many depressing story moments.

Many of the other origins stories intersect the main quest and it’s only after playing through all six does the depth to the game become apparent. Initially I was sceptical about this approach working to enrich the experience - but being presented with six vastly different beginnings rather than six unique endings actually made a great deal of sense. There's no way I can complete Dragon Age six times without going mad, but spending four hours or so with all the Origin stories is a much quicker and interesting way of building a depth that's much more accessible to more players. I know I experienced far more of this world and its characters than that of other semi-linear RPGs because I could easily dive into the origin stories and find out much more about the Mage's Circle, the Dalish Elves, the Dwarven City of Orgrimmar and the Human Nobility, all because I could experience them rather than just read about it in a dusty old Codex entry.

This approach enriched the whole narrative and, as this is a Bioware game, half of the experience and enjoyment comes from forging relationships with the variety of characters that you'll meet and recruit into your team. When some of those characters are ones you've already known from a previous origin story then it makes the interactions all the more meaningful. But it's here that I felt Dragon Age started to show its roots a little too much. Half of the characters I found to be nothing more than recurring characters from Knights of the Old Republic, NeverWinter Nights or Mass Effect. Sometimes this was a good move with Shale the Stone Golem fulfilling the cynical and detached role that the demented HK-47 served in KOTOR, but others only reminded me of when their characters had been done better before. Alistair was the typical good guy similar to Kaidan in Mass Effect, whilst Morrigan did a great job in portraying a sexy Sith lady with a revealing outfit and a biting wit to match.

Like I said, this isn't all bad as those personalities are necessary to frame the morality system Dragon Age uses for telling many of its side-stories and the narrative of the wider game. When it works well I felt myself honestly troubled as to what my next decision would be, at other times the cynicism of my colleagues turned the game into a sarcasm-strewn dialogue graveyard that raised a few smiles but did little to enrich the whole experience. Where the relationship system and the branching dialogue came into its own was during the darker moments of the game. Being faced with a decision that was measured in proper shades of grey rather than a simple light/dark choice meant my final course of action had more meaning. On several occasions I deliberated for several minutes about what I would do, make what I thought was the best decision and then many hours later wonder if I had actually done the worst thing possible. This is what the branching dialogue system has hinted at dong for so long and Dragon Age finally implements it to great effect - if only sporadically.

As the story picked up the pace and I began the final act, Dragon Age shifted into a far more linear experience. I lost a certain feeling of control but the dramatic tension of the game increased as it brought into play all the pieces I had spent hours setting in to motion. I feel this is what Bioware does best and in all my hours of playing a variety of RPGs, Dragon Age has the greater sense of place than many of the D&D-based/inspired games in recent years. I felt disappointed though in just how Tolkien-esque the final few cinematics played out. They were dramatic and conveyed all the right feelings that the story needed me to feel, but they aped the cinematic vision of Lord of the Rings a little too much for my tastes. It was also a shame how the epilogue played out in such a text-based way. With the entire game telling its story by means of cinematic cut-scenes, surely a brief montage would have worked better? It certainly would have given me a more satisfying ending the many hours I had poured into the game.

But I can't deny that I've fallen in love with this game. It has a solid heart and soul that's been built up through the years that Bioware has spent crafting the world and drawing on their experiences in previous games. It's not a revolutionary new addition to the RPG library, but Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best and I can't recommend it enough.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Modern Warfare 2 review - Watch out! Plot holes incoming!

Delivering a bombastic, explosion-filled experience that would make Hollywood proud, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 certainly does its best to raise the level of action portrayed in first-person shooters to new heights. Unfortunately it also takes a needless mis-step towards controversy in its campaign and ultimately tells a muddled and outrageous story that acts as an uneasy sequel to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Although many gamers and critics have already consider Modern Warfare 2 to be the greatest first-person shooter ever made down to its multiplayer and new co-op missions, I‘ve always played the Call of Duty games for their single-player campaign alone. This sequel to 2007's excellent, if morally-questionable, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, was always going to be a tough act to follow but I was curious to see if they would continue with their believable storyline.

In terms of immediate impact though, the game falls short of the ship-assault mission of the first game, opting instead for convoy mission through on occupied Afghani town. There's no shortage of bruh-ha moments however, and the depiction of the American war machine seems just as unflinching honest as the 'Charlie Don't Surf' level from Call of Duty 4. Just as in that level I was struck by an odd mixture of repulsion and enjoyment. On the one hand the game's sense of place is excellent and the set-pieces involved didn't fail to get my blood pumping. But on the other hand I felt uncomfortable as I watched my comrades celebrate the annihilation of an occupied enemy tenement - giving me an uneasy feeling of disgust.

In some ways I like the way Call of Duty does this. It replicates the perceived notion that American Marines enjoy their work a little too much and in some ways encourages sympathy towards those you’re shooting in the game. A feeling I'm not sure the developers actually intended. But this beginning is quickly curtailed and instead of delving into the interesting subject of the occupation of Afghanistan, the game moves on to other events, never returning to this environment to give it a purpose or a point. The levels in the first Modern Warfare felt a lot more cohesive, with themes running between them all, but this start seemed to raise the level of spectacle to a certain degree for its own sake. 

Nowhere is this more blatantly achieved than in the infamous 'No Russian' level that has sparked a wave of reaction on both sides of the moral divide. I won't delve into too much detail, only to say that you have the option to shoot (or not shoot) civilians in an airport terminal as you fulfil your role as an American double-agent. By the time this level ends it's clear that the whole premise for this attack has been formulated because of your undercover status, but the manner in which this scene is portrayed and the mechanics involved are fairly reprehensible and unnecessary. There were better ways of getting this critical plot point across which could have given the game far more meaning and emotional weight that the overwhelmingly offensive feeling ’No Russian’ gave me instead.

From this point the campaign unravels even more. There are plot devices and narrative twists that make little or no sense when viewed in a wider context. Whereas Call of Duty 4 had a much clearer story structure as it followed the pursuit of two major enemies, this game sees the main antagonist barely feature at all except in that one controversial level. It's unclear about three-quarters into the game as to who that main villain actually is, and while ambiguity can work wonders in creating tension and mystery, its use in this game felt awkward and unprofessional.

Modern Warfare 2 also falls into the trap of taking what worked extremely well in the previous game and criminally over-using it. The way Call of Duty 4 made you play as an American Marine for nearly half the game before killing him off in a nuclear explosion was a stroke of narrative genius. It showed how pointless the actions of the military were in that part of the game and it portrayed a sense of mortality that I'd never experienced before in a game. It was the stand-out moment to that game but Modern Warfare 2 over-uses this theme so many times that the effect is virtually meaningless.

Instead of feeling like the actions of my fictional character or fictional army were pointless, I felt as if my actions as a player had been rendered worthless instead. What had been the point of playing this character when it was ended so suddenly and so illogically? I felt as if the game had been using me as a cheap way for getting a plot point across when it couldn't be bothered to do it any other way.

It reminded me of when I took part in National Novel Writing Month. The advice given to keep our word-count fluid and to make sure we completed our story was to include a momentous event whenever we got stuck. This feels like the exact process to writing the story in Modern Warfare 2. As if the writer hit a creative block every 30 minutes and thought that by dropping an exploding sun or flying saucer into the plot, they could help string along the nonsensical story. Using these big events with regular occurrence just made my experience of the campaign tiresome. As the game progressed the constant stream of money-shot moments made everything more confusing and tore the plot into pieces all for the sake of spectacle.

I'll admit that the set-pieces were exciting to play through and the journey to the end of the game gave me just as thrilling a ride that Call of Duty 4 did. But in terms of story and narrative, the last hour was an utter mess. There were monologues that meant nothing and I half expected a cameo from Solid Snake at one point in the vain hope I could pin this on a failed Metal Gear Solid parody.

If there was one part to the game that proved effective and moving then it was the visual spectacle of the American missions. Though the fighting of Russians felt a little staid, the scenes of white picket-fenced America, under the red skies of invasion didn’t fail in giving me the shivers. Coming up from a presidential bunker and seeing the White House, The Department of Justice and the Washington monument all ruined was a moment of eerie drama – a brief glimpse into an American nightmare come true.

But even these scenes ended up by feeling so artificial thanks to the ridiculous plot and the manner in which the levels felt so hermetically sealed from each other. No sooner had I defended these patriotic monuments then the game moved away and never returned to show what ultimately happened. There was no sense of closure or hint of continuation, even for what seems like the middle part of a Modern Warfare trilogy.

Once those final credits rolled I came away with a mixture of negative emotions. I realised that perhaps, in secret, I had put too much expectation on Modern Warfare 2 to continue the same coherent work it had started in Call of Duty 4. Sadly the game feels like a narrative mess, with needless controversy courted by an offensive level that will do nothing to show videogames as a progressive medium. I had expected Modern Warfare 2 to push the boundaries of first-person-shooters to some new level - yet all I found was a derivative work that made the franchise feel old and producing set-pieces for the sake of pure spectacle. Fine for the multiplayer or Spec Ops missions, but in the single player campaign it made Modern Warfare 2 feel like a pointlessly aggressive bully.


Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Borderlands review

Spinning a successful and addictive formula than kept me playing for over thirty hours, Borderlands on 360 and PS3 is not the type of game that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a deep and meaningful experience. But the consistent presentation, the brief moments of harrowing drama and the lashings of black humour produced a package that was memorable and surprisingly effective.

This is not the most obvious title you'd expect me to be covering. After all, Borderlands is a pretty shallow experience all told and it's easy to sum up the game within a sentence as it rarely does anything deeper than feed into a Diablo-style addiction for loot. Indeed, you could argue that this could be a National Rifle Association's members wet dream come to life as the main driving force behind this game is the acquisition of a 'Gazillion' different type of firearms. It's about as soulless as Pandora, the bleak planet on which this human borderland is set on.

And yet I found something about this game, about the atmosphere it created, to be gr eater than the sum of its basic parts. Yes, on the surface it's nothing more than a first-person Diablo-style shooter with a few rudimentary role-playing components to help fuel the addictive loot-whoring nature of the gameplay. But the setting of Pandora and Borderlands art-style gave it a certain depth that I began to really appreciate after over twenty hours of play.

The cel-shaded visual style gives Borderlands a slightly different edge to many of the post-apocalyptic shooters than have recently sprung up. Although the character models have a cartoon-like quality, it takes nothing away from the bleak surroundings of the planet and if anything, adds a bit more humanity to a pretty wretched alien environment.

I say post-apocalyptic, but in truth Borderlands isn't anything of the kind. Pandora is just a frontier world, temporarily settled by major corporations in pursuit of a mythical 'vault' which promises riches and treasures like any good alien world should. What you experience is the aftermath, with bandit towns and corporation villages struggling to survive in the harsh environment. It's taken directly from the American West, with the same vibe of a frontier town under constant attack from Native Americans or battling the elements.

None of this is particularly obvious when playing the game, as I rarely found myself getting caught up in observing the scenery or feeling like the story was going in a deep and meaningful direction. The quests are only perfunctory levelling up exercises and excuses to kill more native creatures or grotesque variations on bandits. The main quest that veers closer into the mystical nature of the vault is easily ignored and the 'guardian angel' that infrequently contacts you, serves as just an intermittent narrative tool that can also be easily forgotten.

So why do I feel so enamoured with Borderlands on a slightly deeper level? In part it's due to the portrayal of this borderland world. Its Mad Max-inspired visuals and the deep vein of black humour that runs through the quests and characters give it a hook that Fallout 3 never presented to me. The wasteland of Washington was a powerful location, but the presence of super-mutants and the depressing depiction of post-nuclear holocaust never sat well with me. Fallout 3, in all its brilliance, was a little too bloated and inconsistent with mixing its FPS presentation with its true RPG roots.

In my experience Borderlands behaves itself and the bolting-on of a few role-playing stats works a lot better in the real-time presentation that both games operate. The aliens in Borderlands also feel properly native to their world and the game. None are remotely humanoid and feel more akin to the creatures out of Half-Life's Xen world than the usual zombie gene pool I've come to expect from any sci-fi videogame. Even the over-sized, one-armed bandits feel consistent to Pandora's world whereas the super-mutants of Fallout 3 did not. One-armed bandits? Like I said, black humour throughout.

The best moment that demonstrated a darker edge to Borderlands and even gave me the impression that the game was capable of more depth were the audio diaries of Patricia Tannis. She's one of the story's main characters and the diaries I uncovered in her various side-quests were hugely entertaining and added a great deal of character to the game. They follow her exploits as leader of a scientific expedition to Pandora. Needless to say it goes pear-shaped quite quickly and the diaries chart Tannis' mental state from haughty science-girl to stark-raving mad outcast in hilarious fashion. But they're also laced with a little of the harrowing detail that life on such on frontier planet would inevitably lead to.

It's a stretch to say that these are affecting in any deep way, but I found they added a little more colour to what is a fairly simple and obvious game. These diaries and a few quests that came up later veered the narrative very briefly away from the black humour I was used to and into more disturbing territory. These instances never lasted and sometimes it felt as if the game quickly covered over them as if it was embarrassed to delve into any deeper territory than the mere loot-grabbing it had been doing since the start.

In this way I'm a little disappointed that Borderlands didn't go as far as I felt it could. But I can hardly fault the game for sticking to its strengths and keeping the addictive gameplay going in lieu of any meaningful narrative. It has successfully spurred me on to return to Fallout 3 - and maybe there I'll find the right balance between a deep role-playing narrative and over-the-top combat.