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Dragon Age Origins Preview: Unicorn Dreams

"This isn't a game about unicorns," said Dragon Age: Origins lead designer Mike Laidlaw, and my eyes glazing over at knights and elves, I began to think about that game. Would you ride the unicorns? What would the mechanics be like?

Of course, then I remembered Peggle, and its insipid unicorn mascot. "Thank god Dragon Age is not about unicorns," I concluded thoughtfully, not knowing I would come to regret my snap judgment.

"Each of the characters will have a running tally of whether they like or dislike the choices you make."

Jesus, I was missing the demonstration. Okay, time to catch up--dark fantasy story, check. Dark fantasy characters, check. Dark, fantastically slutty sorceress to slap on the box--check, check.

The primary purpose of this GDC demo was to tout a few new battle and RPG systems. To do this, the developers loaded up a quest hub and dropped us straight into a scenario. The town of Redcliffe served as the setting, it being one of the last human cities left standing in the world of whatever. The evil Blight was laying siege to the town, and the player's four-person party had the option of aiding in its defense, or leaving it to die off--which, of course, will have repercussions later. This all lead up to the final battle, which gave the devs a chance to run us through the combat--a satisfying, multi-layered BioWare affair.

With the horde of Blight streaming out from a rocky pass, the first thing BioWare did was pause the game. While Dragon Age combat can be played in real-time, the depth will come from the paused management of your party in the pseudo turn-based pause menu. More than just queuing up spells and attacks, the pause menu allows access to the "tactics" system.

"Essentially what we've done is expose the AI that runs the game to the player," said Laidlaw. On screen, a series of custom "if" statements allowed the player to customize each party member's combat behavior. "If attacked by [monster], use [weapon]" is an example of how specific the tuning can get. Several presets, such as a basic set of "archer" behavior, are of course included.

With the game paused, the player took control of the warrior Sten, using an ability that made him invulnerable to earthquakes. Taking control of the sorceress Morganna, the player cast an earthquake spell in a forward area. This allowed Sten to take point during the invasion, taunting incoming enemies while encircled by a protective earthquake.

Though most of the game's screenshots will show an over-the-shoulder view typical of other RPGs, these spell combinations and tactics will be easier managed from the game's top-down camera. From the max zoom height, the game resembles a small-scale RTS. Units are ringed by color-coded halos to distinguish friend from foe, allowing a quick and easy view of the battlefield to queue up commands from.

Don't ask me how any of this is going to work smoothly on a console. BioWare isn't speaking to that yet, and it has me a little concerned for that version of the game.

But by far the most troubling aspect of the demonstration was the serious lack of engaging dialogue. This was made apparent early on, as a conversation between your party and the drunken blacksmith played out in painfully slow fashion.

As much a fan of 1990s RPGs as I am, the genre has made some progress since then. Not much, but some. BioWare's own spacey RPG Mass Effect represented one small step forward for storytelling with its dialogue engine, which allowed players to quickly select responses ahead of time to better mimic the flow of an actual conversation.

Dragon Age is using pieces of the Mass Effect dialogue engine, but the seamless exchanges of that system have been discarded. In their place are traditional full-sentence response options, with a few cute camera angles as the NPC responds to your response. As strange as it sounds, it's not as responsive as it should be. And if you're not into monologues delivered by foppish elves and other stock fantasy characters, it's going to get tiresome. It seems that BioWare's game is largely about the reactions of your party members to the choices your shy protagonist makes. In that, there are some interesting, albeit not wholly original ideas at work.

An "approval" system tracks the attitude of your characters based on the choices you make in dialogue. For instance, if Sten doesn't like the idea of saving the town--as he didn't--he'll interject to let you know what a terrible party leader you've turned out to be. The more choices you make that disappoint a member, the more likely he or she will be less enthusiastic during battles--and the more likely they'll leave your party altogether.

In a way, it works as an externalization of the "good vs. evil" Knights of the Old Republic system, as your party members should naturally align with the choices you're making. And it does add a much-needed dynamic element to the dialogue. At one point during the conversation with the blacksmith, Sten let the player know how much he hated the idea of taking time to help the man. The blacksmith briefly interrupted, but Sten quickly shot back, "I said nothing to you, human." Ability learned: Ice burn.

But in a full 3D world, with highly detailed characters bickering about, this system leaves the discussion feeling more like a long cutscene. It's not that the full sentence approach is necessarily inferior, but without voice work for the protagonist--apparently too much to tackle given the six available main characters--the experience feels hollow. Whereas a game like The Witcher gives us a strong, slutty protagonist to identify with in Geralt, the character you play as in Dragon Age is more like a tight-lipped Gordon Freeman in tights.

In the end, the effectiveness of all these systems will largely depend on how interesting the quests are. And another worry is that, so far, not a single dialogue exchange or quest scenario I've seen has exceeded its core cliche. While a realistic take on sci-fi lent a novel feel to Mass Effect, a realistic take on fantasy has done just the opposite for Dragon Age.

Calls of a generic, Lord of the Rings-inspired exercise do not seem far off. BioWare is in danger of using its "spiritual sequel" label as an excuse to sell predictable, by-the-numbers quests, and dialogue that would be better left in a text box. Like figures on a D&D board, every piece of "dark realistic fantasy" is in its right place--but the game master appears to be on autopilot.

As another dark, brooding character spoke up about something or other, I began to think that Dragon Age could probably use a few unicorns.

Dragon Age: Origins is set for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC this fall.

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