Bethesda vs. BioWare

Yesterday I said I might blog about balancing issues in Dragon Age: Origins. I think I’ll not only do that, but draw comparisons to other games as well. We1 have been playing DA:O for a while now, and while we were initially drawn into the game very much, and like it a lot overall, we’ve come to be able to bitch about it quite a lot too. In that, the game is very much like the Lord of the Rings movies2: excellent at first, but the more you think about it, the more you realize is seriously messed up.

So what’s wrong with DA:O, really? For one thing, the character classes are extremely imbalanced:

  1. Rogues have by far the highest amount of useful skills and side-quests. Some of these skills are indispensable for the party as a whole.
  2. Mages have so many spells it’s hard to learn even a useful subset of them.
  3. Some character class specializations are significantly less useful than others; in some cases a specialization only makes sense of the character that the player controls, and not any other party member. Worse yet, some specializations cannot be combined well with any other specializations (Mage healers, for example, can only go with blood mages… any melee specialization would seriously hurt the character’s performance as a healer).
  4. There is hardly any good equipment for mages. Warrior armour sets and high-end weaponry abounds, on the other hand.

I’m sure there’s more. In the end, it makes the most sense to play as a rogue, with a healer mage a tank warrior and a DPS warrior in the party. Now there’s exactly one healer mage you’ll find, and one obvious tank you’ll find, and they seem to get along well, but won’t get on with the other characters as much… I assume that those will have been the characters the designers spent most time on. Or liked best. Or both.

But after you’ve got over the cinematic and greatly fun intro sequences, the game’s balance is really what matters. Storylines are great, but even the best fantasy storyline tends to be made of elements connoisseurs of the genre have read over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, a good storyline in a CRPG is extremely important, but in comparison to the gameplay, it pales.

Case in point: Rake in Grass made a wonderfully fun Eye of the Beholder clone, Undercroft where the storyline is one-dimensional at best and occasionally parodies other CRPG stories and conventions. But the game is nevertheless highly addictive and entertaining.

And yes, DA:O’s intro sequences do draw me in like few other games have. As befits intro sequences, they are fairly linear in gameplay, letting you get used to the controls, etc… and then the story opens up and the game gives you more freedom at precisely the point where you expect it, and really want it to happen. That part is expertly crafted.

When the game does open up, though, that’s when the much-touted dynamic world that reacts to your decisions comes in. Except it doesn’t.

I shouldn’t be surprised. True freedom to take decisions in computer games is hard to create, and harder still to combine with well-crafted stories. Story-driven and non-linear are, for understandable reasons, very hard to reconcile.

It is sad, though, that when you take the plunge and play the game more than once, you realize just how thinly veiled the rails are on which you’re guided through the main story arc. Other than a few cosmetic changes, your decisions don’t seem to matter for much. Yet everyone in the game world you encounter seems to value your opinion on matters of life and death much more than those of people they’ve worked with for decades… there’s a slight clash here.

And these deficiencies led me to think of Fallout 3, which is of course not a fantasy RPG and maybe that makes it the two games hard to compare. Yet it’s engine and approach to driving gameplay are as much similar to the Oblivion engine/approach as DA:O’s are similar to that of Mass Effect, another SF game. It seems that it’s possible to speak of the “BioWare approach” versus the “Bethesda approach” with regards to CRPGs, regardless of genre or specifics of the story.

In contrast to DA:O, the “Bethesda approach” appears to provide few or no cinematics. Everything happens in-engine as you can move around the characters. There are no big decisions presented to you in a dialog choice where you know you will go one path or the other down the story arc. Instead, your choices are to complete one quest or another, kill one NPC or leave another alive, and by those very direct actions or omissions — rather than dialogue choices — you shape the world.

And crucially, the game’s design doesn’t comment on that. This change just happens and you’re left to deal with the consequences. It doesn’t draw you in as much — can’t draw you in as much, because it happens more in your head than in game cinematics. But it also can’t let you down so much: you’ve only got yourself to blame if things go sour.

So the “Bethesda approach” demands more of players, but I’d argue it rewards them more. My kind of game, in the end3.

  1. That is, my wife and I []
  2. Yeah, they’re great! Love ‘em! But Aragorn’s character was completely changed by the way his relationship to his sword was changed, and made him shallower. There was no need for Arwen to change that much. Frodo was whiny. Why did the Elf have to skate/surf down a shield/door? Shouldn’t orcs be hairy? There were no elves at Helm’s Deep! Agent Smith^WElrond had too much of a beard to be an authentic Elf. Where’s Tom Bombadil? … and now you’ve done it! Well, I won’t go into everything here, but if you’re interested there’s a list of changes… []
  3. Which is not to say that Fallout 3 or Oblivion had no flaws… they had plenty. []