Yesterday I took some free time off so that I could finally try Dragon Age: Origins.
My first impression was that this game is seriously "inspired" by WoW. Not a bad thing, not in a bad way.
Mostly they just copied the interface, and they did well. The first time I tried WoW, I actually thought "somebody really ought to make a deep single player RPG with this interface". Well Dragon Age seems on first sight to be that. I haven't played for too long, in fact I finished the prologue (or "Origin") of an elf and then of a human mage. With my mage I continued onward up to the first boss and no further than that. So...what do I think of the game?
It's certainly very accessible, what with all the WoW-ish features and I was really compelled to continue EVEN though I have seriously low-end hardware (P4 3.0 Ghz, 2.5 GB RAM and an ATI X1550) that juust lets you play on a bleeding edge fluent frame rate with lowest details. That says a lot about a game when I don't give a damn and still play on.
Well I have some things that I got thinking about. Bioware states that this game is the spiritual successor of Baldur's Gate 2. Hmmm....I don't think so. And most people who actually played BG2 would disagree with that statement as well I'd say. The game feels much more of a great single-player RPG in the spirit of the LotR movies.
Seriously, that game is sooooo LotR-movie-esque, more than the Warcraft universe or D&D or even than some actual licensed LotR games. Darkspawn seem pretty much like your standard Mordor orcs, and the dark-but-not-sooo-dark-and-pretty-raw feel of the graphics and lighting and character models is just in the style of the LotR movies.
I think the developers knew that and probably purposely made an effort to capture that look and feel. Which I find really cool, don't misunderstand me. And then they shaped the world and its internal rules to be more original (like mages being seen as notoriously dangerous and being hunted by templars, or elves being a dying race etc).
I liked the game from what I saw till now, but it doesn't live up to "spiritual successor of BG2" expectations. That's clearly just a marketing statement, and Bioware effectively used it. I think they must be scared of actually making a BG3 because of the impossibly high expectations that would generate (apparently BG3 is going to be made though!).
This post is not a review of Dragon Age, more like a fluent thought process. Playing DA:O made me think about BG2 and why DA:O doesn't live up to BG2. I've also been surfing round various forums and people have differing opinions. Some say BG2 is over-hyped and because of it's cult-status notorious fans would never be satisfied with anything Bioware can come up with. Some of the die-hard fans ridicule DA:O in every aspect in comparison to BG2. Some say DA:O is the best Bioware has ever made and even say it's a deeper game than BG2.
But hey! Bioware can come up with a "real" Baldur's Gate 3. They'd just have to do what they always do when making sequels. More of the same but better and bigger!
Yesterday I fired up BG1 and 2 and am now playing the BGTrilogy mod for the first time. And here are some thoughts on what characterised Baldur's Gate anyway and how to perceive a true successor from that.
For one thing, the story of the bhaalspawn has come to a conclusion. Which isn't bad, they can make something up that's equally cool with a new character. Well then, let's get to the things that are essential for a BG3.
BG1 and 2 (which I'll just call BG now) combined is a huge game. H-U-G-E. F*CKING HUGE!
One time, I've played with a do-gooder paladin and spent like a month just in chapter 2 (to be fair, chapter 2 is the most large one of all :P). The (side-)quests are waaay better than anything I've played in KotoR, Jade Empire, or Morrowind/Oblivion. BG-quests are rolemodel quests. When you go to the Umar Hills and spend like a whole day uncovering the mystery of the Temple of Light, it feels like a well-made main story line of a smaller RPG, or a short adventure novel. But this is just a piece of BG. All quests are at least good. They have interesting characters, good writing (this works out for the characters though) and let you have a say in the important moments as to how to continue the plot. Since BG licenses the AD&D universe and rule system, you get to see and go to many interesting places and races with their own detailed lore. You always feel like you're just a little guy (or girl) in a huge world and even though you're the Bhaalspawn, you're not much of a big impact in the real big scheme of things.
So the quests are one thing. Another thing are of course the interesting party members and their occasional feedback or quarrel with you or other members. This has been improved on well by later Bioware RPGs.
Another thing is the fights. I'm not sure if I like the AD&D system. I don't play pen and paper RPGs (I would though, if I met cool people to play with) and I find many things rather confusing, such as armor classes, and especially just exactly how most of the spells effect the targets, because let's admit it, the descriptions are way complicated for average non-extreme-geeks like me and below. I use most spells just by trying and remembering roughly how the spell worked out in action (that's the reason why I suck at combat in BG :D). And that's why I'm glad that BG rewards questing more than killing monsters. The combat system in DA:O is more accessible and I'd prefer it I think, but combat in DA:O was pretty boring up to the point I played because a) there was a lack of variety of monsters and b) a lack of demand for actual strategy. The only fight where I had to stop and prepare and think about was with the troll. And even then my strategy wasn't satisfyingly interesting. BG has more challenging and strategic combat for sure. (BTW the top down camera in DA:O isn't really that good)
So a BG3 that I'd like to play would be: huge, at least as big as BG1 (a relaunch of BG with a different story would probably end up like DA, layed out as a series).
Its quests should be numerous without feeling generic, and have interesting/intriguing plots and are allowed to be quite lengthy.
The party members ought to be numerous too (both the available ones and the party size) and have believable and entertaining interactions.
The main story line should be very personal and original, I don't want boring "save the world! you are the chosen one" bullshit anymore. I liked how in BG NPCs would seek you out and give you quests, or try to assassinate you.
The game can surely be linear in some chapters to drive the main plot forward, but should always have parts where you can just go to any areas you like and do tons and tons of side quests at your own pace, knowing and trusting that each quest is worth the effort because of the experience (the actual experience, not just the points), which I think the recent Bioware RPGs seriously failed at (haven't tried NWN2 though). I just love the feel of browsing through my journal and working quests like a todo list. Slay a dragon there, gain a stronghold there, you know? Monumental quests. The feeling of achievement is enormous, and the loot and experience are not the main motivation but the feeling of having freaking slaughtered a freaking dragon, man! (and now wearing his hides as underwear :D)
So there. I don't believe Bioware is going to deliver though. It's not that I'm a pessimist or jaded. It's just that game companies put their money and effort on the wrong things in my opinion. We don't need more awesome shader graphics. We don't need uber-realistic physics so that our victims fly physically correctly down the stairs. That's just rings and bells and doesn't make the meat of a BG game. Sure, those things are important when your game is about delivering an authentic warzone experience. But a BG game must feature and improve on the core characteristics I described above.
So here some suggestions.
F*ck 3D graphics altogether for such sophisticated RPGs. I never liked the hassle with cameras, even if DA:O does the best job of it up to now. I don't want to have to readjust even one time. And 3D graphics have their drawbacks. To make one NPC in an old-fashioned RPG, all you need is a sprite with some animations, a dialog tree, maybe a bit of voice recording and some basic AI routines. For a modern 3D RPG, suddenly you need to make a 3D model, with textures and animations and voice recording for every sentence, which often results in less dialogue. Suddenly you need facial expressions and that all eats a bunch of computing power too. Seriously, those things are really not thaaat great. I really liked the cinematic angles and stuff in DA:O in the beginning, but after 20 mins I didn't care about it anymore.
Let's take all this capacity and effort and make some real neat 2D graphics that serve their purpose and many real detailed fleshed out NPCs that you'll remember after 10 years. Let's screw crazily detailed and shadered environments only to have like 20 or so noteworthy in the entire game and instead make hundreds of beautiful paintings that can easily convey a deep look and feel. Dungeons in BG felt way more ancient and creepy than the ones I've been running around in for example Oblivion (and this game has the most atmospheric dungeons of all 3D RPGs I played).
Let's take our time to really create a huge amount of interesting and believable enemies and monsters that make you feel unwell inside.
Let's design spells and combat moments that make you go crazy to find a working strategy for. No need for cinematic animations to make me feel scared of a boss enemy.
I guess technology has to advance and it surely will and that's a good thing. But developers are not required to use them just because they are available. Do what works for your game design game devs! Be consequent and brave. I refuse to believe that people are that dumb and let themselves be blinded with graphics anymore. The whole 3D hype has got to end and developers have got to questions their designs more fundamentally.
Indie developers are showing us that 2D has not reached its limit and that it's not inherently inferior to 3D.
It all comes down to the game you're trying to make.