Stop calling me 'Warden'
Not counting MMOs for which I have no accurate data (for some I'd leave a character logged in to act as a merchant stall while I went about my daily business) one game holds the record for most time drained from me. It has trounced the previous record holder by thirty hours. Clocking in at a hundred and twenty hours of ingame time (that's Five days total) is Dragon Age. Lets put this in perspective. The Number two game in that list at 90 hours is Empire: Total War where the main objective of the Grand Campaign is - conquer the world, using 1700s technology. Number three is Mass Effect Two, clocking in at a mere thirty hours. Then you get into Half Life, the most time consuming FPS on the list. Below that is just a packed court, so no point in iterating through them. You will note that half of the Top Four are BioWare games. I almost called them RPGs, but they're not really. No computer game qualifies. And why isn't Fallout 3 up there? I don't have data on Fallout 3, but it's probably in the ME2 range of 24-30 hours.
When Dragon Age was announced my response was 'Meh, whatever'. I knew the odds were I'd buy it at some point since I own ever BioWare Demi-RPG since Neverwinter Nights. (and the only one I have not beated in NWN2 because it fails to hold my interest. But that's still 7/8 not counting expansions). Because of my lackluster response to the previews and my revulsion at the fact that it had TV spots (TV spots make me LESS likely to buy a game.) I did not pre-order it or buy any of the 'uber editions' on offer. I have however ended up buying all the DLC, for good or ill (some were just plain rip-offs, but I'll get to those). Once again I think only MMOs have drained more of my money - but I've abandoned the entire MMO concept as trash. The internet is infested with assholes, and I'm tired of dealing with them.
My first problem with Dragon Age is Duncan, the obnoxious hand of god that railroads your character from their origin story to the start of the main plot. Once he's done pushing you into the main story hook and forcing you to undergo dangerous and vile rituals, he's promptly disposed of as inconvenient to the plot. This pissed me off. I wanted to kill him. I was denied my chance at vengence for what the bastard put my character through.
Before I go ranting away, I think I should elaborate on why I hate this character.
First time playing, I went with the Human Noble origin story. Arl Howe waited until the family's soldiers were gone before storming the castle and killing my character's sister in-law and nephew. My response - I've got a motive, kill Tim Curry (at the time I didn't realize Tim Curry did the voice of Arl Howe, and continued to fail to realize until I read the credits eighty hours later). Being a tutorial level, we handily defeat all of the Howe soldiers in evidence and save scads of loyalist guards. We manage to find the character's father and then everyone picks up the idiot ball and starts beating themselves over the head with the stupidity stick. The guy claims to be dying from his injuries but them prattles on for FIFTEEN MINUTES about how we should leave him behind and escape. If we'd simply picked him up and started carrying him, by the time he stopped telling us how badly injured he was and how we should go on without him, we'd be out of the castle. And I know my character can carry him (given the fifteen suits of armor and three corpses he carries around Denerim later).
That's when Duncan appeared (or rather reappeared, he was established earlier). He offers help we clearly didn't need given how handily wee'd bested Howe's men so far, but only if my character joins the Gray Wardens. I said no. Dear old dad, still not negatively affected by his wounds says I should do it. My answer is still no, I have to find my character's brother and kill Tim Curry. I don't have time for this nonsense. The two become insistant, and my answer becomes 'screw you'. So Duncan pulls the 'right of conscription' out of his ass and ties me to the plot rails. Over the course of this conversation my opinion of Duncan went from neutral to 'I hate you you sick parasitic bugger'. So I held out hope that I would get to kill this guy as he was obviously meant to be unlikable.
Things go from bad to worse when he drags your character to Ostigar in a narrated flyover of the world map. Not one with an Indiana Jones style red line mind you, because they wanted to use the same cutscene for every opening. Never mind that every other journey you take over quite literally leaves a blood trail on the map, this one is apparently your only bloodless journey.
Once at Ostagar, you get a small pile of fetch quests from Duncan - Fetch Allister, Feth Darkspawn Blood, Fetch the treaties. What? Shouldn't any treaties negotiated by the order be stored at their heavily fortified headquarters whose security is mentioned quite extensivly in dialogue in the expansion? And why would you have the physically present the treaties to the other signatories? Wouldn't they have their own copies? The thing about treaties is that the original document is not nearly as important as the agreement it represents, so sending the PC after the originals is pointless, Duncan.
Apparently, every Darkspawn carries around it's blood in neat little fancy vials for collection. Either that or the Gray Warden vials are rather frilly. The one good thing about this horrific assignment is that Darkspawn blood drops at the rate you expect blood to drop - every darkspawn you meet bleeds. Unlike in MMO land where you would find three dozen bloodless darkspawn before finding a single vial of the stuff. So yeah, you finish that part without even remembering you had the quest and go looking for the unimportant copies of the treaties. There you discover the real purpose of sending you after the documents - exposition. It lets Duncan exposit about the key driver of the main plot and it introduces Morrigan and her mother, Captain Janeway, err, Flemith, Phleghmith? Screw it I'll call her Janeway. Listinging to your starter party whine about what horrible things the 'witch of the wilds' will do made me want to beat them with a stick until they shut up.
Once the exposition witches have shut up for now, you can go back to Duncan for more horrible violation of your character.
If you bothered to go around and talk to people in the Ostigar camp, you'll find a lot of them talking about how Darkspawn blood is toxic and will either kill you or turn you into a ghoul. No one survives it apparently. Or so the exposition would have you believe. But since we've gone and collected three vials of the stuff, what are we going to do with it? Apparently the new recruits have to drink the stuff. But it's all right "Only some of you will die." So now we're playing Biochemical Russian Roulette? Sleazy start rogue goes first (I can't remember his name and can't be arsed to look it up) and promptliy dies. Ser Jory promptly responds as any sane person would "Screw you guys, I'm going home." So Duncan guts him like a fish. No effort was made to talk him down, he wasn't given any time to cool off, Duncan just draws a blade and guts him. I think we have a main villain.
Well, now it's your turn. Your choices are - Die or Die horribly. Foolishly the cutscene makes you pick Die Horribly and drink from the cup. After a cutscene I've not bother to watch after the first time, the Wardens resist the urge to chant "one of us, one of us" and give you an amulet containing the last drops of darkspawn blood. You know, to remind you of the horrible violation your body has just undergone under threat of summary execution. My first response was the shove the amulet into Duncan's mouth and uppercut the bastard - but the game didn't give me that option. It would have been worth it even if it meant I had to fend off both Duncan and Allister. Neither is a ranged combatant, so if I kept running I could probably get away.
Well, you're still on plot rails for now so you listen to the plan for the upcoming battle. Your job - light a beacon to trigger a cutscene. Err... trigger a charge by Loghain Mac Traitor. So you climb the tower which has of course been overrun by darkspawn, blah blah blah. Eventually reaching your first boss fight - against an enemy which will become a standard bad guy later on - the Ogre. If the PC is the one to get the killing blow, you get treated to a pretty decent scripted finishing move that takes some twenty to thirty seconds to complete. If it's one of the NPCs you get confused as they go through the animation but you have an awful camera andgle and end up asking if you're just spectating. If it's killed by a ranged attack, no one gets the finisher. Having lit the beacon you trigger the cutscene where it looks like the entire top of the tower explodes (what fuel do they use for these beacons, black powder?), Loghain Mac Traitor has his army withdraw, the king gets killed by an ogre and Duncan gets his face rearrainged by an axe.
Wait a minute, you mean Duncan Isn't the main villain? No, it's Loghain Mac Traitor and the Archdemon of course. Anyone could tell by the way Loghain advocated national solidarity and advised against putting too much faith in the wardens - who at that point consisted of one sick bastard, one low level fighter and the PC. Hardly a force to be respected, let alone feared. Quite frankly, Loghain was the most reasonable person at Ostigar prior to his withdrawl.
As for Duncan, did I say "Obviously meant to be unlikable"? That was my impression, but every NPC in the game from that point on acts as thouch Duncan were some beloved mentor figure to my character. Bullshit. Duncan was an asshole that I wanted to run through after only two conversations. What's more is that the game proceeds to act as though I were advertising to the world that I was stuck in the Wardens, or was even anything but ashamed of the fact. You read that correctly, it was a mark of shame for my character to be associated with that order or with the likes of Duncan or Allistar. I'll get to Allister later. But the game acts as though you jumped at the call and enthusiastically became a warden. If you included the conscription into the conversation tree, why did you not record the fact that it happened and make use of that information later? All I am looking for are a handful of dialogue options that reflect that fact that maybe I don't want to be here and never wanted to be a warden. It's not some honor to belong to your sick cult, it is an impediment. More people try to kill me than just Arl Howe and his lackeys. I'm ignoring the Darkspawn, because they don't discriminate and would try to kill me regardless.
Yeah, way to overlook a glaring plot hole. I skipped some sidequests entirely because the dialgue for them required admitting to being a warden. When bringing up the treaties, I always took the dialogue with the least explicit reference to my unwilling association with that order. luckily quest items don't consume inventory slots.
I've met people who claim to love Allister and say he's their favorite character in the game. These people need help.
Allister is a whiny bitch who I only dragged around for two reasons. First, I needed a tank and I didn't pick up another NPC warrior until the Dwarf, who comes pre-built for two handed weapons anyway. Second I hoped for dialogue options which would let me say "I'm not the Gray Warden, he is. I'm just his Idiot to normal talk translator." For obvious reasons I didn't talk to Allister much unless I couldn't avoid it. In some sick twist of fate, he became the most loyal and dedicated member of that first party. Except for the Dog, of course. But the Dog's loyalty starts at 100 and is nigh impossible to reduce. (your Dog really couldn't care less how you treat NPCs or solve problems so long as you give him attention now and then. That's the upside of animals that can't talk.)
That's really all I have to say about the Royal Bastard.
My first playthrough I missed something like half of the potential party members. Sten I spoke to then realized "I'm not going to like this guy" so I left him in his cage to die, and he was all right with that. Odd fellow. Zevran I didn't even realize was a potential party member, I just knew I didn't want to talk to him, so I just killed him. In my defense he had just tried to kill me. Wynne I also did not know could be a party member. I just know she didn't like me defending Morrigan, and things got violent. Wynne died. Loghain I was going to try to recruit to kill the Archdemon for me, but I was sick of hearing Allister whine, so I let the Bastard decapitate him. Shale - I didn't own his DLC, so I never met him.
So my party was the Dog, the whiny bastard, the fickle witch Morrigan and the girl with the painfully bad and excruciating french accent. Oh and the Dwarf. Oghren replaced Liliana because his voice was less grating and I didn't need two rogues in the party (my PC was better as the roguish tasks than Liliana, so she was just redundant).
Battle of Denerim
This was a very memorable part of the game. I tore Arl Howe in half; cracked Oghren's skull; kicked the Dog's ass; slit Liliana's throat; had my ogre kill Morrigan and saved the Archdemon by wiping the dimwitted smirk off of Allister's face with an Axe. What, you don't remember that being an option? That's right, I mixed it up with the plot of "The Darkspawn Chronicles" where you died at Ostigar and end up playing the battle as a Hurlock Alpha instead. It more than made up for the waste of money that was 'Return to Ostigar'.
Like most money draining franchises these days, Dragon Age has a small pile of Downloadable extras. A few of these deserve special mention. "The Darkspawn Chronicles" is mostly geared towards those who finished the main game and is an interesting diversion wherein you aid the assault on the City of Denerim against the locals and the party NPCs. Instead of sitting through dull exposition to recruit a party memnber, you're a Darkspan Alpha, meaning you can just point at any other darkspawn and go "Follow me." To free up a slot in the party roster you simply execute an existing follower. It works surprisingly well. Once I'd passed the areas with only basic darkspawn, my party ended up being the Alpha, an Ogre (the starting ogre for the entire battle, which earned me an achievement), a Shriek (also the same one the whole time) and an emissary (I went through a lot of emissaries).
It was fun enough to be worth the purchace price.
Still on rails
After the tower explodes with you in it (not really, but the squad of darkspawn they depict as overruning the party is nothing we couldn't have handled if this were not a cutscene) you wake up in Morrigan's bed. Actually it's the only bed in a hut Morrigan shares with her mother. Okaaay... there are so many unfortunate implications of that fact, so I'll attribute it to an oversight. Supposedly Janeway beamed you out of the tower before the Darkspawn tore you into tiny pieces (or so they claim) and they bandaged you up. Sadly, they also saved Allister. You get even more exposition as they outright state the main plot to you and state that you have to go deliver the treaties to the other signatories and get their pledge of support. Naturally everything's gone batshit insane in the course of a few days, so you have to set everything right before they can offer any support. For now you walk north to Lothering (you have no other options) and go into the overtime tutorial portion of the game. That's right, you get not one, not two but three tutorial phases in this game. JHere we're teaching you how to use job boards and the crafting system with a chance to pick up two more worthless party NPCs.
Liliana is pretty hard to avoid picking up because she's waiting in the inn to ambush you upon entry, and is between you and the only merchant in town that you can't accidentally run off. Once you're in her dialogue tree, you're stuck, she's going to join your party. While her voice made me want to stab my ears out, I remembered that I have a mute button. She's so much easier to deal with when you don't hear that horrendous fake french accent.
Sten on the other hand starts out locked in a cage and you have to work to get him in your party. Since he was an admitted murderer with no real motive, and had no problem being left for the blight, I just left him there. The one time I did let him out I had to jump through hoops and found out he was pretty much worthless anyway. Unless you're going for the "Recruited all possible party members" achievement, you might as well leave him where he is.
What quests are in Lothering? Why it's "Kill the bandits" "Kill the wolves" "Kill the bears" "Kill the spiders" "Collect some herbs and make healing poulstices for the old lady" "Make some traps for the young lady" "Make some poison for the old man." Yup, it's still a tutorial. I am not that dumb, BioWare. But wait, there is one bit of plot exposition, you find out that Arl Eamon is sick and his knights are wandering the world looking for the Holy Grail, err... Urn of Sacred Ashes. Who is Arl Eamon? Why it's Allister's foster father. You recall how I kept calling Allister a "Bastard" and a "Royal Bastard" well that wasn't me passing judgement, the whiny bitch is the dead king's half brother. ("Whiny bitch", however, is me passing judgement). He will strongly suggest that you go rush to Eamon's aid. But you can ignore that, because after Lothering you're off the rails. In fact, if you do ignore Eamon, Lothering won't get sacked until you do. Let those refugees live a little while longer, ignore Arl Eamon's plight.
How to make $5
Now that you're out of Lothering, time to talk about two more DLC packages - the worst two.
The Feastday items (which have no realy cohesive backstory) just appear in your camp merchant's stock. These are just joke items which allow you to cheat the approval system. They give a plus or minus fifty point swing of approval from their intended NPC in a game where 3-4 is an average shift and 10 is massive. The problem is, they take up an inventory slot FOREVER. It may not seem like it, but inventory space will become a precious commodity, so giving up so much for items of no practical value is counterproductive. While I admit that giving Morrigan the Allister voodoo doll and watching her cause him pain was mildly amusing, I still didn't get my money's worth. The stick at least makes sense, it costs nothing and allows you to play fetch with the dog. I can't believe I actually paid for this. The pet rock is, well, a pet rock. You giv it to your pet rock and it just sits there. What was the purpose of this DLC again?
Return to Ostigar is a perfect example of how to con your player base out of $5. It came out during the run up to the release of Awakening (we'll get to Awakening later), and I get the feeling that a very small team with no budget worked on it. I also get the feeling that they got all their extra dialogue for it by slipping a few additional pages into the script going to the recording booth for Awakening. You will note that the normally very chatty Morrigan is completely silent throughout the Return to Ostigar even when Allister is practically begging to be made fun of. But Morrigan's voice actress didn't return for Awakening, so no lines were recorded for her. Instead, if you bring Wynne along you get banter from her. Mind you I killed Wynne in my first playthrough. Ironically, Allister has MORE lines of dialgoue in Return to Ostigar than in all of Awakening.
As for the maps - none of them were new. You have the Ostigar battlefield and the cave from the Dalish elf origin story. True both were modified slightly, I could still tell where they'd stolen the tunnel map from. Mind you I played the Dalish Elf origin only once, but the only difference is that they blocked off the passage that led to the mirror's chamber and maybe one other hallway. The main boss fight of the DLC is the Ogre that killed the King... Which Duncan killed in the very same cutscene. Don't worry, they spackle this plot hole by introducing a Genlock Necromancer. Nevermind that we've never seen any other Necromancers in the game, even among the Blood Mages, but someone has to be creating all those undead - right?
I can't believe I actually paid for that.
The main plot
The middle of the game has BioWare's patented Psuedo-Sandbox layout where you can pick which of the quest pieces you complete first, but you eventually have to complete all of them and find out it's not really a sandbox. I'm going to quibble over them in the order I did them - Redcliffe, the Elves, the Circle Tower, Orzimmar. You can shuffle those, but it doesn't change much.
The moment you arrive in Redcliffe, Allister admits to being a Royal Bastard. You give him a reassuring pat on the head and say "There, there you worthless sod, I won't think less of you because of it - I simply can't think less of you," or something like that. Then you're faced with the first obsticle of Redcliffe - the really bad level design. Getting from the road to the town or from the town to the road shouldn't take such an insessantly convoluted path. How does this town expect to interact with the outside world if it's nigh impossible to enter without making at least one wrong turn because the path looks like it heads off in a different direction than it actually does? Of course, the town has problems which are exposited by Bann Teagan, brother young enough to be a son of Arl Eamon.
Let me take a moment to complain about the titles in this game. While trying to make their world seem very much unlike that of the generic fantasy setting as they could while still having the dwarves and elves of stereotype, they changed all the human titles. Baron became Bann except sometimes it's still Baron; Earl became Arl (real clever there guys); Duke became Teyrn; And Count is the same as Earl so also became Arl. Oh and don't forget the wonderfully original Sir - Ser shift for knights. For the longest time I thought Arl was Eamon's first name until we met Bann Teagan, brother of Arl Eamon. Thanks for making things clear as mud with your creativity guys. So, why is it Arl Eamon, Bann Teagan and Teyrn Loghain references by their first names while Arl Howe and Teyrn Cousland are referenced by their last names? Arl Rendon was too confusing? Or was it you realized people were making that first name mistake and needed the Eamon-Teagan disparity for silent exposition? So what was wrong with Teyrn Mac Tir? (No they did not spell Tyr correctly here, after all there are no Norse Gods in Dragon Age). Screw it, lets get back to the game.
So Teagan explains that the town is beseiged every night by the undead and they really could use your help. Of course the blacksmith has become an emo sod and won't even repair the militia's equipment despite the town almost being overrun on a nightly basis. And the priestess won't bless the knights when all they want is a simple benediction to boost their morale. Wow, when you think about it, Ferelden is full of really dickish people. And these are the good guys. So you sort that out and you fend off waves of undead trying to prevent the militia from being massacred. It's a long, pointless battle that's more droll than anything else. And I do mean long. Most boss fights don't take as long as the seige of Redcliffe.
So you win, (or reload a few times then win) and morning comes. Arl Eamon's trophy wife breaks out of the castle and you discover that she suffers from unbearable fake french accent disease. Thank God for the mute button. After interrogating her for as long as you can stand the accent, you discover that Eamon's son Connor has been possessed by a demon. Naturally you sneak in through a passage in the dungeons. There you find the blood mage from the wizard origin story for some more exposition. Turns out he poisoned Eamon and taught Connor how to use magic. I didn't really care so I kicked him loose and wandered off. Blah blah blah, fight your way up to the courtyard where you meet your first Revenant and find out how many cheap shots they are loaded with. Then you wander inside for a cutscene. Oh no, Bann Teagan has been turned into a blithering idiot by the demon. No wait, he was always a blithering idiot, but now he's a jester too. Connor plays up his multiple personaliy disorder before running off to hide under his bed as Teagan attacks you. You get the catharsis of beating the crap out of Teagan to make him come back to his senses, and you're presented with your first major catch 22. Painful fake french accent woman begs you not to kill Connor. Your choices are A: Kill connor and be done with it, B: Kill painful fake french accent woman to send Morrigan or a Mage PC to the fade to face the demon alone or C: leave Connor possessed while you go clear out the circle tower so that they can help you send a mage non-fatally into the fade to fight the demon alone.
I killed Connor. It's what he deserved for consorting with Succubi, especially at his age. There's no way he's older than twelve. The Succubus is a demon for adults only, kid.
In hindsight, I should have picked another option. Mostly because I got to listen to both horrible fake french accent woman and Allister bitch and moan about how it was wrong. Let this put things into perspective about the approval rating in this game. Killing the pre-adolescent only son of Allister's foster father only cost 10 approval points. Giving him a pretty satuette gains 6. Giving him his mother's locket which I just found lying around gains 7. Oh look, he's already forgotten my child murdering ways. I mean that's the sort of event that should make Allister up and leave if he were a real person.
But wait, Eamon's still comatose. We have to wake him up to give the order to continue the plot. That means we've got to find the Holy Grail. Shame Jawen doesn't know what poison he used on Eamon or we could do something simpler - like find the antidote. Handy that slip of the mind must have been. Well we picked up our first clue back in Lothering, so we go visit brother Genawhatsit's house in Denerim - or we would if I'd remembered I had the clue. I actually went to the Dalish camp next, but for continuity's sake I'll finish Eamon's plot segment before getting to that.
Andraste the Dragon
Brother Genawhatsit isn't home but his fake assistant is and tries to send you off on a wild goose chase to get ambushed and murdered. I didn't fall for it and poked around the house until the assistant attacked me for being nosy. Having killed off the assistant I found the real assistant's corpse and set off to Jonestown to chat with some cultists. Okay, the town was called Haven, but the only reason they're not all dead before I get there is because Ferelden lacks Kool-Aid, so I have to bust through their town yelling "Oh yeah" like a sword swinging sociopath. Oh yeah, I am a sword swinging sociopath. Shame I lacked the wall breaking ability and the big red costume. I find Jim Jomes (I forget his name) and Brother Genawhatsit only to kill one and rescue the other. Brother Genawhatsit lets you into the lost temple of Andraste which was an attempt to but the catholics to shame before a glacier ran over it. Naturally, it's infested with cultists who want their chance to die, along with their dragons. Yes, the cultists were raising dragons, probably to sacrifice themselves to or something. I'm not going to try to make sense of a cultist's mind, I'm only a sociopath, not crazy.
You meet the dragon master himself who wants you to defile the urn, and he beats the shit out of you if you refuse. I exit the temple at the top of the volcano to find their 'God' waiting for me. Luckily, you only have to fight the Dragon Andraste if you want to. You can just walk right past and she won't bother you. Then you face the gauntlet - a sorry attempt at a puzzle sequence which really falls short of being interesting, culminating with walking naked through the flames to reach the urn. At this point the game takes a screenshot. I guess the game engine is just voyeuristic. But seriously, the game takes an awful lot of screenshots - most of them completely pointless. It takes one each time you reach a certain plot point or get an achievement. Since the game has achievements like "Crafted and Item" and "Crafted 25 items" you get screenshots of the crafting interface. Oooh, exciting. Lets compare and contrast screenshots taken by the game and screenshots taken by the user.
Taken by the game
Taken by me
Sure I'm no great artist with the printscreen key, but I picked more interesting subject matter.
Anyway, having reached your holy reclic you get the choice to either be reverent or defile the ashes. You get this choice even if you said no to the dragon master and killed him already. Do what you will, you have your pich of dead prophet to take back to cure Eamon. Quest complete.
This part annoyed me because it was the first time I ran into an instance of a door guard who wouldn't let you past unless you admitted to being a gray warden. You really want to salt that wound, don't you? Anyway, confess your shame to the uptight elf and she brings you to their keeper. In this case it's a dumb sodding mage who will turn out to be the cause of all the problems he wants you to fix. Turns out the elves are being hounded by werewolves. Why? Because Dumb Sodding Mage (DSM) cursed the humans encroaching on his forest because of the actions of one rapist. That's it. His little girl got raped so he cursed generation after generation of a whole community to lycanthropy because he was bitter. Mind you said rapist is long dead by now and the descendants of the remainder of the community are blameless in this whole mess, but he still makes them suffer. You can either encourage the werewolves to slaughter all of the elves and get the werewolves to help you against the darkspawn, or you can kill the one prickish elf and get the elves to help you. Of the main plot threads, this one is the shortest and had the least impression on me.
I hate elves.
It is the job of the Templars to keep the mages in line and to root out and kill any blood mages. They've failed spectacularly in this to the point where there were circles of blood mages living in their very base of operations and operating freely just under their noses. Their leader decided to skip wrath, gluttony, lust and sloth to go straight to pride. He consorted with said demon type and became possessed. Sure to lower their ESRB rating BioWare rolled Lust Greed and Envy into the Desire demon, but she has the visual design of a Succubus, so they didn't emphesize the other aspects of that type. I think it was Allister who asked "Why did the mages build their tower out in the middle of the lake? Are they allergic to practicality?" making that one of the few insightful things ever uttered by the character. And yes, the tower suffers from painful and repeditivly bad level design. You make progress by running around in circles to find the next staircase up. To get from the bottom to the top you must traverse every passage in the tower. Any real tower would have one stairwell you could opt to leave at the appropriate floor, but that would require contrivance to force the player to fight through each level. How about - Blood mage leader set up a series of magical barriers in the stairwell to hold the templars back and you have to disable the demon powering each one to advance? Same end effect, a lot fewer questions about bad level design.
Halfway up the tower, you run into Sloth. No not the character from the movies, the demon. He punts you into the fade and you have to fight through a puzzle filled dream sequence to free your companions and kill him. I'm not going to give you a walkthrough, but lets put it this way, this section is so obnoxious that people have made mods dedicated to removing it from the game. It does however have a bevy of idols which directly boost your stats. Why? I have no clue. All you have to do is touch them and you get a permanant increase to whatever stat they represent. If you want to psychoanalyze your companions, bring them here because each has their own private prison of the mind you have to free them from. Except Morrigan. She realizes where she is and just keeps telling the spirit heckling her to begone. Why she doesn't ACT is beyond me. Perhaps it's because she's only an NPC and NPCs can't possibly be expected to behave like real characters. Anyway, you free your companions, beat Sloth and return to the tower to face the head blood mage.
Head Blood mage has a small collection of hostage mages which he's turning into abominations. These he sends after you until you either use an item you picked up earlier, or he uses Enchanter Irving - the last of his hostages. Don't forget - Abominations explode when killed. If you rescue Irving, you get the mages to help against the darkspawn. If not, you get the Templars. I also suspect you need Irving if you don't want anyone to die when you're dealing with Connor.
The King is dead, both of them
Remember how the king of Ferelden died by Ogre Cardio Compression? Well, the Dwarven King died around the same time. Apparently thrones around here are toxic. Anyway, the gate guard once again won't let you in unless you confess to being a Warden. Rat bastard. Naturally, no one but the King can approve the use of troops on the surface. So you have to settle the succession crisis before the Dwarves send you anything. Being politicians, neither contender for the throne is a clearly superior alternative. Both have trust trials you have to go through to even meet the candidate. One is more combat oriented, the other more diplomacy oriented - reflecting more on the tactics of their opponents than their own methodologies. You have to use diplomacy to undermine the diplomat in support of the warrior and you have to fight to undermine the warrior in support of the diplomat. Both have the same second task - purge the criminal underworld. Let me describe it this way - the Dwarven Carta has a larger army than the Dwarven Kingdom. I'd rather have the criminals aiding me against the Darkspawn with the resources at their command. Whatever, you kill the Carta head and your patron goes "Opponent (whoever you aren't aiding) has upped the ante is going after the Paragon who vanished two years ago." Apparently in Dwarf society, a Paragon is a trump card which beats any other political ploy, and there is only one at the moment.
But fear not, you get another party member - regardless of whether you want him or not. Oghren forces his way into your active party roster, displacing another character. Oghren is a hyperdrunked dwarven stereotype. Joy. Just what I wanted a Stereotype. Anyway. You have to go into the Underdark/the Deep Roads to find the missing paragon. Naturally, this is where Darkspawn nest when not rampaging on the surface. After a dull slogfest through one winding dead end after another, you find a clue to the next place you have to look. Rince and repeat until you find the legion of the dead outpost. Despite their name, the legion of the dead are dwarves who fight darkspawn. They're holding one end of a bridge (which you've seen in dream cutscenes before) despite being completely cut off. Needless to say, there's no point to holding the bridge as the darkspawn march along the BOTTOM of the crevasse below the bridge and not across it. You do that they're too afraid to do and storm the bridge, fighting a near continuous battle to the other side. Only then to the legionnaires cross and secure the far side of the bridge.
From there you make your way around the great gates, then around several creavasses whose bridges have been broken (fighting pretty much every step of the way) and up to a creepy lull. Here bags of flesh begin to appear attached to the architecture, sometimes turning the entire tunnel into an organic mass much like a horribly distended orafice. All the while you're now hearing someone whispering about the atrocities the dwarves of the Paragon's house suffered here. It very handily builds atmosphere culminating at the utterance of the word "Broodmother" just after the autosave point.
Disturbing atmosphere aside, this boss kicked my ass the first time I reached it. She is completely immobile, and she curbstomped the party. After staring slackjawed in horror at the screen for a moment I tried again - curbstomp. And again - raped and then curbstomped. Then I ran screaming out of the citadel, past the legionnaires, out of the deep roads, out the Orzimmar gates, accross all of Ferelden, finally stopping in Denerim because I couldn't run any further.
To say that the Broodmother was the most memorable boss in Dragon Age is putting it lightly. She didn't talk, she didn't move, she just went apeshit on anyone who came near her. I don't want to spoil the surprise about this one. But I eventually went back (I had nowhere else to go) and with a few changes in tactics barely eked out a victory. A victory made all the sweeter by the fact that my character got the finishing move. Sure Allister and Oghren were dead and Morrigan was nearly so when it happened, but still, we won. This battle alone told me that someone at BioWare knew what they were doing.
Anvil of the Void
After beating the Broodmother, you proceed to the Anvil of the Void, which is what the Paragon was looking for. Here you meant the creator of the Anvil, who has been turned into A rather beefy looking Iron Golem by his creation. He asks that you destroy the anvil, but the Paragon you've been hunting shows up and insists the anvil be saved. One way or another there's going to be a fight. If you defend the anvil, you have to fight the Iron Golem, but get golems to help against the darkspawn. If you try to destroy the anvil, you fight the current paragon and get no golems. Luckily, the anvil's creator is also a paragon, so he can help you settle the succession crisis, so don't let that alter your judgement. So in the end you get to pick who the next dwarven king is. You can even pick the guy you didn't support if you want to. It makes no difference except what the epilogue says.
Party Member quests
Being BioWare, if you actually talk to your party members you can unlock quests related to their backgrounds. Not that I could stand their inane prattle long enough to do so without a guide to shorten it as far as possible. This has always been a shortcoming of the BioWare Demi-RPGs. They expect the player to talk to the party NPCs to pick up on their background, then proceed to give them such awful dialogue that it's not worth the effort. They never have anything useful to say, and I almost never trigger it on my own. Since I can't find the one set of options that advances it before stumbling onto one of the three that pushes me back, I can't make headway.
On my first playthrough I stumbled onto an item which short circutted most of Morrigan's dialogue tree and got right to her side quest. It turns out that Janeway stays alive for so long because she body hops, taking over the forms of her daughters when her current body gets too old. Morrigan doesn't want to be taken over and requests that the PC kill Janeway, the catch - Morrigan can't be there because she doesn't know how far her possession ability can reach. I went down there, talked to Flemith and announced my intent. She promptly turned into a dragon and curbstomped me. I would like to point out that since I was playing a rogue and I'd killed Wynne, Morrigan was my only healer. Without her, dragonslaying is nigh impossible. So I gave up on that one.
Digging up a conversation guide I got Liliana to the point where her quest triggered. We went to the house in Denerim, and got curbstomped by a BARD. I kid you not. Full party got its asses handed to it by a freaking BARD. Turns out the Bard has a sustained Area of Effect Stun attack which kept incapacitating most of the party so that the people she had with her could kill the party members. You can't really stunlock in Dragon Age, but you have to do you best impersonation thereof on the Bard to prevent her from using that damn ability. It's slow, it's ponderous, but eventually she dies.
I gave up at that point.
More Downloadable Pain
As I mentioned, I didn't buy the special bundles, and ended up picking up the DLC separately. I don't know if Shale is required for the "Recruit all Possible Party Memebers" achievement, but don't bother buying the Stone Prisoner unless there's some connection. The only thing it adds is Shale. He uses non-standard equipment that can't be equipped on anyone else (thus wasting more precious inventory space) he can't use any ranged attacks (sort of like the Dog in both respects) and he stomps around so loudly that your neighbors will wonder why you're using an air hammer. I regret this purchace.
Soldier's peak has an issue. It's not with the plot or content. It's with Awakening. Someone on the Awakening Dev team used the same texture ID for equipment textures in that expansion as some of the nifty stuff you get from Soldier's peak. Instead of resolving the conflict, BioWare just had the Awakening import utility strip your character of any equipment from Soldier's peak. Some of my characters import to Awakening completely naked because all of their equipped armor gets removed to hide their mistakes. Seriously, that's not right. Even if you didn't want to go through all of Awakening looking for conflict, how about patching Soldier's Peak instead? There's a lot less content to change, and you could probably script it to add a suffix to all texture IDs to resolve the conflict. But no, that would be WORK, and the people who bought Soldier's Peak will just bend over and take it since they're so dedicated. *Bleep* you, BioWare. Your core userbase is your best advertisement, beating even those grotesque TV spots you put out. Neglect them and you'll be picking up negative word of mouth.
Exposition time. Questgiver Dryden tells you that Soldier's Peak was a warden base run by his long lost Ancestor Dryden and that it's been overrun by spirits. He can show you the way, but he wants to clear the name of Ancestor Dryden. He makes the mistake of saying that Duncan had promiced to help with this before being axed. May that bastard be slowly flensed by sloth demons for all eternity. But, I forgave him this error of judgement and followed him into the mountains. Much to my surprise, he didn't try to murder me and steal my stuff. Oh, and there really was a haunted castle. You stumble onto a flashback which shows someone who looks an awful lot like and younger and fatter Loghain directing the assault on the castle in the name of the King. then you're promptly attacked by undead.
Fighting your way into the castle, you find more undead and more flashbacks which run on for far far too long. Oh and there are demons too. Turns out Ancestor Dryden led a coup against the King and failed. Which is why the Wardens were prudently booted out of Ferelden and the Dryden family lands confiscated. In their last stand, the stupid wardens summoned demons without bothering to properly control them and both sides got torn asunder.
Kicking some more demons around you stumble onto Ancestor Dryden herself. She's undead now and quite mad. Upon killing her and looting her armor (best looking armor in the game), you keep going up and find the research of Avernus. Avernus is the dumb shit who summoned the demons and he was conducting research into the taint the Wardens carry. He ended up killing all of his warden test subjects. I think Ancestor Dryden was mad long before becoming undead if she let this guy perform fatal experiments on her followers while being seiged by the King's forces. A seige is no time for R&D, especially of a kind not useful against human foes. He was researching anti-demon techniques. Talk about misguided priorities.
It turns out Avernus is still alive. If your speech is high enough you can convince him to accept your judgement for his crimes, but only after the demons are expelled from the keep. You get and extended fight sequence as he shuts down the gate, then you get to decide if you'll kill him or not. I took his head off and destroyed his research. On your way out you can pick up the black sword from a secret cache in the wall. I think it's the best looking sword in the game, but it too doesn't carry over to Awakening.
The courtyard can now act as a base of operations, but don't expect to ever see the interior of the castle again, it's closed off for good.
So you've got your allies, you're ready to go fight the darkspawn right? Wrong. With Loghain Mac Traitor as regent, you're still an outlaw and Arl Howe is causing trouble in Denerim. You have to unseat Loghain and put a monarch on the throne. Sadly your best option at this point is Allister. Why? Do you just hate me, BioWare? So you get to dig up political dirt on Loghain, trudging around the slums of Denerim. And this town is almost all slums as far as I can tell. Only two things of note happen during this protracted phase - You get to kill Arl Howe (poor Tim Curry) and get arrested for it. Actually you and Allister get arrested. If you're a rogue, you can break yourself out of prison, otherwise your party has to rescue you. This was where the ending fatigue started to set in. There were too many plot thread to wrap up so I was left wondering why the darkspawn were taking their sweet time in their northward march. You get a bunch of options on how you want to deal with the succession crisis, but most are hard to pull off. The easist is simply offing Loghain and instlling Allister. Of course this means you can't recruit Loghain since he's dead, but whatever.
Right, you finally have your allies, Ferelden has a unified government or plan of government, and you can now turn your attention to the darkspawn. Intel suggets that they're about to sack Redcliffe, so you rush off to defend the pissant town. You fight through a small detatchment of darkspawn and find 'oh no, it was only a feint'. They were martching on Denerim all along. By the time you get back the city is in flames and overrun by darkspawn. You get to experience the joys of blockbusting and of facing down against a new category of darkspawn - darkspawn grunts. Grunts look like ordinary darkspawn but are a lot easier to kill. And they are the most boring thing to fight ever. They go down so easily that you can't even get any good combos going, it bogs down into 'point, kill, point, kill, point - someone else killed it before you get there, point...' a dull monotony I never would have expected as part of the cinematic climax of a game. Crank them up to regular darkspawn, let them keep their numbers. Sure it would be a hell of a lot harder, but at this point, it's almost expected that the game shouldn't pull punches anymore. What's more is I'm certain that I could have powered through that anyway. By trying to make it more cinematic via an increased number of kills, BioWare made it LESS interesting. There is nothing more important in combat than a worthy adversary. -- In RPGland at least. In real life I'm never going to fight fair.
Each district has a miniboss that must be defeated to proceed and one or more secondary objectives. Since somehow you managed to slip the horde in two when you took the front gate, you have to leave some of your party NPCs to defend the gate while your main party marches on the inner city. And you will have to fight using whomever you leave behind. I had only Liliana and the Dog to hold the gate with the nameless guards. But they did it, and they did it so well I got the achievement for keeping the nameless guards alive. So don't be too terribly concerned about the gate battle unless you only have four people in total. But if you've screwed up that badly by this point, you deserve what's coming to you.
So yeah, your main party fights from district to district, enjoying the fun that is blockbusting. Urban warfare sucks for good reason - it's hard to avoid being surrounded repeatedly and attacked from the cover of the buildings. Fortunately, Denerim is laid out less like a city and more like a dungeon. So it's no different from all the darkspawn clearances you've done to date. Only now you can summon your allies to trickle in one fire team at a time and fight for you. Why is it if the King of Orzimmar sent me fifty dwarven warriors that I can't simply storm the darkspawn barricades en masse with the full force of the platoon? Oh right, then it becomes too easy - for fireballs to wipe them out. But then again I also have these mages that can provide counter battery fire against the darkspawn emissaries - that's right I can only summon one allied group per zone, how silly of me to think combined arms tactics were valid.
So you trickled your uncoordinated stream of disfunctional allies up to the prison you were held in as the Archdemon gets its wing clipped by the disposable frenchman who was included just for that and his exposition. The frenchman gets discarded from high altitude, finding a spiked fence in a cinematic cliche of "he's really really dead folks", and the archdemon gets stuck on the prison roof. You climb to the top of the prison and engage in an epic battle of firing wildly into the air. That's right the archdemon can still fly tactically with a clipped wing. So while you're fighting off darkspawn on the ground because the PC can't target flying creatures, your allies are firing into the air. The Archdemon wisely plays keep away, chosing to pummel the party with spell like abilities from a distance. When I fought it Allister got the killing blow. The takedown might have looked cinematic and could have been a crowning moment of awsome for the game if the PC had gotten it, but I was just confused at why I couldn't attack it until I realized it was in the middle of a takedown animation. Once again, I played the spectator to someone else's story.
You get a brief epilogue and it's game over.
This commentary is too long to babble about Awakening here, I'll give it a separate page and post this now.