After 30 odd hours of playing Dragon Age my tactics have become worn smooth with use. First I scan enemy targets and look for possible threats, if there’s a mage I immediately get my spirit healer to cast stonefist against them, I’m not looking for a kill, just giving my Marabai warhound enough time to close the distance and tear the mage to shreds. Once the threat is neutralised the warhound will then attack any archers skulking amongst my enemy’s back line. Meanwhile my sword and shield wielding warrior charges forward like a lunatic and valiantly engages the enemy infantry. With his armour and copious hit points he can soak up punishment while my dagger wielding rouge acts as a force multiplier cutting down targets with carefully placed backstabs. If anyone looks like they’re about to die my spirit healer tops up their hit points.
It is an aggressive strategy all about projecting power and surgically emasculating the opposing horde with overwhelming force. Norman Schwarzkopf would be proud. For most of the game it works exceptionally well. That is until I reach the deep roads, the deep roads become my quagmire.
There’s a few reasons this tactic stops working. I no longer have my warhound with me because in this mission I am joined by a dwarven berserker. I could have kept the dog but we are looking for the dwarf’s wife so I felt he had a right to come along. He’s powerful but slow so can’t really fill the same mage killing cruise missile role the dog did. Also I left going to the deep roads fairly late and the game levels up the world to match your characters. By the time I begin this quest the darkspawn are getting truly vicious. But more importantly the environment itself begins to conspire against me.
The Deep Roads are the underground ruins of a lost dwarven empire made up of twisted corridors and large open chambers. These chambers are ripe for ambushing. Again and again my party fights a small group of darkspawn who then flee into a these chambers. Again and again I aggressively pursue them only to find myself surrounded by archers or eviscerated by swordsmen. Slowly I learn my lesson.
The first time I think of it I feel like a tactical genius, although if that was the case it would have occurred to me much earlier. I’ve just finished killing the enemy melee infantry but I am still taking fire from their archers. My party is bloodied and barely standing, if I charge they’ll be pin cushions. Instead I retreat the way I came, back into the tunnels. To my delight the darkspawn follow. I have just enough time to spam heal my troops and catch a breath before the enemy catches up with me. When they do I spring my own assault, it’s sudden and vicious and in the claustrophobic tunnels their numbers and missile weapons are next to useless. They die.
From then on my tactics change completely. No longer am I the brave adventurer going toe to toe with evil triumphing due to the righteousness of my cause and the strength of my arms. Now I sulk in shadows and ambush my foes.
We soon encounter a young dwarf who lost their mind from eating tainted darkspawn flesh. My dwarven berserker chum mentions that in the deep roads many consume the flesh of the darkspawn to survive. While I haven’t literally done that it seems that metaphorically I have. In order to defeat the darkspawn I copied their tactics. I think of the Nietzsche quote
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
It’s a quote Bioware are familiar with, after all Baldur’s Gate the game that made their reputation begins with those words. I always found it slightly pretentious in that game but now I think it would be fitting in Dragon Age.
But there’s more to this story. If those tactical descriptions sound similar to World of Warcraft’s tank, DPS, controller, healer dynamic then it’s because they are. Bioware have shamelessly stolen WoWs basic strategic model. It makes sense, there are many people who play WoW that have never touched a Bioware game so if they make it familiar to that audience then they can perhaps capture some people taking a break from WoW. They’re not the first to try this, the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons also features obvious tank, DPS, controller and healer classes even going so far as to explain the core concepts in the player handbook. The WoW influences go further, quest givers have exclamation points above their heads and there are obvious filler quests that involve little more than farming certain creatures.
Thing is the game is better for it. The combat is more tactical and engaging than either Baldur’s Gate or Knights of the Old Republic. It’s just that it’s a worrying trend, in the same way that I find it sad that every first person shooter needs to include a pistol, assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle and missile launcher I don’t want to see the RPG genre reduced to similar grab bag of tried and true concepts. It may be good design but it also feels like lazy design.
But if Bioware are going to fight the monster they may have to consume some of it’s flesh.
This is part of an ongoing series about Dragon Age: Origins to read the first entry click here.
Next: Peer Pressure