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Petri Wessman's weblog

Dragon Age finished

Flemeth and Morrigan

Well, I finally finished Dragon Age: Origins. With the zillion things demanding their share of my free time, it’s pretty rare for me to actually finish a computer game – most of the games I like are long and complex affairs, and… well, they take time. I think the previous “big” game I finished was Half-Life 2 (including episodes 1&2).

Playing through Dragon Age took me a whopping total of 69 hours of play time. It’s a huge game, just like the game it’s the “spiritual successor” of: Baldur’s Gate II. Since BG2 happens to be one of those other big games which I have actually finished, and also one of my all-time favorites, it’s fitting to compare the two a bit.

So which is better? I honestly don’t know. I loved both. BG2 has a slightly more unorthodox plot and has more weird plot twists, but Dragon Age’s plot switched to high gear during the end section. While the beginning was a bit predictable and by-the-numbers in places, the end was pretty awesome: it forced you to make a lot of honestly difficult choices, both morally and tactically, often with no really “good” choice available. The end part delved heavily into realpolitik, and overall Dragon Age is a much more “gritty” and realistic game – as far as action-adventure fantasy games generally are, anyway.

Both have excellent NPCs, but I guess Dragon Age wins simply because the NPCs have full animation and (good) voice acting.

Both have interesting tactical combat, where the more difficult fights will kill you dead if you just wade in. On the other hand, neither featured frustratingly impossible battles of the “aaargh, let’s reload that for the 50th time” sort. Overall, nice balance.

Both have lots of variability in how they play out, depending on player choices. I think Dragon Age wins here, there are tons of subplots and even main plot variations that depend completely on what you do. This contributes to a great replay value; even though both of these games will eat up a humongous amount of time, paradoxically both are also games that tempt you to play them again. I played BG2 about halfway through the second time, and I’ll probably give Dragon Age another go too, this time with a different character and main companion selection (played as a mage this time).

I’m keeping Morrigan, though. She’s an amoral antisocial bitch, but she’s fun.

So. Fantastic game, jumping to my “all time favorites” list. It’s not perfect, it’s a bit predictable and cliched at times… but it’s quite a ride.

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Freak Angels and Half-Life

On Friday, Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield published the first “episode” of Freak Angels, their new collaborative free web comic project. Ellis is one of my favorite comics writers (Transmetropolitan rocks like few things do), and the art on FA looks lovely. Some sort of British post-apoc deal, with the Midwich Cuckoos thrown into the mix – as the protagonists, it seems. Or something. I’ll be following this.

For a change, I spent most of Sunday playing Half-Life 2. I had almost forgotten how fantastic a game this was. I’d previously played this up to the point where you fight a helicopter gunship under a huge railway bridge (on the coastal highway), now I started the game from scratch and actually got past that point by midnight or so. It’s a lot faster when you know/remember what you need to do – but now I’m again in unknown territory.

Good single-player games can be a huge amount of fun. The original Half-Life was one of the very few major games I’ve actually completed. Took a long, long time… but still. HL2 is, if possible, an even better game; I’d venture to claim that it’s currently the best FPS out there. Yes, there are better graphics to be found (though HL2 is very pretty, too), but HL2 has a great story and a huge amount of variability. You don’t get stuck in a rut, mowing down the same group of bad guys on levels that all look the same. Here you go from hydrofoil chases to dune buggies, from whimsical weaponless story interludes and physics puzzles to full-out firefight brawls. Oh, and the Gravity Gun rocks.

Special positive mention goes to the character of Alyx Vance. An actual smart female character in a computer game, and one who dresses and acts like… a normal person. Who’d have thunk. Oh, and can’t forget Dog. Dog rocks.

At the moment, HL2, Baldur’s Gate 2 and System Shock 2 top my personal “best computer games ewah!” list. Maybe it’s the number “2” that does it? Dunno.

Doctors and Dwarves, hi ho

It’s funny, when you’re at the “student” age it’s pretty much impossible to figure out who will go on to have a career in research, and who won’t. A friend did his doctoral dissertation last Friday (“Integration of Broadband Direct-Conversion Quadrature Modulators”, Helsinki University of Technology), I attended but didn’t really follow much of the discussion – broadband transmission and IC design theory aren’t my strong points. Anyway, the thing went fine. It was weird seeing him there, and remembering the guy who we had partied with so often and so long ago – let’s just say that at the time, the idea of him doing this would have sounded very bizarre. A bunch of us were laughing and saying things like “who would have thought?”. That’s the way the world turns, I guess. It’s a huge accomplishment in any case; pretty much anyone can graduate, it “just” takes lots of work… but getting a doctorate, that’s something that not everyone can do at all, even if they wanted.

The post-party was fun; not because it was anything special as a party, but because I got to see and talk with some people I hadn’t met in a while. That’s always good.

The next day, Janka stayed horizontal nursing a killer hangover she had somehow mysteriously acquired (I blame poisoned wine, it’s the only logical explanation…). I shambled upstairs sometime around noon and got to installing the new DVD burner I had bought to replace the ancient Samsung. Things went fine… and lo & behold: Neverwinter Nights 2 actually started up with this drive! Much rejoicing.

The SecuROM guys actually got back to me with an alternate binary I could try, I told them “thanks, but already got it to work”. Nice response, anyway, can’t fault them for that even though I really do advise people to be careful when buying games with this copy-protection, especially if your hardware is a bit older. Copy-protection schemes that end up hurting the honest customers are a very. very bad idea.

Anyway. About the game. It seems there is a universal law that says that second versions of games tend to be very good (whereas second versions of, say, movies tend to suck). It holds true for System Shock, it holds true for Baldur’s Gate, and it holds true here. Where the first Neverwinter Nights has hobbled by a crappy single-player campaign and ended up being more a technology demo than a game, here they have corrected that failing. The game looks gorgeous (assuming powerful graphics card) and the campaign is actually pretty good. So far, at least. Oh, it’s cliche city, but this is D&D and cliches are part of the fun. So once again we have some ancient evil returning to life, some mysterious artifact pieces, and “only you can save us!”. Shocker.

The thing that made Baldur’s Gate 2 so much fun were the various well-written NPCs that you could team up with (“Go for the eyes, Boo!”), and that facet seems to have been carried over here. Unlike the first game where you were pretty much solo, here you can have a party of max 4 people. The NPCs so far have been stereotypes, but fun stereotypes. There’s a semi-psychotic dwarf, a teenage half-demon thief, a “holier than thou” elven druid, and lots of others. The hard part is actually trying to decide who to include in the party, four members max doesn’t give you too many options.

I had intended to do a lot of stuff over the weekend but ended up playing NWN2 for most of it. Guess that says it all, it’s a pretty good game – an it’s hard to quit, there’s that “I’ll just do one more little quest” factor. It’s no BG2, at least not so far, but it has promise.

Some small negatives, of course, every game has them. The camera is a bit funky, and needs some getting use to (and even then annoys now and then). The framerate tends to crawl a bit in the more complicated locations, but there I can blame myself since I have enabled most of the eye-candy – framerates aren’t that critical in a game like this, anyway. The “AI” of your party members can be… “interesting”, and you pretty much have to run all spellcasters in “puppet mode”, otherwise they will decide to throw area-effect spells at the worst of times and do other bizarre stuff. No showstopper bugs so far, in fact very few bugs found in general. I did run into a “need to reload an earlier save” situation once when I decided to be preemptive and fireball a suspicious-looking group of thugs from the distance. Turned out that wasn’t such a good idea, I was supposed to talk to them first…

It also needs to be noted that at least to the point I have played to , the game is very linear. Maybe it will “open up” later on, but I’m not counting on it. That’s another reason why BG2 is Superior(tm).

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