I bled on him to death.
A couple of weeks ago I played through Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O). All the way! Right through to the end! A most noble start to my Great Quest to give twelve CRPGs a good whoopin' this year. Here's my take: it's satisfying. Immensely so, should you allow it to be. I resisted, at first. Do this quest, it said. Shan't! I said. Spend your talent points, it whispered. Won't! I retorted. Sleep with Morrigan, it purred. Couldn't hurt, I decided.

Now, watch an uncomfortably dreadful sex scene, it cackled. Fiend! I cried, but it was too late. It was only after the disturbing sight of my expressionless Grey Warden being mercilessly dry-humped by a witch had faded to black that it struck me that the game had wooed me. Despite being immensely insulted and slightly revolted by the heavy-handed attempt to arouse me, I continued playing. I just shrugged and ran over to the dwarf savant to swap some enchantments (enchantment!) around, then I went and bashed some goblins.

There are a few jarring moments such as this in DA:O. I'd heard about the NPC pushing DLC on the player from within the otherwise safe confines of the party camp from numerous sources, and was quite prepared for it. As it happens, I was happy to ignore him. I even gleaned a little pleasure in jogging past him every time I made camp, his golden exclamation mark quivering in anticipation as he heard my chainmail conspicuously clank closer, before he saw me pass by, fixedly staring straight ahead. Yeah, I blanked him. Every time. I felt him die a little bit on each occasion. It was glorious. No problem with the pusher in camp.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was what happened when I travelled to Bann Loren's Lands on the world map. I'd avoided it for a good twenty-five hours of play time, because unlike all the other travellable locations it was a distinct golden colour, which I had convinced myself meant something important, and I was quietly terrified of going there and triggering something too early in my exploration. Finally building up the courage, I bit. After loading, a short cut scene plays showing my party coming across some poor fellow being stabbed by baddies. I rush to his aid, slaughter the baddies, and then turn to the wretched man. Holding him in my arms, I reassure him of the triviality of his wounds, all the while helplessly watching blood pour through the fingers I have pressed over his gut. With trembling lips, he begs me to lean in closer so he may impart his final words, as any man would wish. I oblige, bending my ear close to his mouth, flecks of blood being sputtered on me, as he whispers:

"Please, whatever happens... argh."
What is it? Muster your strength, good fellow, and tell me thy wish.
"You must..."
"You... must..."
"B... b..."
Bestow righteous vengeance upon those who hath slain thee?
"B... buy the D... L... C... uuuuuurrrrrrrrrrrrrgghh."

Unlike the shady twerp back at camp, popping into existence with a damp natter and content to forever scratch his arse while I ignore him, this manipulative bastard had burst into being in a shower of exciting blood and hammy acting and lay bleeding at my feet, with the immutable exclamation mark above him all the more dramatic for the preceding introduction. And he tells me he wants my money. Take five sovereigns, I thought. REAL MONIES, he bellows blackly inside my own head. Hey, dick, way to role-play, I can find more convincing fantasy acting from a Night Elf dancing in his drawers on a WoW server, I think to myself. I ran off and for the rest of the game pretended that Bann Loren's Lands had been horribly raped by The Blight, rendering them an unreachable location like Lothering.

Another strange occurrence I feel like mentioning is when, quite unprompted, Leliana bursts into song. This is no Mass Effect Gilbert and Sullivan, the set-up is not there, she just walks away and has a little moment to herself, then afterwards makes damn sure to pretend nothing happened. Note red blobs floating from player character and sword being on fire during that video. Another thing that was a bit bizarre to put up with was the buffs, some quite obvious, manifesting physically outside of combat. My favourite was Rock Armour – talking to Wynne was, if nothing, never a bore when bits of stone were constantly falling out her armpits.

One more thing I want to point out while I'm here, this time about the free goodies. I want to preface this by saying that I'm not against free goodies; in fact, I'm about as pro-free goodies as it's possible to be. (Next general election, I'm convinced an intrepid candidate could lock down the geek vote by pledging a free TF2 hat if he were to assume office. But if the hat turned out to be rubbish, then the ranks of pale bespectacled men taking to the streets would make Egypt's new revolution look like a village fĂȘte.)

Likewise, DA:O won my affection swiftly when it told me I had shiny items dropped in my inventory just for buying the game. I slipped on my nice ring, slapped on my lovely belt and waited patiently to reach a high enough level to equip my Blood Dragon armour. I just didn't know it would look so god damn ugly. But it wasn’t just ugly, it was powerful, too. This put me in the middle of some sort of twisted Twilight Zone-style ironic nerd torture, sacrifice a cool looking character or put on something nice while the knowledge that I possess statistically better items eats away at me. In the end I just threw it on a character I disliked and tried to forget about it. What I don't understand is why that revolting Cylon Halloween costume made it to the game at all. It had shining LEDs on it, for heaven's sake. It had a glowing metal cummerbund. You could probably run Linux on it. It's almost more painful when I consider how good the same free armour looked in Mass Effect 2. Just don't give me anything at all. If I wear it, I look like a pillock. If I sell it, I receive an unbalancing high amount of currency too early in the game. If, as it turned out for my second playthrough, I feel obliged to destroy your FREE GOODIES at the very start, ur doin it wrong.

So there’s a few hiccoughs throughout DA:O, but you know what, game? I forgive you. You’re just too charming, warts and all. Even the combat, repetitive and ultimately just slightly too easy (note: on Normal, so my fault for being too afraid to turn it up) kept me entertained, switching party members and combining abilities to combo the heck out of foes. Watching it, battle felt a bit light and unconnected, in that way RPG combat usually is, where what the characters are doing and what the numbers are saying don’t quite match up perfectly, but I appreciate that DA:O at least accepted this shortcoming and went out of its way to try to improve upon it with regularly triggered finishing moves that look truly brutal and excellent when activated.

So, with the first game brushed aside, we march onwards to RPG #2, Deus Ex, where the combat is definitely not entertaining, DLC is still a twinkle in a publisher’s eye and the sex scenes are mostly man-on-pot-plant path finding issues. So that should be more titillating than Dragon Age, at the very least.

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