Older gamers worry, with years of justification, that the games they can play today are less complex than the games they played yesterday. Another person's streamlining is their selling out. They see a game developer saying "simplification", they hear "oversimplification".
They don't want their games dumbed down.
That river of anxiety is flowing past Dragon Age II, the massive role-playing game from BioWare that's coming out in March for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and Mac. The Dragon Age series is a dark fantasy epic that puts players in control of a small band of warriors and mages, enabling them to fight, talk and romance across a land of war, spells and dragons. Dragon Age was also supposed to be development studio BioWare's bulwark against the the modern role-playing game, a monument to the tougher, more tactical games of old, the Dragon Age series.
Back in November, though, I was writing about how fans anticipating the sequel should worry less. They'd grown concerned that the slow pace and high strategy of the original game, a throwback to classic RPGs of a decade ago had been abandoned. Yes, the camera view was lowered, the overhead PC-only tactical camera option junked in favour of lower console-style camera work. The new game had fewer races to choose, simpler tech trees, faster combat. It sounded less and less like an RPG to its fans, more like BioWare's other big series, Mass Effect, an RPG series that is easily mistaken for an action game (a sci-fi shooter, in that case). The tech tree is still deep in Dragon Age II, I reported. Combat can still be paused and played in turns.
"It sounds like a dumbing down cloaked in PR speak to me," a reader wrote to me back in November.
Two days ago, after watching some fast combat in Dragon Age II, I found myself staring at a menu screen in Dragon Age II. What I saw was not simple and certainly not over-simplified. What I saw was something that might stress a Mass Effect player, that might sail over their head.
If what I saw in Dragon Age II was dumbed down then the game's still got a high IQ.
The screen I'm going to describe is the game's Tactics menu. It's beneath the game's hood and can be ignored by those sword-swinging, button-mashing new fans BioWare might gain with its streamlined, faster-fighting sequel. The Tactics menu isn't there for those new gamers. It's for the old-school, for the kind of person in this world who knows keyboard shortcuts and has at least once fixed a TV for a relative simply by properly using the machine's menus.
The Dragon Age II Tactics menu is a variation on what was included in the first game, a circuit board of words and numbers that lets the player program basic scripts for its characters.
For example, from the player-configured Tactics menu for one of the members in the Dragon Age II fighting party:
-If the character is clustered with at least three enemies —> character will fire hail of arrows.
-If the character is clustered with at least two enemies —> character will fire bursting arrow.
-If the enemy's health is over 50% —> character will use a pinning shot.
-If the enemy's rank is normal or higher —> character will use a rhyming triplet.
Those are four of the seven configurable, prioritised if/then statements that could be set for one character's powers. Another seven could be set for each of the other four members of the hero's party.
By configuring these settings, the player is automating their allies' actions. They're ensuring that, instead of having to quickly switch from manual control of one to another during a 4-on-4 skirmish of heroes against demons, they can trust that the allies will fight smartly.
Both halves of the Tactics statements can be tweaked. There can be different "ifs" and a whole lot of "thens", the latter tied to powers and items. Characters can be scripted to automatically heal each others if party health reaches a certain level, use certain items if other conditions occur. The characters can also, in a more general sense, be set to behave aggressively, be more cautious… those tendencies being about the deepest you can set in a Mass Effect. Dragon Age's system, which also appeared in a slightly different form in Final Fantasy XII, is deeper and, frankly, unusual for modern role-playing games.
The Dragon Age II tactics can set up combos. One character, for example, might dole out 4x damage to enemies who are made "brittle". Another character might be able to make characters brittle with a certain attack. You can figure this one out: set one character to emphasise the brittle move; set the other to spot that and swoop in.
I didn't use these scripts this week, at a showcase for the game in New York, when I pitted four heroes against one giant rock wraith. The battle I was thrown into by a Dragon Age rep occurs near the end of the game's first act. I was playing on "casual," the game's lowest difficulty. I'd configured no tactics. I wasn't even carefully managing my allies' health. These were stupid moves. The wraith killed all my guys, then killed me.
That was dumb. Dragon Age II is not.