There are so many games on Facebook, and so few worth playing. But there's a new one based on the acclaimed Dragon Age universe. And it's made by a team led by Soren Johnson, who made a mighty fine version of Civilization (and is pretty good at solving the maths problem of God).
Could this be one of those fabled "real video games" that supposedly don't exist on Facebook?
I crossed my fingers and loaded the beta of Facebook game Dragon Age Legends yesterday.
Please, Facebook game, I hoped... don't suck. Don't waste my time. Don't feel like a trick. Feel like a game. Please!
Flip through this gallery to see how well things went...
I hadn't played Dragon Age Journeys, the first Flash game spin-off. That one was tied into the the release of Dragon Age: Origins, the expansive PC and console role-playing game that was made to draw fans of dark fantasy into 80-some hours of swordplay, spell-casting and the occasional romantic liaison. Dragon Age Legends is tied into the release of Dragon Age II, the next PC and console epic.
I can't help but look at free Flash games that tie into the release of a new paid game as a marketing ploy. I assume there won't be much game there. Put the game on Facebook, as is the case with Legends, and I'm expecting a marketing ploy mixed with a chain letter. I started Legends assuming the game would be heavily reliant on me inviting friends to enjoy the Dragon Age experience, because, well, that's what these Facebook games do. They're social. And free.
Why should I be sceptical?
Dragon Age Legends is a role-playing game (mixed with Sim Tower, as far as I can tell). The first thing you do is create a character. I made the guy you see here (click the image to enlarge it, so you can see the whole character screen). I picked his hairstyle, gave him purple hair, named him, wrote his warcry, and set him up as a rogue. He could have been a warrior or mage. Rogues get bows and high agility.
As you can see I got him up to Level 2 so far and he's on the verge of hitting Level 2. How? Keep reading.
I'm not well-immersed in Dragon Age lore, so I can't tell you a whole lot about how the game fits into the larger Dragon Saga. All I've absorbed so far is that I'm a good guy who needs to go places to fight bad guys, bad guys who probably have a leader of some sort.
The story isn't important to me, but if it is to you, this is the official setup from EA:
13 years have passed since a group of warriors led by the Templar Ravi banded together to prevent an abomination from destroying the Free Marcher city of Kaiten in a hedonistic orgy of narcissism and opulence.
The former Viscount Khedra spent most of his life as a venerated ruler, celebrated for his wisdom. Late in life, he started to change, beginning with the construction of a great coliseum where nobles' chosen champions competed for pride and glory. What began as games of entertainment quickly devolved into great spectacles of carnage punctuated by outlandish pageantry. The lesser nobles of Kaiten no longer settled their disputes in court, instead grievances big and small were decided by sword for the pleasure of an increasingly bloodthirsty populace.
The Viscount's nephew, Ravi, and his allies discovered the source of Khedra's odd behavior: Khedra was possessed by a powerful Pride demon and was now an abomination. These heroes were able to defeat the demon in a fearsome confrontation, and mysteriously, you were there to aid them.
Now, Ravi is the Viscount of Kaiten and you are one of his most trusted allies. When a mysterious set of circumstances begin to form around his son Eiton, you are the only one he trusts to save his son.
Zooming in from the world map, you can see the road that represents my mission progress. Walking this path takes me from one node to the next, each a point of potential conflict, and each a stop that costs a certain amount of energy. See how I have 22 out of 22 energy points? Visiting the next node near the top of the screen will cost me two points. My store of energy bolts recover over time, which is the first telltale sign that this is a Facebook game. Facebook games are designed to make players wait - and encourage them to pay real money to skip those waits. I haven't figured out how to pay for more energy yet. I haven't needed to. But I have seen other things I can pay for to speed things up.
For now, let's see what happens when I go to the next node on the mission map....
Lots to explain in this screenshot.
First, note that I'm down two energy bolts, but will get them back in a few minutes.
Second, check out that band at the bottom of the screen. It lists potential partners, some of whom are Dragon Age Legends characters and others who are friends of mine on Facebook. Cindy, for example, works at Bioware. She is a level 5 Rogue. And... she's not available for me to recruit.
Each time you go into a battle in Legends, you recruit people into your party. And once the battle ends, you have to wait to bring them into the next battle. These friends aren't actually playing the game with you. They're not on the other end, controlling their character in your fight. You're just borrowing their stats, their persona, and putting them into your team.
I would want to bring Cindy into the fight. She's way more powerful than me. But, since I used her in another battle earlier today, I'm still waiting for her to be free to use again. If I really want her in this fight, though, I can spend crowns. It would cost me 19 Crowns to bring her in. I have 60. You can see how I'd come up short on Crowns quickly, right? Good thing EA lets me buy some for cash. I could have 200 more Crowns for $US2.90.
Oh, but maybe I don't want to add Cindy? There are people I can use without spending any crowns. Like Ray, for example. He's a level 2 mage. He'd be fine.
I could add up to two more people to my party now, probably because I'm not an advanced enough character to have a six-person party.
Do take a glance at that "invite friends" feature. This is the chain-letter element, I'm sure of it. If I'm out of people to recruit and don't want to spend Crowns or money to build my party, I could just invite some more Facebook friends to play Legends. The more of my friends who are playing, the more warriors, mages and rogues who are available to me.
That's not too obnoxious. I actually quite like that.
I recruited one real person and one imaginary person to fight this battle with me. The fight would be a simple one-wave affair, an ideal skirmish for low-level characters. In the shot here, I've got an enemy targeted and a few options for attack: a standard arrow shot, a special piercing-shot skill I learned when I leveled up (it attacks all enemies in a row), or a shard grenade. I could also have used my turn to defend or use magic and health potions. The magic, or mana, is needed for the special moves.
The combat is turn-based and dependent on agility stats. For this battle, I would attack first, then each of the enemies went, then my mage, then my warrior.
The end of battle yields money and other spoils, which so far have included things like armour and new weapons. Battles have been swift and fun, though I'm disappointed that, so far, enemies appear to be somewhat stupid. In one face-off, they had my warrior near death but kept attacking stronger people in my party.
The game isn't just about walking through the land, reading lore and fighting. You also have a castle to improve. This is mine, a basic structure with lots of extra space. I built workers' quarters and a potion room where I've got one worker making a potion.
I can upgrade the potion room, the Apothecary, to make better potions (there's a tech tree of advances) or just add a worker. That costs fake money, fake money that I can spend real money to amass if I'm not satisfied with the spoils from battles.
I also have to manage castle happiness. So far so good in my castle.
By the way, this is how a really advanced castle looks. Impressive!
Castle management appears to be its own FarmVille of complexity, which isn't to say that character management is simple. This is my inventory screen, which is pretty busy for a guy who has only been in a handful of battles. We've got weapons, armour, magic gems, and so on.
There is also a tree of character upgrades you can manage as your character increases in level. Lots to keep track of, and lots that feels like the kind of role-playing game people pay for.
For want of a better word, I was worried Legends would feel slimy. Having played it for a few sessions over a couple of days, however, I can happily say that it doesn't feel like it is purely a marketing ploy. It feels like a real game, an amalgamation of turn-based combat popular in Japanese role-playing games, and tower-building that harkens back to Sim Tower.
I'm impressed with the amount of options available, the myriad opportunities to customise and upgrade. So far, I don't feel that I'm being nudged to invite too many friends or spend any real money to upgrade more quickly. In fact, I like the idea that I will be able to benefit, in a single-player RPG, from how well other friends are playing the same game.
It is possible that the game is weighted to not push that chain-letter feel early on. Perhaps, as I play, I'll find my options limited and the need to spend or annoy increasing. For now, though, I can simply feel like I'm playing a game on Facebook that feels like the kind of "real" game critics so often say doesn't exist on the platform.
Dragon Age Legends is in Beta right now, but when it launches next month, you should check it out.
The developers even say the game unlocks extra stuff for players of Dragon Age II. That may be a draw for some, but if Legends is a good enough game on its own, that would be fine for me.
(Dragon Age Legends is not yet available for all to play. Go to EA's official site for the game to sign up for the beta.)