When I switched from being a salaried employee to a contractor I underwent a paradigm shift in regards to how I spend my time. You see when you charge by the hour you start to think about how much something costs you to do if you do it yourself vs getting someone else to do it. If there’s a solution to a problem and it’s available for less than my current hourly rate then it’s good value for me to get that rather than trying to develop a solution on my own. This also comes back to how I spend my leisure time as it becomes hard to turn off that part of my brain that tells me every hour used purely in the pursuit of leisure is an hour that could be spent generating some income, although I haven’t seemed to have any trouble with that for the past month or so. 😉
The majority of my spare time is spent playing games simply because they’re by far one of the most relaxing activities for me. Additionally the bit of blog fodder that I get from completing one and then writing a review of it (which are some of my most enjoyable posts to write) are yet another benefit of spending my down time immersed in these virtual worlds. Unfortunately though I’m no longer the young 20 something university student I used to be and the amount of time I can spend on games is quite limited when compared to days gone by. Thus, whilst I still find time to cram in an epic gaming session or two every so often, the vast majority of my games are either played out over the course of a month or in a few shorter sessions in a single weekend. I think this is where my love of cinematic games has sprouted from as they’re an intense experience that I could conceivably sit down and play through in one session.
However the gaming community always seems to lament games that have a length that’s shorter than about 20 hours. One great example of this was Heavenly Sword, arguably Sony’s flagship game on it’s only recently debuted PlayStation 3. The hype leading up to the release of the game was nothing short of fever pitch and the demo released about a month prior wowed everyone who played it, even with it’s foreboding that the game itself would be drastically shorter than everyone was used to. On release it became apparent that the game totaled at most about 6~8 hours of game play and the critics slammed it for that very reason. Granted the game had set itself up for this as the hype far outpaced the resulting game but really the length, at least for people like me, wasn’t such a let down as many of the critics would have had us believe.
When time is at a premium game length starts to become something of a concern. It’s for that exact reason why I’ve avoided games like Final Fantasy as whilst they are amongst some of the most highly praised games on Sony’s gaming platform they’re also an incredible time sink, with play times exceeding 40 hours not uncommon. Ah ha! I hear you saying, but you reviewed Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, games with lengths approaching that of the games you said you avoid! OK you got me, there are notable exceptions that I can and will make the effort to play through usually on the backs of raving reviews from friends and the gaming community at large. Still a game like Modern Warfare 2 which packed only 6 hours of game play which I managed to blast through in 2 sittings rates as highly as some of those longer games despite its short length. There is also Heavy Rain of course, but I think everyone knows how much I enjoyed that and I’ve gushed enough about it to last everyone a lifetime 🙂
I think the crux of the matter is that the opportunity cost for longer games is so high that I have a tendency to shy away from them, lest my hours be wasted. Thankfully in this day and age of instant on access to information I usually have a good feel if a game will be worth it before taking the plunge, but at heart I’m still a completionist and I can’t stand letting games go unfinished. I think that’s the reason why Bayonetta and Red Faction: Guerrilla bug the hell out of me as they’re just painful enough for me to not want to finish them but at the same time I’d love to get them off my list forever. Still slogging through something that just isn’t fun for completion’s sake doesn’t rate highly on a cost benefit analysis for my time, so I guess I’ll just have to live with that.
There is of course games that have significant amounts of replay value which kind of skew my whole game length argument. Something like Lumines for example probably only has about 6 hours of game play in it total however I still find myself picking up my copy of it from time to time for a 30 minute bash to try and beat my top score. That’s probably more thanks to the genre than anything else as casual games like that tend to have quite short single play throughs however the competition element with a healthy sprinkling of procedural generation makes them almost infinitely replayable, something that the casual gaming market craves.
My point is that for any game you might play the length is somewhat of a subjective metric to use when judging its quality. Certain genres of games will come with expectations of play times such as RPGs being traditionally quite long and cinematics being short, but overall a games length is no measure of its quality. There is of course the argument to be made that a game is too short and therefore omits details or similarly a game that is too long that drags the plot out longer than it really needs to be. Still for a game that’s worth its salt the length seems to barely matter as I’ll remember how I enjoyed my time playing it, not how long.
That probably explains my past addictions to various MMORPGs over the past 5 years….
Maybe it’s the engineer in me (or more likely the perfectionist) but I find it almost impossible to go to bed when I feel there’s something left to be done. This is probably why I lost many long hours on World of Warcraft since there’s always something that needed to be done. It is fitting then that Dragon Age: Origins gave me the same feeling for a solid 2 weeks and every moment spent away from the game had me thinking about it. After what the game tells me was 31 hours (although I know it was more than that, my quick save/load buttons will tell you) I’ve taken some time to reflect on the world that Bioware created and their prowess when it comes to the genre of deep RPGs.
The first point of note with Dragon Age, as it is with any RPG that comes from Bioware, is the incredible depth of character that all actors have in this world. All the characters have a depth to them that you don’t often see outside a Bioware RPG. I found myself choosing the same party members over and over again because I wanted to know more about them, anxiously awaiting the next dialogue option in order to explore their past in this world. The unfortunate downside to conveying such depth in this medium means that the game suffers from what I like to call the Mass Dialogue Effect (take a guess where that name came from ;)) whereby almost any character with a whiff of involvement in the story will happily regale you with their life story.Whilst it does demonstrate Bioware’s dedication to developing every character in depth it can be laborious when your replaying a section you failed to complete.
Now I’ll have to be brutally honest here: I’m not what you’d call a veteran of this genre despite my hundreds of days experience with its MMO counterpart. I missed the Baldur’s Gate series of games when they were released, I haven’t played any of the Knights of the Old Republic games and I couldn’t get into Never Winter Nights. So whilst I’m familiar with the concept of min-maxing your party to make you effective i n combat I still got the same feeling that I did when I was playing NWN, the game didn’t really favour those of us who chose a certain path. Musing over the game with friends showed that a few had chosen the mage class, whereas I the warrior. It became pretty clear early on that the game designers made some fights impossible to hack and slash your way through, wanting you instead to take time to use your abilities carefully and make heavy use of the pause function. This is all well and good, however this was usually accomplished by mearly overwhelming you with enemies which the warriors and rogues have a hard time dealing with. Mages on the other hand can quite easily dispatch a large group of enemies with 2 spells thus rendering the challenge useless. Whilst class balance is a small issue in a single player game I couldn’t help feel a little cheated, although there is the potential to play through again. This leads into my next point, the combat.
Bioware has done a particularly good job of making the combat you’re involved in feel larger than life. The combination of the music, your characters screaming their various lines and abilities that do everything from shaking the camera when you land a critical hit to summoning a massive blizzard almost makes you feel like you’re playing through an epic fantasy movie. The experience is not without its faults however. Positioning my warrior for combat would sometimes get him stuck on the hitboxes of the other characters, making him vibrate violently between 2 spots and not attack. This was only made worse that often some abilities would just inexplicably not connect. This is not to be confused with missing which gives a noticeable “Miss!” text above the enemy, they would just fail to render any reaction. Such behaviour became painfully apparent with the 2 handed sweep maneuver which would hit some enemies but not others. Overall the combat system was engaging but plagued with some difficulties that should have been caught before release.
Relationships were definitely an interesting mini game in Dragon Age. You can take them in almost any direction you want and the consequences are obvious and long lasting. After unsuccessfully trying to court Leliana (apparently lavishing gifts of a rabbit-mouse, who she called Schmooples, and flowers is the wrong way to go about it) I set my targets on Morrigan. It would be kind to say she was an easy conquer because it only took a couple nights at camp and one quest before the screenshot above happened. As I mentioned previously I knew there was the potential for some horizontal mambo and I was hoping for some long last consequences, story wise, because of it. I was unfortunately disappointed, with the dialogue between Morrigan and I only having a couple options here or there available afterwards. I have read of others having a deeper relationship although they did not appear to be available to me no matter what I tried. I did enjoy the idle chatter between Alistair and the rest of my companions about my various exploits in Morrigan’s tent though.
What intrigued me the most about this game is how unique your experience can be depending on how you interact with people. Bioware thankfully steered clear of what they did in Mass Effect (E.G if you were going for Paragon they were always on the top right, Renegade was bottom right) which made choosing what to say all that more meaningful. Suprisingly even attempting the same path can result in different outcomes should a battle swing one way or another. This is what made Dragon Age such a talking point for the gaming community as everyone discussing it will have a distinctly different experience.
Despite all its shortcomings I was thoroughly captivated the entire time I was playing. I would curse the game for wiping my party out with a surprise swarm of enemies but the victory that would follow several attempts later tasted all the sweeter. I would feel actual remorse for playing my character a certain way and making decision that I felt were right, but caused me some loss in one way or another. I fell in love with Leliana who would never have me despite all the attention I gave her which drove me into the arms of another. Truly this game is as realistic as it is fantastical and that brings with it reveals some true insights into the human condition whilst fostering the escapism we’ve all come to expect from the RPG giant of Bioware.
Dragon Age: Origins is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU108, $108 and $54 respectively. Game was played on PC on normal difficulty (except for the last fight, I lost 2 hours there you bastards!) with around 35 hours of playtime reported.