Category Archives: Video Games

Game of the Month: Dragon Age: Origins

I’m a big fan of BioWare role-playing games. Their award-winning title Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was my all time favourite game until I discovered the Mass Effect trilogy. But as it is unlikely that there will ever be a proper sequel to Knights of the Old Republic and as the next Mass Effect game is still years away I decided to try out BioWare’s Fantasy role-playing series Dragon Age. As the development of the story greatly matters in BioWare games I started at the beginning and played Dragon Age: Origins the first part of the series.

Dragon Age: Origins is a modern take on a classic computer role-playing game. It tells the story of the fantastic country Ferelden. As growing numbers of Darkspawn, violent and twisted humanoids, attack the population the King’s Army and the Grey Wardens get ready for battle to stop an invasion before it fully begins. Your character is destined to join the order of the Grey Wardens who devote their lives to fight against the Darkspawn. How your character gets to this point depends on her on his Origin. Their are six completely different origin stories which take part before the main events. Which of these stories your character experiences is determined by her or his race (Human, Elf or Dwarf) and class (Warrior, Mage or Rogue). But while the origin has a influence on details (e.g. dialog options) the main story line always remains the same.

Although Dragon Age: Origins looks like a third person action game on a quick glance it is still a round based role-playing game at the core. Both your characters and the enemies can only perform one action (melee attack, casting a spell, use of a potion, etc.) per fixed time round. But fights progress in real time unless you pause the game. The success or failure of each action depends on the attributes of the characters (e.g. strength or dexterity), objects (e.g. the type and level of a weapon), various boosts (e.g. magic spells) and a random factor. Careful aiming or quick reflexes are not required. Strategy on the other hand is important. It starts with picking the correct party with a mix of different classes. You need Warriors to protect your Mages from physical attacks, Rogues to disarm traps and for stealth attacks and Mages to heal your party and to combat hostile magic. Picking the right kind of attack is also crucial: Dragons are immune to fire attacks but very susceptible to cold attacks.

Dragon Age: Origins has a lot of virtues:

  1. The game has epic proportions. It took me over 88 hours to complete the main story and most of the side missions. It took another 25 to 30 hours to play through all of the extensions.
  2. The story is very well written with a lot of attention to detail. The history and social structure of Ferelden are very coherently defined and let the setting appear almost real.
  3. It features a huge number of locations and massive dungeons that you can explore.
  4. You will encounter a huge number of interesting and excellently voiced characters. There are a lot of very entertaining dialogs.
  5. The player is allowed to make a lot of decisions during the game. But they are not aligned to a moral codex, they are not classified as good or evil. They only change how people interact with the main character, in particular how much your companions approve of her or his actions. But while a particular choice might please one of your companions it might anger another one. And while the consequences of your actions are sometimes severe they are not always easy to predict.
  6. The extension Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening has the scope of a full game.

There are also a few minor aspects that could have been better:

  1. The main character isn’t voiced (except in one of the extensions). This disrupts the flow of dialogs.
  2. The game’s background is strongly influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A bit more novel content would have made the story even more exciting.
  3. Round based role-playing games usually allow you to pause the game and select the actions that all your characters will execute during the next round. And while this is possible in the PC version of the game it is missing in the console version. You can pause the game by opening the radial menu. But as soon as you select a single action the game continues. This makes managing your characters unnecessarily tricky, in particular if you fight a large number of enemies with a party of four.
  4. Some of the extended content recycles the layout of locations from the original game, even if the plot takes place somewhere else.

Dragon Age: Origins can definitely hold its own against BioWare’s science fiction titles that I enjoy playing so much. I can highly recommend the Ultimate edition of the game as you get a lot of extra contents for your money. I would also recommend to play all origins stories first and then pick the character you like the most for playing the main game.

N7 Day

Last Thursday BioWare celebrated the second annual N7 Day with the fans of the Mass Effect video games. I had invited my battle-scarred multiplayer squad mates Stelios and Yash for dinner at our house. Silke made Shepard‘s pie for the main course, and Yash brought Banoffee Pie as dessert. We had a very nice evening. We covered a lot of topics, some even unrelated to Mass Effect.

As an awesome surprise I got a present from Stelios, a female Commander Shepard Lego mini figure:

lego-femshep

She even has an M-8 Avenger. Brilliant! 🙂

Upgrading the hard disk in a PS3

After our old laptop died half a year ago I had an almost new 160GB Solid-State Drive going spare. And as my PlayStation 3’s 80GB hard disk was slowly filling up and more speed can never hurt I decided to swap its hard disk for the SSD. The whole process wasn’t difficult. Information on the necessary steps is available on the Internet but scattered. I’m writing a step by step guide in the hope that somebody else might find it useful.

  1. Required Hardware
    To upgrade the hard disk of a PS3 you need of course a new drive. Any 2.5″ SATA drive should work in theory. I’ve used an Intel Solid-State Drive from the 320 Series. You also need an external USB 2.0 hard disk to backup the data stored on your PS3. I strongly suspect that drives larger than 2TB won’t work but haven’t tested that. The drive needs to have a standard PC partition table with an MBR and a FAT32 file system with enough free space to hold a full backup of the PS3 plus 300MB for the firmware image.
    To perform the actual upgrade you will also need a Phillips screwdriver, a DualShock 3 controller and the USB cable to connect the controller to the console.
  2. Backing up your Trophies
    Even a full backup of a PS3 will not contain the Trophies that you earned by playing games. The only way to keep them is to link all accounts with trophies to a PlayStation Network account and synchronise the trophies before the hard disk upgrade.
  3. Backing up your data
    To create a backup you only need to connect the external hard disk and then select Settings / System Settings / Backup Utility / Back Up. The PS3 should list the external hard disk as a possible target. Simply select it and wait. It might take over an hour to create the back up depending on the amount of data currently stored on your PS3.
  4. Preparing a firmware image
    To complete the upgrade you will need a disk with the firmware for the PS3. You can download the firmware image from here. You will get a file called PS3UPDAT.PUP. The easiest way to install it is to copy it to the back up hard disk that you used in the previous step. The hard disk should already contain a folder PS3. Simply create a sub folder UPDATE in this folder and copy the firmware image into it. It is very important that the directory names and filenames are spelled in uppercase.
  5. Changing the hard disk
    Now you are ready to change to the hard disk. A very good description of this step can be found here.
  6. Installing the firmware
    When you first power on the PS3 with the new hard disk it will complain that it cannot read its hard disk. You now need to connect the DualShock 3 controller and the backup hard disk via USB cables. Afterwards follow the onscreen instructions for installing the firmware image (and not those for rebooting the console).
  7. Restoring the backup
    After formatting the hard disk and installing the firmware your PS3 will be back to factory defaults. It will ask you for network settings, a username and similar information. Don’t spend any time on providing that data because it will be overwritten anyway. Once you can log in simply go to Settings / System Settings / Backup Utility / Restore, select the USB hard disk as the source, pick the latest backup (if there are more than one) and let the PS3 restore the data. This might again take over on an hour.
  8. Restoring your trophies
    Your PS3 should now be fully configured again and know all the previously existing accounts. To get their trophies back simply synchronise their trophy collections with the PlayStation Network. This will restore all the trophy back to your PS3.
  9. Activate Games and Videos
    If you have bought games or videos online from the PSN Store you need to activate them via PlayStation Network / Account Management / System Activation / PS3 System now.

After you have gone through all of the above steps your PS3 should work as before, or possibly even faster if you replace the hard disk with an SSD. Mass Effect now starts in 47 instead of 59 seconds on my PS3. But you will of course only get performance improvements for games that are actually installed on the hard disk.