Game of the Month: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Six years ago BioWare published Dragon Age: Origins, the first game of their new fantasy series. Thanks to its excellent story, rich lore, good game play and the epic size of the fictional world the game became a massive success. Its successor Dragon Age II however was less well received. Oversimplified role play elements, a too small game world and a less engaging story left a lot of fans of the first part quite disappointed. BioWare promised to learn from their mistakes and deliver a much better experience in the third part, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The events in Kirkwall during the second game have lead to a mage rebellion. The resulting civil war between the mages and the Templar Order is devastating the whole continent of Thedas. The casualties on both sides and among the innocent population are high. The leader of the Chantry,  the dominant church, wants to stop the violence and uses her dwindling influence to host peace talks. But an enormous magical explosion kills her and the delegates of both sides. Even worse it also opens a massive breach into the Fade, the parallel world occupied by magical beings. Daemons pour through this opening and indiscriminately attack everybody in sight. More rifts into the Fade open in all of Thedas and the whole continent is descending into chaos.

The players character was sent as an observer to the peace talks and finds herself (or himself if you must) in the Fade after the explosion. She only narrowly manages to escape the daemons and uses the breach to cross back into the normal world. But the remaining forces of the Chantry arrest her on suspicion of causing the fatal explosion. With no memory of the events and a strange glowing magical mark embedded in her left hand, that is clearly linked to the breach, her chances of proving her innocence seem to be slim. However things change when it turns out that the mark allows her to close the rifts into the Fade and stop the daemons from invading the world. Her attempt to close the main breach only partially succeeds and almost kills her. But her heroics drastically change people’s attitude towards her. While a minority still believe she is responsible for the catastrophe the majority perceives her as a holy saviour that stands between Thedas and its utter destruction. She must now become the Inquisitor to lead the newly formed Inquisition and turn it into a force that can save Thedas and restore peace and order.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is indeed a major improvement over its predecessor. The game world is absolutely enormous. The first major area that the player unlocks is probably already larger than all the locations in Dragon Age II combined. And there are over half a dozen of such regions. The role play elements also offer much more depth again. All classes provide a lot of different skill trees and three specialisations which allow a lot of interesting builds resulting in very different combat styles. Warriors and rogues are no longer limited to a given weapon type and can be trained according to the player’s preferences. These improvements are also reflected in the combat system which features a tactical mode that allows precise control over all four characters in the party and enables devastating combined attacks.

The game also features a record number of companions and love interests. As they all have different backgrounds, beliefs and agendas the player faces an interesting challenge to keep them all in line. For the main character the player can choose one of four races, the gender and the class. All combinations have unique social backgrounds, which are reflected throughout the game. While a human Inquisitor will face less resentments by the exclusively human nobility she will also have more limited options to interact with the other races. A mage Inquisitor has a hard time to earn trust as people have suffered a lot at the hands of the rebel mages.

A common theme in BioWare games are the decision that the player can make. These decision often greatly influence the following events. Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception and as in its predecessor there is often no right and no wrong choice, no good and no evil option. But there are always consequences and often enough not the ones that you were hoping for. The game even references past events defined by the player’s choices in both of the previous games and seamlessly connects them to the current storyline.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare at its best: a role play game with an exciting plot, a huge number of interesting characters, witty dialogs and a fantastic setting. The game provides a good compromise between the traditional and slightly unwieldy role playing of the first game and the over simplified action adventure style of the second game. If there is anything to complain about it is the final showdown. BioWare decided to split it over multiple missions and somewhat fail to maintain the arc of suspense. But that doesn’t change the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition is a great adventure that feels like creating your own epic fantasy movie. And although the story comes to a satisfying conclusion it paves the way for more exciting adventures. I definitely hope to pay Thedas another visit in the future. 🙂

Book of the Month: The Martian

I’m a big fan of science fiction stories in books, movies and video games. A lot of them however are much stronger on the fiction than on the science part. So I’m really happy if once in awhile I find a story which combines science with a good plot. When a friend told me about Andy Weir‘s novel The Martian it sounded like it might be able to deliver both.

The main protagonist of the The Martian is the NASA astronaut Mark Watney. When the crew of the third manned mission to Mars has to make an emergency liftoff, before a massive sandstorm destroys their spaceship, Mark is presumed dead and left behind on the surface of the planet. He survives the storm but is now faced with the massive challenge of survival. As the expedition’s artificial habitat and all their supplies remained on the planet Mark is safe for now. But even if none of the technology that keeps him alive fails he will eventually starve. Mark can also not contact NASA to let them know that he is alive because the storm destroyed all his means of communication. He can only rely on himself to secure his rescue.

The Martian is indeed a proper science novel. Space travel to Mars doesn’t rely on fantastic inventions like a warp drive. It relies on the appropriate and horribly expensive combination of existing space travel technology. If humanity would strive to send astronauts to Mars in the near future it would probably work similar to what is described in the book. The description of the planet Mars itself is also very accurate. There are no aliens and no mysterious ruins. It is just a gigantic barren red desert full of sand and rocks. But the harsh environment with little atmosphere, no water and extremely low temperatures is enough of a challenge anyway. The main character, Mark Watney, is not the typical hero. He is an engineer and scientist, the kind of geek you would expect on a scientific expedition. But these abilities combined with his unbreakable optimism might actually save him.

Andy Weir expertly combines science, technology and human aspects into a gripping tale. You can tell that he has read classic masterworks of science fiction like the stories written by Isaac Asimov. Without any space battles, aliens or fantastic worlds the book is so exciting that I just couldn’t put it away. If you enjoy science fiction novels this book is an absolute must read.

R.I.P. beaver

Yesterday Markus’s server beaver was switched off after more than eight years of service. We initially had a lot of trouble with this machine because of a dodgy PCI network card that caused complete system hangs due to PCI bus errors. It was a long painful process to diagnose this problem which included unnecessarily replacing the mainboard and installing a hardware RAID controller. But after the faulty card was removed the machine worked very reliable. beaver had an uptime of 327 days when it was shutdown. We even enjoyed a small miracle in the form of two Western Digital IDE RAID Edition hard disks that survived more than seven years of 24/7 service without any problems.

In the last couple of years beaver‘s performance had been a bit underwhelming. With its old CPU, a 2GHz Pentium IV, and the moderate one gigabyte main memory it was simply underpowered to serve as the backend for modern web applications. The MySQL database server in particular took its toll.

beaver is survived by tiger which now provides backup DNS and mail services for my domains. With a quad core CPU and four gigabyte main memory it feels infinitely faster than the old machine. tiger even easily handles being (ab)used as a Minecraft server. 🙂

Taking comfort in the Unfairness of the Universe