Review: Dragon Age: Origins

13 November 2009
1:05 am

dragonage

BioWare is a developer with an extensive history in roleplaying games. One of their earliest titles, Baldur's Gate, is often lauded as revitalizing the computer RPG genre entirely as well as introducing the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to an audience that had never been exposed to it. When their 2007 sci-fi RPG Mass Effect was released on the Xbox 360, it had amassed a million in worldwide sales in its first three weeks. Their engines (Infinity, Aurora, Odyssey, Eclipse etc) have been the backbones of their own games as well as titles developed by other companies. From titles like these to Jade Empire, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights, BioWare has consistently shown that they have a steady grasp on immersive storytelling and character development.

Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare's latest release, returning to their roots as fantasy aficionados after their forays into science fiction. In this expansive RPG you play as a Grey Warden, a guardian of Thedas who dedicates his or her life to protecting the populous from the return of the Darkspawn and their horrible Blights.

At character creation you can select from one of six origin stories, the choices of which are determined by your race, sex and class. Your origin story forms both the tutorial portion of the RPG as well as the first couple hours of initial gameplay– what you do in the origin has consequences later on in the story and some characters you were introduced to there resurface later on in the course of the plot. The available races are Humans, Elves and Dwarfs, while available classes are rogues, mages and warriors. Only humans or elves can play as mages, but the two other classes are available to all three races. Players can choose between being male or female, and in terms of appearance the choices for customization are pretty respectable.

Unless you're playing the PC version, the game's perspective is typical third-person over-the-shoulder. On top of this viewpoint, PC players can zoom back to a tactical isometric viewpoint similar to Baldur's Gate or Diablo. This is extremely beneficial in combat because it gives you an overview of the entire field and, when combined with the ability to pause combat to issue orders to your teammates, gives you greater control over fights.

In the course of the game you'll be given the option of recruiting at least eight additional companions (nine including the character in The Stone Prisoner DLC), with a total of three other secondary characters active in your party at any one time. At any point you can jump in and out of anyone else in your party, never strictly bound to your main character except for dialog and some plot sequences. The depth to which control can be maintained over your companions is incredible; all characters, including your own, can unlock tactics slots. These are used to create situational conditionals that determine how your characters behave in battle. For example, a tactic can be set up on a healer character that if a party member drops below a certain percentage of health, the character will cast a healing spell on them. If you can think of a situation, it is possible to set it up in the tactics screen, making this mechanic both extremely powerful as well as extremely daunting. One of my complaints about Dragon Age was this tool– it's probably as in-depth as you're going to get short of messing around with console commands, but the tool itself is pretty intimidating for anyone who isn't interested in taking the hardcore route. It's a shame as the combat AI by default isn't very impressive; I've consistently had difficulty forcing my companions to focus their attacks on the same target– even if you pause the game and order them to attack something, moments later something else will override that command and they'll go off doing their own things again. My companions also don't seem to possess the greatest sense of spatial awareness, consistently standing in area of effect abilities without any sense that they might want to step out of the flames. However, in the thirty hours I've spent so far playing the game, this is probably my only real gripe.

Combat can be pretty unforgiving, even on the easy or normal difficulties, but personally I feel that this is a good thing. Battles aren't "easy," you can't simply cruise through blasting away at everything. All of your abilities, from mage spells to warrior skills, are on a cool-down, so the game plays more like a hybrid real-time turn-based game. I haven't died very often, but I've still found myself consistently challenged in nearly every fight.

For Dragon Age, BioWare has dropped the morality wheel they implemented in Mass Effect. Instead of worrying about arbitrary points awarded through dialog, the things you do and say affect your standing with your companions. Each of them have their own personalities and dispositions and doing things that they agree with elevate their opinion of you, while doing things they're diametrically opposed to makes them think less of you and your leadership. While this sort of system isn't new by any stretch, the way it's handled in Dragon Age is surprising and extremely compelling. Aside from the expected "good characters respond positively to good actions," one of your companions, for example, has a single-minded focus towards the main storyline's objective and becomes very frustrated with you if you do anything deviating from it. If you accept side quests that don't have anything to do with the main story, this companion usually has an acerbic quip about the necessity of charity when you're trying to save the world. But it's not just side quests, if you elect to solve a problem the "hard" way instead of the easier route, even if that easier route is morally questionable, this character will often complain, rationalizing that the greater danger the world faces is worth the loss of individuals here and there. It's these nuances that have consistently amazed me during my playthrough. Companions also have opinions of one another and don't hesitate to share them if they feel particularly strongly towards someone else. If your standing with a companion becomes too low they will desert you, while high standings inspire your friends to fight harder at your side and unlock secondary quests and even possible romance options.

I've already written extensively about the quests in Dragon Age, and now that I've played further enough in the story I have to reiterate the same point I've made in the past. While the game absolutely excels in creating difficult, morally grey choices that have me deliberating for a long time over the best route to pick, I still do come away from these quests feeling that as far as the story goes, to a certain extent, things are pre-determined. I suppose this is really only a negative depending on your perspective; if you're only playing the game once you're not likely to notice it, but I do think this hurts things from a re-playability perspective. There are usually multiple ways to approach a problem, ranging from "good" to "bad" to many shades of grey, but often I've seen that the approach you take depends more on playing style and any roleplaying attachment than necessity in the game itself– aside from some different dialog lines, there isn't a very tangible effect a lot of the time. I don't think this should really detract anyone though, because as I've said it's only something I've noticed by an obsessive tendency to save and reload over and over to see every possible outcome. For the vast, vast majority of people you're not going to notice it, but it is there. It's the downside of finite resources and development time– it's simply not possible to create such a vast world that accounts for so many player variables. Most players would miss out on half of the content you spent so much time working on. However, for this juggling act I believe BioWare has done an amazing job. Dragon Age is one of the few games I've played that has given me a visceral connection to both the characters and the story, and I've been pacing myself because I don't want to finish it too quickly. (It should be qualified that with the thirty hour figure above, I'm still probably not even halfway through the game. As David Gaider, the lead writer for the game, put it earlier, "Dragon Age is a big-ass game — as in 'dayum girl you should NOT be wearing sweatpants' kind of big-ass.")

This is not a game without flaws, however. One of my biggest annoyances is the severe lack of gear available for characters of the mage persuasion. There's a wide variety of leather and plate available but hardly any cloth, staffs or mage-specific equipment as far as I've found. While any class can wear any type of armor provided they have sufficient strength, heavier armor sets introduce "fatigue," which makes spells and skills cost more points to use– loading up a mage in full plate gives you a severe handicap that makes it totally not worth it. There are ways to mitigate this further on in the game but all of your choices mean playing something that looks less like a mage and more like a warrior, so for someone who prefers to be a magic-user, this isn't much of an option for me. Some more variety in cloth armor and mage weapons would have been great. Aside from the aforementioned issues with companion AI, there's also been some glitchy behavior and bugs. But overall, and certainly compared to some recent releases, Dragon Age is very polished. What issues that are present don't diminish the game to me, but they could be more frustrating for someone else.

Tapping in to the variety in story choices, BioWare has set up a dedicated social network for the game, letting you see character profiles, screenshots from compelling moments in the game and even a line-by-line update of plot choices you've made. When you contrast this to the experiences of other players you see what amazing divergence is possible and it's quite something to behold. Another advantage of the PC version is that the game automatically captures screenshots as you play, uploading them to this site in a gallery in the background so you have pictorial evidence of your accomplishments. Although the site doesn't seem to get updated as often as I like (my last level update on the site was nine and I'm already well into twelve by now) it will be something cool to show off when I complete my first playthrough.

Visually, the game is just stunning. Landscapes are beautiful and I've personally felt other characters' facial expressions are very lifelike and real. The game performs very well on all the machines I've used it on, looking respectable even at low settings while totally gorgeous at max. The voice acting is amazing as well, soliciting talent from notable actors like Steve Valentine, Tim Curry and Claudia Black to name just a few. Dragon Age is unmistakably a mature title that handles its subject matter with a respectable level of violence and a healthy measure of wit and good humor (and a dash of sex thrown in) to keep the game engaging and enjoyable. The sum of everything comes together to create a story that is as much fun to play as it is engrossing. BioWare has taken their abilities demonstrated in their previous titles and really raised the bar for compelling storytelling in a video game, whether RPG or otherwise. My ultimate opinion is that this is a fantastic title that should be played by anyone who's a fan of the RPG genre.

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One Response to \'Review: Dragon Age: Origins\'

    It's an awesome game, beautiful visuals, lots of storyline and detail, and generally fun and interesting enough to hold my attention. Great review too! Thanks, Joshua. 🙂

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