Evil beings have an excuse, they only know the darkness, but man, man is capable of so much worse and is born in light. Dragon Age has been the biggest game I’ve ever reviewed on top of the fact that this is supposed to be the continuation of a series that I grew up on, Baldur’s Gate. To say that I was excited for this game is a bit of an understatement, not since the release of WoW or Halo 3 have I actually been giddy for a game, and after dropping nearly 30 hours into this epic, I feel confident in giving you guys my thoughts on this massive title.
To start I just want to clarify that this review is the PC version of the game, we’ll also have a console one going up at around the same time, but considering the differences in controls and options we believed that two separate reviews were needed.
I knew that I was playing something special when I was finding myself dreaming about Dragon Age, thinking about how I could beat what looked like an unbeatable fight as I drifted off to sleep, that something that hasn’t happened to me since I was child! Dragon Age takes place in a world crafted by the wonderful people at Bioware called Fereldan. You begin your quest by getting to choose between 3 different races, and then choosing their origin story. I thought this was merely going to be some fluff that helps add a back story to your character but instead I was treated to a full section of gameplay that must have lasted at least an hour. I chose to be a duel wielding city elf and while I won’t ruin any plot details, to say that I thought of Brave Heart throughout this introductory section is an accurate example of what happens. There are others, you can also choose to be a nomadic forest elf, a commoner dwarf or even one of noble birth, just to name a few.
From there you are recruited into the Grey Wardens and the game very much looks like it’s going to be a standard good vs. evil fight. The evil in this title being the Darkspawn, a race of demonic creatures that were created when a group of mages tried to take over heaven. However even though the DarkSpawn remain a central plot point for the entire game, they are by no means the only major storyline to follow. The game is wrapped in social issues such as the racism towards the elves, a power struggle for the throne and so much more. How deeply you want to get involved in these aspects of the game is totally up to you but it’s in your best interest to enjoy all of these plots.
It also won’t shock you to find out that since this is a Bioware game, that lo and behold the game has a lot of choices for you to make, the difference this time is that I am finding myself actually having to think about my choices. It’s a rarity in games that center around giving you choice, that you actually find yourself in a situation where you really need to think about what you’re going to do. It’s rare for a title to even have just one of these situations. Three example come to mind where I actually had to think before I did anything, the first was in Bioshock, when you get a little sister for the first time, another was in Mass Effect when you have to choose which member to save before detonating the nuke, and the last was in Fable 2 when you had to choose if an innocent girl would be robbed of her youth or yourself. I can count at least three situation right off the top of my head in Dragon Age where I had to stop and really think, “well if I do this what effect is it going to have on everything else I have set up, what is my best course of action?” There are times when you don’t have a right choice or a wrong choice, you merely have to decide who you can save and you have to leave behind. I commend Bioware on this I really do, especially considering the size of the game, the fact that they can have so many different important moments for you to choice from that don’t destroy the overall narrative is a real blessing and gets me excited to see what they have in store for Mass Effect 2.
However your choices don’t just affect the storyline. In addition what you choose to do, and how you do it affects how your party members view you. Helping out those who can’t help themselves will usually displease Morrigan, while choosing a more morally grey route will anger Alistair your companion Grey Warden. All of these things can have lasting effects on your party, go too far down one path and you may find yourself having to say goodbye to some people.
Visually the game has its highs and it has its lows. Character models, spell effects, and overall animations are fantastic. In addition some of the dungeons you must trek through alone the way are eye popping, and are excellent at conveying a sense a dread or wonder. However outside environments are in most cases really bland and suffer from overall lack of detail. This is still the case with all the settings maxed out on PC. However again, the characters look great, the armour looks fantastic, and spell effects are downright the high point of the visual rollercoaster. Seeing flames billow out from an enchanted sword or rays of cold frost stray after you because your axe in enchanted with cold damage makes every character look like a badass.
As well, at the end of fights you can sometimes be treated to cool finishers, one of my favourite is one where my character will twirl while slashing with one blade, twirl again while slashing with the other blade, and then decapitate the sucker before he can hit the ground. Blood is also a big part of the game, after every battle your characters will be drenched in the stuff, their faces, weapons, and armour will have crimson splattered all over them, which can make for some… interesting encounters. By interesting I am speaking of a moment in the game I am compelled to talk about. It takes place in one of the first towns you go to, you enter into a bar and a group of Knights who have been looking for you attack, a priestess decides to aid you in the fight and afterwards you speak with her. This is the creepy part, she is this nice, gentle sounding girl, who couldn’t look more innocent with her big round eyes, except for the fact that her fact is covered in blood, it was easily one of the creepiest and funniest moments I had with the game.
When it comes to the music the game doesn’t hold back, the main menu has an alluring lullaby song that plays gently, battles have epic scores that are lined with drums and orchestral numbers, as well as the kind of adventure like tunes you would expect to hear as you make your way through a city or forest. The sound in general is also top notch, except for the fact that your character is a mute. I found this really odd since you get to choose which voice your character will have, but the only time you ever hear it is randomly in fights. Since it’s been a good two years since Mass Effect came out I was expecting to have a main character that could speak, everyone else in the game does, and it pulls you out notion that this is your character. This fault is made up by the witty banter your characters have while you’re moving around the world, or even while you’re talking to someone else, I almost died when my other elven companion asked why small isolated towns always have evil deeds going on, why couldn’t they be having an orgy that he could join in on.
Combat in Dragon Age is a love hate affair. On one hand its deep, full of tactical options and works greats on the PC, on the other hand, the game has this weird way of setting up fights that you can easily beat, or can beat without too much difficulty because you understand how to manage your party, and then all of a sudden it will throw some impossible fight at you where you’re dealing with 3 mages, 6 melee enemies and 2 archers and are expected to somehow win. I’ll deal to this point a little farther along, lets first inform you fine readers about combat. Combat is a lot like it was in KOTOR, when an enemy come into your vision the game pauses allowing you to choose what you want each of your party members to do, you then take control of one character and the battle plays out. At any time you can pause it again to re-examine the fight, heal a nearly dead comrade or set up an elaborate combo. One such combo that you need to learn early on is to have your mage class (if you have a mage with you) freeze a single enemy or a group depending on their skills and then have another hero either shield bash or execute a move that will crit, because if done correctly, the frozen enemy will shattered, killing them instantly.
There is also an interesting new tool called tactics, it is a ridiculously deep system that allows you to assign actions that your character will do in certain situations. So one that I have set up is my caster will do a healing spell if any member of my party falls below 50%, or that if surrounded by a group of enemies she will mind blast to stun them. The options are nearly limitless and as your characters level up more tactic slots open up allowing you to add more “what if” commands. It’s a huge boon to set up some basic tactics so you don’t have to babysit every character. When it comes to controls in combat, it’s very clear the Bioware made Dragon Age with the PC in mind, I can’t even begin to imagine the headache of trying to pick from a dozen different skills for each characters at different points in the fight. On PC it works out just fine, I read a line from Kotaku that I think described its perfectly and that was that controlling in a fight is a lot like controlling a party in WoW, you have cool downs and roles, and you’re in charge of it all. Oh another point I wanted to bring up, that transitions nicely into the whole difficulty issue, is friendly fire. If you play on hard or normal difficulty then you have to deal with being able to hurt your own teammates with attacks, that means a poorly placed archer/ranger or an AOE spell could spell disaster for your team. Nothing is worse than misplacing a cone of cold spell and freezing half your party along with the enemy.
Now let’s get back to the difficulty issue. It has to be Dragon Age’s biggest weakness, deciding to do a side quest that ends up being more difficult than anything else you’ve done so far, not because your under geared or too low a level, but because the game throws fights at you that are almost downright impossible. I remember spending a good three hours trying to clear 1 room of trash, because every time I would start the fight I would have my mage disabled and then the other two spell casters that I couldn’t reach because I had giant hulking mercenaries to deal with would drop this massive fire bomb spell that would almost always kill my entire party, I was forced to break the game in a sense, I would open up the door to the room, get all the enemies attention, then close the door so they couldn’t touch me, then when they had all piled up near the door, I would open it up, AOE stun them and start picking them off.
My only other complaint with the game is one that I have with all Bioware games, since KOTOR. It’s a design choice that I really wish they would expand upon because I like exploring. It’s the system in which the world is always these sectioned off areas that can only be travelled to by going through a loading screen, or the fact that once in a zone everything is setup as town, and then general area where all the quests take place. Early on one quest ask if you can clear a field of bandits, while another asks you to go back and look for a body that wasn’t there 5 minutes ago. It’s not a big deal, but the fact that these cool locations are built to be very isolated is a shame.
Frankly if I am going to be honest here, writing this review has been hell for me, never have I had to write so much about something I wanted to do so badly. I’ve had to stop myself at least 4 times from tucking this away and jumping on Dragon Age. It’s the best recommendation I can give the game, its beyond addictive, and the story is so good that I never want it to end. I will this though, this is not a game for someone who got their feet wet in the RPG genre with the likes of Fable 2, this is a downright, and pure blooded, PC RPG of the golden years that must be played by all of us.