On their journey towards becoming a household name in the gaming community, Bioware cut their teeth and built a sizable fan base by developing fantastic PC RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Over the years while they’ve been busy growing the company and wowing people with everything from Sci-Fi masterpieces like KOTOR and Mass Effect to Chinese legends in Jade Empire, many fans have been clamoring for a return to classic D&D style high fantasy. Thankfully, Bioware has answered the call with Dragon Age: Origins, a brilliant fantasy adventure in a brand new universe that manages to feel both fresh and familiar.
Considering the popularity of this style of game in the PC community, it should come as no real surprise that the PC version of the game is undoubtedly the its console brethren’s superior. The console version features several notable omissions, both in control and viewpoint. Due to the substantial difference in the two versions, this review will focus specifically on the console ports of the title. If you’re interested in the PC version, check out Odion’s great review here http://www.ztgamedomain.com/8826/Dragon-Age-Origins.html.
Dragon Age takes place in the fictional land of Ferelden, a proud nation recently liberated from a brutal empire (the story of which can be found in the prequel novel Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne). When the game begins the world is teetering on the edge of a Blight, a cyclical event in which the world is overrun by the Darkspawn. Legend tells that these demonic creatures were created when a group of mages, fueled by their own arrogance, infiltrated heaven itself. His sanctum defiled and destroyed, the Maker cast the mages back to the world, twisted and corrupted. These mages became the first Archdemon’s, and created the armies of Darkspawn that plague the world.
When the game begins, you’ll be tasked not only with creating a character but also choosing that character’s specific origin. The game offers six different origin stories depending on your race (Human, Elf, Dwarf) with multiple class levels for each. These origins not only introduce you to the world of Ferelden, but also set the stage for the journey that your character will undergo during the next 30-60 hours of gameplay. Once you complete your origin, you’ll be entered into the ranks of the Grey Wardens. These legendary warriors are tasked with combating the darkspawn and bringing an end to the blight. From there your story will wind its way around Ferelden as you gather allies and deal with political intrigue, racial discrimination, and decisions that run the gamut from black to white and every shade of grey in between.
Now up to this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this game was the same old fantasy world with the same old fantasy conventions. While Elves, Dwarves, and Humans teaming up against an unknowable evil does form the basis for most fantasy from Tolkien to Gygax and everywhere in between, the world of Dragon Age takes advantage of the depth the setting offers and mixes things up a bit. Mages are more feared than respected in this world, due to the fear of corruption from demonic forces. As such, the mages are controlled and closely monitored by the Chantry (Dragon Age’s version of the church) and rogue mages (or Apostates) are hunted down by the Templar, religious warriors trained to neutralize magical threats.
Dwarves are held to a strict caste system, and have the unenviable task of dealing with the darkspawn even between blights due to the substantial amount of the fiends found in the underground “Deep Roads” that formally connected the bases of the Dwarven empire. Perhaps the biggest departure from the norm however, is in the portrayal of Elves in Ferelden. Rather than the elegant, noble characters they are typically portrayed as, elves in this world are either former slaves wallowing in human cities as second class citizens and servants or staunch traditionalists scratching out a life on the edge of the forest and trying to return the elven people to their former glory. I cannot stress enough how well developed the races and their relationships are in Dragon Age. As is typical with Bioware’s IP’s, it’s clear that a ton of thought and effort was put into defining the world of Ferelden. Where most games seem to inhabit a world custom built for the game itself, Dragon Age: Origins (and most Bioware games) really feel like stories that were discovered in the midst of a preexisting world. This lends an immeasurable amount of credibility to both the story and its characters.
Speaking of characters, Dragon Age contains some of the most memorable ones you’ll find in a game of this type. From the reluctant hero to the callous mage, from the ale swigging Dwarf to a Golem who wants to know if the crystals you’ve just outfitted it with make it look too wide you’ll find a wide assortment of personalities on display here that interact superbly with each other. Most of the character definition is due to fantastic dialogue that is generally superbly voice acted. Even the little touches like random party banter heard while wandering around town add so much to the immersion factor of the game. I defy anyone to play this game and not become immediately attached to the cast, which is among the most important aspects to connecting the player character to the game world in a game like this.
I cannot stress enough the depth and scale of the information contained in the game. The codex that will keep track of all the pertinent info you’ll pick up along the way will quickly be bulging with entries on various legendary items you’ll pick up, enemies you will face, your companions, and lore regarding the world as a whole. It’s literally possible to lose hours just pouring over these details and marveling at the incredible universe Bioware has constructed.
Equally as important as the content in a game like this is the combat. You’ll fight plenty of baddies along the journey, and clunky combat would have squashed the potential of this franchise from the beginning. Thankfully, the combat on display here is very well done. While the console ports lack the Isometric viewpoint present in the PC version, the difficulty has been substantially toned down. Combat plays out in a system that is a mixture of MMO style combat and the pause and plan system of Baldur’s Gate and KOTOR. Selecting a target begins the characters standard auto attack. Each class and character has talents as well based upon their class and level, most of which are set up on a cool down timer and require stamina for warriors and rogues or mana for spellcasters.
As mentioned, you can hold down the left trigger button (or L2 for PS3) in order to pause the game and access the radial wheel. From this wheel, you can access your inventory, ask the character to use a potion or specific talent, or perform other tasks. This function also allows you to really micromanage your party in combat, switching back and forth between party members to attack enemies with a greater degree of strategy. This becomes especially important later in the game and on higher difficulties, although not as important (or easy to accomplish) as on the PC with its isometric viewpoint.
For gamers not keen on controlling every action of their party, there’s the tactics system. This system allows you to set up specific actions for your party members to perform while being controlled by the AI. You can set these tactics up manually if you choose, or select from presets based around specific combat styles. Generally these tactics work very well if set up correctly, although they cannot effectively substitute for player control in all situations. Friendly and enemy AI is generally very good in the game, with the standard occasional exceptions.
Perhaps the only really disappointing aspect of DA:O are the somewhat lackluster graphics. While the art direction is solid, most textures are muddy and low res. Facial animations are generally solid, but some of the character models (females in particular) are questionable. Animations are generally solid however, and some of the environments still manage to look very good. The game suffers from some technical issues on consoles as well, and I’ve encountered everything from occasional framerate stutters and outright freezes to bugs in friendly and enemy AI. While these issues aren’t severe or frequent enough to heavily detract from the overall quality of the game, they are much less prevalent on the PC, cementing that as the platform of choice if you have the hardware.
The overall sound quality in the game is amazing. The voice acting is among the best in any game this year, featuring powerhouse performances from many veteran videogame voice actors (including Simon Templeman, a personal favorite of mine). In addition to the superb voice acting in the game, you’ll find a host of other pleasing auditory additions including solid sound effects and a very fitting score.
Dragon Age: Origins has sucked me in more than most other games this year. I find myself thinking about the game when not playing it, imagining other scenarios and different ways that situations could play out. The wonderful thing is that Bioware has designed a universe that is ripe with potential for sequels, prequels, spin-offs and expansions. Despite some technical flaws with the console versions, Dragon Age is a fantastic new IP that I can’t wait to explore further. Whether you’re a fan of classic PC RPG’s in this vein or just a fan of getting lost in a fantastic story, you owe it to yourself to play this game.