Bioware had worked with some of the best licenses in the world from Star Wars to Sonic, and its quest to establish an in-house IP also led players into the Jade Empire and a galaxy in turmoil with Mass Effect. For fantasy fans who remember their days and nights spent on the Sword Coast and the city of Baldur's Gate, however, Bioware had something far more ambitious in mind. After five painstaking years and finally freed from having to depend on the Dungeons and Dragons rule set or the Forgotten Realms for fantasy, Dragon Age: Origins would fulfill that promise.
Dragon Age takes place within the kingdom of Ferelden, which is teetering on the edge of a knife with the arrival of the Blight, an invasion of inhuman horrors led by a mysterious Archdemon. The "Origins" part of the title comes from the six starting points through which you can explore the game, depending on the race and profession you select. Regardless of whether you decide to begin as a mage in training or a dwarven commoner in the grand underground city of Orzammar, the first part of the game will be focused on your "origin" and take off from there as you eventually become one of the Grey Wardens — those sworn to fight the darkness of the Blight.
Installation was easy, and initially launches a configuration app that can test your system and optimize the settings with a variety of options. Dragon Age is also tied into Bioware's online social site for the game and accomplishments, with automatic screenshots documenting your best game moments and "game feedback" being transmitted online. It's an interesting social tool for the game, but it can also be disabled, which is what I did when I kept getting interrupted every few minutes with a message about connection problems to the Dragon Age server.
The story is epic in the way that it took nearly 70 hours for me to explore most of the side-quests and complete the first of several promised endings determined by many of my actions. I'm still not done. Several side jobs remain unfinished, and five other origin stories await their own turn, each one adding its own angles to how the world perceives the player.
On the whole, I'll admit that the game took a few hours for me to get excited about, and I still can't shake the feeling that it feels as if I'd seen this all before, with only the sheer breadth of its quests keeping me interested. Although many games can be accused of retelling the same stories, remarkable ones tend to add their own twist to distinguish themselves from their peers. Arcanum had steampunk-inspired technology, The Witcher relieved itself on your best intentions, Fallout 3 made irradiated water as fashionable as Aquafina, and Dragon Age rolls out the welcome mat for old-school RPGers along with ... a huge amount of lore to digest.
In as much as it is about the origin of your character, Dragon Age feels very much like a campaign book introducing a new line, if only because of the encyclopedic vastness of what it throws at the player in the form of codex entries, but it remains a little too firmly rooted in the often-copied aesthetic of traditional high fantasy that we've all seen before. It's not a bad thing, per se, but it doesn't quite stand out with anything "new," either. I'm not asking for it to have flying airships per Square Enix's Final Fantasy XII or Wizards of the Coast's Eberron, but it didn't keep me from feeling that more could have been done to make the rest of the production as interesting as the characters.
If you like your worlds fleshed out with more than a cursory note on an in-game map, though, Dragon Age consistently ties together everything with a well-developed series of historical vignettes, and I don't know how often I had taken my party into the unexplored if only because I might find a ruined monument or a long-lost book. Dragon Age is still peppered with individual moments of surprise, whether it is in exploring the dream world of the Fade as a mouse, participating in a political assembly to decide the fate of a kingdom, or an ending that delivers a satisfyingly superb epilogue to your journey. However, the quantity of material also gives the game a lot more rope to hang itself with when things go awry within its fantasy theme-park.
As much as the lore does its best to explain the finer points of Ferelden's disparate cultures, the visuals are an incredibly mixed bag. Inon Zur's stirring, orchestrated soundtrack perfectly matches the sweeping arc of Dragon Age's story and battles. The voice acting, featuring notables such as Claudia Black and Kate Mulgrew, gave much-needed life to the characters. All of this stands in stark contrast to the relatively cookie-cutter impression of most everything else in the game, aside from the customized look of each character alongside the impressive battle effects.
Don't be surprised to see NPCs still stand around like lampposts after you've talked to them, or they may stare at empty air and wait for your interaction, their facial expressions making up a little for the relatively bland feel of Ferelden's environs. It was only until I had actually made it to the dwarven city of Orzammar that my eyes finally found something new to look at, although it would have been nice to see the dwarves do something else other than gesticulate.
Some of the character interactions still come off as a bit awkward, especially with its pop culture references outside of the rare Easter egg, the mention of "genetics," and the occasional feeling that this is a medieval version of Mass Effect, sans the Mako. On one hand, Dragon Age wants to come off as a somewhat serious, high-handed fantasy epic. On the other, watching characters talk about personal relationships while covered in ichor had me chuckling for the wrong reasons (the persistent gore can be turned off in the options, which is helpful when you don't want to watch blood-freckled NPCs civilly chat about politics to your party).
At E3, a scene showing Morrigan and the hero hitching up left me quietly concerned on the level of cheesiness that it delivered. Although it was explained that this happened many hours into the game, it had a slightly better impact within that context when I got to it myself, although this and other instances can still come off as a little tacky. The occasionally verbose dialogue has the appropriate tone as long as the speakers stick to the legends of the land, but anything outside of that, such as when it comes to personal relationships, comes up short.
As one example, during my origin story as a mage, a friend had been accused of being a nefarious blood mage and was slated to become one of the Tranquil, a mage whose connection to the Fade and, thus, to magic had been severed. I had wanted to talk to this witness, as I had my own suspicions and was surprised when there was no way to delve deeper into this mystery. At another point much later, I found myself unable to explain to a character whether vengeance would bring another friend back from the dead or not, but felt as if my hands were tied into supporting him or telling him to bugger off. So much for maxing out my Persuasion skill. He had the best armor in my party, too, but at least I still had the dwarf.
There are many choices in the game, some of them unpleasant with plenty of warning signs, but other than the fact that not every decision will result in roses, it can often feel as if you should follow a certain path through the game as a Grey Warden. Aside from the climactic end, it usually came down to a personal preference of how you wanted to view the story: either as an uncaring bastard on a mission or as a heroic paragon who says please and thank you.
Bioware has made it clear that it hasn't forgotten about its roots within the PC community, and coming to grips with the combat system was about as rewarding as it was when I had first gotten into Baldur's Gate. Tapping the spacebar to pause combat, issue orders to individual party members, arranging equipment, setting AI tactics triggered by specific battlefield conditions, and seeing everything from a tactical viewpoint — it all felt made for the keyboard and mouse, and I couldn't imagine playing this on any other platform.
If you haven't had any experience with a system like this (or hadn't replayed any of the Baldur's Gate titles), there is a slight learning curve that can be harsh or easy to get into, depending on the set difficulty level. Party AI can also be set up to deal with a variety of conditions in case you don't want to pay as much attention to each member.
Other than that, I found myself enjoying the time spent with it in taking control of the battlefield and every move that my party made. Call me a micromanaging general if you must, but I loved digging into details and the feeling of tilting the odds into my favor with a few well-placed decisions. The only gripe here is that party members sometimes "forget" to engage the enemy and require a degree of handholding.
This also extends to each character build, with a score of talents and skills that can be triggered or used as passive enhancements. As characters level up, points are awarded that can be used to improve scores, add new skills, learn new abilities or even specialize in another field. Despite what the manual says, however, there is a level cap (at least as of this writing) at 25, but most players will finish the game before hitting it. What is abundantly clear, however, is that no single character (with one exception) can learn everything, so your role in developing each one is as important as how you fight the enemy.
On the other hand, the game also takes a few shortcuts in order to remedy several things regarded as tedious housekeeping. Health and magic regenerate quickly outside of combat, for one thing. Armor and weapons can be swapped on the fly during battle without penalty (just how does one quickly get out of a suit of plate armor without chafing?), and healing poultices can be applied with remarkable speed. It might not be potion spam, but it does come close.
Some veterans may view these conveniences as making the game too easy, and owing to the rather dense enemy AI, it can sometimes seem that way unless it decides to inundate you with massive numbers — which it often does to make up for it. Others may see these as a means to keep up the pacing of the game without dragging it down ... or making it too realistic in order to focus on fun instead. It's hard to deny that the game loves combat just a little too much. Although you can see the enemy, you often find yourself facing many foes at any one time. Over the course of the game, it can start to feel more than a little repetitive (especially with its use of limited level scaling for many areas), although it can be a boon to players who love to power-level.
There are also bizarre instances when the AI simply doesn't live up to the vicious avatars that it employs to kill you. Enemies can sometimes be tricked, or kited, into attacking you piecemeal (no one wonders what happens to that guy who left the group and never came back?), even on the higher difficulty settings, and there are the occasional exploits with missile weapons that can shoot through open doors and angled around corners. This, of course, does not apply to dragons.
A few other technical quibbles also dragged down the experience, one of which had to do with the inability to store extra items in containers, since they mysteriously "close up" after you loot them, something that I thought most every RPG at this particular level had left behind. Additional "backpack" space can be purchased for the party, but if you want to make room by offloading some of your loot, be prepared to sell or destroy what you don't need.
If you find an abandoned home somewhere or a location that you can use (such as a particular noble's house, dwarven or human), forget about using it as a temporary base. One would think that sacks and crates that sew and nail themselves shut after being emptied would have begat some sort of crisis on Ferelden, but I think it was only directed at my party. It also would have been nice to see what kind of item I had received as a reward for a completed quest instead of lumping it into my backpack and having me scroll through to see the highlights.
Of the downloadable content, the Collector's Edition came with a redemption code for the Stone Prisoner add-on, which included a new character, Shale, and another code for a batch of items including "Dragon Armor" for use in the game and in Mass Effect 2. Although included with other copies of DA, the dungeon-crawling adventure called Warden's Keep was also available on launch day. Both the Prisoner and Warden's Keep vary greatly in quality.
Warden's Keep offers about two hours of exploration and "find-the-clue" puzzles but falls short of everything else. One of the new skills was useful, if only to add to the roster of abilities that my mage had at his disposal, but it ultimately saw little use in the main game. The most grievous problem is that the keep locked me out once I was done, in much the same way that DA's containers do once emptied, leaving whatever unfinished business — such as looting what I had left behind or rediscovering the building's history — forever locked away for no apparent reason.
As for the party chest that Warden's Keep introduces into the game, its spacious interior is limited but provides no options in purchasing extra space, which makes no sense. This creates a bizarre sort of logic within DA, along with the uncomfortable insinuation that the option to store goods in a container is only available if you decide to pay for the privilege in real-world cash (or know a modder).
Never mind that, despite hauling enough tenting material for a small circus, this chest is never taken into your campsite, forcing you to go back and visit the keep every time you need to store something. At least the unique armor set was worthwhile and mods may fix these bits of strangeness, but without those options, Warden's Keep felt a little too rough around the edges to be worth the effort.
The Stone Prisoner, on the other hand, fares far better. Well voice-acted dialogue, an extra quest, and cut scene material dovetail nicely into the main game without feeling tacked-on. Sharp writing and witty banter also bring out Shale's personality, reminding me of a certain assassin droid from Knights of the Old Republic and providing many reasons for story lovers to consider adding this expansion to their game.
Dragon Age: Origins isn't perfect. At times and without too much subtlety, it groans beneath the weight of the genre's more infamous tropes. In my 70 hours with it, though, DA's finer details demonstrate that Bioware's bards can easily spin their own stories in the same way that they have embellished others while also highlighting where the formula falls short. As an RPG, it entertains with its familiarity and indulges players with an amazingly vast number of things to do. For those of us seeking a deeply storied adventure in which to save the world from the forces of darkness, Dragon Age delivers.
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