Console gamers probably have little idea that Bioware used to be known for its Dungeons and Dragons titles. Long before Bioware released its first console title, it had the excellent Baldur's Gate series, which is still regarded as one of the icons of PC RPGs. Since Knights of the Old Republic, however, they've been avoiding the classic fantasy genre in favor of science-fiction and martial arts, with a side trip into Sonic the Hedgehog. Dragon Age: Origins represents Bioware's attempt to create its own fantasy setting instead of relying on the pre-established Dungeons and Dragons world. Bioware isn't quite so successful here as it was in previous attempts, but the developers have still created a fun game.
Dragon Age: Origins is set in the country of Ferelden, which is recovering from a war against the invading Orlesians and a number of other social changes, such as the integration of formerly enslaved elves into society. The barely stable peace is about to be put to the test. A race of terrible corrupted creatures, known as the Darkspawn, has risen from underground to destroy everything on the surface. The only ones that can stand against them are the Grey Wardens, a secret sect who use the Darkspawn's powers against them. The Grey Wardens were betrayed and nearly destroyed by the ambitious Teyrn Loghain, but two survivors make their way through the war-torn world of Ferelden to recruit an army to stop Loghain and the Darkspawn.
Players are put in control of a new Grey Warden who was recruited shortly before the betrayal. This is where the "Origins" part of the title comes into play. Depending on your race and class combination, you can pick one of six origins for your character: city elf, Dalish elf, dwarf commoner, dwarf noble, human noble or mage. This origin tells the story of how your character is recruited, and it forms the opening area of the game, though it also continues to influence the rest of the game. The origins vary pretty heavily in quality, ranging from utterly boring to cartoonish to intriguing. The origins make you feel connected to the world, even if the opening sequence wasn't very good.
Dragon Age: Origins' biggest problem is that its plot isn't very interesting. The Darkspawn are basically just Sauron's orcs with a slightly different name, and the game actually does a poor job of building them up as any sort of threat. They just seem to be loitering around until the plot decides that you get to kick their butts. The Darkspawn are led by a voiceless and faceless evil that never feels like an actual threat. He appears only a handful of times, and he's usually shown whining in his castle about how things are not going his way, and his few attempts to halt your progress are laughable. Early in the game, he claims that the Grey Wardens are the outlaws responsible for killing the king, but nobody seems to care. His attempt to send out assassins ended up with me gaining an extra party member. By the time I actually reached him, he seemed like such a nonthreatening individual that I almost felt bad dethroning him. The final boss is absolutely awful and is one of the most disappointing in video game history.
A lackluster story line might be less bothersome if the world were more interesting. Mass Effect showed that Bioware was more than capable of turning tropes into an interesting and fully realized world, but that doesn't come across in Dragon Age. Everything, from the generic fantasy races to the boring and unmemorable monsters, feels far too steeped in cliché to really stand out. There are some attempts made toward interesting and unique ideas, but they never feel fully fleshed out. There's a strong undercurrent of racism against the recently enslaved elves, for example, but that is regulated to a subplot. Instead, the main plot has you visit the stereotypical Dalish elves in the woods. Likewise, the dwarves are supposed to be a samurai-like race who wage a constant war against Darkspawn, but that seems halfheartedly ignored in favor of making them mead-drinking, mineral-loving stereotypes. Mages are supposed to be strictly controlled individuals who have an entire group of Templars dedicated to hunting them, but all enemies have mages in their parties, and few people react to the forbidden blood mages in your faction. Bioware sticks so closely to the fantasy tropes that, unlike Mass Effect, you know exactly what to expect in almost every situation.
Bioware's strong character writing is absolutely one of the saving graces of the game. The villains may be boring, but most of the other characters are fun and interesting to interact with. There are some particularly great side-plots, and the character writing is strong. Depending on your party, members will often engage in humorous conversations with one another about current events. It's a nice way to have your characters feel like they're actually in a party together, as opposed to random guys who are following your main character. Your interactions with people also have a definite and noticeable influence on the outcome of the game. Depending on what you do, the ending flows in different ways, and almost all of them feel natural. Despite generating my character's race, gender and origin from a list, I never felt like the ending was unnatural. There was no "Bioware moment" when I picked my specific ending, and the way it was structured and paced was better than many games with set endings. Certain side-quests and events will trigger special dialogue boxes in the ending that show the fate of those you've helped. After spending 40 hours traveling in this world, actual resolutions are deeply welcome, and it's something that's often missing from games nowadays. Dragon Age: Origins tells a complete story, and you won't leave feeling like you're waiting for the inevitable sequel.
Dragon Age: Origins forgoes the usual Bioware-style "good or evil" meter found in most of its other games. Every action you take will garner influence with your party members. For example, upholding justice and righting wrongs may earn you the respect of fellow Grey Warden Alistair, but it'll cause the amoral mage Morrigan to disapprove. By raising your influence with your party members, you'll unlock simple increases to their stats or special weapons, items or abilities. Raise their approval enough, and you can open up special quests or even enter into romance plots with them. While this is a good idea on paper, it's effectively made worthless by the implementation of gifts. You see, every party member has certain items that he or she likes, and if you give those gifts to your party members, their approval of you skyrockets; thus, getting everyone to like you is as easy as browsing shops and buying a few items. There seems to be a limited number of gifts in the game, but unless you're eating babies in front of the most heroic members of your party, you're unlikely to reach the point where that is a problem. Despite being a goody two-shoes and keeping my party static for most of the game, I had everyone at high friendship by the time the final plot came about.
Character customization is fairly straightforward. At the start of the game, you pick from one of three classes: mage, rogue or warrior. Every level earns you three points to add to your character's stats, and depending on your class, you may also earn points to put toward talents or special abilities. You can choose to create a rogue who wields two swords at once or uses stealth attacks. Likewise, you can have a mage who specializes in healing or prefers to blow up enemies with fireballs. At certain points in the game, you'll earn the ability to pick a specialization class for your starting class. A mage, for example, can become an arcane warrior, which lets the mage use his magic stat instead of strength stat to wield weapons and wear armor. He could also become a blood mage, who uses health instead of magic to cast certain powerful spells. Each of your party members begins with one of these special jobs and can learn another. Your main character, on the other hand, can learn any two of your choice, making him or her a lot more versatile.
Dragon Age: Origins is going to feel extremely similar to Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic games. Lightsabers may be gone, but the basic combat mechanics are unchanged. You have a lot of the same abilities and moves, and most of them even share the same D20-inspired names. However, there are a few changes that make things a little more interesting. First and foremost is the greater emphasis on area-of-effect attacks. Spells and certain other abilities in Dragon Age will occasionally have friendly fire effects. On lower difficulty levels, this simply means that you risk freezing an ally when casting an ice spell at a crowd. On higher levels, you'll be able to do half damage, or even full damage, to allies, but fortunately, you have greater control over these attacks. You can direct exactly who and what is going to be caught inside your magic's attack radius, and that is crucial to keeping your party fighting during some of the tougher areas.
One thing that needs to be stressed about Origins is that magic is nasty no matter who wields it. Compared to the weak Force Adepts or Biotics found in Bioware's other titles, the magicians in Dragon Age pack a serious punch, which is both a blessing and a curse. A fireball doesn't just smack an enemy for fire damage; it rockets forward and explodes like a guided missile. On your side, magic can be ridiculously powerful. On the opponent's, it can turn fights against you in a second. One good fireball or debuff spell can render half of your party useless in a split second. This makes planning fights very important, as one wrong move can end you. However, it can also be frustrating when your party members act a bit stupid and charge a mage or run right into an explosive trap because the effects can be so much worse than usual.
In order to streamline combat, Dragon Age: Origins uses a customizable control system for your AI partners that is very similar to Final Fantasy XII's Gambit system. You can set a series of if-then statements that indicate how your characters should fight. You can set it up so your mage always casts a certain spell if enemies are bunched together, your warrior uses a special ability against an elite foe, or anything in between.
The system is very versatile and easy to use, although it does bring up another problem: There seems to be very little reason to control anyone but my mage in Dragon Age. The AI didn't seem capable of using any of the mage's more complex or area-of-effect spells well, and it tended to blow through MP entirely too quickly. Despite using a rogue as my main character, I had to spend most of my time babysitting my mage. It's not a huge problem, as warriors and rogues benefit from the AI customization a lot more than mages, and the mage is the most fun class to directly control, partially due to how area effect attacks work.
Dragon Age: Origins is an interesting game in that it remains challenging throughout, at least on a first playthrough. The enemy progression gets progressively tougher as the game advances, and there weren't many moments when I felt that I was easily overwhelming foes. If I did, I could have raised the difficulty at any time. A big part of this is the area-of-effect thing. Not being able to just toss out your best spells willy-nilly is a big benefit, and it helps to limit the powerful magic. In general, you feel like combat evolves to incorporate more options, as opposed to becoming a cakewalk, and turning up the difficulty keeps things fresh if it gets too easy, while you can tone down things if it gets too hard.
With that said, it was a bit frustrating to try and pull off all of this with a console controller. Dragon Age: Origins really feels like a PC game ported to consoles, and the controls are awkward. There were a number of times when I wished for a mouse and keyboard instead of the awkward radial menu. Positioning your characters and interacting with menus never feels completely natural, and this can be rather frustrating on higher difficulty levels. In many ways, it feels like it was meant to play like an older-style overhead game, instead of a behind-the-shoulder Knights of the Old Republic game.
With that said, the game does have some annoying glitches. I encountered a few situations where the game wouldn't trigger a flag I needed to proceed, forcing me to restart from my last save. The most persistent glitch I encountered involved the end of combat. I would often have to wait more than a minute for the post-battle cut scenes to play in some areas. If I talked to anyone or tried to go anywhere, I could cause an event flag to misfire or not trigger, causing the plot to stall. In one situation, I permanently ruined a save by doing this. Fortunately, I had created another save game earlier and only lost a little work, but it is still something to watch out for. There were also a few occasions when my dialogue tree seemed to accidentally switch over from elf to human when talking to certain characters, leading to situations where I could be racist against elves or apologize for something that humans had done. On the whole, it felt fairly solid, and these glitches were more of a minor annoyance than anything I had encountered in Knights of the Old Republic.
Dragon Age: Origins is not a particularly nice-looking game, and everything about it feels slightly dated. The facial animation and character models don't even seem on par with what Bioware was doing in Mass Effect. Even worse, the animations can get pretty atrocious. My dual-sword wielding rogue tended to walk around like she had a full diaper on, a number of the combat animations just didn't work or glitched constantly, and in general, things were fairly unpleasant.
Perhaps most bothersome was the "blood splatter" effect in combat. Slaying foes causes your characters to be covered with blood for a while, which is actually a neat idea. Unfortunately, this splatter remains in cut scenes. It looks really silly, especially close -up, and it makes your characters look like they walked into a freshly painted wall instead of emerging from a gruesome fight. The environments are extremely bland to boot. There isn't really any area in the game that stands out or feels unique, and exploring generic fantasy villages or generic woods gets extremely boring after a while. The same goes for the enemies, who are the most unexciting lot of foes you'll ever face.
On the other hand, the voice acting in Dragon Age is quite solid. A lot of the voice actors put some significant effort into their roles to provide believable characters with interesting personal voices. A lot of NPCs are pretty bland, and a few sound like they're reading off a piece of paper. However, particularly annoying is that the main character is unvoiced, similar to older Bioware titles instead of the example set forth by Mass Effect. This is a tad frustrating since it makes them feel like much less of a character, despite having some good "lines" in dialogue. The game gives you 12 different voice options, but they're basically identical and mostly involve your character randomly calling out things like, "My warden sense is tingling," during combat. This isn't a tremendous problem, but it feels like a step backward from Mass Effect. The music is top-notch and fits the high fantasy mood perfectly to set a great atmosphere for the game. The exception would be the rather lame ending credits song, which seems very out of place and fairly pointless.
For all its bluster, Dragon Age: Origins comes off as a game that's afraid to take risks. Everything about it, from the combat to the story line, stays very safely within established bounds. In some ways, this is a good thing because it assures Bioware faithful that they'll probably find something to enjoy here. After Mass Effect, though, Origins feels like a bit of a step backward. Bioware previously took sci-fi conventions and made them their own, but here, they cling so closely to archetypes that you'll wonder when Gandalf will show up. Fortunately, the plot is bolstered by some very strong character writing and a very well-structured ending. The combat mechanics are solid and overall well-designed, and you never feel like enemies have become a joke. However, it really does feel like a game made for the PC, and getting things done can be awkward. Dragon Age's biggest problem is that it doesn't do anything to stand out. It's a very conservative and cautious game, which is something odd to say about a title that mentions "rape" at every possible opportunity. For those expecting something at the same as Bioware's previous titles, this game may be a bit of a disappointment. However, those who are simply looking for a solid, if unexceptional, fantasy-RPG will find a lot to like in Dragon Age: Origins.
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