RPG fans have already experienced Bioware's storytelling expertise in titles such as Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. When Bioware announced the development of Dragon Age, it helped the prolific RPG developer break out from the shackles of having to work within someone else's IP. Mass Effect's runaway success has already proven that the developer can easily stretch its legs beyond its former work, and with Dragon Age: Origins, it's ready to do the same within a world of dark fantasy.
At E3, a playable demo was available for the press after we'd been given a rundown of a few of the game's branching options. The player was standing beside a campfire with several others of his party and was free to speak to any of them. One was a gothic mage, Morrigan, whose camp was separate from the others, and the other had a significantly brighter complexion and sociable attitude, which meant that she was "the nice one." To add a further wrinkle, both were potential romantic interests.
The presenter took the hero over to Morrigan, voiced by Claudia Black, who stood apart from the others in her own tent. He revealed that he had discovered a tome that would be of much interest to her. Morrigan responded to the character coolly, without malice but then again, without too much interest, either, until the presenter decided to give up the special book. At that point, Morrigan was very happy to receive it and after a few more verbal jousting matches, the two became a lot closer.
There was the problem of the "good friend" that the hero had apparently already been working with, and she had noticed how much time they had spent over at Morrigan's tent. This put the hero on the spot, so he had to be true to his feelings and tell her what that meant, opt for something else and play both sides, or throw out Morrigan with a simple button click. The hero decided to go in and be honest with her, and she decided to spend some time by herself after that. The presenter also said that this would affect the kind of help that she might be able to give to the party later on.
After showing off the conversation system, the presenter quickly loaded up another saved game, which took the party to an earlier part of the experience and revealed how they'd come into possession of the special book. We found ourselves watching the party speak to an older woman, a powerful witch whose legendary power made her someone to be feared by everyone within the region. Everyone who had gone to see her had never returned, but as the heroes of the story, things might go a little differently for the group.
She revealed a few interesting pieces of her past, especially where Morrigan was concerned. She let on that the two of them had a much closer relationship than had been revealed, and if we wanted the book, we would have to take it from her. Of course, the presenter decided that the witch would have to die, and combat quickly ensued as the party members hurled themselves into the fight. What no one told them was that the witch was a shape-shifter and turn into a dragon. At least we now knew where all of the previous adventurers had gone.
The dragon was pretty massive, about as large as a small castle on four legs, and just as powerful a presence on the battlefield. It breathed fire, and its crimson scales glimmered from the flickering glow and burned everyone. It clawed with its forelegs and jabbed at the careless heroes who thought it would be more vulnerable from behind, sweeping its tail through anyone foolish enough to be in its way. It was a titanic fight with spells flinging colored streaks into the air, warriors swinging their weapons, and the presenter switching from one character to the next in real time to try and keep everyone alive. That was the end of our guided demonstration.
However, behind a curtain sat three Xbox 360s with playable builds of the game, and I managed to spend a little time with it. Every inch of the controller was mapped to something so that the gameplay was manageable, if a little intimidating. Before long, I found myself cast as an Elven fighter, with two others at my side as we stood within some crumbling underground ruins. I could tell we were underground by the roots that were breaking through the stonework along each passageway. This part of the game reminded me a lot of KotOR, with a little dash of Neverwinter Nights.
I took at look at the interface, which was filled with plenty of options and the usual inventory. A journal was in place, along with a large number of other options. When leveling up, points are awarded, and I was able to use them to improve the base statistics for my character or improving certain skills. Combat was in real time, although the action could be paused. Characters also had the use of certain skilled attacks in addition to their base abilities, unleashing damaging specials with the simple button press that was slightly reminiscent of Bioware's Jade Empire.
The ruins were empty at first before we pushed further in, and I picked a few locks on some chests before running into the first creatures of the Blight. They came rushing toward my small group: pale-skinned, bulky humanoids that attack nearly without warning. Fortunately, my hero was armed with two burning blades and used his dual-wielding skills to make mincemeat out of those that got too close while my archer and another warrior kept the others off of me.
We forced our way through until we met up with a Grey Warden standing before a relic shaped like a tall mirror; we were told that he was there to destroy it and asked what we were doing there. My group was looking for an elf named Tamlin, who had disappeared within the dungeon. From what I know of Grey Wardens, they're normally not around unless there's something of incredible import requiring their specific expertise, so seeing one here was something of an omen, which he confirmed by telling us of the mirror and its effect on the area. The Blight-borne monsters were no mistake; the mirror had to go. In the past, he explained, it was once used by the ancients as a form of communication, but it has changed to something far more deadly.
After dealing with the relic, the Grey Warden told us to quickly leave the dungeon, but I wanted to stick around to see if we could find Tamlin's remains or pick up anything else we might have left behind. I found a statue further in which, when we took a closer look at it, had summoned several skeletons that we had to destroy. After making our own way out, we met up with several more elves, one of whom knew the Grey Warden, and we eventually found ourselves back at an Elven encampment. Some of the Elven language created for Dragon Age had also been spoken, flowing neatly into the dialogue as it was used as a greeting and a farewell.
Talking to several other NPCs within the village soon brought me into contact with the loremaster, who we asked to perform a remembrance of Tamlin. After agreeing to do so, he asked my character to help recount the history of the Elven race to the children. It wasn't a puzzle per se, as much as it was an opportunity for the player to learn more of the history behind the plight. There were quite a few snarky answers in there, but going through it revealed quite a bit of the oppressive history that the elves had been forced to bear, a lost city that had once been the glorious crown jewel of their civilization, and why they are constantly on the move. With so much spoken dialogue already in place, I could have been rooted to the demo for a few hours more if I didn't have something else to see that day.
I came away from Dragon Age: Origins feeling very impressed at the direction that it was taking, and although the demo was on the Xbox 360, the game is expected to have a release on the PS3 and, of course, the PC. High fantasy fans who expect a little grit in their gauntlets should find plenty of adventure waiting for them once the title hits shelves in October.
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