Dragon Age: Origins
I feel like I need to start the review with an apology, and not just an apology but one that goes two ways. Both EA and the Fragland regulars should be on the receiving end because I’m late with summing up my thoughts on this game. The reason for my tardiness is twofold. First of all my copy, a deluxe edition at that for crying out loud, managed to find itself a new owner between the house of our editor in chief and mine. Sweet! After going back and forth for some time I got another copy from the fine people of EA and I could embark on my quest with over a month of review-lag. Enter reason two of my tardiness: I have never ever underestimated a game like this in my whole gaming career.
I never imagined the game being this large. I have played about any Bioware RPG before but Dragon Age: Origins is one big-ass game that overshadows many RPG’s. Not only is it long and huge, it also really takes you in and its hard to skip a quest and get on with the main storyline to cut through that delicious gaming butter a bit faster. Some quests looking like smaller side-quests might end up costing you quite some precious dough at a later stage in the game that you need to buy potions, or you could miss a sweet armor or a useful party member. So be careful with what you are skipping.
Enough with the excuses and let’s move onwards with some serious investigative reviewing. One of the first things that struck me with the game is right there on the box. Why on earth is there a subtitle called Origins on that box when this clearly isn’t an installment in the X-Men series? The game is a brand new IP in a freshly made up universe yet the title reads like it’s an add-on or a sequel. The reason for this is the ways you can play the game. You can start the game from six different origins based on race and class and each origin plays different yet keeps the
same universal goal which is preventing the evil Darkspawn from taking over the world. Now this explanation is cutting the corner a bit but explaining the whole system would be hard without giving away some game elements. Just remember that on top of just having a huge game on the first go, you actually can play six games that differ quite a lot from one another. Add the fact that each origin can have a different story because of the decisions you take and it rapidly becomes clear that this whole game is a big, complicated and therefore dangerous endeavor.
Dragon Age: Origins should be seen as the spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate series but only in setup and general concept. For the remaining aspects of the game, these two franchises only touch on rare occasions. Dragon Age isn’t based upon the Dungeons & Dragons universe and rule set, instead a new realm called Ferelden was created and it must be said that it really feels robust. Ok, you can’t blatantly ignore the resemblances between this universe and let’s say Lord of The Rings or Warcraft but what can one do when one is traveling in a mythical world filled with magic amongst the likes of
Dwarves and Elves. It never gets annoying or bothersome though. At no point in this adventure would any self-respecting gamer think this is a bland Middle-Earth rip-off. The contrary should happen, the more you take on missions and explore the game, the more you see the detail and work that went into crafting it. I would have preferred something entirely ‘fresh’ but at least Bioware has given the regular participants in these realms some twists. In this game the Elves are no longer a noble united race but a heavily troubled and divided one living on the outskirts of society or even as slaves.
A solid universe? Check! What else do we need? Well, any epic RPG needs a good engine. This engine is responsible for both putting all this on screen and incorporating the combat and tactics aspect of the game. For this task, Bioware designed Eclipse, a shiny new engine that manages to put quite some spectacular images on your screen. Anyone familiar with Bioware knows that they don’t kid around when it comes to the tactical part in their tactical RPGs. Gamers can give real-time commands but also pause the game and queue actions when it’s all going fast. Next to that, you have tactical slots, which are expandable at the cost of skillpoints and allow you to program your party
members’ behavior. This takes up quite some time to learn and set up but in the long stretch, this system is bar none superior to anything I’ve seen in tactical RPGs. The finesse of the system allows for quite some tactical divergence when the same situation gets handed to different players. A final note on the system is the point of view. Players can choose from a close up over the shoulder view and then scroll up in four steps to an isometric view. The only negative point I encountered now and then is the fact that some characters, mostly ranged, tend to wander off your screen.
Now that we’ve established that the engine can compete with the best and is setting examples left and right we can investigate another important part of any RPG: the conversation system. This is the only part of the game that made me raise the occasional eyebrow. There are no conversational voice acting bits for your protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, you hear your character now and then when giving instructions or during cut-scenes but most of the conversation is done by the NPCs talking and you responding by clicking the choices you get at the bottom of the screen. The upside of this method is that the many conversations are handled a bit faster but in my eyes, it really cuts
into the whole experience quite a bit. Luckily, the dialogues themselves allow for quite a bit of wittiness, which is right up my alley. Usually you get four options where one is friendly, one is hostile and two are neutral. Choose wisely because what you select affects the relationship with the character on the other end of the conversation as well as that with your party members. If you get bloodthirsty and kill anything that opposes you or doesn’t immediately comply, some members of your party will start to dislike you and eventually leave. Keeping everyone happy in your party will prove to be very hard but I’ve busted myself several times taking a conversational path I normally wouldn’t just to keep certain key members of my party happy. If you piss off a party member too much and are afraid they will leave, you can always hand them a gift and buy their love, how realistic!
We nearly have all the ingredients for success after making sure that we have an interesting universe, some pretty pictures to look at, a powerful engine that took a lot of labor to perfect and a semi-decent conversational system, which allows for quite some freedom. This freedom also affects the entire game and storyline which multiplies the replay value a number of times. However, the big question remains, is that dynamic and versatile story worth playing? In short: yes. In a longer version: hell yes! Any kid that picked up a controller (or a mouse-keyboard combo) knows that for success you either need addictive gameplay or a great story to tell and most preferably you need both.
Obviously, in an RPG the story makes up a big chuck of the gameplay because no one wants to play a role in a boring game. Well, Dragon Age: Origins has a great and compelling story. This game has so much story it has story falling out of its pockets. I’m about 45 hours into the game and several times I ended up cursing it because it kept me up until 1am again. It sucks having to go to work with only five hours of sleep on the counters but at least I have some happy bags under my eyes when I’m regenerating some work-mana by consuming a Greater Coffee Potion.
Maybe it’s best to refer to the plot rather than to the story as there isn’t really one linear story with the six origins and the moral choices to be made but there is one plot that is followed regardless of what origin you choose. After you complete your character’s origin story you will meet Duncan. This is the leader of an ancient elite group called the “Grey Wardens”. He will guide you to your destiny to become such a Grey Warden and dedicate your existence to fighting the Darkspawn. These are demonic creatures that became
corrupt by dark powers a very long time ago and now live underground having forgotten that they were once regular beings. These underground forces keep growing stronger and stronger for decades until one day they erupt to the surface in what is called a Blight. It has been over 400 years since the last true invasion and Duncan is sure that Ferelden is at the eve of yet another. This is just the tip of the iceberg people, but I really don’t want to spoil anything. Let’s just say that there is a lot of intrigue, betrayal, love and revenge going on and it all comes together very nicely in one big pot of awesome gaming stew.
So is there really nothing negative to say about the game except from the chosen conversational system and the occasional party member wandering off? Well let me just throw in some mild criticism and some pointers. Most RPG gamers know that Bioware really digs their morality system. I like it too but at some times I feel like it takes over just a bit too much. You either play good or bad but anything in between seems hard to manage but I guess that’s also true for real life. Secondly there is the skill system. As you can level you gain experience points to be added to basic parameters and skill points to add to various skills. You can build up about any combination which is nice but after a while it becomes clear that the mage is the most powerful class, maybe a bit too much compared to the other ones. So, always keep a mage in your party because it can do a world of damage. Just try doing the Witherfang dungeons without one. Next to that, always keep a Rogue in your party too because only they can pick locks on chests and these contain the better items. Obviously you need a tank too so there is always someone to take most of the damage. With one spot left most will choose for another ranged member, which leaves out your Mabari War Dog,
if you are lucky enough to obtain one, and that is a real shame because it has some handy features. Luckily you can equip two weapon sets so I usually travel with a mage, warrior, a rogue with secondary ranged and my war dog. A last point of criticism is the blood. There is plenty of blood splattering around in this game and I welcome that. But having half of your cut-scene conversations with characters that are covered in blood (blood-covered cleavage y’all!) is quite hilarious when the actual conversation shouldn’t be. Then it appears to have evaporated in the next cut-scene half a minute later.
But we are really needle picking here obviously. As I mentioned before, Dragon Age: Origins is a very ambitious game with everything it tries to incorporate from the advanced morality system over the sheer size of the game to the freshly created realm. And as it goes with big and ambitious projects, there is a lot of room for error and failure and while not everything in the game is a crushing victory for Bioware, most of it is. Wherever the game doesn’t beat the opposition, if there is any at all, it sure as hell ties it. Dragon Age: Origins is without a doubt the best RPG of 2009 and probably won’t be matched in its genre for quite some time. On to Mass Effect 2 for some serious space role playing!