Dragon Age: Origins can be frustrating at times, but the enormous world and excellent writing will keep you coming back, again and again.
Reviewed on: PC
Since the works of Tolkien, the “rules of fantasy” have pretty much been set in stone. Elves live in the woods, act superior, and have funny ears. Dwarves have big beards, like to mine for rocks, and live underground. Humans are pushy jerks who spend far too much time squabbling amongst themselves. Wizards are old and insanely powerful. Not to say authors haven’t gone outside these bounds before, but more or less, these are the quintessential truths that remain constant throughout most offerings in the fantasy genre.
Bioware – the EA-owned, RPG-powerhouse studio – also keeps most of these rules in check with their latest game, Dragon Age: Origins. However, Dragon Age is much more than a Lord of the Rings clone. Bioware alters several key characteristics from the Tolkien-verse to make its world, Ferelden, very much its own unique entity. The world is vast and complex, and layered with a rich history, stark cultural differences, political intrigue and endearing colloquialisms.
Ferelden is a place you’ll enjoy spending time in… and spend time you will. A full playthrough of Dragon Age may take longer than 100 hours, assuming you’ll want to complete its many sidequests and explore every inch of Ferelden yourself. And while not every moment of Dragon Age is golden, the experience is one you’ll want to relive again and again.
As you may guess from the name, your origin story is a big part of your personal experience in Dragon Age: Origins. Before you start your adventure, you create a character with a number of options to choose from. Male or female? Elf, Dwarf or Human? Rogue, Warrior or Mage? The choices you make have a large impact on how you play the game; a friend who makes one different choice than you when creating his or her character may play the game an entirely different way than you do.
Yep, you get to choose who you want to be in Dragon Age. My advice? Don't choose a Rogue. Or you'll end up like poor Leliana here. [See why below]
There are six main origin stories: Human Noble, Dwarf Commoner, Dwarf Noble, Dalish Elf (wood elves), City Elf, or Mage (Elven or Human). Based on the path you choose, the first two to four hours of Dragon Age is unique from the other origin stories. The paths all converge after this point, where your character is (willingly or unwillingly) drafted into the Grey Wardens… a legion of warriors from all races who battle the Darkspawn. The Darkspawn, as you may have guessed, are the bad guys. They emerge from the depths of Ferelden every 300 years in an attempt to unleash the power of the Archdemons – Dragon-Gods banished from Earth after attempting to usurp Heaven.
The Grey Wardens, along with assembled forces from across Ferelden, meet at Ostagar to battle the Darkspawn Blight before they can gain a foothold on the surface. Without being too spoilerific, let’s just say things don’t go according to plan. After this point, your character spends most of the game uniting forces from across Ferelden to combat the Blight before it can engulf the world.
This main story, while certainly compelling, is a tad clichéd and has been done to death. The real draw in Dragon Age comes from the sheer depth of the surrounding world. As you explore Ferelden, different mediums are made available that shed more light on the nation of Ferelden. These channels include diaries, letters, observations, proverbs, gossip, stories, conversations, and books. All this information is stored neatly in your Journal. For those who care, there’s enough source material to write a Senior Thesis on Ferelden, if you felt so inclined. If you could care less about the story, it’s easy to skip over. It’s the best of both worlds.
The scale of Ferelden is huge, and you'll want to explore it all. With locales like the Brecilian Forest, I can't blame you.
All of this exposition helps develop the many captivating subplots in Dragon Age, which are much more often at the forefront of the game than the overarching story. Between a brewing civil war amongst the humans, a prolonged election for the Dwarven crown and the suppression of the elves and mages, there’s certainly always a lot going on in Ferelden. These different storylines are ever-present in almost every dialogue you have with citizens of Ferelden, as well as your conversations from within your own group of playable characters.
Your traveling companions are more than just mindless meat shields in Dragon Age; they also add their own personal touches to your story. Your character has near-complete control over how involved he or she wants their party members to be. Don’t like a character’s incessant whining? Send them packing. Want to learn more? Talk, give them gifts, keep them in your party, and after a while, even the most frigid of characters will warm up to your charms. You may even get the chance to kill some party members and sensually knock boots with others.
Characters also react differently to the choices you make in the game, of which there are many. For example, your companions and even strangers will treat you differently if you’re a lowly elf rather than a human noble in your playthrough. And when advancing the story, you have multiple options at your disposal on how you want to overcome certain challenges. Some instances may allow you to ally yourself with lords, gather dirt on your foes, or break certain laws to accomplish your goals… and of course, it wouldn’t be a fantasy game if troubles couldn’t be overcome by the swing of a sword.
While some story elements branch out in Dragon Age (depending on the choices you make), some things will always stay the same. For example: these guys are always jerks.
There are so many options, so many choices, so many ways to play Dragon Age that even if you and a friend play the same origin story to start, it is possible – no, likely – that your two experiences will be very different.
Though Dragon Age was designed cross-platform for both next-gen systems, it truly feels as if it was meant for the PC. Movement in combat, or in ambling across towns and countrysides, is performed by a simple click of the mouse. When in a battle, players can cycle between their party members (only three can be used at a time, along with your main character) by clicking on their icon, or by dragging a square around multiple characters. To use attacks, abilities, items or spells, you can access the menu, or (much more likely), click the appropriate icon on the quick bar located at the bottom of your screen. If you don’t like the options listed, just open your Inventory, and drag/drop the items you want onto the quick bar.
While in battle, the characters you are not directly controlling will act on their own accord, though you can set different tactics and strategies to guide their actions. For example, you can have your tank character activate different crowd-control abilities when surrounded by two or more enemies. If you don’t want your mage to be watching your tank all the time, no problem – just have him take a Health Poultice every time his health drops below 25 percent (though this is a surefire way to waste precious resources). The number of options at your disposal to control your characters is staggering, and can feel a bit overwhelming at first.
Even still, some players (like myself) can get frustrated with their non-controlled characters, as they can make some pretty stupid decisions when they get caught up in the heat of battle. Thankfully, you can counteract this by micromanaging the crap out of your players; pressing the Space Bar pauses combat, allowing players to queue up moves for each character and switch tactics. Of course, this can make gameplay slow down to a crawl.
Even with heavy micromanaging, a seemingly meaningless battle can be your last in Dragon Age at any point in the game. There is definitely a steep learning curve, as the game throws waves of enemies at you, and during plot specific fights, will take advantages like bottleneck points away from you. This is especially true for your first playthrough of the game, if you’ve made some mistakes in building your first character.
The game may be called Dragon Age, but mages wield the real power in Ferelden.
If you’re a Rogue, for example, lament the day you ever thought that would be a good idea, and take solace in the fact that dopes like myself made the same mistake. If your main character is a Rogue, you can pretty much take away the possibility of having another Rogue character in your party at the same time, as the character class is especially weak, and should only be used in support capacities. Mages, on the other hand, seem very overpowered; in addition of having healing spells at their disposal, which are vital in this game (as healing poultices are seemingly in limited supply EVERYWHERE in Ferelden), mages also cast extremely powerful Area of Effect spells like Cone of Cold or Fireball. Damage-oriented mages rule supreme in Dragon Age, and your party is essentially screwed without at least one at all times.
Frustrating as the difficulty and balance may be, the fighting system is very fluid, and the class-specific spell/talent combinations are extremely deep. If you’d rather not play Dragon Age again for the story (and we can’t see why you wouldn’t), you just might play through again to try out all the different ways your party can gut Darkspawn.
If the story and gameplay of Dragon Age must be segmented as “strong suits” for the game, then graphics would definitely be on the opposite end of the spectrum. Granted I played this game on a less-than ideal PC, but I have a good enough system to know that a better one wouldn’t have made enough of a difference. Dragon Age is certainly not an ugly game, but it looks vastly inferior to Bioware’s other major franchise, Mass Effect. This is due in large part to Bioware allowing user-created content to be adaptable with Dragon Age – and as such, graphics must take a hit.
Specifically, the texturing in Dragon Age looks fairly poor. Blood effects and spatter look like a lost relic from last-gen, as does the environment. While the large, sweeping shots in Dragon Age’s cut-scenes look magnificent, the small-scale level design gets a bit boring and repetitive. Animations too are a bit antiquated, with battle scenes repeating most weapon strikes and many of the same killing blows, and with cutscenes mostly limited to basic movement. On the plus side, the lip-syncing is fairly good for a game of Dragon Age’s scale.
Decapitations? Awesome. The blood effects? Not so much.
Dragon Age also sports an easy-to-navigate menu system, some sharp-looking loading screens, and character models that don’t look like hideous pixel monsters of yesteryear. The character creation system actually produces characters that look like they belong with the rest of the world, unlike some of the usual beasts that generally come with slider-based character creation.
Listening to Dragon Age’s voice-acting is baffling; with so many lines of spoken dialogue, it is remarkable how many line reads are pitch-perfect, especially compared to the norm for the RPG genre (thanks, Japan). Almost universally, characters speak with the exact inflection and timing that is appropriate for the scene; most definitely, the quality is on-par (or above) the quality of what you’d hear on most primetime TV programs. There are a few… odd casting choices, but for the most part, the voiceover work is impeccable.
Bioware’s commitment to VO work is not only evident in its direction, but also in the talent they brought in. UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves’ Claudia Black and Steve Valentine were brought in as major characters Morrigan and Alistar, respectively, and both are fantastic in their roles. The other members of the supporting cast are strong as well, highlighted by Tim Curry’s role as Arl Rendon Howe.
The music in Dragon Age is very fitting with the genre, and well produced; I particularly enjoy the loading screen music, even if it is played a hundred billion times by the game’s end. It’s not exactly a deviation from the norm, though; you may get caught up in it at times, and feel as if you’re on a nature hike to Mordor. However, I would still consider the music, and definitely the audio overall, to be a positive for this game.
Dragon Age: Origins is an extraordinary fantasy Action-RPG, and should be thoroughly enjoyed by fans of both genres. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion set the standard for fantasy Action RPGs this console generation, and the Fable series (if you count it in the same) won many hearts as well. Dragon Age should be considered as good, if not better, than both, as it provides a much more pleasing narrative experience and seemingly limitless replay value (thanks to ample side quests, multiple branching choices and a deep combat system). Dragon Age has a world that will be able to support several DLC add-ons for years to come, as well as full expansions (the first of which will come out in March, called Awakening). But with sales in the millions (over all SKUs) and critical acclaim, Bioware may decide to make this game the first of a new blockbuster series. And I whole-heartedly welcome that.
You need to be logged in to post a comment.