Dragon Age: Origins
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 11/03/09
Bioware’s certainly had an interesting progression as developers go. A little over a decade ago they were releasing Baldur’s Gate, a surprisingly solid Dungeons and Dragons based conventional RPG, as one of their very first games for now mostly defunct developer Interplay. Today, they’re a part of Electronic Arts and one of the better known RPG developers on the market, due both to a generally large amount of quality titles coming from their studio and also to their choosing to release games on consoles in addition to the PC, with the Microsoft Xbox and Xbox 360 being their consoles of choice until, well, Electronic Arts bought them out. This isn’t to say that they have the Midas Touch when it comes to developing games, as Jade Empire and Sonic Chronicles weren’t exactly shining gems, but as games like Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect have shown, when Bioware strikes gold, they know what to do with it. Well, Dragon Age: Origins looks, at first glance, like another winner, between the return to the typical RPG combat of Knights of the Old Republic and the interesting medieval setting. It doesn’t hurt that the game looks impressively and unapologetically violent, lending the game more of a barbarian fantasy theme that’s exciting to see. But does it pull off the Bioware magic, or is it their first miss under EA’s banner?
The story of Dragon Age: Origins starts off differently depending on the background you choose, of which there are six, depending on your choice of race and class. The background you choose dictates where your story begins, but after the initial prologue explaining your place in the world, you end up an initiate of the Grey Wardens, which act as sort of a demon-hunting organization in the game world. Your first mission as a Grey Warden goes spectacularly wrong through no fault of your own, as your mentor, the king, and a substantial portion of the army defending the battlefield are left dead, and you are only saved from such a fate by magical intervention. Saved by a weird old witch by the name of Flemeth, you are basically informed that you’ve been betrayed, a large force of demons known collectively as The Blight is coming to end everything, and it’s basically up to you to build an army and save the world. So you, along with wise-cracking Grey Warden Alistair, disagreeable witch Morrigan, and your dog (if you got one) are essentially tasked with calling on old treaties owned by the Grey Wardens, assembling an army to fight the Darkspawn that make up The Blight, righting the betrayal that starts you along this path, and saving the land of Ferelden, as well as the whole world. So, you know, the usual stuff.
Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t come off as having an especially strong story in concept, but as is expected, it more than makes up for this with its actual writing. The game world is full of personality and depth, as one would expect from a Bioware product, and the vast majority of the story develops organically, without any of the plot developments feeling forced or contrived. The characters you meet, be they party members or plot important NPC’s, are interesting and well developed, and whether or not you agree with their reasons for their beliefs and actions, you can often understand why they act and feel the way they do, which isn’t something you can say about many RPGs. The plot offers numerous branches for you to travel along, as well, and the choices you make can make for some surprising changes to the story that are a bit more in-depth than prior Bioware games. There are a significant amount of interesting plot twists incorporated into the plot which are all rather believable and interesting, and help to keep the plot going no matter what quest you’re working on at the time. It’s somewhat unfortunate to note that a lot of the plot elements do ultimately come down to “good versus evil”Â or “moral versus immoral”Â, and many of the quests have a “best”Â resolution, but there are enough morally ambiguous storylines in Dragon Age: Origins to make the game feel like more than just another story of good and evil. I mean, that IS what the story is, but it doesn’t ALWAYS feel like one, and a story that occasionally makes you wonder just what the right choice is, done properly, can make a good story great.
Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best looking games released this year, period. Character models are well designed and animated, and the various battles you face throughout the course of the game are lively and exciting throughout the game. Little details, such as different animations for killing blows and the blood of fallen enemies remaining on your characters after battle, bring the experience alive and make the game feel like something special. There’s also a liberal use of lighting and special effects, thanks to the various and sundry spells you’ll find yourself casting and affected by, and between the obvious impressive spell effects and the little touches, like how a flaming sword casts light against nearby walls, the effects are overall fantastic to see. The environments are also vibrant and convincing, be they dark abandoned tombs or bright forests, and they’re a joy to explore. There are some occasional clipping issues, the camera angles chosen for conversations aren’t always the best, and there can be some odd menu issues (such as items showing as highlighted when they aren’t) from time to time, but these pop up infrequently and don’t ruin the experience in any notable way. The audio in the game is also fantastic. The music consists of the expected rolling orchestral score, but it fits the game beautifully, giving your quest an epic feel that a game set in such a world really needs to succeed. The voice acting is outstanding, from the blunt “I’m better than you”Â tone of Morrigan to the sarcastic-yet-vulnerable voice of Alistair to the hilariously apathetic snarkiness of Shale and beyond, and it makes the story really come alive. The sound effects are your expected “metal clashing against metal”Â and “elemental noises when spells are cast”Â, as you’d expect, but they’re well done in this case and fit in place perfectly throughout the game.
As Dragon Age: Origins is a role-playing game, you’ll spend a significant amount of your time moving about the game world, talking to characters and interacting with the environment. You can move with the left stick, and the right stick turns the camera as needed. The A button works as your all-purpose interaction button, allowing you to use environmental objects, talk to people, open doors and so on, and the bumpers allow you to switch between characters in your party as needed, in case you need to use the rogue to pick a lock, for instance. The D-pad can be used to change whatever thing you’re targeting in the environment, in case you’re targeting an NPC and want to target the sign to the right of him but don’t want to move to do so. The left trigger brings up a radial menu, which allows you to choose and set skills for your chosen character, use items, specify commands for your party and so on, which basically allows it to act as a hotkey menu of sorts. You can pretty much pick up the basics of the gameplay within an hour or so of play, and moving through towns, dungeons and other locales is simple enough that even the most inexperienced of RPG players should have it down in no time.
You’ll spend a fair amount of your exploration time talking to various characters, most of which is done from a simple series of choices that appear as a dialogue event finishes. Your responses can be noble, deceitful, serious, or sarcastic, among other things, depending on your own personal desires at the moment. No answers are “wrong”Â in the strictest sense, though certain answers may not achieve the desired results and other answers may outright shut you out from completing various quests. Further, any answer you provide may possibly put a character in your party off, as they might feel your answer was too opportunistic or too charitable or what have you, which can damage your relations with that party member. You can improve their opinions by answering in ways they would deem favorable, or by giving them gifts to improve their opinion of you if you don’t feel like appeasing them with your behavior. As you progress through the game, your party members will change their opinion of you, either for better or worse, which can open up romantic interests and quests if you play your cards right. You can review your party members’ opinions of you, the quests you’ve acquired, and your inventory and equipment from the various menus you can access at a press of the Back button. These menus will allow you to keep track of what needs doing, where you need to go, and what documents you’ve found throughout your travels, and you can also manage your inventory and equipment from here. In the beginning you’ll probably spend a decent amount of time poking around in these menus to look at new gear and drop worthless items to free up space, but as you acquire larger backpacks for more item storage and settle into the weapons and armor you’ll be using for your late game run, you’ll spend less time managing your inventory and more time managing your final quests.
Of course, sooner or later you’ll have to jump into combat with opposing forces, and fortunately, Dragon Age: Origins makes this quite easy to learn as well. Whenever you encounter hostiles, your characters will draw their weaponry and prepare to attack. You will attack whatever enemy you have highlighted by pressing the A button, which will make your character auto-attack the enemy until they’re dead. You can also hotkey up to five special abilities (as well as your healing items) to the other three face buttons, either by pressing them alone or while holding the R trigger. You can also select or hotkey skills from the left trigger radial menu, so you can change your skills on the fly as needed, in case certain skills would be more or less useful at the moment. You can switch between any character in your party at any time with the bumpers, allowing you to control whichever character you wish to set up interesting combat tactics, like having the tank draw an enemy’s ire while your rogue slips in behind a foe for a sneak attack. Your allies can also be programmed with a series of combat tactics, which you can increase as you level the characters up, allowing you to set them with various conditional modifiers to dictate their behavior in battle. You can, for example, set Morrigan to heal allies when they drop below a certain health level, target nearby enemies with area of effect spells, cast debilitating spells under various conditions, and so on, depending on what you feel you’ll need as the case dictates. These combat tactics can be changed between a custom set or various default sets, allowing you to change party behavior on the fly, depending on what you need at the moment.
Each character in your party, including your character, has statistics that reflect their job class, race and experience level, as well as various special abilities they can learn as they grow. Dragon Age: Origins offers three races (human, elf and dwarf), each with their own positives and negatives, and three basic job types (warrior, mage and rogue), each with their own specializations. You can choose two specializations for each job class, depending on what you learn throughout the game, and each specialization offers additional boosts to stats and abilities. You can specialize your Warrior as a Templar Champion, or your Rogue as a Bard Assassin, and so on, depending on what you feel would be the best fit for your party at the time. Each character that joins the cause comes equipped with one specialization up-front and can learn an additional one, again, depending on what you feel compliments them and the party, and your options for such specializations are fairly wide open. Characters also receive attribute upgrades, which can be devoted to strength (for melee damage), dexterity (for dodging, hitting and ranged damage), Willpower (stamina and magic point capacity), Magic (magic damage and healing effectiveness), Cunning (improves coercion and skill learning) and Constitution (improves health and physical resistance), as needed. You can also improve their skills, which can allow them to manufacture healing items and poisons, improve combat and thievery abilities, learn how to coerce others, and other useful talents, depending on what you think is best. Finally, characters can learn Talents and Spells, depending on their class, which allow them special damaging attacks, buffs, debilitating abilities and other useful things, depending on the character class of the character.
If you blow through the game’s main storyline missions, you can pretty much complete the game in around thirty hours, though exploring all of the various subquests (and there are a lot) will tack on another ten to fifteen hours to that. Further, Bioware is promising a ton of downloadable content to gamers over the next few years, which should keep the game going for a long while to come, and the game comes with two pieces of DLC, in the Dragon Armor, a high-level suit of armor that will also be usable in Mass Effect 2, and the Shale quest, which unlocks a massive stone golem after a decently lengthy quest, as well as a few other quests related to that. You can also download another quest for about seven dollars at this point, which offers unique armor and skills, a storage quest, some additional backstory about the Grey Wardens, and a fairly lengthy quest to boot. Between the various customization options and character combinations you can create, there are also plenty of reasons to come back to the game again should you wish to do so, though the game lacks a New Game Plus option, due to Bioware’s desire to release DLC that takes place post-game, which would apparently interfere with a NG+ option. Even without the promised DLC, however, there’s still plenty of reasons to come back to Dragon Age: Origins, mostly because it’s pretty interesting building different main characters and parties, just to see what does and doesn’t work, and with the promise of added content down the line, that makes the possibility of building different parties with different battle styles more interesting, honestly.
To be completely honest, there’s very little bad to be said about Dragon Age: Origins, as it’s a generally solid and well designed game in all respects, but there are a few minor issues worth noting. For one, the game feels incredibly reminiscent of Knights of the Old Republic mechanically, and while that’s by no means a bad thing, someone who was expecting dramatically different might be a little bit let down because of that. The game isn’t always bright about targeting the enemy or environmental object you want targeted at the moment, and you’ll occasionally spend your time fiddling with the D-pad to target what you actually want, which can be mildly annoying on occasion. It’s not that this is a bad way of working with the targeting so much as it seems like the game would be easier to play with a mouse at some points, but the game doesn’t universally scream “I’D BE A BETTER PC GAME”Â, as some things (the radial menu for instance) seem like they work better as console mechanics. Basically, instead of feeling as if the experience was tailored for both audiences, some of the mechanics feel like they would work better on one platform or the other, and while this isn’t by any means game-breaking, it’s noticeable at times.
Finally, add one more name to the list of people who find the fact that I have to pay seven dollars for a storage box annoying. It’s not that you NEED a storage box to make it through the game, as you can buy multiple backpacks to increase carrying space as you go so you won’t always be full of items, but the box makes inventory management a good bit easier to work with, and the fact that you simply HAVE TO pay money if you want this feature, ESPECIALLY since this was Day One DLC, is frustrating. I mean, Mass Effect had a similar issue with inventory space, but destroying vendor trash (items you have no use for except to sell) gave the player omni-gel, which could be used for other applications, and your inventory wasn’t constantly full of tons of conditionally useful items that you didn’t want to toss out. Destroying items in Dragon Age: Origins does nothing to benefit you in the slightest, and being able to dump off items I simply don’t need RIGHT NOW at, say, party camp instead of having to travel back to the Warden camp that I had to pay to download or throw away items when I’m full would have been a superior choice to how this was actually implemented. It’s not even that the DLC isn’t worth the money, because it is, but one almost feels OBLIGATED to download it, and frankly, one should never feel obligated to spend additional money on top of the cost one spent to buy the game in the first place.
Also, having an NPC essentially tell me that accepting this DLC quest would actually download this content to my system was… weird. It kind of felt like an actual in-game sales pitch, and I don’t know how I feel about that, but “not good”Â seems like a good place to start. It’s one thing when the title screen advertises a new quest; it’s quite another when an NPC tells me his life story as a way to sell me a download, and while that’s certainly an interesting and, dare I say, creative way of doing business, I don’t want to see this in Mass Effect 2, or ever again, for that matter.
Fortunately, Dragon Age: Origins is a stellar enough product that it can easily stand tall, even with what issues it does have. The story is outstanding and features plenty of excellent character development and interesting branching paths to seek out and experience. The visual and aural presentation is excellent in nearly every respect, and both really bring the game to life. The game is easy to learn and fun to play, and there are so many different ways to develop and grow your characters that it makes every level an interesting choice for the tactical player. There are a large amount of quests to complete, items to find, skills and specializations to learn and events to see that you’ll almost definitely miss a few things the first time through the game, and with the ability to develop a completely different character every time you play, there are plenty of reasons to come back. The game does feel a little bit similar to Knights of the Old Republic in design, and it feels like compromises were made to make the game accessible to both PC and console gamers without really trying to tailor the experience to each type of gamer. Further, it’s annoying that there is Day One DLC, especially since many players will feel that they HAVE to own it just for the storage chest this DLC offers, and the fact that there’s actual in-game advertising in the game specifically meant to sell you this expansion is creative, but tacky, and it sends the wrong sort of message about the motives of the developers. If you can overlook these small flaws, Dragon Age: Origins is easily one of the best games released this year, and while I can’t say that it’s THE best, I can safely say that it will more than likely be a nominee when voting comes around.
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Dragon Age: Origins is a fantastic RPG from Bioware that takes all of the things that made Knights of the Old Republic great, sticks them into a medieval-themed setting, and improves on many of them until the end result is something that ends up one of the best games this year. The story is amazingly in-depth and well written, the graphics are beautiful and well detailed, and the audio is stunning and fits the experience exceptionally. The gameplay is easy enough to learn and makes combat a snap while offering plenty of depth and strategy for players looking for it, and between the large amount of choices for how to level and develop characters and the great amount of equipment available, you’ll spend plenty of time working on your party and enjoying every minute of it. The game is lengthy and involved, and thanks to the promise of future DLC and the ability to make a completely different character every time you play, it’s likely you’ll be back to play the game again. The game sometimes feels a bit TOO much like Knights of the Old Republic, unfortunately, and occasionally feels like it was designed to offer a compromise, control-wise, for PC and console play that doesn’t quite seem like it would be pleasing for either. Further, the fact that there is Day One DLC available for the game is bad, which is made worse by the fact that the DLC will feel like an obligatory purchase to some players, and the fact that an in-game NPC shills this DLC is, frankly, kind of weird and crass. Overall, however, Dragon Age: Origins is easily one of the best RPG’s specifically and one of the best games in general to be released this year, and should be a must buy for anyone who’s looking for a good, in-depth experience to carry them for a while… or, for 360 owners, until Mass Effect 2 comes out at least.