Review: Dragon Age: Origins (Sony PS3)

Dragon Age: Origins
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: RPG
Released: 11/03/09

Bioware has finally arrived on the Playstation 3. After making a name for themselves on the PC and then moving to the Xbox and Xbox 360, Bioware agreed to be purchased, and was subsequently forced to expand its horizons, by EA. This is a happy occasion for Sony fans, as Bioware games are known to be excellent, for the most part, and what console owner can really say they don’t want more excellent games?

Story:

You begin the game as one of six (twelve if you count the women) character types, including one for Humans, two for Elves, one shared between Elves and Humans, and two for Dwarves. Each of these character types has their own introduction, and depending on the type of character you choose, non-player characters will react to you in different ways. Further complicating things is your choice of character type. You can play as a Warrior, Mage or Rogue.

Whatever you choose, you will wind up in the Grey Wardens, which is the Jedi Order of this particular universe. I would like it if Bioware would take a chance in one of their next games, and not give me a Jedi-type character. Admittedly, choosing a mage for my play-through made the similarities to the Jedi more pronounced, but even so, any of the various character types will fall into various Jedi stereotypes previously established in Knights of the Old Republic. Whatever my concerns about them, the Grey Wardens are the planet’s only hope against “The Blight”, which is Dragon Age‘s term for a demonic horde that is always a threat but occasionally rises to epidemic proportions thanks to the arrival of an Arch-Demon.

The main story is a little dull, but like previous Bioware games it is left up to you to talk to your companions to flesh things out and hear their stories. Like other games Bioware has developed, you will gain companions who are on both sides of the moral spectrum, and it is left to you to decide how you are going to go about saving the planet. The game shades closer to Mass Effect‘s Paragon/Renegade option than to that of Knights of the Old Rebublic‘s Saint/Evil Asshole. Unlike Mass Effect‘s conversation wheel, you don’t really know what your discussion choices are in relation to your status in Dragon Age, but really that’s ok, because there are no points for being a saint. The only thing that matters is how your party views you. If you anger your various party members enough they may leave your quest or outright attack you, causing you to have to kill them.

Romance is also one of the options your character can pursue while trying to save the world, and it is even possible to engage in group action, when the right ingredients are mixed together. Of course, none of this is shown: the most action you’ll see is the characters in their undergarments (including one who appears to be better covered when she is in her negligee then when she is in her battle garments… odd), and then the screen fades to black.

Graphics:

While there is no nudity shown, there is an enormous amount of blood. In fact, it’s almost comical how much blood is in the game when the correct options are turned on (excessive gore can be turned off in the game’s option menu). Many times you will find yourself surviving a battle, then sitting back to relax and watch a movie only to see your character somewhat bathed in blood.

The character model generator worked well enough for me; unlike Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, where many of the character faces looked too bizarre for words, here they all seem to be based on the human species. The only complaints on my behalf would be the attempts to give characters bags under their eyes and other such facial features; all they wind up doing is making the characters appear to have steaks hanging beneath their eyes.

My co-worker Mark B, in his review of the 360 version of the game, praised the graphics. I cannot be as kind to the PS3 version of the game. Yes, it is true that much of the game looks excellent. Enemies, especially some of the larger ones, look outstanding. At the same time, though, there are things that just make no sense. Little details, like graphical elements not loading or not existing at all, causing what should be an excellent score for graphics to be downgraded. I’ll give one example. At the beginning of the game the king is seen wearing his personal armor, which is highly detailed. That is, except for the chest plate, which perpetually had a lower texture map than what was on the rest of the character.

There are other little nagging problems, like frames dropping while in battle, causing slowdown here and there, but it’s never too drastic. As well, certain spells cause your character to become semi-transparent, and as a result you can often see the characters teeth and eyeballs, in a Skeletor-like manner.

Audio:

Unlike Mass Effect, where you chose what gender your character was and then lived with the voice actor they paid to act out the lines, here in Dragon Age you choose your character’s voice and then only hear it when they speak during battle. During dialogue, the game resorts to the Knights of the Old Republic model, where characters speak to you but you don’t hear yourself. I must admit I kind of grew partial to how they did it in Mass Effect, and consider this to be a bit of a step back, but it still works, and it’s not like I’m being forced to read NPC responses as well.

As far as sound effects go, the only negative I can think of is the amount of shrieking going on. One of the enemy types is a character that screams (much like a banshee I suppose), and they are typically difficult to kill, forcing the player to listen to a character who’s sole purpose seems to be to aggravate. There are more than a few characters who fit into this mold, and it is wearying to be forced to battle your way through a dungeon full of them. So much so that I wondered to myself what the sound designers could possibly be thinking.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the audio though. The music is good, and the voice acting is superb. Characters like Alistair and Morrigan are really well acted, and the supporting cast of characters are also treated with the respect they deserve. Actually, my only problem with the voice acting has more to do with the voice you choose for the main character. Specifically, it’s weird to hear your character yelling out various things when (as I mentioned above) they are mute the rest of the time. That, plus my character didn’t match the voice chosen at all, but that’s my fault, not that of the game.

Gameplay/Control:

In what has become standard Bioware operating procedure, you are given a character who then sets out into the world, gathering party members who will then fight beside you on your way to completing your quest. Your party will eventually consist of you and up to three of your friends while in battle. Battle is similar to Mass Effect in that there is no pause in the battle to give your party orders, unless you specifically bring up the menu to order party members around. Of course, there is one huge difference between Mass Effect and Dragon Age: combat was entirely ranged in Mass Effect, while here it’s almost exclusively hand to hand.

This means your party can be overwhelmed and killed far more quickly than ever before. The developers try to address this by giving you control of your party’s tactical thinking (if this then do that), and as your characters are upgraded they can earn more and more tactical points, meaning they can be programmed to do more when engaged in battle. I must admit I never did get a handle on the combat in the game. I finished it, but only after my characters were leveled to a point where I could overcome many of my previous mistakes.

This leads me to another point. The game offers you so many choices when you upgrade that it can be a bit overwhelming, and this is perhaps the first game I’ve encountered from Bioware when your character build can break the game. There are certain skills which will make the game far easier, and then there are skills which appear to be useless in combat. And of course, if, in the course of your game, you happen to not acquire all of the party members available to you, it can be even more difficult, as some characters are better suited to situations than others.

Speaking of acquiring all of your party members, there were at least three I did not manage to obtain. One I could not get because I discovered too late that the game would not allow me to go back and convince a character to let me do something, one I didn’t get because I didn’t bother with downloading the DLC with the code that came with my game, and the third one I simply could not find. That I managed to finish the game without three of my party members is a testament to how Bioware produced a game which can be experienced differently each time, I think. I shudder to think about what one stage would be like late in the game on higher difficulty levels.

Replayability:

If you can come to terms with the gameplay, there is a huge amount of replay available to the gamer. Each of the six character types has their own opening plot line, and then the story will alter depending on what your character choice was. And again, if you are interested, the romance plot lines differ for the male characters and for the females.

There is also, as mentioned in Mark’s review, day one Downloadable Content, and more has already been announced. I realize this isn’t the same as content already on the disk, but it appears as though the developers are intent on supporting the game with online downloadable expansions. Strangely, I never ran into the character who tried to sell Mark the DLC, but it may be possible I simply didn’t pay attention and just kept going. I do have a hard earned ability to ignore salespeople, after all.

Balance:

Dragon Age: Origins seems to be about as unbalanced as a game can get while still being enjoyable. Having a correct understanding of the battle tactics feature is a must. Otherwise your party members can do anything from charging into battle to get slaughtered because you set them to be too aggressive, to simply standing there (drooling for all I know) and doing nothing while an enemy is clearly in range. There is also, I found, no ability to rally/recall your troops once they’ve gone and done something.

As I mentioned previously, it’s very easy to level up your characters incorrectly, and doing so will only make your life harder. It might be an idea to play the game through on the easiest difficulty setting until you feel you are comfortable with the battle system and combat tactics. If you do manage to level up your characters properly, the game can become very easy. Certain spells and specializations are much more likely to help you survive battles, and then later on as you unlock the final versions of these spells the game becomes even easier.

Originality:

Well, it’s called Dragon Age: Origins right? So it’s got to be original. Okay, fine, horrible joke, I admit. Truthfully, there were times, due to the setting, when the game felt like Oblivion. This was early in the game, though, when you had no party members to control. Later on, when you did acquire your party members, the game began to feel far more like a Bioware game. It’s a good thing the game stopped feeling like Oblivion too, because Bioware does a bad imitation of Oblivion. Dragon Age seems to be stuck in a turn based world, even with sword based characters, and unfortunately, inviting the comparison between the two games early on does nothing complimentary for Bioware.

Giving the player control of your party’s tactics is an original, if overly complex idea.

Addictiveness:

I’ll give them this much. For a game that is as frustrating as this one can be, I finished the game after putting in nearly 50 hours, and not once did I really consider not finishing the game. I may not go back and play it again for a long time, but this game can suck away the hours like few before it.

Appeal:

If you prefer your games to be time sinks which will kill any and all hope of a social life you may want to have, or if you know you’re going to fail your upcoming exams and want an excuse to kill time anyway, this is the game for you. If you liked Knights of the Old Republic with the combat set to continuous instead of pausing after every turn, this is the game for you.

If, however, you would rather your Bioware RPGs be more spacey, wait a few months, Mass Effect 2 is on the way for the 360. And there are persistent rumors of PS3 development too, so here’s hoping, right?

Miscellaneous:

The inventory system is a joke, unfortunately. While it’s better than that of Mass Effect, there is still no way to adequately sort useful and useless equipment, and there is far more of a chance of picking up useless equipment that will clutter your screen than is needed. The ability to give your party characters “gifts” which will help their impression of you, basically buying their love, is interesting, but there is no way of really knowing who will like most of the gifts more than others (aside from the obvious ones, like the dog bones).

Lastly, saving your game should not take up to half a minute in this day and age, yet it seems Dragon Age does not exist in this day and age, as every time the game saves, it takes a very long time to get back to the game. And since you will likely be saving frequently, you will be spending a long time waiting for the system to finish.

The Scores:

Story: Great
Graphics: Enjoyable
Sound: Good
Control/Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Classic
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal: Great
Miscellaneous: Poor
FINAL SCORE: Good Game.

Short Attention Span Summary:

The story is certainly worth your time and the character interaction will easily suck you in, but the game is not Bioware’s best.

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