Inside Pulse 12

Review: Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

coverDragon Age: Origins
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Release Date: 11/03/09

While I waited with some impatience for the next Mass Effect title to hit the store shelves, Bioware managed to sneak this title out of the gates with some fanfare and blood-letting, but is this RPG just a filler to keep us in the loop, or has Bioware hit upon another gem like Mass Effect that’ll keep us coming back for years?

Story/Modes

One thing that Bioware has excelled at over the years of creating games, is in their story-telling. Even in their weakest of titles, you can expect to get involved in the story. So it’s no surprise that even though Dragon Age: Origins seems to lift quite a bit from here and there as far as fantasy goes, they’ve managed to put their own dark spin on things and deliver us one helluva medieval ride for us to sink our teeth into.

For starters, character creation is a bit more complex this time around. Not only can you pick between three different races and their looks, but each of the class and backstory origin tales for your character differ. This is a big leap from their last outing with Mass Effect where your history was a minor footnote and set up a few minor stats. Your interactions in the origin story before you arrive at Ostagar can really set the tone for the game your playing, whether you’re playing the quintessential hero, the anti-hero, or the just plain mean old bastard out for a buck.

01While I haven’t had the time to play all of my characters up, I have over 8 or 9 now, I have at least played through their origin stories and each race and class definitely has their own flavor, which isn’t always easy to do. The Dwarf Noble Fighter start is not going to feel even remotely close to how the Human Noble Fighter starts out. Each race is distinct, not only in looks, but in how their societies are set-up as well as the politics and how things are done even on the family level. Once you’ve played through the trauma of your origin story, the other fun begins. Because let’s face it, not one of the origin stories ends well for anyone.

You’ve been recruited for varying reasons by an older member of a faction known as the Grey Wardens, and they believe a Blight is coming to the land of Ferelden. The Blight is the resurgence of Darkspawn to the surface, and they will devastate anything in its path. Ferelden’s King, Cailin, is assembling a force at the old fortress at Ostagar, hoping to quell this Blight before it gets a chance to start. But where would this story go if everything went according to plan? With disastrous results at Ostagar, you and the other Grey Warden survivors are left to rebuild your forces and assemble the Dwarves, the Elves and Men to fight this threat again. And it won’t be easy.

Things beside the Darkspawn incursion are not well in Ferelden and in true RPG style, to enlist the help of the armies you seek, you’re going to have to take care of some big problems first. The dwarves need to find a lost Paragon, the Elves are having a bit of a Canine problem in the form of Werewolves, and the Humans are about to break into civil war.

Nothing comes easy in this game, and you really get lost in the story-telling and getting to know all of the people you recruit to your cause along the way. Bioware has always done a great job of getting you into the heads of your party members and adding a dash of humor along the way, and this time it’s no different.

Story/Modes Rating: Amazing

02Graphics

This has to be one of the better looking games I’ve played on my laptop this year. The characters and enemy models are well-detailed and sufficiently dirty, the blood patterns after combat, while a bit over-done at times are a nice touch, and the environments are a thing of beauty. Add into that some amazing spell effects and brilliant lighting in dungeons and you have one exquisite looking title.

Sure there are some odd effects, mainly on leather and standard clothing that have way too much sheen, and look like something off a fetish site. The rest of the armor looks pretty decent and functional, except in the case of Morrigan, the seductress mage you recruit early on. Most of her clothing she could easily fall out of, but is that really a bad thing?

Graphics Rating: Classic

Sound

When I think of Epic and Dark Fantasy, I immediately think of the music that accompanies my favorite heroes in their journeys, especially in films. Lord of the Rings had an amazing sound, and so did other dark fantasy films like Excalibur; even Willow had some amazing themes to it. So when I sit down to play an epic fantasy RPG I want something that feels epic in the themes and in the combat music, and I’m happy to say Dragon Age delivers. From the haunting voice that lures you into the game on the main menu, to the fight themes and even just the town themes and sounds, there’s a lot going on here that really draws you in.

03The voice actors do an amazing job. I don’t think there was one that made me cringe, and having the likes of Claudia Black, Tim Curry, Steve Blum and Kate Mulgrew voicing some of the characters in the game makes it even better. The characters come across as witty and smart – well, those that need to be – and very capable at what they do. So if I think this is so amazing, what do I have to complain about? Your own character doesn’t actually say any lines.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a throwback after hearing Shepard actually conversing with the other characters in Mass Effect. And I had gotten all excited when I could actually tinker with my character’s voice, only to have that snatched away with the first few lines of dialogue. Turns out the only time you’ll hear your own character is in combat, and I think this is a crying shame. Sure I’ve gotten used to it. Knights of the Old Republic had you as the silent type there as well, but I find myself longing to hear my character actually speaking the dialogue I’ve selected instead of just getting a response.

Sound Rating: Amazing

Control and Gameplay

At first I was thrown a bit by the way the game played and was set up. It felt like a step backwards as far as camera movement and general interaction, like back in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. Then I realized it works quite well for this game as you need to be able to get a good overview of what’s going on because while this isn’t a tactics game, you do have to employ certain tactics to be able to win battles, and the camera from Mass Effect just wouldn’t have cut it here.

04If you’ve played other Bioware titles, other than the camera, the controls are going to feel oh so familiar. Spacebar pauses the action so you can issue orders, move with the WASD keys, and interact and camera movement with the mouse. The only thing I would have loved to see implemented here is a jump option. It wasn’t so obvious in Mass Effect because of the way levels and worlds were built, but there were plenty of times here that being able to jump off a platform and leap into combat would have been extremely beneficial instead of having to run to the ramp under enemy fire to get down to the jerk casting fire blasts at my party. So it’s a blessing and a bit of a curse really.

One of the things that’s nice about this one, is while your choices affect what’s going on around you, you’re not racking up a Paragon or Renegade rating, but rather you’re working to woo your party members either into a romance or just to stick around. And to help ease this along they’ve scattered gifts around the realm that you can use to bribe your party members to stay. And if you really want a challenge you could always just sell them for gold instead to pad out your bankroll. If a party member walks though, you lose their gear. So if you see that happening, strip ’em naked so you don’t lose all those juicy weapons and armor.

The tactics addition is a welcome change. Instead of just setting your party members as aggressive or to act as ranged and with powers or whatever, you have the option of customizing their abilities. This can be both good and bad. If you set them up for particular instances and then forget, you may find your archer pulling their swords mid combat to rush in and attack someone and end up dead really quickly. I ended up being on top of the party controls and pausing often as I’m a control freak and kept the tactics slots to things like ‘heal yourself if you’re half dead’ or ‘heal me if I’m half dead’ or ‘attack the spell caster first’ so that I could plan out what I wanted to do in each instance. Sometimes the tactics can save you, but I found in a boss fight they were more of a hindrance than a help.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Great

05Replayability

While this game doesn’t have the do-over option that Mass Effect had where you could start over fully-leveled up, there is a ton of replayability built into it, just not on the same character. With all the variances in choices you can make as well as the 6 different origin stories, the game plays out very differently through the choices you can make, more so than in many RPGs I’ve played lately. The mind boggles with so many possibilities that I think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory would have to figure it out. My mind isn’t up to the task.

Add into this that the PC version has a full blown Mod creator for it. So not only do you have the usual DLC packs for the game, but the user created content for this game could have you coming back to it years from now. I’ve already got several item mods installed and there are full blown adventures being created for it. Even when they stop with the DLC, I think this game, like Oblivion and Neverwinter Nights, will have a longevity far beyond its shelf life.

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

Balance

One thing I was worried about, was playing a weaker class like a Rogue, or Mage, but the origin stories account for you being weaker and in what respects and the game follows the same, more or less. Some areas are a bit tougher than others, which is to be expected, and the boss fights can definitely have you cursing at the screen, waving your arms wildly about as you watch your party members fall one at a time, sometimes starting with your character. But there is always a bit of strategy involved. Once you figure that part out, things get a bit easier, but some battles can have a steep learning curve if you’re not ready for them or haven’t been optimizing your character.

06Personally I feel the PC version was the better buy as far as bang for your buck. Not only was the game much cheaper than its PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts, but you can make your own mods and download other people’s mods as well, adding in more content as you go and sharing it without having to rely on EA and Bioware to give you a new quest or area. So boss and combat learning curve aside, I think this version of the game really had it going on.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality

Being the first game in a new series you have to give it a lot of points there. There are a ton of sequels hitting the market and very few original games that are worth much of anything. And while some elements in the game and the world are pretty standard, your elves, dwarves, humans all over the place, the world feels fresh and exciting and new. And while there are codex entries you can pick up to pad all this experience out, you can pick up a lot of it, just by talking to the people that populate the world.

While there are some neat mechanics in the combat, like the tactics, and being able to charm the pants off of various party members, quite literally in some cases, this is a pretty tried and true set-up for a typical Bioware RPG. As far as the mechanics go anyway. It’s almost a D20 system, like Neverwinter Nights or Knights of the Old Republic, only they don’t come right out and call them feats, or prestige classes, and they did do some interesting things with the stat increases, but as far as the behind the scenes of the story, there isn’t much that’s innovative here. And maybe that’s a good thing as it lets you get right into the thick of things.

Originality Rating: Great

07Addictiveness

There are few and far between many games that I can sit through and play as single player anymore. I just have too much going on to hold my interest for very long. But those games that do have me sitting for hours and hours on end playing through them and hold me captivated are the rare gems that I treasure long after everyone has moved onto another title. Dragon Age fits that bill. I wanted to know more about this mysterious Morrigan who’d latched onto my party. I wanted to know what made Alistair such a wise-cracking but obviously bitter individual. I wanted to know how in the hell I was going to defeat the Darkspawn horde and that damned ArchDemon.

And so I’ve sunk well over 100 hours play time into the game. Yeah, remember that part about being busy? I forget about that when I’m playing this game. A well made RPG can be as addicting to the right kind of person as an online shooter addict might find Gears of War or HALO. And I have to say I loved being addicted to this game and will continue to love it long after this.

Addictiveness Rating: Amazing

Appeal Factor

When the game came out, it had a free expansion with it and it had free armor that you could get for it and for Mass Effect 2. Most people honestly weren’t buying it for the extra armor, or the expansion. Bioware hit on something just right with this game. A lot of my friends are playing it and loving the hell out of it. One of my friends hates video games and is playing it just so she could romance Alistair and get involved with the characters in the party because they engaged her so well just from watching her husband play.

The appeal is definitely there. Bioware got this one right in spades.

Appeal Factor Rating: Classic

Miscellaneous

Even with the insane requirements (20 Gigs on my hard drive? I have MMORPGs that are smaller than that!) this game has played beautifully. I’ve noticed no game breaking glitches, nothing that made me scream and cry in frustration, and like Mass Effect from last year on PC, I had no problems running it straight out of the box. Pretty incredible that a laptop can run this game so well. They’ve done a great job making sure this game was more compatible this time around for PC users, probably because it wasn’t a straight port, but developed alongside. My only complaint is the change back to disc based checking. I actually liked not having to throw the disc into my drive every time I wanted to play Mass Effect, but I also didn’t like the other DRM issues that cam along with that. So I guess that’s a trade-off most people were willing to live with.

Miscellaneous Rating: Great

The Scores
Story/Modes Rating: Amazing
Graphics Rating: Classic
Sound Rating: Amazing
Control and Gameplay Rating: Great
Replayability Rating: Unparalleled
Balance Rating: Great
Originality Rating: Great
Addictiveness Rating: Amazing
Appeal Factor Rating: Classic
Miscellaneous Rating: Great
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
asheresizeI’ve been a big fan of Bioware games since before Knights of the Old Republic with Baldur’s Gate, and I’ve seen them put out some sub-standard titles or at the very least ones with massive compatibility issues, but thankfully Dragon Age: Origins is lacking those issues. With a solid story, epic feel, a cast of believable and likable heroes and even some villains, Bioware has managed to deliver that Dark Fantasy feel in spades. I haven’t been this engaged or absorbed in a single player title since Mass Effect came out on PC. People who leapt on the console version may be missing out as well as there has been a growing community of modders for this game, especially with the program to build your own items and sections of the world. This is the version I’d recommend people to get if they have a system that can run it. Dragon Age: Origins is a must have title for RPG fans.

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