|Review By: Bradley Beeck
The Darkspawn are on the rise again, after the ascendance of a new archdemon. This time their blight starts in Ferelden, home to humans, elves and dwarves. Duncan, one of the few Grey Wardens in Ferelden, seeks out allies as part of his solemn duty as one of the legendary warriors. His quest brings him to your home, and through six different stories or origins you will become a member of his order and fight the Darkspawn.
Dragon Age: Origins is truly the spiritual successor to Baldurís Gate, as some of the pre-release interviews attested to. Its gameplay, area and quest design are all reminiscent of that classic series. It just doesnít do some of those things as well. The joinable characters, a big part of Baldurís Gate, arenít as well developed or as interesting, the area designs are long and sprawling for the sake of being long and sprawling, and the 3D graphics add little to the experience lacking the impressive scenes that fantasy games need. However Dragon Age: Origins is still a game that is very much worth playing, even with these disappointments.
Bioware (the developers), no longer using the Dungeons and Dragons system and world, have created their own universe and combat system. The world they have crafted is undersiege from Darkspawn which the Grey Wardens are compelled to destroy. Itís a standard clone of the Lord of the Rings in many ways, although I canít explain more because it would involve spoilers. The combat system manages to mimic Dungeons and Dragons successfully; there are even some spells that are identical to their Baldurís Gate counterparts (which used D&D). The combat takes place in real time but requires pausing to fully manage a party of four characters. This allows you to queue up abilities and spells, although you can use the gameís Tactics functionality to prearrange party member actions. By a having a party of four thereís a strategic and tactical depth to the game not present in other RPGs.
Spells and abilities draw from a mana and stamina pool respectively, which are augmented by a characterís statistics. Strength, Dexterity, Willpower, Magic, Cunning and Constitution are a characterís primary stats, and are tied to classes in much the same way as D&D. Rogues get bonuses for high cunning and warriors for strength. There are only three character classes Ė mage being the other Ė but these are augmented by specializations, which come with their own sets of abilities. These specializations have to be learned during the game, from books or other character. Itís an interesting approach but I would have preferred to have them available from the get go.
To greater differentiate each player crafted character, aside from their class and customized appearance, thereís the Origin story. As the name suggests it determines where the game begins, the playerís back story. This is the foundation stone of the game and there are six stories on offer, depending on race and class, which all connect to the main plot in the same way Ė you are recruited to the Grey Wardens. I chose a human warrior for my first game and only a Noble Origin was available. The Origin stories play into the main story to a degree, and some of them offer small insights into certain characters and events. NPCs during the game will mention your back story although for my play through as noble warrior it didnít affect events significantly. Each Origin story takes around an hour to play so the game offers a lot of replay value. And more than that I actually wanted to go back to the play some more, and went through all the Origin stories.
While the setting may be fairly generic the gameís strength comes from its quest design and dialogue. All the major quest lines are deep in moral complexity, to a level which blows Fable 2 out of the water. There were times when I stopped to think about what was the best course of action, and sometimes I just off handedly picked one because I really couldnít decide. Itís probably not surprising then that I did get tired of being continually presented with these ambiguous quests Ė decision fatigue - which is particularly an issue at the end of the game. It would have been nice to have some more straight forward, morally clear, and less involved quests. All the dialogue is voiced and accompanied by an animated 3D model of the NPC youíre engaging. Your character is periodically given reply choices but these are not voiced or acted, a departure from Biowareís last effort Mass Effect. Either way Iím not sure I appreciate this form of conversation as thereís nothing left to your imagination. Itís all there on screen. It also leads to a disconnection from the game. I would select a dialogue reply, and then sit back and watch the character speak, doing nothing. At this point the gameís like a movie; anytime I take my hand off the keyboard or mouse itís like Iím leaving the game world.
The half dozen NPCs you can recruit into your party of four, and whose development you fully control, also have their own quests and dialogue and they respond to your decisions. The conversations you have with your party provide an insightful break while exploring, and re-enforces that party of adventures feeling. Following the Redcliffe quest one party member, Alistair, carpeted me for the outcome of that quest but I was at least able to talk him around. His approval rating still took a nose dive. If a party memberís approval rating drops too low they will leave the party, conversely a raised approval rating opens up more dialogue. I didnít like the latter part of this system as more conversations should just naturally flow from the conversations you have already had. The joinable NPCs Morrigan, Leliana, Alistair and Zevran can be romanced by male or female player characters. This is another carry over from Baldurís Gate, and is one of the seriesí defining features. I romanced Morrigan and I thought she was arbitrarily designated as the evil character and she remained largely a mystery. However Morriganís romance path did majorly change the outcome of the game, which was a surprise to see. In general party members werenít as well developed or as interesting as their forebears but they were still pretty good.
I wouldnít say Dragon Ageís graphics are bad; theyíre just plain in places. The texturing lacks details and the area designs are bland. I was never impressed by any of the gameís imagery, which I think is an essential aspect of any fantasy game/media. However the character models act extremely well during the dialogue sequences and thereís a lot of subtlety in their movements. The game can be played from a zoomed out tactical view or a close up over the shoulder view. I played the game almost exclusively in tactical view and was annoyed by the inability to move the camera away from the party and that it would sometimes get forced down. While the graphics may not be world class, the music is a different story. Itís delicate, layered, and beautiful. Music really helps create the feel of a game; it draws you into the experience which is obviously important for an interactive medium. This gameís music does that and Inon Zur and Aubrey Ashburn should be commended for their work as composer and vocals respectively. The voice acting is another feature that deserves praise and is something that has become a trade mark of Bioware games.
Dragon Age: Origins is a game that raised the specter of Baldurís Gate, a game that for me is the highest yard stick any RPG can be measured against. It fell short in several key ways but it is by no means a bad game. In fact itís excellent, which is supported by my desire to go back and play the game again. The dialogue is well written and exceptionally acted, and the quests are deep and complex. While the combat system offers strategic and tactical depth thanks to the four party members and a variety of spells, abilities and items. The music is also superb, which in someway makes up for the lackluster graphics. Dragon Age: Origins is a game that while flawed, keeps you absorbed for a forty hour adventure and then some.